Ivan Yazykov’s Universe of Tiny Things

Ivan Yazykov. Rebus 23. Fireflyes, waterfalls, earthquakes-west, and, son, ear (Fire-flyes, water-falls, earth-quakes. we stand so near). Paper, ink. Courtesy of the artist

In exceptionally intricate, quirky drawings, Russian graphic artist Ivan Yazykov creates fairy-tale worlds out of everyday objects. His on-going series ‘Alphabet’, nearing completion after quarter of a century, will be on view at Moscow’s major book fair ‘non/fiction’ from 6th to 9th April.

Have you ever ‘read’ an ink drawing like a book, for hours? You need a magnifying glass when looking at Ivan Yazykov’s (b.1975) drawings if you do not want to miss their endless stream of fascinating detail. “My drawings are my home”, he told me over Zoom from the Princes’ Islands in Turkey, where he lives currently, which if you know his work is no exaggeration. Every one of his creations is an entire universe. “Basically, I am a collector” he starts out to explain his idiosyncratic method. “When I was a child, everybody collected something: matchboxes, stamps, buttons, stickers, records, toy soldiers and cars, bottle corks, insects, empty cigarette packs or wine bottles. I was no exception.” Yazykov hoarded gum wrappers, stamps, posters of his favourite bands and records (a passion that evolved into a career as a DJ at some point). This habit stuck with him. Yazykov’s drawings, executed with academic discipline and craftmanship, are phantasmagoric catalogues of countless objects and characters all assembled by his quirky imagination. When asked about his favourite artists, after some consideration, Yazykov names Piranesi, Breughel and Arcimboldo, and his art has something in common with all three. But his spiritual next-of-kin has to be Lewis Carroll, for his dry wit, flights of fantasy and love of the absurd. In Yazykov’s dream-like world, a slice of bread fallen buttered side down turns into an enchanted island, and single-use everyday objects come back to life after having been repaired in a whimsical workshop.

For Yazykov, his art is a meditative practice, just one drawing can take months or even years to complete. He started working on ‘Alphabet’, his longest-running project to date, 25 years ago as a graduate student at Moscow’s Stroganov school. His major was in Fonts and the Alphabet, or, rather, its first eight letters, which became his graduation project. Gradually it turned into an inventive catalogue of various different professions and industries. Out of the 33 letters of the Russian alphabet, he has finished 27, and the prospect of the series’ completion does not make him happy. “I am almost sorry it’s coming to an end”, he confesses. Moscow’s Roza Azora gallery will show prints, not the drawings themselves, at the Gostiny Dvor book fair, since most of the originals are already in private collections.

In our virtual age, his fascination with the material world and with the poetry of objects seems both nostalgic and defiant. “Nobody collects things anymore,” the artist observes. “Today, we collect likes and friends on social media, and the biggest collector is a social media platform itself, it collects people!” In his ‘Micro-dramas’ series he depicts minor everyday traumas (for instance, the tragedy of a teabag label slipping into a cup or wires entangled like a family of snakes) and complements them with lines of poetry.

His opus magnum ‘The Land of Single-Use Things’ is also a micro-drama but has grown to epic proportions. This behemoth of a drawing, 1.5 by 2 metres in size, took almost three years to finish. It can be read as both an eco-awareness manifesto and a caustic satire on the futility of all humankind’s efforts and endeavours. Here, crooked nails are straightened, used teabags get recharged and cotton sticks regain their purity and fluffiness. A broken plastic glass dominates the landscape, a contemporary symbol of mortality that substitutes the ubiquitous skull of old master paintings. The work was recently acquired by an American private collection, yet Yazykov has not abandoned it - his favourite creation. He is now working on an animated version. This might be a logical development since his works resemble intricate and precise mechanisms crafted by Swiss watchmakers. They always brim with quiet, well-calculated movements.

Yazykov loves to confuse his viewers, and visual conundrums based on wordplay are a separate genre in his art, one which is particularly important to him. It stems from ‘rebus’ picture riddles in Soviet children’s magazines he read as a boy. Taking the words apart and re-assembling them is a challenging process that he finds inspiring. The most difficult part for the artist is to invent a phrase which can be used in this kind of wordplay. “I was afraid that AI would be able to do it effortlessly, making my work unnecessary, but lucikly it’s still beyond its capabilities”, the artist says with a sigh of relief. He prompted ChatGPT with creating a rebus but the result was gibberish. This is good news for all artists out there - imagination and wit are still the domain of humans.

Ivan Yazykov. Alphabet of Letters. A special project at non/fiction Spring book fair


Gostiny Dvor exhibition hall

Moscow, Russia

6-9 April, 2023

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