Carrying the Moon is quite difficult. It is about two meters high and weighs at least a few dozen kilos. I know that because I got to see it up close. However, in the summer of 2015, the Russian visual artist Leonid Tishkov took it on a 2000-kilometer tour through Romania, to lighten up all the beautiful places we are about to destroy.
A travelling Moon
Leonid Tishkov is allowed to take the Moon with him, because he owns it. He made it. The journey through Romania is just one of many expeditions that Tishkov and his Moon have carried out throughout the world, for over thirteen years – from the Arctic to Taiwan and from the USA to the mountains of Ural. The trip through Romania, however, was not only undertaken for the sake of art, but especially for the sake of its inhabitants. It wanted to let us know that it can see what is going on – from the Geamăna toxic waste lake (a side effect of the copper mining quarry which used to be there not long ago), to the ash-smothered village of Rovinari (due to the nearby coal factory), to the abandoned gold quarry in Roșia Montană and the old beech forest in Piatra Craiului mountains – to shed light upon places of which some are already compromised and others are on the verge of destruction.
I met with him so he could tell me more about his journey and the fourteen photographs of the series. There were four of us taking part in the discussion: Leonid Tishkov, a calm and friendly blue-eyed man in his sixties, dressed in black, looking like a more melancholic and noble Mick Jagger; Anastasia, who helped organize the trip of the Moon through Romania and acted as a translator; the Moon, quietly gazing upon us from behind Tishkov, a few meters away, and myself.
Tishkov was expecting to end the Moon project before the trip to Romania. But “this turned up to be even more of a journey than the others. The team was extraordinary. The project was extremely extensive and costly. It was like making a movie. Hollywoodski movie (laughing).”
As for the resources required for the project, ”It was more than just time and money – it took a lot of human effort.” And seeing the others make this effort is what kept him going on until the end of his mission. ”I can admit it now – there were moments when all my physical strength was drained, I did not know what to do next, but the people around me were either carrying the Moon, connecting the electrical cables, moving boards around and all that, so I could not afford to stop. It is both a collective and personal project.”
Beautiful and fragile
When I ask him whether he was especially impressed by any of the places he saw, Tishkov replies: ”The Moon is the satellite of the Earth, and I am the satellite of the Moon. And, from my point of view, all the places were unrepeatable. The Moon shines the same light upon all places on the face of the Earth. And the Earth, with all its places, is wonderful. It is wonderful and fragile.”
Fearing for the vulnerability of beautiful places diminishes the joy of watching them. He recalls his trip to the Arctic, which he did a couple of years before the one to Romania: ”An artist invited me and told me to bring the Moon. He said «The Arctic is beautiful, but it will be even more beautiful in the moonlight. Bring the Moon. » And so it was, I mean it is simply gorgeous. There, everything around you truly is perfection, I don’t know how else to put it. But upon getting there, you see and you feel that this beauty could disappear forever. There is a fear for the vanishing of this wonder. In Romania as well, during our trip, we tried to not only show places where there have been environmental catastrophes, such as Roșia Montană, Geamăna or Rovinari. We also showed places which must be cherished and protected at any cost. Beech forests, for example.”
„Butt of the tree
see in the cut end
today’s moon” (Matsuo Basho)
I try to find out how he would like the public to react to his endeavour. ”One of my favourite pictures in Romania is the one in Rovinari, where the children are gathered around the Moon, in the backyard of a house. But around the children are all these terrible things, it’s constantly dusty and noisy”, Tishkov recounts. ”I am thinking that – perhaps – the people who have a word to say in this situation will see this image and something inside them might move – their heart might sting. And then they will do something so this image no longer exists.”
To Leonid Tishkov there is no such thing as art for the sake of art anymore. He makes art for the sake of people, and he strongly felt this way during the trip through Romania.
Unlike the rest of his wanderings with the Moon, in Romania he was not only supposed to show the beautiful and spectacular aspects of a place, but also to shed light on some environmental problems. The project in Romania is a social art form. Knowing that even changed the way he positioned himself as an artist: ”I am not just an artist – I am a man who makes art to serve mankind, the species that lives on Earth. This trip has mixed the two purposes into one. I cannot separate them anymore; the social aspect has naturally become art. This is the kind of art that we need.
Ever since mankind has been confronting such issues (or maybe since forever), the value of art has acquired a new measure. Socially involved art is gradually separating itself from the perception that its main purpose is to entertain. Tishkov has identified this tendency in art history dating hundreds of years back.
”Van Gogh used to say that there is nothing more artistic than loving mankind. Making art useful to people is very important to me. Lately, it has become a sort of attraction, an amusement. An exhibition is a manner of enternainment. But ethical and social issues are above entertainment, and [social art] lifts the person up instead of descending to their level. It’s not about deconstructing and shaking the world, but trying by all means to build something significant that helps Man.”
”I believe that, in art, ethics is more important than aesthetics”
How do you know that your effort has reached its purpose? With a few exceptions, it’s hard to objectively evaluate a piece of art. But, once the social aspect steps in, the value of a work of art becomes much easier to measure, Tishkov believes.
”The artist becomes successful when he/she lives and relives what they create. While travelling through Romania, I have suffered for those places. I would like the public to live those things as well. When one puts one’s heart into a problem, there is hope that something will change”
”People know when they are doing something bad”
In 2013, Tishkov wrote to the director of the Albertina Museum, requesting that his works be removed from the Dreaming Russia Exhibition. He did this because Gazprom had bought the works he exhibited without his knowledge, while a team of Greenpeace activists who were protesting against the Gazprom platform in the Arctic were being held prisoners by the platform crew.
”I am not a member of Greenpeace, but my position as a person is. One is not allowed to drill for oil in the Arctic. When I learned that my works were in the Gazprom collection without my knowledge, while at the same time my fellow humans, who shared the same beliefs as me, were under arrest, I decided to draw attention on the matter through this gesture. I don’t know to what extent it actually helped…”
A big issue related to the cold in the Arctic is that in the case of an accident similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico, the consequences would be even worse.
According to the company’s official website, Gazprom is licensed to explore and produce hydrocarbons in the Prirazlomnoye field (where the platform is), an essential element of the company’s development strategy. Oil production has started in December 2013.
”I see an image [in my mind]”, Tishkov tells me as we finish talking about the Gazprom platform. ”A platform drilling through the land, going into the water and there lies the heart of the Earth, a big heart. And the platform drills through the heart. Because, as I see it, oil is the blood of the Earth and one has to be extremely careful.”
He tried to cure the Earth’s heartache by travelling with the Moon. Perhaps his history as a physician exacerbated his saviour instincts. After graduating from Medical College, he got to work as an actual doctor for a year (in internal medicine). Afterwards, he worked at the Medical Encyclopaedia Publishing House, until art ensnared him. ”In the second year of college, I started drawing caricatures and publishing them in all sorts of magazines. It was relentless – I kept getting these ideas and drawing them, one after the other. Caricature led me to art.”
However, he remains faithful to his Hippocrates’ oath and is still the one all acquaintances call on for injections and minor interventions, Anastasia tells me in an amused voice.
”I believe art is a doctor itself. And I try to use this medicine. Medicine is, actually, a profoundly humanist profession. It has always been a form of art. The passage from medicine to art is almost invisible”, he says.
When you see the photographs of the unusual neon Moon, one of the first questions that arise is, ”why necessarily the Moon and not any other object?”
”Art is only possible when there is poetry in it,” Tishkov replies. ”And the Moon is the friend of the poets, it helps me find lyricism in the world. The Sun is too harsh, and that has already been done. And the Moon… is the Moon. It is not the object, but the light that is the hero of this story. Moonlight is unique, one and the same, everywhere.”
Looking for some poetic situation
Towards the end of our meeting, he opens a notebook and shows me some rough sketches. I am glad, because I would’ve never dared to ask him to show them to me. I have almost forgotten about the Moon eavesdropping on our conversation. Open notebook in his hand, Tishkov explains: ”Before photographing each scene, I spend a few days walking around [switching from Russian to English] and looking for some poetic situation. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. The Modern Art Centre in Austria took my Moon and travelled with it for half a year. Anybody could request being photographed with the Moon by the two-three photographers on the team. That is where I had no control whatsoever, because the people were prepared. And then I received the photographs. And I can’t show any of them.”
By mistake, I ask him ”Why?” directly in Romanian. He somehow understands the question without translation and answers promptly:
”Because they did not contain what I wanted. That was simply a documented performance. They had no more lyricism, which separates art from non-art.”
That is when I understood the Tishkov’s Moon is poetry only when, through it, he meets the situation he is looking for and the purpose he wants.
”When I leave it, like I did now (the Moon sitting quietly right behind us), it just sits there. It is just a bright object. But when I take it and think up a story for it, a whole scenario, then a noteworthy photograph might turn up. Not even all the pictures I myself take deserve to be shown. So it might be personal, a personal view… We’re done.”
Those words sounded less like a refusal to continue the discussion and more like an observation. He felt that the story of our conversation had come to an end.
I stood up, delighted to have met the Moon’s best friend. Before going our separate ways, he looked me in the eye in a friendly manner and told me, as if looking for the lyrical potential of our encounter: ”I hope it will be beautiful.”
I walked out onto the boulevard and, as I was strolling through the quiet December frost, I hoped that Tishkov would be right – that art such as his, made with such tenderness and love for the place we inhabit, would be strong enough to repair the damage. The night was dark – the Moon was elsewhere.