Between land and art

It’s around midnight. My brother and I are discussing the pressing need to get away from the noisy megapolis. It’s decided, here and now, in the kitchen, we are going to Nikola-Lenivets. A few hours later, after a late-night shop to buy missing outdoor equipment, we are packing our backpacks and calling a taxi for the morning.

6 AM, our taxi driver has a doubtful face when he sees all our stuff. He has no idea yet where we are taking him today. Our destination is 3 hours away, westwards from Moscow. We move fast along the empty highway and, soon enough, we reach Kaluga region with its vast national park, “Ugra”. At some point, we leave the highway and find ourselves on a dirt road that leads us deeper and deeper into the forest. After 30 kilometers and a million comments from the taxi driver about how crazy we are, we emerge into a clearing with unusual ethnographic buildings. We are at the entrance of a whole country of magical cooperation between human and nature.

Nikola-Lenivets is the largest art park in Europe, around a tiny village that almost disappeared like many other similar villages in the 90s. It would have followed the same path, if not for the Russian artist Nikolai Polissky, who was looking for a quiet picturesque place for his work. He settled there and felt so much in love with the local beauty, that one day he decided, so to speak, to “enter” the landscape. Here, right under the open sky, he created a collection of modern art and architecture installations. The most fascinating thing is that these installations are so well integrated into nature that you don’t get a feeling of oddness when you stumble upon one in the midst of 650 hectares of land. It’s nothing like a man-made park, it’s an actual forest. Some art objects are hidden so well that you need a map. Thankfully, we were given one at the entrance. 

It’s late morning and we are done with setting up our tent. It’s time to put on our wonder hats and explore the place in depth. Somehow we decide to go to the right. Most certainly, something unusual awaits for us in all directions anyway. We go down the slope, sometimes we stumble upon paths trampled for one person, we pass through a meadow with tall grass, almost to the waist, there is space and silence all around. Suddenly, opposite us, in the thick grass, a rounded podium rises and we rush to it. Climbing onto the podium, we see an amazing scene: a gigantic stone labyrinth, reminiscent of the ancient pagan temples of the sun. Was it always here? 

We go further and find ourselves in a birch grove, it is endless, only white trunks with black serifs. No sign of civilization. After 20 minutes of wandering, a huge structure of wooden ladders rises in front of us, which, as it seems, rests against the firmament. This is reminiscent of Escher’s impossible figures. We start to trust the inner navigator and continue our wanders, discovering a citadel, a house above the forest, a rotunda with numerous doors and windows, a shed with thousands of holes imitating the night sky, a stone settlement, and even a lazy ziggurat. 

We lose track of time and reach the river. Here we will rest, next to the 18-meter “Mayak”, a lighthouse made from a branch of elms so that they give the impression of a wicker structure. This is the symbol of the place.  Up on the hill is the local church that has survived harsh Soviet times and was reconstructed by the means of Nikolai and his community. Next to it, “Nikola’s Ear” –  a wide ear-shaped bell. It is open towards the river and “far aways”, allowing us to listen to the silence. 

We wander until twilight, discovering new scenery and art-objects, losing ourselves in these massive immersive spaces. Back at our improvised camp we make a fire, share impressions, theories and stories triggered by what we saw. Seeing off the moon in the sky, we hasten to lie down in soft sleeping bags so as not to miss a single second of another great day of discoveries in Nikola-Lenivets.

Saida Ibrahimava

Leave a Reply