Sculptor uses works to connect cultures

Kaminker to build in front of Lyric

Baltimore Vivat!

January 31, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHUVALOVO, Russia - Dmitri Kaminker, a prominent St. Petersburg sculptor, says he is one of only two members of his family who have not fled their native land in the past two decades.

"It's a dirty job to be a Russian," he jokes. "But somebody has to do it."

The 53-year-old artist is due to arrive in Baltimore today as a guest of the Maryland Institute College of Art. He will be constructing a sculpture in the traffic island in front of the Lyric Opera House, at Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street, as part of Baltimore's celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg from Feb. 13 to March 2.

Kaminker is not sure exactly what he and his son Daniil, 25, will build. He likes to build spontaneously, preferably out of discarded materials. But he said he was toying with the idea of erecting a triumphal arch made of plywood similar to those built every May Day in Soviet times around the former Soviet Union, honoring the Bolshevik victory in 1917.

If a piece of the Soviet past doesn't seem the most obvious statement for a work in Baltimore, Kaminker likes making unlikely connections between cultures.

In recent years, he's sculpted Stalin as a Pharaoh, one of several works dedicated to an imaginary "Soviet-Ancient Egyptian Friendship Society." He's chiseled a wooden statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared Soviet secret police, depicting him as a vicious Don Quixote whose nose doubles as a guillotine.

He also recently built a garishly painted wooden model of the architect Vladimir Tatlin's celebrated "Monument of the Third Communist International," the 1919 design for a corkscrewing constructivist edifice that became a symbol of the Russian avant-garde. (It was never built.) Kaminker calls his version the third tower of Babel - with the Biblical tower, of course, being the first and the Soviet Union the second.

As an artist, Kaminker's is often witty, sardonic and playful. And although he doesn't boast about it, he's in demand. He has worked in Denmark, Canada and the United States over the past dozen years. Now, he has a commission to build a major public sculpture in St. Petersburg.

The Russian State Museum, which owns the world's largest collection of Russian art, has purchased 16 of his works. The museum's program for a 1999 exhibition praises "the heights that the sculptor has already scaled, the originality of his artistic explorations and the diversity of his plastic discoveries."

In the early 1980s, Kaminker and his friends - including other sculptors, painters, ceramicists and photographers - founded an artists colony here, in the village of Shuvalovo. They moved to what was then a tumbledown community of dachas outside the city, seeking to escape both the headaches of urban life and the relentless scrutiny of the Communist Party.

The gregarious Kaminker is an instinctive politician, and he became the unofficial mayor of his community. And the settlement at Shuvalovo grew, the Russian Museum program noted, into "a serious rival" to art circles in the city of St. Petersburg. A recent modern art show at the Manezh gallery in central St. Petersburg included works by about 20 Shuvalovo artists.

Guiding a visitor around the village during a recent visit, Kaminker gunned his mud-splattered Nissan sedan down its snowy streets, past weathered wooden homes. Pointing to a banya - a Russian sauna - a few blocks from his house, he said it's become a nightly watering hole for gangsters from St. Petersburg.

"It's a pretty funny life," he said at one point, in colloquial, breezy English. "Strange, idiotic, crazy. The society here in Russia? It's not structured, like in England. Here, everything has meaning. In my studio, I see millionaires, ministers and bandits."

The artists' rambling home - which he shares with his wife, son and daughter - is crammed with sculptures made of stuff he's found lying around the village: old bolts, door handles, stove doors, signboards and slabs of wood. (Kaminker loves wood, even though it eventually rots. "I will also rot away," he observes. "It's a pity we can't last forever, either.")

Indoors, his sculptures, big and small, are lined up on shelves, stashed in closets and jammed in the crowded attic - where they are partly hidden by drying laundry. Outside, his snowy back yard is filled with huge, totemic wooden figures. It looks like a kind of Russian Easter Island.

Kaminker's cheerful persona masks a tragic past. Both his grandfathers fell victim to Russia's sometimes brutal history. One was Jewish and was murdered in a pogrom. The other, a non-Jew and teacher in Smolensk, perished in Stalin's prison camps.

His father, an orphan, became head of a physics institute here, in what was then called Leningrad. Kaminker himself decided to pursue art rather than science and graduated from the city's Vera Ukhina School of Art and Industry in 1973.

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