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A moment with Igor Ustinov

By Léa Bignon, photos : Fabien Corrente

In the municipality of Rue, “Europe’s smallest city”, set in the Swiss canton of Friborg, sculptor Igor Ustinov shapes better worlds that are rooted in the present. Meet a free spirit.

To preface this interview: can words really be used to describe your art?
I think it’s impossible to talk about sculpture in a few words. It’s different from literature, from speech. If one could describe a sculpture in three words, that would be great. And much lighter to carry!
When we create forms, do we establish a special relationship with the material?
Of course. Back in the 1970s, when psychology was so in fashion, even in art, I wanted to come face-to-face with the material, the tangible, the real. So I studied biology. Then I studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris to actually touch material, to try to imbue it with what I feel. It’s a singular and interesting battle.

My real workshop is in my head. I have worries, dreams, and I make little mental sculptures. When they’re ‘ready’, I’ll make them in the workshop.

What role does time have in sculpture?
The time-sculpture duality is fascinating: when you look at a sculpture, let’s say a walking figure, if you look at him from behind, you’re in his past; if you look at him from the front, you’re in his future! Any form, even abstract, creates a dynamic. It becomes a gesture, and in all gestures there is an interpretation of time.
What about your own relationship with time?
These days, people are afraid to live and afraid to die. As an artist, I’m fascinated by human beings when they’re in the present, when they free themselves of their fears. When making love, making babies, making things, when people become one with the notion of eternity. I’m a believer in the Now.

© Fabien Corrente

In your works, one can also sense a form behind the form that doesn’t take itself too seriously –
If we took life too seriously, it would be too hard to bear! Like my grandfather always said, “There’s a lot of depth in superficiality.”
You said earlier that you studied biology to understand materials –
When I was 18, I met a biologist and became his assistant – maybe because my name is Igor, like Dr Frankenstein’s assistant! [Laughs.] I loved doing that; I have great admiration for scientists. But I also discovered that I don’t have that mentality, I don’t have the patience to wait for the result. Those are the circumstances that led me to biology.
You’ve met Michel Parmigiani. Is watchmaking work, at once meticulous, scientific and creative, a far cry from sculpture?
What Michel and I have in common is working with material, but the approach is different. The artist gives himself the right to create things and put them in the middle of a park. He clearly lacks humility. The watchmaker is more like the biologist in the meticulousness of his work: he has to stay tuned to the material, has to tame it to achieve his ends.

Any form, even abstract, creates a dynamic. It becomes a gesture, and in all gestures there is an interpretation of time.

In addition to your artist’s trade, you manage a foundation. Is coordinating several projects at once something you have a need to do?
No, I’m not a workaholic, but I get bored if I’m not busy! Shortly before his death, my father, Peter Ustinov, created a foundation that we managed together. To fight prejudices, especially between nationalities, the Ustinov Institute promotes more open-mindedness. Some 60 schools have been opened – including one in Nepal just recently. I’ve also introduced a Ustinov white wine and the label bears the words “Noyons nos préjugés”, meaning “Let’s drown our prejudices”. Those who buy it are making a contribution to the foundation. They’re not drinking – they’re fighting for a good cause!

© Fabien Corrente

That commitment takes you away from the ‘material’ world to some degree.
Not entirely. Every time we opened a school, I would say to myself, “With a low-cost building system, we could open two or three schools for the same price.” Then I had an idea: using PET (the material made from recycled plastic bottles) to extrude poles into which we put earth and a hardener. I exhibited the system at Geneva’s International Exhibition of Inventions and, to my great surprise, was given the Best Invention of the Year award! So now I have to take this business more seriously. So I redesigned the system to be more efficient. In fact, it makes for rather pretty houses. Thanks to the foundation, I entered the construction world! Another tale of where circumstances have led me.