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How the KGB and fear of blindness shaped artist Kuzma’s world vision

International artist, filmmaker and writer Kuzma Vostrikov has a genetic eye disease which could render him blind, but living with the fear has been the greatest influence on his work.

Born in New York, but brought up in Moscow by his grandparents, Kuzma’s father was imprisoned by the KGB because of his underground art practice. But more of that later.

This summer, Kuzma and Chinese multimedia artist Ajuan Song will stage their first major UK photography exhibition at Hoxton 253 in London on June 5 – 29, which was previously postponed due to Covid-19.

Absolutely Augmented Reality combines fashion, cinema, theatre and even metaphysics with fine art and photography, to create a dream world of strange and alluring portraiture, accompanied by archetypal images, hybrid creatures, quirky motifs, and canonical postures.

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Kuzma talked to The Best Life Project ahead of the London exhibition.

So, Kuzma, tell us about your father’s experience with the KGB?

My father, who is an artist and writer, had quite the experience with the KGB in those times. More than one experience.

Being contacted by the KGB is probably like being contacted by aliens. Or maybe by wild wolves in the forest. You need to follow certain rules, I guess. My father was arrested in 1972 and spent two years in a prison camp. They came up with some purely formal reason for it. But he used to organize exhibitions and performances, and the powers that be were always watching him. He organised a creative group called Sintez in Moscow, and later it had success in Europe on the waves of Perestroika.

I was a little boy, and nobody told me, “Look, son, that’s the KGB.” My father isn’t into social issues and politics. I’m still learning new details about what his life was like in the seventies. Once he put on a performance in which he used a typewriter to type the letters ХУЙ, the famous Russian swear word that means roughly “dick,” across Lenin’s forehead in a photograph. He could have been sent to jail for another two years for that.

But my father concentrated more on existential themes, ones that were bigger, you could say, than snickering at ideology. He just despised all of that.

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For organising a party featuring Andrei Tarkovsky, my father was banned from the Stroganov Academy for two years. Both the KGB and the cultural department called him in for a talk.

The Sintez group was a real presence out in the provinces, in the city of Novorossiysk. They were summoned to the regional authorities in Krasnodar, and they asked them, “What are you doing? Why?” I remember whispering in the kitchen, certain discussions happening, when I was 5 or 6 or 7 years old. In my family, we didn’t consider it proper to discuss prison. But I always knew about it.

What were the consequences for your family?

My parents were really tough, the post-war generation. They wouldn’t have been easy to break. I always knew, even as a little boy, that there was your internal life, one that was personal and secret, and then there was public life.

My mother’s father, who was a cement engineer, used to run into the room shouting, “Turn that radio down, you idiots, or they’ll put you all in jail again!” Everyone listened to Radio Liberty. Everyone believed the system would eventually collapse. My mother left for America.

How was life growing up for you as a child?

We kids always kept our parents’ secrets. Which is to say we were very distant from other kids. My father is half German. Stalin exiled the German part of his family to Kazakhstan, just to be safe. My father loves for his books to be in order and everything to be clinically sterile. A real pinheaded German, as Vladimir Nabokov would have said.

When were you diagnosed with your eye condition and how did it affect you?

I grew up with a still camera and a movie camera. But I’m severely near sighted. And I can’t see at all in the dark.

I was given an exact diagnosis in America a couple of years ago: X-linked congenital night blindness. It’s passed down genetically through the mother’s X chromosome. But it only shows up in men (their sons).

One time, when I was 10 years old, my mother, brother and I were sitting in the dark, in a house near the sea, and they were having a great time, playing with some glow-in-the-dark sculpture. I asked them what they were laughing about, since there wasn’t anything there. I still can’t forget how shocked my mother was.

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Our concept of the world gets its start during childhood, the most complex and weighty period of our lives. Some things make a person stronger. And there are examples that help you realise that you’re not alone. Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking – you can learn a lot from them about having a will to live, to achieve things.

In college I took two years of higher mathematics. I had to be able to see the equations and theoretical proofs on the board. My glasses didn’t help and my vision kept getting worse. All of that impacted my life. But you should never panic. I got contact lenses, I started copying lecture notes from my classmates, and that saved me.

What is the prognosis and how have you factored that into your future life and work?

I don’t know the exact prognosis. Maybe I don’t want to know. The really overarching prognosis, after all, is a tombstone.

I’ve been living in constant fear of going blind. Doctors don’t always make us feel better, and they’re not under any obligation to. We have to shape our own will to live, and our ability to do hard work, our personal growth under whatever conditions.

I feel my way around in the dark. It’s hard for me to order a cocktail in a bar. I can’t see the person I’m speaking to.

All that helps in my creative work, actually. Our whole beings adapt themselves to physical conditions. There are a lot of artists with hearing impairments or visual impairments, to say nothing of mental problems.

You could say that an optimistic paradigm is every person’s social responsibility. As for the rest, it’s okay to be irresponsible.

And no matter what happens, I’ll go on doing the things I’m interested in doing.

Tell us about your exhibition in London, what it means to you and how you hope it will be received in this pandemic-obsessed world.

I’m very happy about our exhibition in London. We have an excellent team in art producer Halime Ozdemir and curator Chelsea Pettitt. And there’s the MIDAS team who help us to communicate with all the people in London. Everybody is doing a really amazing job.

My art partner Ajuan Song is a genius when it comes to connecting to reality. We get a great welcome in Europe and in London. We hope it will do something to inspire and encourage our viewers. The Absolutely Augmented Reality project is a pill to ward off our anxiety and mundanity. We want to whisper in every viewer’s ear: ‘you are not alone’.

Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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