Diving Into the Russian PsycheBy Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 15, 2001; Page C05
When communism fell back in 1991, Russian artists lost their favorite
target -- and the central focus of their work. These days, confronted with
a squishy democracy, artists are turning out personal, narrative works --
stuff that would have been squashed by the old regime.
"Now that the Soviet Union is over, artists are trying to recapture a
sense of what it means to be Russian," explains area printmaker Dennis
O'Neil. He should know -- for the last decade, he's presided over Russian
American artist exchanges through the Moscow Studio project and, more
recently, his Hand Print Workshop International in Alexandria. Many
artists, he says, have responded by "inventing personal mythologies."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better -- or more literal -- example of
the recent fixation on legend than the drawings of Moscow artist Leonid
Tishkov. For more than 10 years, the 47-year-old artist has drawn scenes
from the lives of his kooky vodolazes (deep-sea divers) -- over and over
again. Although many of his drawings and screen prints speak to
particulars of the Russian psyche, his show "Vodolazes," on view now at
the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams-Morgan, isn't just a course
in cultural anthropology. Many illustrate psychic conundrums most everyone
will find familiar.
Why the single-minded devotion to soggy heroes? "I use to explain
different social and psychological problems," Tishkov tells me in
fragmented English. "For me, deep-sea diver is a form of language. The
pictures are like parables, or poems."
Call them odes to discomfort. These divers aren't suited up in the latest
Lycra freedom fabric; their outfits haven't been high tech since Jules
Verne published "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." These are bulky diving
suits capped by bulbous metal helmets punctuated by tiny glass faceplates
and oxygen tubes that trail off beyond the drawing's frame like some
cosmic umbilical cord. According to Tishkov's lore, vodolazes are the
delicate subconscious requiring shelter from psychic pain; their suits
protect them from the hostile environment of daily living.
Sounds like the stuff of frothy soap operas. Thankfully, Tishkov's surreal
humor takes the edge off the melodrama. In the 40-odd India ink drawings
in this show, he's put his divers in all sorts of wacky situations -- some
absurd, where stick-straight vodolazes float through the air like autumn
leaves; others show them acting like watery gremlins, goofing off in
someone's bathtub. Like his hero, macabre cartoonist Charles Addams,
Tishkov has created his own breed of mostly harmless -- but undeniably
weird -- monsters. And like Addams, his style is illustrative, too --
characters are outlined and filled in with washes of gray and occasional
splashes of color. The drawings are then captioned in Russian in Tishkov's
shaky script, and translated to English below in neat gray type. The
prints, presented on DCAC's walls in groups of 12 or 15, could be a suite
of New Yorker cartoons.
These drawings may look like comics, but they act like shrinks. Prints
such as "He thinks that he's walking along an endless seabed," in which a
vodolaz sleepwalks across a rocky countryside with his head stuck in a
fish tank, point out prickly psychic conundrums. It's a vision of
single-mindedness, that, according to the artist, is a particularly
For the most part, Russia's woes are the same as most everyone's. "Russian
and American looks different only on the outside," Tishkov says. The
artist knows this much from experience -- he went to medical school before
becoming an artist. Although he quickly traded scalpel for paintbrush, he
left medicine figuring that if the innards are the same, so is the psyche.
Those bulky wet suits are just window dressing, he says. "When open window
for deep-sea diver, it's the same."
Despite Tishkov's pluralist intentions, a number of his drawings end up
lost in translation. Even with the artist as cultural tour guide, I didn't
get the image with a birch tree growing out of the diver's helmet. The
piece is supposedly a riff on Russian nationalist fervor (the birch being
the Russian state tree).
Sometimes not getting the joke is the whole point. One drawing has a big
vodolaz, fat and happy under an umbrella during a rainstorm; two
littlevodolazes crouch up top, shivering as they get pelted. The caption,
"The little Vodolaz up top is soaked through, but the big one underneath
is as dry as can be," seems obvious enough. Turns out the duh-factor is
intentional: Russians accept inequality unblinkingly. Class stratification
is as unremarkable as a weather report.
Tishkov's images add up to a portrait of Russian society taken from a
decidedly unflattering angle. The handful of divers sitting on rocks
looking down at their feet while "Waiting for the Flood" might as well be
These divers are good-natured, but weary and slumbering. Tishkov shows us
a society making do with the oldest technology -- and drowsy from lack of
Vodolazes, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW,
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 2-7 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 2-10 p.m.,
202-462-7833, to April 8.
They're inserting his brain so that he can submerge
At night little girl set off for water but she came back with
a couple of Vodolazes
managed to leave the desert turn into potatoes
for young Vodolazes
You'll always find a fisherman sitting over a sleeping Vodolaz
This is some kind of treatment - transfusing miniature
Vodolazes into the real thing
Look pop it turns out he was an egg-head
When you're not at home Vodolazes bathe in your bathroom
The grain test: this one has pecked out but those ones didn't
This is what the Vodolazes' sun is like
With one ear to the ground the other ear begins to sprout
When he's grown-up he still carries around his guardian Vodolaz
Fall comes - the Vodolazes turn yellow
break away from the trees and fall to the ground
He's lost his little window and now he'll never find it
The long and winding road leads to yourself
Pop, what's that prickly and scary thing?
A Vodolaz in the snow - a sure sign that spring is on its way
Waking Dreams (to the "Deep Sea Divers" project)
Sarah Tanguy, Curator of exhibition VODOLAZES (NW Washington,
DC) February 2004.
"As Vishnu created the world in his sleep, I imagined my world
of divers, creatures without faces, their hearts kept deep
within diving suits, when I immersed myself in sleep, in the
depths of subconscious, where underwater fish surrounded their
loneliness with Christmas trees."
Since 1989, Leonid Tishkov has been creating a growing family
of Deep Sea Divers. Produced from the artist's own
subconscious, these mysterious characters thrive in an
unpredictable world full of surrealist imagery and absurdist
text. Beyond their cartoonish appearance, they present a black
and white mirror of our own life, where distorted reflections
of our fears and fantasies embody our existential alienation
and acute self-awareness.
Tishkov grew up in a lakeshore village surrounded by the woods
and mountains of the Urals. Steeped in folklore and rooted in
the earth, the picturesque Nizhnie Sergi verges on the
symbolic border with Asia. After almost drowning at age six,
the artist acquired a fear of water and never learned to swim.
Considered strange and unsociable, he engrossed himself in
observing nature and devouring books. In the early seventies
at the height of the Cold War, he moved to Moscow to study
medicine. It was only a matter of time before he realized his
poetic temperament was better suited for the arts. Years
later, his work, whether it is painting, sculpture, drawing,
prints, writing, performance, or video, still bears the
formative influence of his village experience and medical
A Vodolaz (voh-doe-laz) or DSD is a creature first and
foremost of the unconscious, protected by a diving suit and
kept alive by an oxygen line. Its exact nature changes
constantly. It is only in the shedding of its black exterior,
its social skin, that its inside reveals itself, and a DSD
attains freedom and understanding. This lifeline bears an
immediate and strange analogy to the human umbilicus: the DSD
carries a phantom cord that is pulled at death, when it
returns to a state prior to birth. On a meta-level, the artist
considers the underwater world of the DSDs to be a fitting
model for Russia itself: not yet fully engaged, its people
still slumber and move slowly.
Tishkov's works on paper weave enigmatic narratives onto
abstract compositions of shapes and words." What joy a new
dress can bring!" features a young DSD arms wide open and
facing a kneeling, sympathetic mother. Another domestic scene
presents a Vodalazes objects from velvet. 1995 mother and
father DSD taking their trusting daughter for a dip. Other
drawings reference art history, including The Potato Sitters.
This forlorn image of DSDs in a field alludes to Van Gogh's
Potato Eaters, while underscoring the importance of potatoes
in the Russian diet. "The Suffocating lead the unseeing,"
re-interprets Bruegel the Elder's haunting portrayal of the
plague into a gripping vision offailed leadership.
By contrast, many show a single DSD, such as one who has lost
his helmet's little window or another who wanders aimlessly
with his helmet constrained in a fish tank. Several others use
metamorphosis to make their point. In one scene, the helmet of
a standing DSD has transmuted into an onion dome radiating
light. It reads simply: "One turned into a church, while the
other one got down on his knees." Another shows a birch tree
sprouting from the torso of a DSD, and serves as a metaphor
for the nationalist agenda currently being cultivated by
Russia's leaders. In a sad indictment of American infiltration
into traditional culture, still another depicts the head of a
DSD as a Big Mac.
Both psychoanalyst and patient, Tishkov plunges underwater to
explore his own unconscious, resurfacing with frenzied
fragments of knowledge that he recycles into fantastical
tales. While his repetition of a central image and his playing
with language reflect a conceptual bent, his work is
essentially surrealist, privileging the dream and the
emotions. In his fervent and ongoing battle against
conventional logic, he reconciles the banal and the absurd
into koans of haunting beauty and allusive meaning.