Evgenij Kozlov’s erotic art and political provocations were instrumental in the rise of USSR counterculture. We lift the iron curtain on the artist's sensual scrawls
Taken from the autumn/winter issue of Dazed:
Looking at the collected work of Russian provocateur Evgenij Kozlov, it’s hard not to feel like a Peeping Tom. Also known as (E-E) – pronounced Yeah Yeah – Kozlov draws coarse lines that trace dirty acts, illicit renderings and behind-the-scenes glimpses of sex and desire. Transgressing pretty much every social and moral code in communist Russia, where he lived and worked in the mid-to-late 20th century, his ideas aren’t wrought through the conceptual mill, but gleefully etched in perilous pen-and-ink graphic compositions. His eye doesn’t shy away from a fantastical orgy, but asks with a wink – why not?
“Before I was even born I was made to be an artist,” says a now 59-year-old Kozlov from his current home in Berlin, where he lives with his wife, curator Hannelore Fobo. Born in Leningrad in post-war Russia, his affection for self-mythologising kicked in at the start of his artistic ascension. He adopted his pseudonym “(E-E)” early on. More than a moniker, it was also a manifesto as a shortened version of his self-coined formula “E-E = mc3”. “The double ‘E’ was my artist name in the Leningrad art scene,” he explains. “The ‘M’ stands for microphone, ‘C’ stands for creativity, and ‘C cubed’ represents yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
Kozlov makes no distinction between fantasy and reality and often draws from his imagination rather than from subject matter. One series of early drawings, The Leningrad Album (1967-1973) sprang fresh from his teenage mind in the Soviet bloc, and depicts a world of libidinous sexuality where women in stockings are bent over beds performing fellatio and making out with each other. Perhaps it’s a glimpse into the imaginings of bored, repressed teenagers the world over, salivating over all the sexual encounters to come. This was pre PornHub, in a Soviet state where religion and conservative attitudes towards sex and sexuality prevailed. “(His work is) a sort of desiring machine,” said curator Massimiliano Gioni when he exhibited The Leningrad Album at his gallery’s Ostalgia exhibition in 2011. “You look at it and you can imagine the fantasies of a 14/15-year-old; it is also encyclopedic, which is beautiful because it is not desiring just sex, it is desiring an
From these horny teenage scribbles, he went on to become the second member of Russia’s renowned New Artists collective. Initially formed by philosopher and artist Timur Novikov in opposition to Leningrad’s traditional art academies, together they held raucous parties at legendary studio Russkoee Polee – attendees of which made up a community of Russian and international journalists, artists and writers. The New Artists opted to distance themselves from the formal academies of the Leningrad art scene and established networks of self-education. In the transitional years of the 1980s, against the ever increasing backdrop of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost policies, they began working alongside each other, first from a reappropriated church in central Leningrad, and then from Novikov’s ASSA gallery. The group bound together to create a network of influence through a series of gigs, parties and screenings.
Russia’s New Artists have been likened to Warhol’s subversive superstars, as Kozlov’s works were churned out like Warhol’s screen-prints.The comparison seems a little unwarranted, though. Like all artist-run spaces, the impact the artists of Russkoee Polee made was mainly on each other, rather than on the international art scene. “The gatherings were important for my art in that they gave me the opportunity to take large numbers of pictures which became part of my works, either in photo collages or as ‘models’ for paintings and graphic works,” Kozlov recalls.
In the absence of a formal art education, the freely collaborative Russkoee Polee scene became Kozlov’s support network. “When you’re young, it is very important to share your attitude to life with friends,” he says. “Especially when you’re an artist without an art diploma – that is, a ‘good-for-nothing’, forced into some kind of employment to avoid prison. My family thought that I should get a proper job and restrict myself to painting at the weekend.”
“My family thought that I should get a proper job and restrict myself to painting at the weekend” – Evgenij Kozlov
Luckily for him, he shunned his parents’ advice and pursued his schoolboy passions. He cites his greatest achievement as having “found a definition for a main trend in modern art, which started in the early 20th century and continues to grow: CHAOSE ART.” Kozlov views this as work without a pre-meditated plan of composition – the art of making it up as you go along. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has a certain disregard for contemporary art, branding it practically stillborn. “Today most artists produce images of their reflections, of a scheme, giving birth to a dead child.”
With Pussy Riot in the news, the recent homophobic attacks and rise of the right in Russia, combined with political tensions in Ukraine and the West, the context of Kozlov’s work is electrically charged once again. For instance, in 1988 he produced a mixed-media series entitled USSR - USA and Art from the USSR / Art for the USA exploring the relationship between the two superpowers depicted as pregnant women in mirroring poses. “I wouldn’t have thought that this idea could become so relevant again,” he admits. His Leniniana series, Leninskaya Erotika, takes Russia’s revered leader Lenin and puts him into compromising poses with naked US pin-up girls. Kozlov is never blinded by political anger, seeing his work as gesturing towards optimistic possibilities of what could be. “I have never created a series of art with a negative connotation,” he insists. “My art is positive, it gives the world a positive impulse.”
After marrying Fobo, he moved to Berlin to be with her in 1990. Four years later, Kozlov opened Russkoee Polee 2, a large loft studio in Berlin that allowed him to “realise his ideas on a large scale – to the largest extent possible”. The studio closed in 2008, and Kozlov now keeps things closer to home, no longer attending exhibitions – even those showing his own work. “Nowadays it’s either art or work for me – no blurred lines,” he says. “If I had a wish, it would be to put all my works into a large safe, let’s say, in a Swiss bank. In 400 years people will understand what I do now and feel the positive impact of it.”