The Labor and Breath of Romanticism
In the art world, Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya and Olga Egorova are better known as Gluklya and Tsaplya. Residents of Petersburg, they have worked together for many years, producing performances, installations, and video works. Their work extends beyond the confines of gallery art. For example, Gluklya and Tsaplya’s videos have been screened several times at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, one of the major forums for international contemporary visual art. Film critic Anjelika Artyukh met with them during this year’s festival.
Anjelika Artyukh: You formed your artistic alliance in the mid-nineties, when you called yourselves The Factory of Found Clothes and you chose clothing as your object of conceptualization. Why exactly did clothing become the object of your artistic practice? Does it retain its importance for you nowadays, considering that your art has become more socially engaged?
Tsaplya: The culture of the early nineties was a culture of living. It was bound up with dandyism, with dressing up. You won’t find female dandies described in literature, although they exist. Gluklya and I were dandies in our way. We were then quite passionate about form. We were convinced that form generates content; on the other hand, we were sure that our complex content required a particular form. So we used clothing to produce this form. We made ephemeral, everyday art. Later on, we called what we produced costume-objects, works of art that you wear. Old clothing was our medium. We found new clothing incredibly stupid. What’s interesting about it? Its function? Its beauty? Whether it fits? These weren’t things that could interest dandies. When, however, an item of clothing began to live and start down the path of self-perfection, it became interesting. We thought that it was like a person: it fashions itself via sacrifice and loss; it loses buttons and collars, it acquires patches. Clothing-as-body. This how the first Store of Itinerant Things came about—from observing the life of clothes, observing how they perfect themselves. Some things in our store were so worn out they were like dust, or rather, clouds. But there were connoisseurs who showed up and bought them. Or, in any case, there were people who admired them. Of course this was an adventure for a select few. Not every person’s vision is tuned in such a way to see that art is born from nothing. It was like this secret order of observers: our friends (poets, artists) and us. We made this stuff, lived our lives, and didn’t produce anything. It was impossible to present our art.
Gluklya: We could present our dresses, but it was just that back in those days people didn’t say it was art. It wasn’t considered art, and the experts still have their doubts. We know it’s art, but the experts haven’t yet gotten their heads around this.
Tsaplya: Then Gluklya and I began to think that we also found clothing interesting because it’s the boundary between the individual and the world. Clothing is a person’s frame. This means working with the essence of individuality, with the way it’s constructed. The question arose: how can we carry out this work? We did an action, “The Dress’s Voyage.” We took a silly polka-dot dress, made it our literary heroine, and sent it to the Crimea, where it did things we couldn’t do.
Gluklya: As for myself, I can say that I simply had no one to talk to. Now I’m inclined to view this as a symptom. I couldn’t imagine then that art can arise from human interaction. My artistic education didn’t give me any grounds to push my thinking in this direction. On the other hand, the absence of a milieu and our ravaged civil society provoked me to start looking for people I could meaningfully interact with. Nothing thrilled me as much as sorting through dresses, imbuing them with images, with identities, and conversing with some character. But whom could I converse with? I had read my fill of books about the fin de siècle, and so I decided that I had to unite poets, artists, and intellectuals in order to create a milieu for conversation and interaction. I began inviting them to my studio. During our readings, my guests would always begin happily putting on old dresses. The young men adored dressing up in silk dresses: they weren’t transvestites; they just wanted to feel what it was like to be somebody else. That’s when Tsaplya showed up, and everything started to develop. Together, we discovered limitless spaces for communication via our interaction with clothing. In the beginning it was so obvious that you couldn’t talk to anyone except your own ego, which had to be dragged out kicking and screaming so that you could feel that you were alive. This is a description of a symptom and, simultaneously, its resolution.
Tsaplya: We moved on. The Store of Itinerant Things became a variation on the psychotherapist’s office. Someone would make an appointment to come to the store. He’d dig through our things, and we’d talk to him. By trying on different clothes, he would talk things out, pick a new image, and alter his inner condition.
Gluklya: Do you remember when you realized that you weren’t a dandy, that it was the problem of the individual that worried you?
Tsaplya: I can’t even say. It happened without my noticing. When so much clothing passes through you, you began to use it in a more instrumental way. You have this arrogant sense that you’re an individual without clothing. I remember that even before the store closed I had begun wearing nightmarish polo shirts and awful jeans. But it felt completely natural. I had a short haircut (I was almost bald), and I didn’t wear make-up—what a nightmare! But at the same time I had no problems with my feminine identity. It was then, for example, that I met my husband, Dmitry Vilensky. I felt self-sufficient. As Gluklya and I declared back then, “I’m not a thing!” It’s a funny to say it, but then it had a fresh ring to it.
Strange as it may sound, we took the next step in our evolution under the influence of cinema. We did a project about Fassbinder, and we were amazed at how he was able talk about society by talking about the individual, by turning the most intimate things inside out. We came to understand that all the most interesting stuff happens in the gap between the individual and society. We fell in love with the genre of the social interview, which is now the basis of the works we do.
Gluklya: Little is said about why an artist chooses one strategy or another. Of course I could lock myself in the studio and work a bit, but it’s now impossible for me to work that way. To borrow Kandinsky’s phrase, I have an “inner need,” not to elbow my way onto the art scene, but to go to the factories, to go to divers and sailors and ask them questions, to talk with them. And I need for my art to help someone, not to indulge someone’s tastes or decorate their walls. In our day and age, this is the equivalent of painting a landscape, the way artists used to paint from life. Today this means grabbing a video camera and dictaphone and going into social groups that are maximally distant from artistic milieus.
Anjelika Artyukh: Performance has always been an essential part of your practice. Your performances—especially “In Memory of Poor Liza” or “Immersion”—remind us that the artist’s work is the triumph of courage. In order to reenact the last minutes in the life of Karamzin’s heroine you had to jump into the Swan Canal. In “Immersion” you put on diving gear, descended to the depths, and put on a fashion show with white dresses. It’s clear that overcoming fear is one of the ways you express your solidarity with each other. But what is it about the “performance state” that you find important?
Tsaplya: We enjoy overcoming fear. We once went through a whole period of overcoming fear. In 1998 we went on a grandiose trip that enabled us to grow wings. We traveled around Eastern Europe. A lot of things happened, but the main thing that happened was that we illegally crossed the border. That was terrifying. Because it was the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, we had to overcome all those childhood fears implanted by Soviet war movies.
Gluklya: Our main theme is the adventure of the romantic hero. The “performance state” means feeling like a hero, like a scout carrying out an important mission. The hero always overcomes his fear. We were unhappy with the whole situation—with how we lived, with what was happening in the country! We wanted to go forward, to live like heroes, not like dishrags. We had already outgrown the euphoria of the Petersburg scene, and the moment came when asked ourselves what was next. Who could we work with? Where were the curators? What should we do? There are no art structures in Russia. In Europe there are institutions that support projects like ours. Here at home there is nothing. But we wanted to live worthy lives. To live like heroes, to save people, to aspire to something.
Tsaplya: For us, the phrase “heroic deed” has never been mere rhetoric. Gluklya and I have always done projects dedicated to different heroes—for example, the project in memory of Vera Zasulich, or “Heloise and Abelard: Five Feats of the Submarine.” We’ve always been attracted to heroism, to overcoming oneself, to the possibility of becoming something else, of testing yourself. As a child, my favorite book was “Young Pioneer Heroes.” I was simply crazy about this stuff: that’s the real life, I thought. It’s good to understand that there is something more important than you—for example, art or a life of service.
Gluklya: That’s real romanticism!
Tsaplya: Our romanticism was built on these notions. Nowadays there’s a lot more pragmatism. The lifestyle we lived in the nineties is simply impossible now. People go right out and get jobs. But we imagined that for the sake of the art we were doing we could sacrifice all that. And this was terribly natural for our whole group, for Sasha Skidan and Mitya Golynko. . . The whole Borey Gallery crowd lived that way, honestly. Around the age of thirty we entered normal professional lives. It turned out that you could get money for what you did. That is, we didn’t go into a different line of work to make money; it turned out that there was a demand for what we did and that it brought in some income.
Gluklya: I think that in our case it’s still appropriate to take about integrity. How does it manifest itself? In Russia there are lots of artists who put on white clothes, so to speak—who hide behind this artistic virginity and purity—and say, This is where we make money, but this is where make art. They work as designers or as something else. We have never been able to do this. This, I guess, is integrity. Here you need to be flexible. Someone invites us somewhere and they try to force us to do something. But we do everything our own way: we stick to the rules of the game they lay down, but we fill them with our own content. Maybe our male colleagues lack this flexibility. This is our strategy. It’s dictated by integrity.
Anjelika Artyukh: The art critic Katya Andreeva rightly compared your performance “Heloise and Abelard” (in which participants had to enter a darkened submarine and walk through its hatches as an audio recording of Heloise and Abelard’s letters was played) to the performances of Joseph Beuys, which often worked like the mysteries of the ancients, immersing the viewer in a kind of initiation. Video has provided you with new possibilities. For example, the split-screen film Three Mothers and a Chorus inherits the intellectual tradition of Brecht’s theater and his idea of alienation. What strategies for working with the viewer do you find meaningful?
Tsaplya: Mysteries—that, of course, is really saying something! But for us it’s the idea of adventure that is vital. Gluklya and I try not to work with the whole audience the world over, but with each individual. For example, the performance with the submarine. How many people went through there? Quite a few: two hundred. And for many of them it was an adventure. Or the performance “The Psychotherapy Office of the Whites,” which we did in Graz and in Moscow, at XL Gallery. Gluklya and I sat in this tiny space, dressed in white chem suits. There was a time when we used these suits often. When we put them on, Gluklya and Tsaplya disappeared, and either angels or sacks of potatoes appeared in our place. In any case, someone (or even something) completely anonymous and empty, to whom you could spill your guts without worrying. This really worked. People would come in and began telling us things that they wouldn’t tell other people. This, apparently, was the right construction: white surfaces, say what you want to say to them. We would say, “Yes, we can help you. We have medicine that will help you, but we can’t give it to you. You have to go and get it yourself.” We’d give the person a map on which we’d marked the place he had to go. There were many such places: in Moscow, they included a store, a housing authority office, a clinic, soldiers on the corner, a beggar. The patient went to the place on the map, where he was instructed to say, “Hello, the Whites have sent me. You have something for me.” For example, he’d go to the soldiers. They gave him something in a cellophane packet. Inside was some stupid thing, with instructions attached. For example, a broken wind-up chicken, with a note that said, “Even the chicken is broken. Give yourself a break.” We had things ready for different situations in life, different diagnoses. This performance was a huge success. For us it’s important to get a sense of the situation. We never have any strict requirements before we start working. We show up somewhere and look for a space we find interesting. We always use what we like.
Gluklya: We’ve been told that we made a big career mistake by not doing our performance “Pythia” at Kiasma, in Helsinki. Kiasma is a big, respectable museum, but we preferred to use a glass cube on the Esplanade. It was this kind of summerhouse, and it was in a place where people stroll, where there are concerts and festivals. We had long debates about this. Where do you do public art: in an art space or in a space that absolutely has nothing to do with art? We took a liking to the park because it had this sense of a white dress. We thought it would be better to do the performance there. We would be more true to ourselves; our work with people would be more precise than in Kiasma. People feel more hung-up there because it’s a museum.
Tsaplya: We have this “arrogant” sense that art can help people. It’s not that we want to “enflame the hearts of men with a word,” but to engender situations in which the individual can feel this impulse to possibly change himself. Situations in which the individual might have a new sense of himself. Click! Clack! Something happens.
Anjelika Artyukh: Your works might be called art therapy: to a large extent they’re bound up with an analysis of love. In the early stage of your career, love was imagined as a romantic project, as a world of pure passion. At a much later stage, love becomes a painstaking daily practice (for example, Three Mothers and a Chorus). Even machismo—a platoon of marching sailors—is imbued with love: you had each of the sailors hold a white woman’s dress (The Triumph of Fragility). How would you assess the way the concept of love has developed in your work?
Gluklya: You answered your own question. It’s really a daily labor. It’s another matter that here another danger lies in wait for you: overworking every day to the point that you lose your individuality. On the whole, however, we’ve followed the road from romanticism—crazy passion, the sudden encounter—to the understanding that love is a daily labor and that part of this work has to do with finding sophisticated ways to keep the breath of romanticism alive. You can do this any way you want; you can violate any stereotype. But you always have to keep this concept in mind.
Tsaplya: Gluklya and I always work autobiographically. All our works are linked to real, practical daily life. At the beginning, of course, we thought about romantic love (“Poor Liza”), about the fact that you could die of love, but you won’t die. When you’re twenty-five this is the reality you live through. Then we began to think that the vital thing in love is to go to the wall, to tear off the skin and get to the circulatory system, to make intimacy total. People are a bit cowardly, after all: they set up boundaries. Our film Letters to the Ideal Beloved is a kind of textbook on how to surmount these boundaries. Afterwards, when you think you’ve gone to the wall, you have to start the new task of erecting new boundaries. Because when you dissolve in another person it’s quite hard to remain a creative singularity.
Gluklya: Either you die or you keep working.
Tsaplya: When motherhood comes along, that’s a completely different experience, a new social responsibility. As a Swedish friend of ours said, “When my first child was born, I could no longer think about suicide.” Your life no longer belongs to you.
Anjelika Artyukh: I think that your recent installation and the film that was based on it, Three Mothers and a Chorus, is a profoundly feminist work, if we understand feminism as insisting on the importance of the whole chain of social transformations that women go through, and not just on improving the lot of women. You show how Russian women become subjects of motherhood, work, love, and society. Why is this work important to you?
Gluklya: It was a move to a new level. We finally realized that we wanted to work via interactions with people. Interviews and sociological research were part of the project. This is an important index of how artists can work today—how they can smash stereotypes and thus produce values.
Tsaplya: When my daughter Asya was born, I was immediately tormented by the question of how I was going to live. Because if you’re an artist, that takes up all your time, and if you’re a mother, that also takes up all your time. How can you divide your time? We began to do interviews: we asked other women how they dealt with this. Three Mothers and a Chorus emerged from this experience. Of course it’s a feminist work.
Gluklya: I changed so much when I became a mother that I wasn’t able to reflect this experience in art for a long time. A mother’s labor is amazing in the sense that you’re capable of having ten lives: mothers are like these fairytale dragons. For me, the film has to do with the desire to share this knowledge with people. On the one hand, there is a woman’s vulnerability when she becomes a mother. On the other, there’s her incredible strength: you see reality clearly and therefore you can isolate the symptom. This experience opens up the possibility of criticizing reality because your indifference evaporates. You are sincerely offended by what’s happening, by how unjustly society is organized, including in its treatment of women.
Anjelika Artyukh: Three Mothers and a Chorus might be defined as film-as-discourse. Starting with the form itself, inherited from the ancient theater (a protagonist squared off against a chorus populated by representatives of different social groups and genders), you underscored the many concepts of motherhood that exist: from the ecstasy of love, work, and sacrifice to the inertia of motherhood, which makes woman a hostage of responsibility and hinders her intellectual development and career. What is there more of in your work—personal experience or sociological analysis?
Gluklya: What is there more of—the personal or the impersonal? That’s a tough question: it’s all intertwined. But we refuse to exclude the personal element from our work. We get to the social via the personal.
Tsaplya: This topic forced us to become really responsible feminists. We produced a newspaper on motherhood. We began doing more practical, socially engaged feminist work. And now we’re planning to do an Internet radio project dealing with feminism. Feminism is an extremely unpopular topic in Russia, and not only in Russia. We’re sliding back into patriarchy. People see inequality, but they think it’s something God-given. It’s even scary: how can a modern society be constructed on this basis? In this sense, feminism is a really healthy thing: it trains you in equality.
Gluklya: It’s just that when you mention equality, people often interpret this as identity. It’s really hard to explain to them that equality doesn’t mean identity. Post-feminism is all about the fact that people are different, but that they’re equal before the law. It talks about how to deal with desire, which, for example, is what Catherine Breillat shows in her films. We have this sense that women are infantilized even more than men. A lot of people profit from representing woman as this queen who you put on your shoulders like a child. It’s convenient for everyone that she be beautiful and that she expect to be pampered. That she be weak. It’s this patriarchal ideal: a little child in a cage. But it’s her becoming an adult that is dangerous. She’s not allowed to grow up.
Tsaplya: This individual immaturity causes women to forego living their own lives: their lives are lived for them. Or rather, they live as much of their lives as they’re supposed to. This is becoming the norm: this is when you finish school and go to university; this is when you get married and have kids. You don’t get married. What a nightmare! Your life is destroyed. And then there’s that beloved Russian proverb: “The man is the head, the woman, the neck—I turn him where I will!” Manipulation is the norm in the family. It’s believed that a smart woman is a good manipulator. Does that sound normal? I think this is a slave ideology. But feminism offers a practice for eliminating slavery.
Gluklya: I think there are two extremes. Tsaplya just beautifully described one of them, but there is another: woman as man. This is when she’s figured everything out and cursed everybody. If it’s going to be that way, then I’ll live my life for myself! I’ll make a career, I’ll live alone, and I won’t have kids. This is really popular in France. We thought our way through this and got over it. In part, Three Mothers and a Chorus is a film about the fact that you have to be an ordinary woman, you don’t need to cross that line. It is no less abnormal than passivity. Becoming a woman means staying clear of these two kinds of stupidity. This is the reality in which women should exist.
Anjelika Artyukh: A few years ago, in the first issue of Chto Delat, you published your manifesto. You wrote that the artist’s place is on the side of the weak. You insisted that compassion had to be returned to art—that is, an understanding of the other’s weakness and overcoming that weakness together with him. Have your ideas about art’s tasks changed since then?
Tsaplya: Our ideas about art haven’t changed. This is our position, and it was the basis of our turn to social projects. Of course the artist’s place is on the side of the weak. What other side could she be on? There are different levels of weakness. There is weakness in the simple, social sense: the homeless, children, women, minorities, the oppressed, outsiders. But we’re also interested in the weakness inside the individual, which he is forced to suppress. Everyone says that a person has to be strong, and thus he crushes everything that is alive in him. Compassion never conquers, pity never conquers. Strength conquers. But if you exile weakness from life, then there is no life at all. Our task is to tell people about this all the time. This is important for society, and it’s important for us as well.
Gluklya: That is why we’ve done a series of performances in which we’ve taken a strong social group and extracted the weak elements from it. It’s considered shameful to show weakness. How can a man show his tears? This is taboo.
Tsaplya: We’re now working with people who have AIDS.
Gluklya: This is a different line. These are the unhappiest people, if you put it in Dostoevsky’s terms.
Tsaplya: They’re pushed out of society because society, in its archaic wildness, fears them. Fifteen percent of the population of Leningrad Oblast is infected with AIDS. The majority of these people are deeply depressed. They dwell with this sense of guilt: after all, it’s a shameful disease; allegedly, you’re to blame if you’ve caught it. We want to create a situation in which these people realize that they can live a normal life by taking two tablets two times a day. So that they can say about themselves: Yes, I’m this way and I’m a human being. I’m your equal.
Gluklya: There’s no reason to be afraid of them!
Anjelika Artyukh: How did it happen that you became part of the Chto Delat group, which advocates the need to pull down the boundaries between art and activism, which proposes the concept of art as serious, responsible utterance, a kind of return to principles? How does the group influence you? How do you influence the group?
Tsaplya: A serious attitude to art isn’t empty rhetoric for us. It would be wrong to say that we became members of the group—we also had a hand in creating it. The group was formed in 2003 on a wave of disgust for the bacchanalia that happened in Petersburg in connection with the tricentennial celebrations. It became obvious we had to unite. There are artists, philosophers, and poets in our group. We’re all very different people, and each of us does her own thing. But there is something that unites us: a responsible attitude to life, to art, to politics. At the same time, our group is a dynamic collective. It happens very rarely that we agree with each other. Everyone argues endlessly, chews each other out, and it almost comes to blows sometimes. But that’s healthy. You’re always under the gun of criticism. It’s a normal condition if you want to develop: you have to defend your own position all the time. Nevertheless, Gluklya and I don’t do political art; we do social art. But, as you understand, that can have greater political force than direct agitation. At the same time, we never dissolve into Chto Delat. We remain the Factory of Found Clothes, Gluklya and Tsaplya. But, in fact, nobody in the group wants us to lose our individuality.
Gluklya: It’s not a matter of dissolving, but of whether we have the time and energy to continue working on the projects and solving the problems that aren’t part of Chto Delat’s discussion space, the things that are important to us, but not to the group. Crudely speaking, you’re forced to choose all the time: do you spend your time solving your own problems, or do you just forget about what you think is important and work on the topics proposed by Chto Delat? But a person can call herself an adult if she’s learned to choose what’s important to her—this is a sign of being grown-up. We influence the group. We explain to them that, if they do political art and exclude the artistic element because Adorno said that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz, then in practice it doesn’t work this way at all. Then it would turn out that ours is a Masonic, elitist stance, that we do art that is meant only for leftist intellectuals. But since the point of the leftist project is to reach people’s hearts and change society, this is an absurd stance. You still have to make art that will touch people’s heart; if you do that, then they’ll accept this leftist art. You can’t exclude the artistic element, provocation, fragility, lyricism, sensuality, and femininity. Otherwise, art turns into masturbation. We’re not going turn off this road. We’ve overcome a lot of things in ourselves in order to reach out to people: it would be stupid to give this up. Of course the danger of oversimplification arises here, but we’re not afraid of this—that’s our background. Simplicity is a beautiful thing.
Anjelika Artyukh: Your latest film, which deals with perestroika, is a collective work by the Chto Delat group in which you employ the idioms of agit-theater, opera, performance, actionism, political cinema, and video art. You show how the political and personal immaturity of Soviet citizens leads to the collapse of the democratic idea. The quest for instant profit shatters the great hopes that people had then, and the inability of people to consolidate their efforts leads to chaos. How do you assess the emergence of this kind of work in your art, which hadn’t before dealt with political topics?
Tsaplya: This was a collective work, of course. We wrote the screenplay with Dima Vilensky, and the scenery was constructed by Dima and Kolya Oleinikov (a Moscow artist who is also a member of Chto Delat). The whole process of filming was so labor-intensive that we simply wouldn’t have managed without the participation of the group. That’s what is great about the group: you have a team you can work with, a team that supports you. It was an interesting task for Gluklya and me—how to apply our artistic experience to create explicitly political art. I think the result is interesting: we usually go from the personal to the social, but here it was the other way around. We created character-types (a Democrat, a Businessman, a Nationalist, a Revolutionary, and a Feminist). We collided them with a Chorus, and used this to reveal simple, universally human things. That is, here we moved from the social to the personal. In essence, this is a film about how high ideals gradually dissolve into the flow of life. “Freedom? Yes, that’s wonderful! We’re ready to do anything for its sake. But we need money to build this freedom. But this is going to be a different kind of money! We also need power to create freedom. But this will be a different kind of power!” In the end, it turns out that money is just money, and power is just power. I imagine that everyone runs into this trap. The question is how to escape it.
Gluklya: I had fun participating in the project. I was asked to solve a riddle—to come up with a provocation for the film that would create a sense of intrigue and at the same time reveal the meaning of what was happening. And so I suggested incorporating little girls wearing wolf masks. For me, the wolf is a symbol of the freedom and independence that is an inherent part of human nature. Perestroika liberated this spirit, and people were open to lots of things. The next question is how people used this freedom. For example, feminists used to believe in the concept of absolute autonomy and independence. But in the post-feminist period it became obvious that what we really want is the mutual dependence of men and women, not absolute female or male autonomy. This theme is more fully developed in our latest video, Zoo.
Anjelika Artyukh: Tell me about it.
Gluklya: Zoo is also a research project. To get at this theme we organized a women’s club where women criticized men and recorded this on camera. We ended up with this catalogue of complaints against men. A whole number of interesting symptoms was manifested immediately. For example, one woman said straight out, “I’ve never been able to handle relationships and my own life at the same time.” It was obvious that she confused pragmatism with the need to work on relationships, as if this was something dirty and inimical to “pure feeling.”
We thus wanted to isolate the basic contradictions between woman’s organic make-up and the social demands that hinder her free development and the expansion of civic consciousness. We have two heroines: an unmarried woman and a married woman.
They are portraits of two types of confusion. Our heroines don’t listen to each other, and so they tell their stories to the animals in the zoo. The unmarried woman embodies a feminine consciousness that has become masculine. This is a fairly typical case: a woman becomes a man in her quest for high social status.
We end up with the following scheme: people sense a lack of emotional engagement (love), but the rationalism and planning they need to function successfully in society prevent this engagement from emerging. Our second lady symbolizes for us the other common female ailment: bearing all the burdens yourself, trying to be Mother Theresa. In fact, this ailment is bound up with passivity and infantilism.
As we worked on this video, we finally became conscious of our therapeutic method of working with actors. We prefer using actors, but we insert their own stories into the work. That is, the actor is maximally emancipated from her predestined function as a performer and becomes a co-creator in the project.
Anjelika Artyukh: In the nineties, your work was tightly bound up with the Petersburg mythology. To some degree your performances—like “In Memory of Poor Liza” or “Garden” (in Pushkin)—were specimens of neo-mythological thinking; they were motivated by the desire to manifest and replay old Petersburg myths with new masks. Meanwhile, your recent works seem to be purged of anything specifically Petersburgian. You attempt to universalize the problematic, to generalize and expand the context. It would be wrong to say that you’re uninterested in local issues. Three Mothers and a Chorus shows that you’re prepared to work with current Russian problems, to represent today’s Russian women, and, by making video not merely a means of recording performances, but a significant medium, to assimilate new artistic zones. What’s happening with you right now? How does the current market for contemporary art in Russia influence you?
Tsaplya: In 2003, a thought occurred to me: the Petersburg white nights should be cancelled. After all, we gravitated towards disease, towards abnormality. It was bad to be healthy in Petersburg. It was awful to be satisfied. At some point it became clear that this was wrong. In the beginning, we even had this heroine—the grammar-school girl, who was really unhinged. We imagined her all the time; we looked for her in ourselves, in our friends. It was this kind of decadence. Now we want to work in a different way, in a more direct way. We don’t exhibit much in Russia nowadays because there aren’t many institutions that you can have a real partnership with; there is little real criticism. These things were always in short supply, and now they’re simply depressingly few. And all this against a backdrop of frenetic activity. In Moscow, of course, not in Petersburg.
Gluklya: For us, all that’s left of the grammar-school girl is: live and learn. That, after all, is the essence of the grammar-school girl, along with her nervousness. That’s the secret of beauty. If a person loses this state, he becomes a monster. The artist’s task is to disembowel the old myths, to purify them. That is the function of art. It’s clear that contemporary art market couldn’t care less about these ideas—reinventing myths or supporting the weak. That’s why our relations with the market are strained.
Tsaplya: We have a lot of plans to do work here. But now we’re not working in the art world. The situation with art in Russia nowadays is bad. You might call it unpleasant. There’s big money flowing into art now, and of course this really animates the situation. It’s all very lively. But, as we know, he who pays the piper calls the tune. And so it happens that art in Russia today isn’t even at the service of capital (I could even understand that somehow), but at the service of cheap glamour. (Or expensive glamour, who cares?) And that’s unpleasant. To be at the service of emptiness? To think about whether Ksenia Sobchak will like you or not? Brrr! No, that’s not for us.
Gluklya: I think we can take on more responsibility. For example, we want to do a feminist event in Petersburg, a festival. Maybe we’ll pull it off. But it’s incredibly complicated. You have to forget that you’re an artist for a time and become an organizer. It’s vital to change the situation gradually. But I wouldn’t say that we don’t work in the art world. It’s just that we’re dissatisfied with it. But I think it’s worth fighting to cure the art world. We took up video because it reflects reality in a fuller way. We’ve tracked the infantilization of contemporary art, these postmodernists toys that pop up in the broadest possible context. It’s not irony that has triumphed, but humor. But we want serious research projects, interventions in the social environment. The thought occurred to us that cinema is a serious medium, and it suits us more all the time. By taking this experimental route, we might be able to bring something to cinema from the world of art and thus give birth to something new.
—Iskusstvo kino 8 (2008). Translated by Our Swimmer