When asked by British art magazine Dazed and Confused what kind of emotions he hopes to stir in his audiences, Andrei Molodkin responded, “I want to start a revolution.” In the same interview, Molodkin declared bluntly, “All my work is political.”
Molodkin was born in 1966 in Bui, Russia, a small city in the Kostronoma region about 270 miles north east of Moscow. Internationally-recognized Molodkin now splits his time between Moscow and Paris. As esteemed in the art world as much as he is controversial, he’s perhaps known best for his use of seemingly unlikely forms of media – ballpoint pens and crude oil.
From 1976 to 1980, Molodkin attended the School of Visual Arts in Bui, and later attended the College of Arts in Krasnoe-on-Volga from 1981 to 1985. He eventually graduated from Moscow’s Institute in 1992, studying at the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design. In the years between 1985 and 1987, however, Molodkin detoured from his arts education while he served in the Soviet army. He still found a creative outlet, though, when he began drawing with army-issued ballpoint pens, meant to help soldiers write letters home. The ballpoint pen would later become a staple of some of Molodkin’s works. He later used the everyday instruments to create giant drawings that would become some of his most recognizable, successful, and political art installations. During this time he also came into contact with another medium that would come to define his art – oil, an element he says represents transformation, as it has both built and destroyed empires.
One of Molodkin’s military duties was served as part of a crew delivering oil cisterns (large storage tanks) in Siberia. Molodkin has said in interviews that oil both helped sustain and entertain him and many fellow soldiers, as they would rub it on their body for warmth and also eat it to get high. “We also used to smear dark rye bread with a thick layer of black oil that was used to polish boots, and dried it on the radiator. The bread absorbed light particles of oil like a sponge, and was then used by us in lieu of vodka to intoxicate ourselves on holidays or birthdays,” he told Dazed and Confused in 2011.
Using acrylic glass molds, Molodkin creates sculptures of key political, economic and religious words and images and fills them with crude oil pumped through plastic hoses. The oil Molodkin uses is sourced specifically from Libya, Chechnya, and Iraq, areas of no little significance in modern oil politics. In molds spelling “DEMOCRACY,” “HUMAN RIGHTS,” “9/11” and “¥€$,” Molodkin’s sculptures make a statement about three constants – life, death and politics – and the role oil plays in contemporary society and the geopolitical landscape. Informed by a life spent partially under Soviet communism and Russian and Western capitalism, Molodkin’s works represent a sense of disillusion with the prevailing regimes of 20th and 21st centuries, and comments on oil’s influence in contemporary society.
A substance that countries have shed blood over and one that sustains modern life and commerce, oil, Molodkin says, symbolizes both promise and decay. Molodkin says in an artist statement for “Crude,” his traveling exhibition of oil sculptures, “We lived through the communist project and watched it collapse. We then saw capitalism take over and are watching it get fiercer and fiercer as it begins to crumble from within.”
While all his pieces are nearly uniform in their political message, the media he creates them with are in stark contrast. While oil is highly sought after and can cost or accrue great amounts of money, the ballpoint pen is common and disposable. Such was Molodkin’s thought when creating 2006’s “Empire at War,” a towering twelve-by-nine foot ballpoint-pen drawing of George W. Bush at a pulpit, Bible in hand. In this piece, Molodkin used 2,764 pens to etch against a linen canvas, representing the number of soldiers who had died fighting in the Iraq war at that time. Molodkin says the method mirrored the process of war, using individuals to give all they have (in this case, their ink) and eventually be disposed of for the sake of a government’s objective. Speaking with InitiArt magazine, the artist said, “Today we trade blood for oil. We fight for it, we die for it. In millions of years, our dead bodies decompose to become oil itself.”
President Barack Obama doesn’t escape the artist’s criticism either – Molodkin also created oil-filled sculptures reading, “HOPE” and “YES WE CAN.”
That idea isn’t entirely abstract for Molodkin. In 2009, he started to try to create oil himself. He claims to have experimented with boiling down bones in a machine similar to a pressure cooker, a process he says results in an oil-like liquid – “a sweet, yellowish crude.” Never one to shy away from controversy, the artist says he performed the experiment using the remains of a dog. He also says he’s signed on human volunteers to his project, who, when they die, pledge to donate their body to art. According to Molodkin, BBC reporter Sasha Gankin was one of the first to volunteer, requesting the “oil” extracted from her remains after her death be poured into a mold of a brain. In an interview with the United Kingdom’s The Independent, Molodkin said he has also enlisted French adult film actress Chloé des Lysses, who hopes her remains will be come an oil sculpture of praying hands.
A deceptive minimalism permeates Molodkin’s work, but that helps create little room for miscommunication and misunderstanding between artist and the audience. The artist says he wants his art purposefully “unmasked” and unmistakably political. “Russian contemporary art is lost in translation and that is why my art is direct.”