Leon Kahane: “The whole image of Putin is so homoerotic”

As his contribution for the 6th Moscow Biennale, Leon Kahane created a continuous dance performance in the format of a daily ballet rehearsal with professional dancer Svetlana Saltykova. Assuming dichotomy of high culture and liberal arts, the performance aims to combine both in order to debug their formal and political differences or similarities. Andrey Shental talked to the artist on the connotations of his work.

— You claim that in your ballet performance you would like to combine elements of high culture (ballet) with liberal arts (contemporary art). Don’t you think that in the context of VDNKh you do not mix high culture with liberal arts, but rather establish contemporary art as high culture juxtaposed to the kitsch of VDNKh activities?

— My claim was slightly different. It was meant as a challenge of each other. Of course, I understand what you mean, when you ask the question of how to read my work. There are several elements that one can read. I’m not a professional dancer and I’m not in the shape of a professional dancer, and we are not in the environment of professional dance or, let’s say, classical ballet. You could read it like this — and some people told me that they’ve read it that way — you could say that I’m using the art form of high culture, which is usually connected to perfection and years and years of training and just adapted it and transformed it into a contemporary art piece. So it is already a challenge to question the necessity of this perfection.

The whole concept of the Biennale “How to Gather” is to have a process-based show, where everyone is working on site. Some of the important aspects of it are failure, trying out and changing things and having a look behind the scenes. This is something that ballet is absolutely not about. You do not see a failing ballet dancer on stage. You see a final and perfect moment. This is important to understand when you think of the difference between high culture and contemporary art. Ideally, contemporary art is always working on itself, changing itself, reevaluating itself, figuring out what is necessary for art and society. However, high culture cannot give this to us and cannot fulfil this very important necessity which is a major factor of changing or developing our societies.

— You mentioned the notion of failure. Did you go to the Akkbar Abbas lecture? It was about failure. He understands failure as a way of resistance.

— Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole lecture because I was performing, but I witnessed the Q and A. Of course, failure is also about forgiving. Failure is a challenge for society. I cannot reconstruct his particular point of failure as resistance, but definitely it has some very challenging aspects to it. What do you do when someone makes a failure. For example, in Judaism the highest holiday is Yom Kippur. This is the day where you should think about yourself and ask for forgiveness from all the people for all the wrong things that you have done. So it is about reflection. Making a failure is about reflecting. My idea of contemporary art is reflecting on things, on yourself first and foremost. This has a lot to do with my own work.

I can tell you, that my whole idea came from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music and particularly from his pas de deux. I went to Izhevsk for a few days and I attended the birth place of Tchaikovsky in Votkinsk. In that house there is not a single word about how he died, that he committed suicide, that he was a homosexual. It is just not spoken about. This is important, essential to his work, which is shaped by the perspective of an outsider, of someone who is shaped by the nonacceptance of his homosexuality by the society. That is something though, that is very important in art. I guess, there are some homoerotic aspects to my work, at least people told me.

— Actually, I had a question regarding the gender aspects of your performance. For me, ballet has always been a kind of “transsexual art” that undermines performativity of gender. In your case, a female choreographer teaches you how to use your body, how to move, how to behave, etc.

— I’ve always had a feeing that political environments that have problems with homosexuality often have something very-very homoerotic to them, especially, when it comes to what they consider to be their traditions and cultures. For example, the whole image of Putin, the image that he makes of himself, it is so homoerotic. Putin’s homoerotic image as a bare breasted man is somehow a cliché. In ballet male dancers are so female, and I like it a lot. My last work Optimize Central had some very strong feminist aspects to it. I think the question of gender and sexuality is an important point. This is all in the work on a very subtle level, but you have to trust yourself and your impression, that this is a part of it.

When Channel One interviewed me, they were asking why I am such a big fan of ballet. If you want to see the work like this, please. But by bringing it into this more critical sphere, the reading can and should be completely different. From the beginning I was very interested in playing on this gender aspect. It comes in handy, that I have a very strong physicality. It strengthens the impression of the feminine aspect of the male body.

— Why in your work you refer to anachronistic notion of “liberal arts” — the term one rarely uses nowadays?

— It’s a good question, because I myself never used this term. I just use this term to differentiate the different art forms. Usually I wouldn’t necessarily need that, but as long as the liberal art is not liberal, you have to call it liberal art. Of course, there is contemporary art in Russia, but it is not as easy as in Germany. I’m working in Germany and Europe and I’m in a privileged position, but the situation is changing. For instance, in Netherlands, where the liberal art is being endangered by politics and suffering from funding cuts. I just used this term in order to show that there is a difference.

I was born in GDR and there was a somehow liberal arts scene, but they always had to respond or react to the regime, so they couldn’t really liberate themselves. The craziest thing is that when the Berlin Wall went down and the East and West Germany where reunited, most of the liberal artists were not of any interest anymore, because they lost their main subject — the East German political regime. How do you deal with this? Basically, you have no target anymore. So it was never really liberal, but in opposition.

When you think about minimalists, the idea behind their works was to actually completely individualise the art, not to have any references anymore. Of course it is a highly political act of liberalisation and emancipation, so it was a very political gesture. But you could not do this in East Germany, because of the regime. I do not want to compare East German times with nowadays Russia, it is not the same. But, this is why I use this term.

— During the Cold War ballet was used by the USSR government as a certain cultural screen. Does your work take into account these connotations?

— Usually, I do not make art about art. But this piece is about art and its political aspects. The high culture can be used as an ambassador of the regime. Totalitarian systems are always about their traditions, cultures. They can always refer to the Russian music, literature, ballet, because it’s beautiful. But what they will never talk about, coming back to homosexuality of Tchaikovsky, he was a victim of political rulers or political system. Liberal art cannot be used like that.

— Are you sure?

— I’m not 100% sure, but I can say that liberal art in a totalitarian system is more often in the opposition, being under the threat, being accused of anti-system behaviour.