Misha Koptev is an openly gay man living in industrial Ukraine who ate fish from copies of Vogue, doesn’t believe in inspiration and says you can smear clothes in shit if you’re talented enough
45-year-old Misha Koptev – a self taught designer who cobbles together clothes from cheap, found materials, and styles himself as a director of provocative fashion theatre – lives in Luhansk, the second largest city of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region, a city synonymous with unemployment, addiction and high crime rates. In 1993, Koptev founded his own fashion theatre called Orchid. Although the ability to stage such productions in Ukraine are limited, he charges no more than 60 cents for entry per performance.
Koptev doesn’t the lack courage to stay openly gay despite living in a state riddled with war, poverty, Soviet nostalgia and Russian Orthodox fundamentalism. “I live in horror and fear of being killed by the fucking hellhounds from the state,” he complains, “but this is the place where I was born and raised. My mother lives here, so I don’t want to leave my hometown.”
His first big performance in over five years was shown in Kiev late last year, as a part of the contemporary art biennial The School of Kiev. “We were not even sure whether Misha would reach Kiev,” said Lesia Kulchinska, curator of the project and the only sober person backstage at Koptev’s spectacle. But Misha arrived without incident, and his racy Dionysian show in the capital of restless Ukraine went ahead. We met the day after the show, and our conversation takes a certain amount of reading between the lines. As the exchange progresses, Koptev blurs the boundaries between interview and performance, hyperreal personality and genuine thought.
Your show was held as a part of the School of the Lonesome, a special project that was part of the Kiev Biennial 2015. Are you lonely?
Misha Koptev: Well, I’m living in the city of Luhansk. Why are you asking me whether I’m lonely in the wild wild East of Europe? I was born and raised in Ukrainian Detroit, and I am the plague, the fiend, a stain on the map of my hometown.
Were you a happy child?
Misha Koptev: Very happy. I had a real mother and I can’t imagine my childhood without her. In my large family we had to fight for food, but it didn’t intrude on our happiness. But maybe all children are happy? We grew up without our father, I saw him for the first time when I was a teen – he died of alcoholism.
I had to go to school with torn socks and broken rubber boots – there were a lot of children in my family and not enough clothes to ensure we were all well dressed. We lived in a huge house with nine rooms, an old lord’s house. The house consisted of two parts: one for servants and one for landlords, which explains why there were only two old heaters for each part of the house. We didn’t have the money for coal, so I would have to chop wood for the fire. We couldn’t afford gloves, so I used old dirty socks – gloves are considered a massive luxury. Our axe seemed more like a saw in terms of its sharpness, it was useless. And we’d need to chop these huge huge old oak trees with it. But there are nice memories.
So maybe you have some bad memories? From your time at school?
Misha Koptev: I was studying all the time, milking cows and slaughtering pigs.
How was it slaughtering a pig for the first time?
Misha Koptev: I came close to it and kissed the pig from every side of its body – bottom, back, then ears – anything that I could kiss. After that I started to caress its belly and when it started to oink I took my knife and stabbed its stomach very fast. The pig cried and tried to run away. It was running around the garden for half an hour and finally it was found dead. I then had to cut it up with tears in my eyes.
Are you a meat eater?
Misha Koptev: I eat meat and nothing apart from meat.
Have you ever truly loved anyone except your relatives?
Misha Koptev: Maybe not, though I am weaved with spider webs made of super-fine love and kindness. But for some reason I am afraid to let this disease of love inside of me, this weakness, I am afraid of it. I mean I could, of course cry my eyes out when I lose a lover, but I’ve never been tied to my feelings. I know that the world is full of beautiful people and tomorrow I’ll meet an even better one.
“My mom would use the pages of Vogue and Cosmopolitan to wrap fatty fish for my dinner in. I collected and reread the pages every day – can you imagine what they meant to a wild child who only had access to one hour of TV during dark soviet times?”
Tell us about your theatre Orchid – when was it founded?
Misha Koptev: When I was young and had the body of Apollo, white teeth and curly hair, I was super, mega, sexy and got a job as a model at the only theatre in my town. Because I was extremely responsible, the owner appointed me to be an executive director, and I started to get to grips with the organisational skills required. After a while I understood that I did not like the music or clothes much, so I left their kitchen.
After a while that theatre was ruined, and I realised that its reputation was resting on my shoulders because after I quit most of the boys and girls refused to go. Within a week I rented a place and they all came to my new theatre, telling me, “we want to be here with you”, and did everything I wanted. The first shows were crazy – we had erotics, we had beautiful music. There was a real reaction - both audience and models were ecstatic about what we did. We viewed it as the birth of a new equator, the birth of a new galaxy, so we named it Orchid.
So you started out as a model?
Misha Koptev: Yes, every time I went on stage the audience started screaming.
What does one have to do to make the audience scream?
Misha Koptev: He or she has to shine inside out and be a true personality, but it’s not that important to be beautiful. You have to be confident revealing yourself. Also you should use some dirty tricks, for example, touch people during the show.
“I was born and raised in Ukrainian Detroit – I am the plague, the fiend, a stain on the map of my hometown”
How do you work with your models?
Misha Koptev: I have a venue in Luhansk, which I pay for with my blood money, and we conduct rehearsals there. Before the war I had a huge space, with all the facilities I needed. Everyone came to make their costumes, and each model had their own space with equipment. I am a highly demanding chief, so it’s important that my models know and clearly understand everything. They’ve had to walk thousands of miles on the catwalk and know the soundtrack by heart. I have a totalitarian attitude because when they start thinking it becomes too costly for me.
Where do you get the materials for your collections?
Misha Koptev: I believe that the artist does not need to buy gold to melt in Swarovski crystals and all that to be successful. He can simply smear his work in shit and it will look beautiful if he is talented. Mediocrity is giving him bags full of Swarovski, and then he makes a worthless piece of shit. So it doesn’t matter how many sponsors this fucking designer has, how much fur they will buy, or how many hapless people they fuck– nothing can help them in the end.
Where do you seek your inspiration?
Misha Koptev: In a waste container. True artists don’t go looking for inspiration. Artists should be inspiring, not inspired. These artists who need to be inspired, I believe that they are stupid goofs and stinky skunks. As for me, I gush with all sorts of ideas, so much so that sometimes my hands hurt too much to draw sketches – I will be halfway through one piece of work but already thinking about the next. But nevertheless, I throw 90 per cent of my sketches away. However, they are genius.
How and when did you become interested in fashion?
Misha Koptev: Well, my passion for fashion originates from the time I was living in a monastery. My mum had enough of us screaming with hunger every day, so she put us in a monastery in Russian Rostov-on-Don, which is next to Ukraine. All my foreign relatives are practically millionaires: for instance, my aunt owns a private oil well in Texas. So when they visited my mother she would bring them to the monastery for some kisses with their nephews.
They would bring us sweets and magazines, which they forgot to throw away after the flight over, and my mom would use the pages of Vogue and Cosmopolitan to wrap fatty fish for my dinner in. I collected and reread the pages every day – can you imagine what they meant to a wild child who only had access to one hour of TV during dark Soviet times? It was a tipping point for me: I was in love with the beauty. When I grew up and got some more access to everything, I started to buy all these beautiful magazines for myself.
So how do you define beauty?
Misha Koptev: As something you can’t take your eyes off
What about ugliness?
Misha Koptev: Ugliness is human greed, theft, politics, war, and many other acnes on the body of planet Earth.