The first part of the interview
When did you realize you could be called an artist? What were your first objects?
I probably have a pretty trivial story. It starts in my childhood. My elder sister and I have been called artists by our parents since childhood because our father is an artist. Yet he had no artistic education; he drew "for himself." You could say we were indoctrinated into thinking that we had an artistic gene that was passed down from generation to generation. I strongly believed in this: I had the feeling that I was born already endowed with the ability to draw. But it didn't come from nowhere. We did spend a significant amount of time being creative, putting on plays and drawing nonstop. I attribute it to the fact that our childhood was spent in a small village. There weren't many people there; now there are about 200 people left; in my childhood, there were twice as many. We did not have any entertainment, and we entertained ourselves as we could. There weren't many children in the village, but the swings were alone, and we got up at 6 a.m. and fought over them every morning. Anyway, for me, art was originally a way to occupy myself. I needed something to keep me occupied so I wouldn't get bored.
And up until the age of six, you resided in the countryside?
Correct. But after that, we also spent the entire summer there. Because of this, up until the age of 15, I strongly linked my childhood with the countryside. Even though I did not consider my work to be art, it has always been a part of my life. Then came adolescence, a difficult time for me during which I drew pictures of all my worries. I always drew in my diaries in addition to writing in them. I made the decision to go art school sometime in the seventh grade as a form of escape. Then came the dilemma of what to do next. I was quite interested in becoming an astronaut, but physics and other exact disciplines were not my strong suits. I so decided to drop my dream and enroll in our city's arts department. I went there for my first year of study on a whim. It didn't appear to be particularly serious because it resembled art school. Just what I already knew, we repeated.
Have you studied the classics?
Overall, the education was very classical. They provided us with no information regarding contemporary art. Around the middle of my sophomore year, I started to get depressed and bored because nothing was happening and we were all somewhat of artists. So I made the decision to form an art group with two of my pals. More precisely, we didn't call ourselves that; we just united and began to organize creative events. Anyone could bring work to the first exhibition. We accepted not only visual art work but also music and poetry. In general, we tried to understand what makes up our city's creative ecosystem. After that, we made the decision to become a fully-fledged art collective that would only display and promote its own creations. But I've always carried out my own projects concurrently. Finally, the group broke up. We existed for a couple of years. Since then, I've been focusing on my own individual work. In general, I was leading a double life in the department of art and graphic arts: I was a student during the day and had exhibitions after lessons. Sometimes I felt offended that at the shows I was labeled as a student. I tried to appear serious. So I wanted to complete my education so I could work as a free artist. I started doing what I'm doing now at the department of art and graphic arts, although it had nothing to do with the training precisely. For example, they didn't tell me about contemporary artists or artists who also do textile art.
So did it all begin intuitively, or did you rely on the practices of others and were you influenced by someone else?
I have a strange origin story for sewing, but I really like it. I was residing in a dorm during my third year of college. In their studies, my roommates were creating little Russian folk dolls out of textiles. They're known as "knitted dolls," I believe. You don't sew them; you make them out of rags. And they left a bag of rags on my bed. When I entered my room, I discovered this kit. My illustrations from the time were also on the table next to it. After graduating, I intended to pursue ceramics or perhaps graphics. Additionally, I was consistently drawing the same character at the time: an amorphous being with a white face and red cheeks. Anyway, I managed to gather my thoughts, and I created a tiny head for this creature. thought I had made a discovery at that very time while holding the textile head in my hands. It was due to ignorance because nobody ever referenced textile art; at most, impressionists were discussed. Since then, I've been engaging in it more actively; I've sewn substantial sculptures and set ambitious objectives. I sewed three heads, and the fourth was a mask. Naturally, I later discovered that a lot of others employed this technique. I found out about Louise Bourgeois, who is now close to me. But I still like that I came to it in my own strange way.
I think it happens with artists: people come to some practices intuitively; they read the vibe almost out of thin air. For example, Carol Fairman told me something like this about her rubber sculptures. And when exactly did you enter the contemporary art system?
I started organizing exhibitions in 2013 or 2014, but they were in no way connected to the system of contemporary art. When I participated in the 3rd Ural Industrial Biennale in 2015 with my art group, I truly got in touch with it. It was our very first time dealing with institutions.
And how were you received in the art world?
We genuinely happened to get there. We simply got lucky because we missed all the official applications and learned about the Biennale at the very last moment. So we went to the organizers in person and said, "We want to participate." I don't know why they were so impressed by us, but we were accepted and became part of the parallel program. In other words, we were self-organizing again, this time with an exhibition within the Biennale. The only difference was that its guests were not the people we usually invite but others: the Biennale organizes tours and receives curators and everyone else who wants to come. And so we had a very large audience at the time.
What was it like to be a part of modern art?
At the time, we considered ourselves to be underground "protest" artists. When we received an invitation to the Biennale's official presentation, we understood that this was a serious matter. Furthermore, we were the kind of young artists that held exhibitions in abandoned places. Therefore, it was a little challenging for us to comprehend everything. Nevertheless, I was curious and realized that I wanted to understand more about the overall operations of that system. However, I always got the impression that I wouldn't want to participate in it. But it's crucial to understand how everything functions.
You use very different materials: you sew and make masks. Furthermore, you do photos in a very intriguing style. How significant are these ongoing boundary-crossings to you, and what part does photography play in this?
In general, I don't have a particular "medium," and this is how I feel most at ease working. I'm frequently linked to textile art. I’m also identified with a mask-maker because of 2020, even though that isn't the case at all. I try my hardest to show off my abilities in a variety of other areas, like painting and graphics. People start to recognize my various directions, but they are unaware that the same person is working on them all.
Sounds curious. I believe you have a distinctive style of your own.
However, occasionally they fail to recognize it. And I'm changing how I feel about photography. I used to merely post updates about my work on Instagram*, to give you an example. Back then, I thought it was all very great, but now I think it's all a trap. It's a place where I can freely share my creativity, yet publishing it to an open account is like handing it to the entire world; anyone can use anything I create without restriction. And it does so frequently. In general, I used to believe that as soon as I finished a piece of art, I had to photograph it "in the moment" and publicize it. This picture resembles a patent. I confirm that this is the time when it was created. When there is apparent plagiarism, I can exploit this to my advantage by demonstrating that I have a publication date of such-and-such. However, I no longer actively publish it; instead, a large portion of my work is kept hidden and is only accessible to viewers at exhibitions.
I was very surprised to see your work plagiarized. I forgot the artist's last name. Writing a text regarding her was also offered to me!
Yes, sadly, that is frequently the case. But going back to the topic of photography, I can admit that I've been interested in it since I was in school and that I've created some near-artistic things. I was always building a composition, even if I just sent a picture of my subject to my mother. The same thing happened with my initial Instagram posts. I eventually came to the conclusion that I had a ton of images and that they might be used in an exhibition. There have been times when I've displayed masks or other items that I've worn elsewhere, and I thought they looked dead on in the exhibition space. I started supplementing that with photography. In this shot of a mask, you can see some of its life next to it. It seems more satisfying to me. I want people to understand that these are more than just rags hanging in the space; they are a living, breathing part of me.
And what about now?
Now I take photography as seriously as possible. I'm trying to make it even more professional to be able to exhibit it in its normal form. So it's not just snapshots on my phone, but something more serious. To be honest, I like taking pictures on the phone the most. But I like film photography too. A couple of years ago, I couldn't even think about having photo projects, and I was just doing physically tangible things like sculpture. Now I have photo projects that I exhibit separately. About 3 or 4 years ago, I started doing video art and animation, and I started doing digital photo collages with them. I'm currently working intensively in this field. Additionally, the photographs are present both independently and with the other pieces. Still, pairing the images with the artifacts on display at the exhibition is the most effective strategy. Additionally, only the photographs are sufficient in the digital realm.
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Your art exudes a lot of energy. You described the "Ural coma" as an emotional state in one of your interviews. By the way, Soviet unofficial authors started to rely on the notion of photography as feeling and as a connection to reality in the 1970s and 1980s. They were so unaffected by the melancholy and deceit in official reporting. Is your job also a form of resistance to having a comatose feeling?
To begin with, I must acknowledge that systematizing my work is difficult for me because it is one continuous stream. There's an unreal amount of them, so it's hard to build a system. However, it is required from time to time because I am unable to simply pour out a ton of labor.
So you didn't initially work on projects?
I don't really work on projects, but I have occasional bursts of work. But as time passed, I started to obtain projects in some kind. I spent a lot of time thinking how to achieve this without contradicting myself and my philosophy, and I realized that I could systematize them according to, conventionally, some states in which I do them. One of the states is called "The Ural Coma." However, I have a lot of them, and work moves among them. These are conditional boundaries that I am constantly violating. Let's say there is also the state of "Russian Alien." There's "Tamerlane's Granddaughter," which is when I talk about my Bashkir roots and overall the blending and multinational nature of who I am. "The Ural Coma" was created in 2015. You can name them projects or series, but I still refer to them as "states." At the time, I had a depressed state related to the place where I live: a heavy relationship with the city and its residents.
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With Nizhny Tagil?
Yes. When I was a student, I had a conflict that exposed me to many artists and cultural icons in general. On the institute's fence, I painted naked women with haloes during my fourth year. This work was called "Seven Holy Virgins at the Arts and Graphics Department." There was also a strong resonance. At the time, it was difficult for me to even get on public transportation; people recognized me everywhere and said nasty things.
What were you accused of?
It had to do with religion: the blasphemy charge. It was hard to study. I was preparing my graduate work; it was unbelievable agony. It was difficult to go through all of that—no one liked me inside the institute; I went out on the street, and it was the same situation; social media was flooded with angry messages. Local artists tried to get involved. There was a lot of noise around.
Were the artists turned against you?
No, there were different circumstances. Another person was making an effort to snuggle up and stand high as well. The fact that they were friends made it even more frustrating. People merely failed to remember that I and my work were set in the center of things. In fact, no one cared about it anymore; only the resonance mattered, and everyone had their own interests. At that point, I experienced a deep loneliness. Furthermore, that had more to do with how people saw me generally than it did with this specific circumstance. I had a certain notoriety when I first exhibited in the city, even with unresonant work (although I do not think this work is provocative either), and it lasted until 2018. Any mention of me in local or regional media over the past three years has been accompanied by a footnote noting that Alisa Gorshenina is well-known for this. In other words, despite the fact that my behavior had nothing to do with it, I was branded as a blasphemous, rebellious kid. In general, I can't recall where the term "Ural Coma" came from. But I had the feeling that the words clearly defined both my situation as well as that of pretty much everyone else around me, as if the entire Urals were in a coma. That's how it appeared to me at the time.
Did you have any plans to leave at the time? Or were the roots, the "genius of the place," more important to you anyway?
Sometimes. Well, not anymore. At the time, there were impulses to leave. But on the whole, I have a connection to this place. Moreover, the "Ural Coma" is a state in which you feel as though the environment is rejecting you despite having strong ties to it, particularly to the village where you were born. Despite my efforts to blend in, I am not welcomed. In any case, it is how this condition started.
Is it different now?
Yes, it's different. However, there is an article about the Ural Coma on the Internet. So there are often articles with this footnote in them. And I also had the temerity to compare this condition to Raskolnikov's "urban asphyxiation." But at the moment, the "Ural coma" is not relevant to me. My attitude has changed. I live here differently now.
What emotion are you currently experiencing?
At the time, I only lived and traveled inside the Urals all the time. Since then, I have traveled around the world and seen what and how, and as a result, my attitude has changed. I got the opportunity to spend roughly a month residing in Moscow. And now I understand that Nizhny Tagil is probably the best location for me. Now it's not the reality that's happening here that's driving me crazy, but, on the contrary, either I've adapted or something has changed here. I don't know what happened. Yet, I have no plans to leave at all. On the contrary, when I leave, I want to come back here all the time.
And what attracts you?
Basically, I have alternating feelings about this city: I hate it, then I love it. Now I have a complaint about this place, but I always want to go back. Because... You can start with something romantic: my roots are here, and I'm attracted to the local atmosphere. I started to see the pros. I like the fact that you can walk here for 10 minutes, and you're already in nature. In Moscow, I walk and see endless houses; the noise really exhausts me. Every time I go there, I get tired. I think you have to be a very strong person there.
I am acquainted with it. Personally, I have a hard time leaving the country. I may have peasant roots since I feel like this is your land.
Perhaps. I've lived in this city for a long time, despite the fact that I wasn't actually born there. In fact, my village—not Tagil—is the object of my deepest affections. There are only "one and a half houses" remaining there, but despite the impossibility of the thought in my mind, I want to move there.
I may have a sense of the smoothness of everyday life in Moscow because I was born here; everything is familiar, with small shops, and everyone knows each other. Naturally, I can understand why Moscow might be harsh, though.
This seems to be for people who weren't born there, in my opinion. Of course, every individual is unique. For me, there is a significant difference between my city and Moscow in terms of energy, if I may use such a term. I have a distinct rhythm of life, and I feel really relaxed here. In other words, it seems like everything is moving slowly, yet I am actively working the most here.
If the condition of the "Ural Coma" is no longer relevant, what is the "Russian Alien"? Is it related to fairy tales and myths? Or with the village itself?
The condition of the "Ural Coma" has transformed. And I'm on my way to turning this transformation into words to create a new condition that I'll work with next. And the term "Russian alien"... It's hard to explain its meaning. But it seems to me that it is also very much connected to the village. I have an association, as if I am the village. But at the same time, I always have the feeling that I can't fit in. Let's say I come to a Triennale and I feel like I'm the odd one out there. I have had a constant feeling of being foreign to everything since I was a child. I frequently moved schools, and I always felt that way. The village is the same way.
Why do you cherish the village?
For Russia, the village is something alien. Forgotten and not needed. But at the same time, it still exists, and you can't turn a blind eye to it. When I go there, I can't understand what's wrong. There are still people there; they are not going to die. I have an aunt who lives there and is doing euro-remodeling. So life goes on. But it appears as though the entire nation—as well as the government—turn a blind eye. In general, it appears as though these locations don't exist and nobody lives there because everything is centered in urban areas. In 2019, I opened a solo exhibition in our village. I also decided to introduce the local resident to...
To contemporary art?
Yes. And it's still my favorite and very significant exhibition. There was no exhibition space, or rather, it was the whole village. I placed objects in abandoned houses, and somewhere else. And the locals came to the exhibition. And I also organized buses with outside spectators. The opening time was the opening time of the exhibition, which means it was short. We just walked around the whole village, making stops at abandoned houses where large objects were located. Let's say there were two eyes sticking out of the windows. These were large-scale works, but it was as if they were just part of the village's appearance. It was a total installation. It was also a self-organized exhibition. I made it myself, and it was very responsible.
What was the responsibility?
The people there were generally unfamiliar with contemporary art; it was their first contact with it. eing a guide, I was worried that they wouldn't comprehend what I was saying. It seems to me that my city does not accept my art. When they write about me in the press, I frequently get criticized. However, in the village, people are very imbued with it and understand my work, and even more than experienced art experts, I believe. In the end, they asked me to come again, but not with my own exhibition. They want to do it too. They want to be part of it.
It's quite common now! There's a village in Udmurtia called Sep, where the residents make their own museum. And in England, I've heard stories from artists about participatory art. Imagine if a whole village in England now weaves in a former factory, also frequently included in municipal council initiatives. In order to make people feel less depressed and more energized, the councils provide artists with stipends and workspace.
Overall, we're still not making much progress. But we're making plans. I had intended to establish my own museum there in order to keep the artworks. It's been on my mind for the past two years. I picked a location and assumed it was in or close to Tagil. It should be a natural setting. I then made the decision to go home. After the exhibition, I understood that it might become more than simply my museum; it might become a place for me to socialize with the locals. We're now making slow progress in that direction, and as a first step, we'll perform a play. They have a creative crew that is always working on something, planning Maslenitsa, Kolyada celebrations, and other events because there is a local club there.
Has this club been around so long?
It has. When we lived in the village, my mother worked there. Yet, it was a different premise. However, I don't quite recall what she was doing at work because I was so little. I was about four years old when she quit. She also put on theatrical performances, registered marriages, arranged discos, and was a DJ. Anyway, she was the kind of person who was totally in charge of the cultural part. Regrettably, the clubhouse has now been demolished. It was a beautiful building with columns. And they moved into a smaller space, but also with a stage. And we are planning to do a performance next year.
What are you going to put on stage?
A play about the history of the village, but in a fairy tale format. When I was a child, the grown-ups were always telling us mystical stories about a two-meter-tall man living in the woods. I want to tie all this together and tell the general story of how the village came into being, what it was like, and what families lived there. I want to tell it all through a fairy tale with local stories embedded in it.
Evgeny Molodtsov, a photographer, also gathered folktales and legends of Kaliningrad before creating installations with that idea. However, you also have Egyptian mythology in addition to Russian folktales and Ural tales. What does the fairy tales and myths universe mean to you?
To be honest, I have no recollection of Russian folktales from my childhood when people ask me about them. I don't recall growing up watching cartoons or having my parents tell me stories. And it was m y grandmother who looked after me during the first five years I lived with my parents. She told me her stories in the style of fairy tales. However, these weren't myths inspired by the Tsarevna frog. About three or four years ago, as an adult, I developed an interest in Russian folktales. I started reading and seeing classic movie remakes.
Is your village Bashkir or Russian?
It is Ural. The village's name is Tatar for some reason. It is called Yakshina. I've been trying to conduct study on it, and I now want to keep doing that.
This appears to be a common interweaving to me. My relatives came from a village near Penza where different people were also mixed up, and this was reflected in the names. Were you most influenced by your grandmother or by someone else?
I think my father liked to imagine, thus he told a lot of stories. He claimed to have encountered the two-meter-tall figure in the woods. When discussing UFOs, he would rush home and tell his mom, "Let's go, there's a flying saucer." My sister and I wanted to pursue them, but we were cautioned "Don’t do it, it's dangerous." Something incomprehensible was going on all the time. He also said there was the Bermuda Triangle in our woods, and we shouldn't go there. Maybe he was saving us; he didn't want the kids to go into the woods. Or maybe it was really his fantasy, or maybe he'd heard it somewhere. He had it all intertwined with reality. He claimed that there was an ancient man's camp in our village, and mysticism was weaved throughout everything. By the way, Ancient Egypt came to me from my dad, too. Because he draws the Egyptian eye everywhere. It's some kind of protection for him. He can draw a giant eye on a gate; he has an amulet that he carved himself out of copper, and he wears it around his neck.
Did this intertwining disturb you or, on the contrary, spur your imagination?
No, on the contrary, it was interesting. I found that whenever he drew eyes, those images came to life for me. If there's an eye, it means it's some kind of creature. When I was in high school, we were studying Ancient Egypt in history. That's when I got interested in it, too. Since then, I've been studying that culture. I enjoy both the mythology and the visual part, the images of the ancient gods or goddesses. My favorite sky goddess is Nut, who is sometimes portrayed as a cow or as a blue woman. Anyway, I'm still fascinated by it.
Have you ever tried looking at contemporary art, Egyptian or Middle Eastern art? Or Asian or Latin American art? There are also real and unreal elements mixed in. In a certain sense, we are more similar to them than Western culture, I guess.
Ancient Ancient Rus' and Ancient Egypt are my two favorite ancient cultures. Obviously, they cannot coexist, yet I enjoy both of them. Additionally, I've been captivated with Bashkir culture since 2016. It's a personal narrative, too. My grandfather on my dad's side is probably a Bashkir. But we still don't know for sure. It was just five years ago that we learned his name. All her life, my grandma kept his identity a secret from us. She couldn't forgive him after they stopped talking to each other, but she did tell her mother his name and last name before she passed away. We found him, but he doesn't really want to communicate with us. Anyway, it's a family mystery. My last name, Gorshenina, is not my family name, but my dad's stepfather's last name. And my sister and I were always imagining who our grandfather could have been in his childhood. His last name is Gazizov, which is Uzbek-Bashkir, Turkic. I try it on myself and try to understand what it would be like if I wore it too. In 2020, I managed to go to Bashkortostan. Despite not having the opportunity to visit my grandad, I am nevertheless curious about Bashkortostan's nationality and cultural traditions. Just out of curiosity, what are my origins? And the previous generations kept silent about everything. That's why I have to get to the truth through some thorns. I recently found out that on my mother's side, we were the people who were dispossessed.
Who dispossessed who?
Actually, we weren't dispossessed ourselves; we were those peasants who dispossessed others.
They might be silent because they thought it was a shame. Could it be so?
No, I think they're just too lazy to dig up memories. But I do it, and I ask around. I have another interesting story to share. My older sister married a man from a neighboring village. We have three villages next to each other. She came to visit and somehow found a husband there and moved him to our town. And we found out that some time ago our relatives dispossessed his relatives, and now they live together. So we even had clashes within our own villages. That is the kind of intertwining.
Do you have a sense of your generation? How it can be distinguished from others? Maybe you are more active politically, or vice versa?
I felt as though I had missed out on everything that was fashionable among my generation in general. Each period has its own distinct set of trends. I always ignored the emergence of many subcultures when I was a teenager. I didn't really have many friends because I've always had particular interests that were different from those of my contemporaries. It seemed as though I was constantly living a separate life. Overall, it's difficult for me to identify which generation I belong to. I'm surrounded by a lot of people of all ages. Am I a millennial in some way? I hardly ever think about it because I feel like everything I have is incredibly personal all the time, not in a selfish way. I'm a little more ingrained in my generation now, though. I have no idea why. Perhaps there are simply more people like me in the world. Regarding politics, I have a viewpoint and am not ashamed by it. I believe I am the only member of my family who does not approve of the current system of government.
Maybe they have fears from their previous life—was it difficult for them during, say, the Soviet Union or the 1990s?
The older generations say that I cannot judge because I did not live at that time. But I think that I can, because I can see what's going on around me, and I don't really care what was there before. What matters is what's going on now. And they say: "Better now than in Soviet times, better than in the nineties, better than when they were young." In theory, that makes sense because the 1990s were a really difficult time. Although we lived in the countryside then and were relatively lucky, I believe city life was more difficult. We had a vegetable garden; we had our own food. In general, we try not to raise these topics too much. We're currently holding a family exhibition in which we've just tried to...
Find the common ground?
To some extent, to better understand one another. But it looks to me like a long process that won't be over soon. In terms of generation, I'm not intentionally separating myself. But I simply have the impression that I'm going somewhere all alone. Not because I'm unique; I'm just going that way. Sometimes I wish I could be more involved within a generation, but I rarely do. Something changes in my life when I start speaking up on politics or pressing issues since I always have a strong opinion on them. It requires a lot of energy, and I don't have enough left over to carry on with my daily activities. Despite this, I don't believe I should pretend everything is fine. I make an effort to strike a balance between both states.
It seems to me that many people have been looking for balance their entire lives.
In any case, it is necessary not to impose one's opinion but to share it. I try to do this gently, and so far I feel like I'm making progress toward some type of ideal situation where I can continue to act freely and voice my opinions on the issues that interest me. In fact, I'm often concerned about more specific cases. For instance, I'd like to take some sort of action against the circus in our town. I'm continuously at war with certain factories.
Do you debate them on environmental issues?
I do occasionally write complaints. There are many people here who share my dissatisfaction. There aren't many of us who are noticed, though. I focus on local events first and foremost because that is where I live.
Do you value feminine identity? After all, all of these handicrafts, including knitting and weaving, are consistently related to a female voice in art, especially feminist art historians.
I frequently hear that my works of art convey feminist messages. But even so, I resisted being called a feminist for a very long time. I didn't think it was necessary to identify myself by any name. Just Alice would do; I didn't need to be identified as a "artist" or a "feminist." This was frequently misinterpreted, leading people to believe that I was against feminism when in fact I simply did not want labels. My attitude toward this particular word grew more loyal over time. I realized that sometimes it was important to emphasize it. I no longer object when I am identified as a feminist since it is what it is and there is no point in trying to change it. But I don't initially incorporate this kind of problematic material into my work. In principle, I don't have anything global in my art, I think. But if it's interpreted that way afterwards, that's okay.
You're an active person; maybe that's why it's interpreted that way. Women photographers sometimes say that they are more willing to pose, easier to make contact with, and that, for social reasons, there is less fear towards them. It's not about "women's art," but rather, maybe, about a different kind of connection to reality. Does identification in any way influence the topics you choose?
I work with the theme of corporeality. I think it also resonates somehow. And it's through the prism of feminism that people react to it. All of the objects I create are feminine. But often, people think that the work has a masculine gender. Someone takes a picture of me next to a sculpture and says "friend" or "dude" about it. I correct them every time: These are all women. They are women because I am a woman, and it makes sense to me. And it's important to me that people understand that it's something feminine, but not in a stereotypical way. However, it's complicated. The word "feminine" today has so many meanings that it's hard to convey what I mean.
Yes, and the word "feminine" seems to be a bit compromised. Because if you are feminine, then the other one is unfeminine. And you want everyone to be able to express their individuality, so that other women are not humiliated at your expense, and vice versa.
I have always had some problems with my identity. I never thought I was beautiful. When I was a teenager, I was humiliated because of my appearance. I'm still working on accepting my body. This theme comes up a lot in my work.
Many of us have an aversion to our bodies, which is influenced by culture...
And then there's curly hair! It's a sore subject altogether. I was severely humiliated my entire childhood because of it. That's why I've been straightening my hair for a long time, since about ninth grade. But in 2020, I decided that it was enough and I would take it as it was. Before that, I felt very insecure with my curly hair. It seemed like straight hair was beautiful because the representation of curly hair was basically nowhere in particular. Any shampoo commercial will feature glossy, straight, and lovely hair.
Don't you have any self-portraits with curly hair?
I do now. I started painting myself with curly hair in 2020. And it was difficult because I've always had it straight when I'm in character. When I grew out and started straightening my hair, I finally more or less started liking the way I looked. I was very active in incorporating myself into my work. And it felt new when I tried to accept my curly hair and take pictures with masks. It looks completely different. At first, I couldn't accept myself at all for looking like that. And it was hard in principle to work the way I was working before. But over time, I even started to force myself to draw self-portraits, to picture myself with curly hair, and I realized how I could work with that visually. Now the biggest problem for me would be that if I ever straightened my hair, everyone would say to me, "Why did you do that?" I used to be chastised for having curly hair, but now I'm told that "it's beautiful; don't straighten it." And I wish no one would pay attention to my hair at all so that I can do what I want in peace. And hopefully someday that will happen.
As I get older, there seems to be a little more resilience. Not like wanting to fight, but just ignoring other people's overly harsh opinions about yourself...
I'm on my way.
The second part of the interview
A lot has changed since the first part of our interview. We ended it on a positive note—about the exhibition in the village and about accepting yourself. And now, on the one hand, I catch myself feeling like I want to protect you and not ask too much. And on the other hand, I have seen your latest works, which you made after February 24. Are you staying in Russia?
Could you please tell us about your current activities? And if you'd like, about your position.
The village exhibition took place in 2019, which was a very long time ago. Now, it appears as though the world was entirely different. It already seems like a different world in 2021. I had many initiatives outside of Russia planned before the beginning of 2022, but just one exhibition was scheduled in Russia. Projects in Europe and the United States were intended. The issue is that, during the Sixth Ural Biennale at the end of 2021, I teamed up with other curators, eco-activists, and artists and protested the decision to use the circus as one of the venues. Additionally, we wished to raise awareness of the issue and attempt to spark conversation.
Because of the animals?
Yes, of course. As it's a working circus, before and after the Biennale, there will be animals there, and they will be tortured. I've always been against circuses; it's a horrible industry. The Ural Biennale means a lot to me personally as an event, as long as the Third Ural Biennale in 2015 was my first big exhibition. I greatly appreciate what the event's organizers are doing. Therefore, I felt it was crucial to bring up this subject; I wanted the art world to respond. In general, it was a highly controversial subject; few people agreed with me and the other artists who opposed it.
So, they stopped inviting you to make exhibitions in Russia before February 24th.
Yes, all of my exhibitions vanished following that major incident at the Biennale. I gave up hoping for any invitations. Although I'm not sure what to call it, I think Russia lacks any sort of reputation institution. If you do something that the curators or gallery owners don't like, there is a chance that they will stop working with you and tell you that you won't be invited anywhere or included in the exhibition, regardless of the art that you are doing. Because of this, I did not anticipate exhibiting in Russia in 2022. Additionally, I tried to focus more on the significant projects that were scheduled to take place outside of Russia. But then *** happened, and all of my international projects were abandoned. Additionally, some of them have just been canceled while others are still frozen. And for a while, I was completely unemployed.
However, perhaps this isn't the best way to phrase it, since I'm always at work. Even if I don't have any exhibitions, I still work on my creative projects. I still make and practice my art; I just have fewer exhibitions. But for the first two weeks, I was in a coma and felt terrible. Everyone seems to understand it completely, in my opinion.
I think many people had a stupor for months, especially after Bucha and Mariupol.
For me, it was connected to art. Naturally, I did not think that I would give it up. It was just very hard. At first, I reacted a lot to what was going on, went out to pickets, etc. That is to say, it was just a civic position, a non-artistic reaction. Then I came back to the idea of being first and foremost an artist again, because that was something so vital for me. That is, through art, I can talk about many things.
Your artworks are incredibly daring.
I occasionally get the question "Why do you make art that can affect others?" from people, for which I might face persecution. However, I simply lack self-censorship, and if an idea strikes me, I act on it. I thus don't hesitate. Even if I am suddenly aware that I have a dangerous idea, I still don't stop. Because I believe that if I started to self-censor, my career as an artist would end. I still choose to take risks in order to keep the artistic process pure; otherwise, I just can't work. Due of this, I have been running a series called "Hearing Russia's Voices" since about March. I've put it on hold for the time being, but not because I'm afraid to speak up; rather, I'm looking for forms and trying to determine if this is the direction I need to develop further. It is a highly complex subject that essentially has to do with languages—the languages of the many Russian peoples. There are currently three pieces in this series—two costumes and one object. A black robe with a trailing edge serves as the first costume. A white bird costume is the second, and an anatomical heart is the third. In these works, you can trace my condition in progress.
How did it change?
The first work is very harsh. There is a dangerous phrase there: "We are against W**." Despite the fact that it is written in various Russian people's languages, I translated it on social media. I felt like screaming when I was making it. The second work is a bird costume, which I made especially for May 1 because the first associations in Russia are peace, work, and May. On this day, I wanted to emphasize that peace is very much missing. And I decided again to use the voices of different nations. Since it seemed crucial from the start of W** to emphasize that Russia is a multinational country.
You've had this in your projects before, right?
Yes, I have included cultures from other peoples in my earlier works, including Komi and something Bashkir. But here, I especially wanted to talk about it through the language because language is also an instrument of protest. I have seen various movements form in Russia when different people unite, such as "Buryats against W**." It's very important now that people have begun to talk about xenophobia, which I think we've always had. It is about the problems that are peculiar to certain regions. Furthermore, the foreign media has always written about Russia from the perspective of Russians, particularly Moscovites. So I wanted to demonstrate that Russia is more than that. We have a very complicated history. I wanted to emphasize that.
In my first works, I also used a safer way to express myself because, in Tagil, the police don't speak all those languages. I already had an administrative case, and I got a fine. I see my job as teaching the local police at least a little bit. Prior to that, I faced legal prosecution for displaying a white rose with Chuvash and Tatar inscriptions on a ribbon as part of the "Woman in Black" protest. Everyone participating in the investigation had seen Chuvash and Tatar in one form or another, as well as translations of the terms, it emerged when I studied my case. Overall, Tagil experienced such a teaching moment.
And the third work is very different?
The third work is pain; it's an anatomical heart, and it reflects my condition so far. For me, this is the strongest of the three works. It brings me back to the style of what I was doing before. I mean, my art used to be about me, primarily about my feelings. I was always trying very hard to put myself forward. And the first two pieces in the series were created in collaboration with people whom I asked for translations. I wanted to highlight their voice. In Pain, I also used other people's voices. But I am so immensely represented there. There is more of me because I was primarily talking about my pain. Additionally, I wanted to demonstrate that people in our nation experience grief. I am afraid I've disclosed this project a lot...
Now it's exciting for all of us. But you, of course, are a very brave person. Do you ever get scared? I know artists who had to leave now.
Yesterday, I discovered a court notice in my mailbox. I'll check the mail after our interview to see if anything has arrived to me again. However, altogether, my fear has already vanished. It seems as though there is a greater will to remain here and fight, to prove to everyone that there are still people here. And these feelings trump everything else. Unfortunately, hostility from those who have left is something I frequently experience. I don't know why this occurs. As though there are only Putinists left in the country, in their opinion.
In my opinion, those who left are experiencing their own feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and shame. That surprises me, too. Those who leave are saving themselves first and foremost. And it is highly unethical to state that "you have no right to anything, and I have the right to attend vernissages and have coffee in Paris." I am aware of horrifyingly immature stories. Consider a scenario in which a brother abandons his very elderly and unhealthy mother of whom his sister is taking care and thus stays. And at the same time, he tells her that she stayed behind to "maintain the regime." Or people who used to work in service organizations have suddenly forgotten their responsibility for what is going on in Ukraine. But crossing the border does not cancel it.
A. People tell me, quite seriously, that those who have left are in a more dangerous situation than those who have remained. I sometimes filter it all out and try to handle it all in a more or less calm way. But sometimes it goes so far over the edge that I just can't get up for days afterwards. Because it's very hard for me, really. I rarely talk about what's hard for me. But, in the end, it was difficult for me and before w** to recognize myself as an artist. And at the same time, I just really would like to be understood: I do not sacrifice myself when I stay in Russia. I just want to be supported, if they can, and not pitied, and I don't want anyone to accuse me of being a Putinist.
There are a lot of people who support you. It's just that maybe they don't speak out very much. Now I understand that I have to speak out more in support.
This might apply to me specifically. These messages hurt me; I react to them in a painful way, especially to messages from my departing colleagues. Here was the final wave, when people dispersed and mobilization took place. Many people quit the mobilization and, in general, the regime. And everything was devastated here. The city is totally different. But right now, I don't feel as though anything has stopped. Everything has changed in some way. Nevertheless though...
If we come back to the topic of the creative process, I did have a very long exhibition at the Yeltsin Center. And that was my only exhibition. That is to say, I had only one solo exhibition in Russia this year—at the Yeltsin Center. There were group projects in other countries. However, the majority of them have an anti-war message, in that they want people to know that there are people who do something to oppose the war. But that, frankly, is not what I would like. I mean, I'd like it to be shown naturally. And it's necessary and important to let people have their say—those who are in Russia now. But I want a big statement, a big project... I understand that I won't be able to do that abroad.
Collective projects are still very important. It is now clear that Russians are frequently uninterested in what is happening in independent countries, particularly in former Soviet republics in Asia. They were very focused on themselves and, at most, on Europe. And this is what we are now being told: "You were not interested in us at all." And now it turns out that some completely new knowledge is being discovered.
We'll see how it goes, because I have a few projects planned. So far, something is slowly coming to life in Russia. But I have a gut feeling that I'm not part of the community anymore. In Russia, at first, I had the feeling that everything had come to a standstill. Although some galleries and museums have spoken out, for which I have a great deal of respect, then everything froze up, and then it started to thaw a bit. And my exhibition at the Yeltsin Center was both life-saving and timely for me. I am very glad that it was held. I put a lot of work into it. It was very good cooperation. And it has further prospects because the curator and I will take it to other cities in Russia. It is a very important exhibition for me. It was only one exhibition, but it really brought me back to life. I gathered my valuable works in this exhibition, which I would like to take with me into the future. So I didn't disown everything I had done before, but I documented it. And there are things in there that I did in 2022 and things in progress. But on top of that, I see that we're thawing things out little by little. And someone is starting to exhibit. But I'm not involved in the group projects that are going on all over Russia, and for some reason I have the feeling that I won't have any. I think this is because I have a very active anti-war stance. And conventionally, the New Tretyakovka will definitely not take me anymore.
I heard that now in some places curators have to check the artist's biography for trustworthiness.
I've heard that there are some lists of designers with whom you can no longer work. I think that there are probably also lists of artists. Apparently, I'm on that list, but not for everyone. The Yeltsin Center does not refuse me, for example. That is, apparently, I will now just look for people whose ideologies and worldviews are similar to mine, or they will find me. People who are willing to exhibit me are brave, I suppose. I don't know how realistic it is to exhibit me at all, because some of my domestic projects are cancelled. That is, we prepare an exhibition, and then I'm told it won't happen in the end. This is my reality.
I'm in the absolute unknown, it's like I have no control over my life at all. But what I do have control over is that I still call myself an artist, and I create work. And where this will go next, I don't know. I don't know where it will go from here, both in Russia and beyond its borders. In general, it is not clear where exactly some kind of prohibition might emerge. That is, the situation is the same inside the country. But sometimes abroad, people are very willing to let someone speak. I recently attended a symposium in Oslo, and it was very well understood. And sometimes it's the other way around, at the top of the list. Or they just say, "Are you from Russia? Bye."
Can you say something about your plans?
It's probably not worth saying anything about the future, as it is unclear what awaits us all. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm going to stay in Russia as long as I can. That is, as long as I'm not pressed completely, I will try to do something here. At the same time, of course, I feel that the glass dome above is gradually lowering. It is reciprocal. There is a sense that the world is closing itself off from Russia, and that Russia is closing itself off. I think that, for now, I will just record reality. I have a friend who said a cool motivational phrase. She said that she stays in Russia because she wants to see everything with her own eyes and record everything so that no one will deceive her later. When it's written down in history somewhere, she'll be a witness who saw everything with her own eyes. That really got to me. I realized that I would also like to see with my own eyes and try to become part of something new. If it is at all possible to still be in Russia, I would like to be part of the new Russia.
Do you have hope?
I still have some hope, perhaps because that is how my mind works. I try to see positive moments. For example, the banners with the letter Z are no longer displayed in the city. In neighboring Ekaterinburg, they're removing Z from the subway, and the mood in society is changing. All this will be reflected in my work. I mean that I will fix it through art. This is the only plan that I know exactly and will be able to realize. As for the exhibition activity... As I said before, I will just look for like-minded people and try to do something both in Russia and outside of Russia. I have a fear that I will be closed to the world. I don't want that to happen. Right now, I really want to be seen. Don't take this as something arrogant, but it's very important to me. I'm scared of being caged up here. I wish nobody would forget about us.
* Instagram - Meta Platforms Inc., which is banned in Russia