Talking with Glasstire Contributor Valentin Diaconov

by Leslie Moody Castro December 24, 2023

This is the eight in a series of interviews with regular Glasstire contributors. Not only does it seem right to show off the talent behind this magazine (because really, our writers keep us going), but this series provides an opportunity for you, our readers, to learn more about our writers and their other endeavors. Because our writers are all doing many, many great things.

Photo of Glasstire contributor Valentin Diaconov looking in a mirror

Valentin Diaconov.

Consistently throughout my time at Glasstire I have worked to bring in new voices; writers who can offer new and critical perspectives based on their own experiences and interests. Valentin Diaconov has become a contributor whose work I am consistently impressed by, and whose perspective on contemporary art is welcome and unique. Diaconov’s voice and vision has been shaped by his own experiences living and working in Russia, and we are lucky the Core Residency Program at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston brought him to Texas, where can now contribute his voice to Glasstire.

Leslie Moody Castro (LMC): Where do you live currently and where are you from? 

Valentin Diaconov (VD): I live in Houston as a critic in residence in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts. Originally I’m from Moscow, Texas – just kidding, Moscow, Russia. I had to leave because of the current war and the political pressures that came with it. 

The war was eight years in the making. It started with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the military conflicts in Donbass, and all this while the foreign policy became increasingly hostile towards the West — at least while Trump does not hold office. Art relies on open borders and comparatively liberal cultural policies. These were slowly evaporating after 2014, but since February 2022, the country has more or less lived under military censorship. No criticism of the war is allowed within the country; individuals and institutions that relied on foreign aid are declared ‘foreign agents’ and lose sponsorships in Russia because now they might fall under the rubric of a ‘foreign agent,’ even if you’re engaging with one. There are worse things: Anti-war activists receive prison terms comparable to those for armed robbery or even murder. Imagine any number of U.S.-sponsored Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s — Russia’s really close to that, save for the geopolitical orientation. I wasn’t in any real danger, as I’m not an activist, but one never knows nowadays. 

It might sound corny or ignorant to a lot of real Americans, especially now, but I chose freedom. The irony is not lost on me: in the artistic and the academic worlds that I’m navigating here, most people are disgusted with North American imperialism, and that disgust seeps into every conversation on the U.S.’s foreign policy. It’s true that American imperial interests played an important role in Putin’s decision to invade, but at least here you can debate policies and hold opposing viewpoints without looking over your shoulder. You risk your income for some opinions, as we can see in relation to Gaza, but you have to be exceptionally critical of the way things are to end up in jail. 

I was thinking recently that the U.S. has been structured in a way that Russia failed to implement. After the Russian Civil War of 1917-1919 between the Bolsheviks and the Royalists, if both parties had come to an agreement and split the power evenly between them, alternating every four years, then that’s sort of what the U.S. looks like. Alas, oppositional clans in Russian power structures operate clandestinely. There are political fights in closed-off spaces of the Kremlin, but the facade has to be solid and authoritarian.

LMC: How has Houston been treating you? Was there any culture shock? If so, can you tell me about it? 

VD: The Core Program is fantastic, the people in Houston are very nice, and there are ample opportunities to contribute to the city’s cultural fabric. Texas in general and Houston in particular are not the running joke they are depicted as in coastal media. At the end of January 2024, I’m putting together a symposium at Surpik Angelini’s TransArt Foundation under the title Houston Hauntology. We’ll have artists, architects, and historians talking about the hidden, the esoteric, and the ephemeral in the city. Think of it as a way to train Houston’s long-term memory, as the city often behaves like a goldfish. 

And the main shock here was climactic, not cultural. I’ve spent the summer in Houston, and it was almost literally hell. That was the first time in my life when I longed for the summer to be over. 

As far as other shocks go, there are a few. One of them is not specifically Houston-centric, just a general observation on the ridiculous amounts of spending the country does on things that are gone tomorrow. Election campaigns, for instance. Candidates spend millions of dollars to get elected to solve problems that require millions of dollars that are not there anymore because they were spent in the election cycle. For a nation that prides itself for its practicality, you guys are very reckless with money. That goes for celebrities, too. Their cults are pricey. 

Also, it turns out that American individualism is really just an ideology, that is, a completely distorted picture of actual society. People congregate all the time. There’s a church for everyone, and there’s a club for everything. Social media companies are all U.S.-based, and that’s saying a lot about the so-called individualism. 

And also roads! The quality of the road surface in Houston is ridiculous, and that’s coming from a Russian!

LMC: What are you reading currently?

VD: My dream for a while now has been to write a book-length history of 20th century art as a history of sects and orders, so I’m reading a lot of religious history and anthropology. My next book in this research pipeline is Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, a deep dive into the life of a Brooklyn-based vodou priestess in the 1990s. 

LMC: Where do you go for book recommendations? 

VD: Friends supply gems they love. My last year’s cohort at Core, Fred Schmidt-Arenales, gave me a Ted Chiang short story collection, and I love science fiction. Through another Core artist, Saul Hernandez-Vargas, I started reading Christina Rivera Garza, and her latest book is very touching. I am also a huge fan of Houston’s vast network of birdhouses for books [Little Free Libraries]. Those provide most of my reading outside the current research interests. That’s how, for example, I finally got to read Cormac McCarthy. Somebody threw away Stella Maris, his last novel, and a wonderful book. My latest finds are a primer on American literature of the late 19th century. That primer’s really eye-opening. It has lots of Black writers (I became a huge fan of Charles W. Chestnutt), and it is so interesting to see how the conversation on race was going before the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement, and BLM. 

LMC: What inspired you to start writing?

VD: A walk through Peter the Great’s summer retreat, Peterhof, outside Saint-Petersburg. It’s a vast complex of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, built mostly by the Italians and the French, as Peter wanted a park to rival Versailles. Every interior contains artifacts and finishes from all over Europe, Dutch tiles, French textiles, that sort of thing. And in the middle of this abode is a gigantic cascading fountain with the gold-plated Samson and the lion! For the first time in my life I found myself in a total aesthetic environment where every nook and cranny was made by artists or exceptional artisans. This experience made me an art writer. 

LMC: What is your favorite thing to write about? 

VD: I love writing on works that are actively non-verbal. Abstract painting is sometimes a good example, but there are many more instances where the work is so daringly weird that it escapes discourse. It’s the challenge that excites. 

LMC: What makes good art?

VD: There’s a lot of good art out there, but to be truly exceptional an artist has to make objects that ignite the most reflections and responses, intellectual and/or emotional. The objects can be real simple, if they appear at the right moment in time, but simple objects, conversely, may turn out to be deceptively deep, or just gimmicks. There’s also a question of relative scale: some really tight spaces have great art that does not translate to big galleries, museums, or biennials. And it’s curious, when you see a new artist, to imagine what trajectory their art would take if the scale were bigger. In New York, I saw a small exhibition in an apartment gallery, Astor Weeks, by Cecilia Caldiera, a very good show, with references to imaginary architectures, urban decay, recycling, ritualistic objects, and all the while it was elegant, not topical. And that’s very hard to pull off, because good artists really have to juggle the personal and the political, have to walk the tightrope between them, in ways that are self-conscious without the tedium of a statistic.

0 comment

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: