Elena Lomakin: Prelude to a Birch Tree
Written by Joe Nalven                                                     October 5, 2011

Elena Lomakin talked about her artmaking a few months ago. I've made cut and paste collages and have watched them fall apart, especially my older ones made with rubber cement. I wondered whether her installations, and installation art in general, fared a similar fate. Maybe not in the same way, but in a way that the installation artist might consider unfair.
Elena Lomakin: Unfortunately, almost all installations are vulnerable due to their size and materials used to create them. Also, because of their nature, they are supposed to be put together only to be dismantled a short while later, whether they are shown in galleries or in museums. Yet there are some extraordinary installations created in the past 30 years from Christo to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from magical Tara Donovan to my beloved Andy Goldsworthy, whose most beautiful creations are available only in the photographs.
How one can buy and/or preserve fragile installations is one of those puzzling questions. They are like comets: they come and go, but the impression may last forever.

What about your current birch tree installation now on view in the Rotunda Gallery at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library?

Installation detail

EL: It is called Prelude to a Birch Tree and it is an art installation as well as a theme for a series of paintings and collages that I made, devoted to a birch, or rather to my feelings about that tree.
It calls to mind growing up in Moscow. I can remember a huge park with birch trees. A Russian forest? Not the darkness of what was once the Soviet mindset, but the counterpoint of the birch grove. Light, slender, inviting and simply beautiful. Especially in the early spring, when there were still no leaves, and yet the trunks were able to embrace all the subtleties and nuances of the colors around, and sometimes seemed pink or even red, reflecting the descending sun.
I sought the fragility of this memory in this installation and the surrounding paintings and collages.
I'm thinking about the name of this installation. Sometimes artists get frustrated about naming their art ojbect and simply pick a number out of the air. But this name, Prelude to a Birch Tree, seems to be about music.

Installation, photo by Elena Lomakin

EL: To me Prelude to a Birch Tree is a very lyrical and nostalgic piece. I have always been moved by the birch tree groves, even when I was a child. For the past several years I’ve been creating paintings and collages depicting a birch that became my constant Muse and one of the main themes in my works. I kept coming back to its image that gradually brought me to this installation. In a way this long process literally became a prelude to a birch tree.
As to connection to music, don’t you want to sing when you are in the woods? I personally get so moved and inspired walking through the forest that music is the first thing that comes to mind, or better to say, to my heart. On a more material level, the tree stems in “Prelude” are made of sheet music, just to give an illusion of the actual black and white birch tree trunks.
My goal here was not to recreate a forest as such, but to give my artistic impression of it. I wanted to make it as delicate, lacy and poetic as possible. Oddly enough one of the strongest influences that I had were Parisian iron cast balconies whose beauty and laciness I have been admiring for years.
I also would like to add that depending on the time of the day, this installation absorbs light in a very subtle manner changing colors and making some very intricate reflections.
Sometimes, to my delight, it looks almost abstract!

Does the Athenaeum's Rotunda Gallery space work for this installation?

EL: They complement each other. I love the presence of many windows in the gallery that make Prelude even more airy and light than it is.
Because it is a site-specific installation, I thought the round shape of the Gallery would be very suitable for this piece especially since the Rotunda is connected to the Athenaeum’s Music Room.
As with most of art installations, whose dimensions can vary dramatically, Prelude too could go indefinitely, depending on the space. Thus, when I was just beginning to think of it, initially it was supposed to be several very uneven (both in quantity and height) groves or “islands”, so-to-speak, of the birch trees occupying a much larger space. I am saving that project for the future.

Besides the installation you also show collages and small paintings. Tell me about them.

EL: There are nine collages and six little paintings.

Collage, Harmony Part II

The collages very much complement Prelude to a Birch Tree. They are all minimal and subdued in colors and composition, and possess the quality of order and balance.

Painting. A Lonely Autumn Evening.

The paintings, on the other hand, are very colorful and contrastive, with the predominance of red. I also would like to point out that all six paintings in the show have an image of a birch tree, whether it is obvious or completely abstract.

Let’s talk about something that we began our conversation with. Not only are installations ephemeral, but it raises the more general question that every artist dreads: the perishability of art. Cave art has lasted for tens of thousands of years, but they've been hidden away in caves. But above ground, places where people can see and admire works of art, are subject to perishability. Even the pyramids are subject to wear and tear.

EL: I can frankly tell you that I am addicted to perishable art! I love the very prosody of this word.
As I was working on this installation, I kept thinking how fragile and delicate it was, as most of my installation art pieces. Yet I continue making them.
I keep coming back to an intriguing article published several years ago in the WSJ called "Perishable Art: Investing in works that may not last.” It discussed how collectors can “preserve and insure works that may be short lived.”
The article observed, “Aging and wear affect all art, but the ephemeral nature of some contemporary art has become more problematic as values have soared.”
There was a broad range of examples from the British New wave artist Damien Hurst’s dead shark in a tank that began rotting, so the artist had to replace it; to Jeff Koon’s famous 40-foot-high topiary puppy at the Guggenheim entrance in Bilbao; from works by Pollock who was painting on the unprimed canvas using household paint; to Rauschenberg’s newspaper collages that are fading: from van Gogh to Paul Klee, and so on. The article stressed that both sellers and buyers are just beginning to find out more and more that acrylic paints, for example, dry out and flake, like in works by Mark Rothko; that synthetic paints used by Warhol and other artists of that generation may not hold up over time and are not easily restored.
As an artist I can only defend my right to use any materials I choose that help me to express a particular idea in the most optimal way. Paul Klee’s works are considered to be very fragile because he was constantly experimenting with all kinds of materials on all kinds of supports, and did it marvelously, contributing so much to Modern art. That is why he is in the Museums, and it is their responsibility to take good care of his pieces. I am absolutely sure that neither Klee nor Picasso thought what kind of substrate they were painting or drawing on - they just did it. Pollock and van Gogh painted on unprimed canvas because they were either breaking the rules like Pollock, and/or did it intentionally like van Gogh.
As an artist in inspiration I should care less if a piece of paper I am using is of museum quality and therefore might be able to last for centuries. What I must care about, and I do, is the image, the work itself, the process and most importantly, the result.
And if my art works are appreciated and in the hands of art-loving people, that is all I should hope for.


Be sure to ask for Elena Lomakin's exhibiton catalogue at the Athenaeum. A collector's item.

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library 1008 Wall St., La Jolla, CA 92037 | (858) 454-5872 Rotunda Gallery.
Elena Lomakin: Prelude To A Birch Tree