The Russian artist Konstantin Bessmertny lives in the southwestern corner of one island (Coloane in Macau). From there, he travels every week to his studio on the northeastern corner of another (Hong Kong Island). The journey between these two Special Administrative Regions of China takes about an hour. Bessmertny uses the time to sort out his own administration so that he doesn’t arrive with what he calls ‘a brain-cluster of things to do’. He must have a clear start to the day in order to work. ‘And then it has to be anarchy. Everything has to be on the floor.’
Controlled chaos is a trademark of Bessmertny’s work. He’s probably best-known for the tiny, dubious figures – gamblers, prostitutes, strippers – that crowd his surreal landscapes in the style of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. His paintings can look like a homage to tradition; only when you peer more closely do you see the subversion.
When he came to Macau in 1992, he had travelled from the world’s largest country to live in a geographical dot. That dot was about to begin its own journey, from silted-up backwater to the world’s casino capital. To Bessmertny, a man of smiling intensity, it has been fodder for exquisitely absurd art.
He has been an artist since his childhood in Blagoveshchensk, a city built on the border between Russia and China. Everything was gigantic in that era of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, including the portrait of Mao eyeballing the citizens from the Chinese side of the Amur river. Bessmertny attended Vladivostok’s Institute of Fine Arts, and was nurtured in the monumental.
But the USSR fell apart and he, too, had to adjust his dimensions. He left a Russia where the conservative, monochrome world of the Soviets was about to be replaced by a surreal mash-up, where ludicrous fortunes were made in the midst of economic collapse and where pornography and prostitution were going viral just as the Orthodox Church reasserted its authority.
Perhaps this explains the contradictions in his work, perched as it is on the border between comedy and tragedy, sacred and profane, traditional and conceptual. No wonder there are two clocks in the small studio he still keeps in his Macau home – neither equipped with hands. ‘They remind you that time is not measured by numbers,’ he says, words spoken like a true surrealist.
Yet this is a man who was born on 8 November 1964 but whose birthday is celebrated on 7 November, the anniversary of the end of the Russian revolution (and, as it happens, Leon Trotsky’s birthday). If the past is engrained within you – as it surely is with Bessmertny, who likes to populate his canvases with such diverse historical characters as Queen Victoria, Churchill and Al Capone – then dates matter.
Soon after his Macau arrival, he realised that having a Plan B was vital in order to survive. Plan A was The Artist’s Dream but it had to be dialled down to a manageable size – ‘the teeny dream so you realise no one needs you, you are zero’. Plan B was graphic design, which could help him support his wife, Galina – a concert pianist and music teacher – and their children, Max and Sasha.
In his own way, he’s still juggling expectations of scale. He worries, for example, that their lovely Macau house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and bookcases and baby grand, will appear too ostentatious. ‘For people, space is luxury,’ he explains. ‘For an artist, space is necessity.’
As it happens, he’d expressed exactly the same concern to this writer during an interview in Macau 20 years ago, when he’d rented two smallish flats on the adjoining island of Taipa – one for living, one for working. Even then, he didn’t want it to look as if he’d sold out. (One of the darker vices he depicted in those days was ‘careerism’.)
Two decades on, the art scene – at least in Hong Kong – has expanded from miniature to mural. But although Bessmertny represented Macau at the 2007 Venice Biennale, had a 2016 solo show at the Macau Museum of Art, and has had his work purchased by M+ (Hong Kong’s visual culture museum, due to open next year), he’s not enthusiastic about artists’ prospects in either SAR. Every night, during his museum show, a tiny thunderstorm was timed to trigger inside a car at the entrance and he’s the human equivalent, his passion raging against the current state of the art world.
Later this spring, he’s hoping to bring out a Manual for Artists and a Manual for Art Collectors as part of an ongoing project – termed the Artists’ Liberation Front – that looks back at art history and questions commercial manipulation by galleries, museums and art fairs. (Is he showing at Art Basel? ‘Sometimes I exhibit, sometimes not. This year – not.’)
His analysis is bleak. ‘Young artists come all the time with their naïve questions, and I’m a cold shower,’ he says, gazing at the seashore just beyond his window. ‘Believe me, I’m the luckiest one per cent of one per cent. But I’m having trouble with the way art goes now. Artists always hit the rocks of doctrine, implemented by museums and art fairs. You want to paint oil on canvas but they want video installations.’
As for the Macau scene: ‘From time to time, the galleries ask my opinion. And, again, I’m a cold shower, very critical. They function with a subsidy from the government because there is no market. The quality of artists is bad, even the ordinary people know it’s not good.’
Yet he has survived and thrived, a happy contradiction even to himself. ‘I love this miniature state,’ he says of Macau, later. ‘It’s like Macondo [the setting for several works by Gabriel García Márquez]. Márquez invented it for the absurdities. Macau is Macondo.’ But he seeks greater magnitude. Three years ago, he remortgaged his house to buy the 2,000-square-foot studio in Hong Kong’s Chai Wan where he spends several days a week. ‘I cannot survive without Hong Kong,’ he says simply.
Nor can he live without Russia, to which he returns several times a year. ‘I put my two fingers in the earth and brrrrrr,’ he says, laughing seriously, as he demonstrates how he digitally plugs into that land’s recharge. ‘But I’m learning to work outside my natural environment.’
Last November, he opened the first of two shows in London. He named them Ambitus I and II, ambitus being a musical term describing a range of notes, from high to low. It’s also a word that hints at greater ambition. He sees it as a ‘guerrilla’ tactic in a world of shrinking opportunities for artists. ‘This is the best experience you could dream about,’ he says.
Ambitus I was held at Rossi & Rossi on Bury Street (it finished last month); Ambitus II is at The Arts Club on Dover Street, where it will continue until the end of the month. That duality seems entirely characteristic. Naturally, the shows came in two sizes – big and small.
What inspires Bessmertny?
‘I love [Marcel] Duchamp because of his rebellious attitude towards the petit bourgeois. Now everyone takes him seriously but he’s a comedian.’
‘Salvador Dalí – his early work is stunning. I saw the  Royal Academy exhibition in London of his work with Duchamp’s.’
‘I love and admire [Hieronymus] Bosch and [Pieter] Bruegel. The list of artists I like is never the same but these guys are always there.’
‘Books are essential to open the imagination. I’m listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and it’s bringing unrelated events together in my mind.’
‘I have to have music. I randomly switch between Russian radio, Mexican rap, Mahler’s Symphony No 6 or what my daughter Sasha’s listening to – they all provide impulses that your brain can connect.’