I came into contact with the artist Mark Wingrave through our shared interest in the work of Ukrainian poet Olga Bragina. Reading a couple of his English translations of her work led me to the originals in Russian and onto collaborate with Valentina Meloni on their translation in Italian. Mark Wingrave is a painter who grew up in the UK, had a scholarship in Italy and now lives and works in Melbourne, Australia. He has exhibited internationally and many of his recent exhibitions relate to writing, working with texts from Nikolai Gogol, Elena Shvarts, and Evgenia Rits. I am happy he agreed to participate in an interview, which was conducted by e-mail over a week in May 2022.
When did art become something you could dream to be part of?
When I was five. I drew a coracle (an old Welsh boat made from an animal skin stretched over a wooden frame) for my mum. I drew it on a blank postcard with a biro- it was a simple scribbly sketch copied from an encyclopedia. It wasn’t a particularly good drawing, but I vividly remember entering another world while doing it. When I was fourteen at school I made a detailed tonal drawing of an old man’s wrinkled face, it looked realistic and my class mates admired it. At school I also drew cartoons of the teachers and made my friends laugh. These experiences gave me a sense of what art could do in both imaginative and public space.
So, what made you realise you wanted to be an artist?
I grew up surrounded by artists: my grandfather, my uncle, my cousins and two of my aunts, who both made work guided by spirits. Although, I knew art was something you could do professionally, I was also aware it was very difficult to earn a living- so initially I studied Graphic Design. Then on a college daytrip up to London I saw a stunning Agnes Martin show at the Hayward Gallery. So, after three years of design I switched and studied Fine Art Painting for a further four years at Bath. I have never regretted doing graphics, I loved design, especially typography and I really enjoyed the Art History lectures, which were about the Constructivists and the Bauhaus. These artists influenced me greatly. So did the writers I was reading- Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield for their experimentation and attempts to represent consciousness in prose-poetry. Art can be formative for people who make art and also for society in general.
In what way formative?
For makers at a most fundamental level they have a voice, can conceptualise the world around them and live somewhere between the last and next piece of work. On a social level art questions accepted notions of reality and expands human potential in terms of affect and response. On a personal level being an artist has remade and remakes my life- it has given me an endless sense of curiosity and energy, enabled me to travel, learn other languages and meet people. I like how visual art sits somewhere between an imaginary and material space, a space that can be shared by many people simultaneously. The Covid lockdowns brought that home. I marvel at the impact of art, how it remains with us after that first reception or encounter, residing in our memories much of the time beyond recall, as a marker of some vague value or possibility, keeping us warm. There’s a portion of art that exists beyond the scope of words, which is a blessing really.
You received an MA from Chelsea School of Art, and a Scholarship in Painting at the British School at Rome. Could you talk about this time?
When I arrived at Chelsea School of Art, being in London, just off the King’s Road, in the early 80s was very exciting. There was a huge buzz around punk music and the New Figuration of Schnabel, Basquiat and Baselitz. While they were and are really important, at the time I was more interested in other music and art, like jazz singer Norma Winstone and painter Per Kirkeby. I went to an incredible number of parties at amazing places artists were making home: squats, housing association places and dockland warehouses. The M.A. was an intense 48 weeks of painting without any academic writing. Twelve painting students shared an old Victorian school building, two students in each classroom. It was a highly competitive year, we learned a lot from each other. I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship in Rome and fortunately was successful.
So, in September 1982 I left London on a train bound for Rome. I was 25, still young and very impressionable. On arrival it seemed like I would never return to London and that I had assumed a new identity. The British School at Rome housed archaeologists, art historians, classicists and artists. The artists’ studios were large, each had a mezzanine and bed above. The academic scholars were very generous with their knowledge and there were many visits to sites of interest. We were fed three meals a day and we all spent much time in each other’s company when we weren’t working.
In a short time I started to find this British island quite claustrophobic and went out to meet other people in Rome. I began doing language exchanges with students from the nearby Architecture Faculty and learned Italian and socialised with the artists at the Istituto Svizzero. Living in Italy was one of the most formative experiences of my life, travelling and learning another language later led to my attending Dutch, German and Russian classes.
While I lived in Rome there were an overwhelming number of artworks to see and take in, so many in fact that it took me almost three months to figure out how to adjust to this reality and make work. Nearly everyone at the British School at Rome worked in direct relation to the surroundings. I spent a period of time making drawings from the early Christian sarcophagi reliefs in the Vatican. I was particularly interested in their stylised imagery of shields, trees and birds. Everyday I went for a walk and regularly looked at Caravaggio and Baroque architecture, in both instances I was fascinated by the dramatic fall of shadows and the use of curling twisting forms. A year later after a couple of trips to Venice I became interested in Tintoretto, his work looked so dynamic and fast. In the 80s in Italy it was the time of Transavanguardia and the painters Clemente, Chia and Cucchi seemed to be everywhere.
I returned to London in 1985 and found somewhere to live through an artists’ housing association in the East End of London, it was cheap and very rundown. I feel very fortunate that such accommodation existed. Initially, I found a job teaching English to Italians during the summers and then worked part-time at Westminster Hospital. In terms of painting, I spent a lot of time looking at Nicolas Poussin and drawing in Epping Forest. I lived in Leytonstone for just over four years and then one year in Switzerland before coming to Australia. Between 1987 and 1989 I travelled regularly in Britain and walked a lot. I became very interested in geology and was making small circular collages. In 1990 I spent a year in Zurich, Switzerland on a fellowship extending these concerns and learning some German. Eventually, I settled in Australia and have lived and worked here for the past 25 years or so.
What inspires you?
Many things and people really. Matisse, Vallatton, Patrick Caulfield, Doris Salcedo, Natalia Goncharova’s graphic work. The wonderful things people post on social media. Travel and languages. I am drawn to what I don’t know. Whatever undoes the given familiarity of things. There’s the trip away, what you bring home from this experience and what you then notice in your local environment. It needn’t be a big trip- I cycle everywhere and explore the state of Victoria, which is really varied geographically. Even walking the local streets and taking photographs changes things. Also translating poetry, learning new words help me see things differently.
What made you leave your home, the UK, and move to Australia?
It all happened quite suddenly. Not long after I returned to London in 1991 I met Susan, my wife, who had just come back from Ethiopia and was about to return to Australia. Before she left we went walking in the Welsh mountains. Four months later I migrated to Australia. It felt an easy decision to leave Britain, I felt rather unsettled there. Australia was far away and it was completely different from everything I knew. Since being in Australia I have travelled in the desert, walked and cycled in the mountains, learnt of the first nations people and their incredible art. It has taken time to acclimatise. While living here I have also travelled a fair bit overseas, especially to former Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.
Tell us something about your interest in Paul Celan…
In 2014 I travelled to Romania, spending time in Bucovina and Maramures, and also visited his home city Chernivtsi, in Ukraine. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. Afterwards I made three artists’ books to Celan.
Really? Why a pilgrimage? Many poetry lovers and poets would like to make such a pilgrimage, you know…
I had been thinking about his use of language and his background. I went to Chernivtsi to see where he came from. I have always been amazed by his poetry, its startling imagery, concrete language, the fact that he created something out of terrible circumstances that manages to surpass it- not be wholly defined by it.
Before the journey, through searching in the library I found the two addresses where he lived. The only problem was these addresses no longer exist; they were from a time when the region of Bucovina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fortunately, I managed to find an online map drawn up by a Jewish organization that matched the Austro-Hungarian, Romanian, Soviet and Ukrainian street names. With a print of this map I was able to direct a driver from Suceava in Romania to these places in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. When we found them I photographed the doorways and facades. We also visited university where Celan studied; it is an extraordinary building.
Why is Celan important to you?
The visit helped me appreciate the fact that Celan lived at a cultural and linguistic crossroads, where knowing other languages was both usual and expedient. He also translated poetry and literally lived his life between languages. In reading his poetry he seems to be destroying and remaking language at the same time. It is natural to see his aesthetic decisions through the lens of biography, the occupation of his home and the traumatic loss of his family, Auschwitz; though I think this is only part of the story as he also drew on a deep knowledge of international culture. Celan pushed the limits of what is possible in language while also knowing what can’t be represented.
Let’s talk about your approaches to written and the visual imagery.
Over time language has played a greater role in my painting, increasingly it has developed a relationship with written imagery. This has come about because my life feeds into what I do in the studio. Teaching English as a foreign language, contact with overseas students, working alongside other migrants and learning other languages have all made their mark. Other languages mean other perspectives. And living in Australia where so many languages are spoken; six hundred Indigenous languages were once spoken before the genocide. Here language is everywhere, beneath our feet and in the air.
My painting starts with text. When I’m working on a project I usually begin collecting phrases from what I’m reading or translating, they are written images that resonate. I write them on reference cards and pin and tape them on the wall and sit and look at their qualities and connections, sometimes a colour comes to mind, sometimes I have an image I try out and improvise on them- usually I find what I want through trial and error. In making paintings with image and text there is always the issue of their relation. It is said that if you put image and text together the image becomes illustration or the text becomes caption. I wonder about that. Certainly, there’s a pull, a force in these directions- I look for ways to manipulate this tension by counterpoint, contradiction or even arbitrariness between image and text.
You said “Other languages mean other perspectives”. You have an amazing relationship with the Russian language. How did this journey begin?
I have been learning Russian for the past 12 years, in order to read the literature and poetry. I have travelled to Russia, Georgia and Ukraine and read Russian on a regular basis. It is part of my life. People ask me do I have a Russian background. I don’t.
In 2000 I visited St. Petersburg- I was only there for six days. It made a huge impression on me, that I spent the next six years reading everything I could about Russia. In 2006 I came across a bilingual copy of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, it had such an impact on me I decided to learn Russian to read her work. It’s like something took hold of me, and began to shape my life and painting in ways that are hard to explain. At a certain point it’s meant I thought less about my roots as a way of understanding who I was and began thinking more about developing branches as who I could be. Art and language are connected; visual art is about seeing yet language shapes what we see, and reading and translating languages seems visual even palpable.
For you translation is…
In translating you go away somewhere, bring something back and try and make sense of it in the domestic terms. It is also similar to art in that you work from something, and recreate in other means, in other materials. Transformation is key. It’s a fascinating process, the translator inhabits another person’s work to recreate it or create it anew. Loss, failure even, seems inseparable from translation. It would be really interesting to compile a collection of translators’ introductions.
In 2013 I found out about contemporary Russian poet Evgenia Rits, whose work I’ve come to admire a great deal and feel a strong affinity with. Translating her poetry is really difficult as it is complex and layered. For example, it’s strongly metrical, uses numerous near-homonyms and its themes are a collage of shape-shifting references. It epitomizes the impossibility of translation, which is probably why I will continue doing it. In western terms I would describe her work as a meeting between William Blake’ and Anni Albers textiles. In this respect Evgenia’s poetry is incredibly rich in form and content, but still really concise.
Translating involves destroying a poem, by dismantling it to understand how it is made, and then reassembling it in another way. I am very interested in this aspect of translation and what it means for art.
You’re concerned with abstraction and translation. Your work brings together graphic imagery and extracts from Russian Literature. How did your ‘infatuation’ with Gogol’s short stories start?
Between 2018 and 2020 I collected fragments from Nikolai Gogol’s Ukrainian Tales and painted to them. I wouldn’t call it infatuation; it’s more like fascination. It began after returning from Ukraine, I was leafing through my guidebook and looking at the places I didn’t visit. I learned of Gogol’s early life in Ukraine and the significance of the local folktales on his writing. I read some of these stories online in Russian. Their fantastic nature really struck me; in a few days I scribbled out lists and lists of extracts from them. They were the starting point for two bodies of work: “The Time of Day” and “After Gogol”.
“The Time of Day” exhibition drew on a Gogol tale where the Devil steals the moon from the sky and exploits the darkness to trick the villagers. The paintings comprise a cycle of colour and grey monochromes with text referring to times of the day and bizarre supernatural happenings. The colour and grey panels have a strong optical quality and alternate between attention saturation and deficit. I conceived the show while Trump was in office, a time when lies were truth. Gogol’s tale seemed a perfect mirror for those times, it describes a world turned upside down.
For painting, I loved the sense of magic and fantasy of the tale, it seemed a million miles away from the idea of pure abstraction. Putting the two together was too good to miss. In many respects the dialogue between text and image is intentionally unresolved, it can develop in unexpected ways. In general, I have always had a fascination with folk culture: textiles, music, architecture and stories. It’s interesting that the Russian Futurists were inspired by folk art.
Could you talk a bit about your project ‘After Gogol’? How did you visualise the Devil’s red jacket?
This work refers to Gogol’s “The Fair at Sorochyntsi”. It tells the tale of the Devil’s red jacket which goes missing, and in passing from person to person, curses all who come in contact with it.
When reading the story I was intrigued by the image of the jacket being destroyed and pieced together again, how this presaged the Devil’s return to earth. I made an A5 book of five double page spreads combining Russian and English parallel text with images. Five phrases from the tale face a series of interrelated images, ranging from a lozenge, a stepped diamond through to curved hook forms. The images are negative spaces with the rest of the page painted out in same emerald green. This particular green generates its complementary and makes the white paper appear pink. I am interested in making work that alludes to things beyond the frame, something that cannot be seen. So, in a way these drawings invoke the colour red.
Have you seen any illustrations of the story by other artists?
No I haven’t.
So, you have visited Ukraine in 2018 and Georgia in 2019 and you were due to go on a couple of residencies in Russia in 2020 but Covid and now the Russian invasion in Ukraine… Maybe our interview needs a question about the cancel culture re: the ‘great’ Russian culture…
The war is terrible. Many people have fled Ukraine and Russia. The destruction and the loss of life.
Cancel culture seems to be many things. I think context is really important. Are we talking about institutions in the rest of the world? Ukrainians? Russians? All have their own specific considerations. Speaking personally I don’t believe a general reflex is useful or very enlightened. I don’t know I have a position on cancel culture. I simply wouldn’t translate something I didn’t believe in, if it were racist, sexist or nationalistic. I think really good art is many voiced, and fluid in meaning and therefore politically unreliable. Many Russians who are translators, particularly those outside Russia choose, for the time being, to either translate Ukrainian poets or Russian poets who write about the war. It’s a matter of priorities. I will continue to translate Evgenia Rits because I think she is one of the best contemporary poets writing today, much of her work interrogates and problematises history and single narratives.
Many would say: translation is a political act…
Dmitry Kuzmin made some really perceptive comments earlier this year on Evgenia Rits’ poetry after she was awarded the Vavilon Poetry Prize, which I think are relevant here. It was published shortly before February 24th.
“Rits’ poetry is extremely far from any political relevance, but great poetry is neither non-political nor irrelevant. Rits has spent nearly a decade and a half in Russian poetry as a notable and appealing, but deeply shadowy, figure. Her current rise to prominence takes place in the midst of a collapsing post-Crimean Russia. For the rules of survival in this country, a new generation of poets and readers will turn to the poems of Evgenia Rits.”
Finally, the notion of ‘great’ Russian culture is certainly up for review and revision, and in some places it is being rethought. Today, like many people I am adjusting to the new reality, making paintings and looking forward to a translation workshop at Bristol University next month.
20-29th May, 2022