“Where there is power, there is resistance.” – Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1: An Introduction.
Russia remains a society where freedom of speech is denied, where authoritarianism and patriarchy continues to prevail, yet within this dire situation an art community thrives. I have the pleasure of meeting Moscow based painter and performance artist Vika Begalska the day after she arrives in Sydney. She is jetlagged, sandy and sunburned.
JH What are your first impressions of Australia?
VB We went to the beach today so I would say severe nature; hot sun, very salty water… Sharks!
JH How do you feel about life in Moscow at present? Are you disappointed? Cynical? Frustrated? Pessimistic? Optimistic?
VB Russia is in a difficult political situation, Putin’s longevity puts a strain on everybody, we are tired and annoyed at the prospect of Putin’s reign for another 12 years. I’d say I feel all of the above and then some.
JH Your paintings and performances have often been quite politically satirical and playful, The Severe Youth in 2008 depicts Putin posing in red hot pants with his dog and bicycle and in another portrait With a Choker you have Putin fingering a noose. In one of your video works, The Lord of the Rats and Nutcrackers, you show your subjects in the midst of the Red Square. How has the authoritarianism of the ruling regime in Russia shaped your understanding of art? Particularly in terms of censorship?
VB Politics influences my work a lot, my art is based around the effect the regime has on people and the whole notion of protest. Humour is my personal reaction to what is going on in Russia, a way of dealing with my frustrations, whereas I think others look at protest in a perhaps more forceful way. My portrayals of Putin are humorous in a dark sense, those paintings I did of him posing with the dog and with the noose belong to an exhibition entitled “Am I Really Bored?” This is a reference to a Russian saying, a joke that when times are bad, folks will say “Well, at least I’m not bored.” So yes I am making fun of the situation, but I’m also making a serious comment about being on the edge of things that couldn’t get much worse, to the point where you’d rather be bored. I also painted riots in this series of work, to exemplify the collective reaction against what is happening.
JH Do you feel that it is the role of the artist to be just as much of an activist as an observer in society?
VB No, I think there needs to be a separation. Art is indirect, it should not posit a single truth or impose any one view. The artist knows of multi-layered meanings, the activist is far more direct. For me to be an activist would mean too much involvement in that world to the detriment of my art. I also feel that in activism one might lose a clear understanding of what is going on, I’d like to have a more balanced vision. But if you take the infamous Pussy Riot as an example, you see where activism and art collide, this is “actionism” at best, attracting attention for all the world to see, a movement that challenges and exposes corruption, revealing just how far the government will go to oppose freedom of speech.
While I’m not an activist per se, I’m launching a collective project via a website feminkitchen.org, in which we are developing a union for sex workers, inviting the community to support and join the union. I want to integrate my skills as a filmmaker to communicate the objectives of the union, one being the legalisation of prostitution in Russia.
JH Your most recent show at Pop/Off Art Gallery in Moscow entitled “Sigi” (nickname for Sigmund Freud) features surrealistic portraits of deformed, sometimes smiling faces, they are like demented ink blots. Using bold and bright colours of Fauvist portraiture styles, this series has a playfully juvenile quality to it, although on another level it’s a commentary on psychoanalysis, of schizophrenic personalities, the struggle of identity, torment, anguish, disturbance, fetishized genitals and imaginary selves. Are any of these self-portraits?
VB They are not self-portraits, they are more impressions and manifestations. I want to tap into a creativity based on childhood memories and sublimation. I’m also trying to illustrate the way in which femininity is a social construct. And I also want to show how identity is becoming an increasingly anonymous phenomenon in society. I will continue this line of work here in Australia in my upcoming show.
JH Performance artist Marina Abramović once said she never got much out of therapy and that she always thought the more fucked-up a childhood you had the better the artist you became. She says “I don’t think anyone does anything from happiness. Happiness is such a good state, it doesn’t need to be creative. You’re not creative from happiness, you’re just happy. You’re creative when you’re miserable and depressed. You find the key to transform things. Happiness does not need to transform.” Do you agree with Abramović on this issue?
VB I like Marina’s work a lot and to an extent what she says is true. I wouldn’t create what I create if it weren’t for the things I observe. My childhood was not great. I remember living in Ukraine and we lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building and I could see the tip of a poplar tree out of my window. I was overwhelmed with a desire to escape my life there and to wake up one morning and not see the tip of that damn poplar tree ever again. But I think that therapy does have a place in society, I think it’s important for people to take care of their wellbeing and not necessarily feel the need to be self destructive for the sake of art. My psychoanalyst asked me if I wanted to get married, I said yes. My analyst then talked to my boyfriend to ask what qualities he wanted in a wife. They concluded that for me to not get jealous was the most desirable attribute and with that in mind we got married. But that was very hard for me to supress. Jealousy is a natural instinct and was the cause of many arguments. People are surprised to know that beyond my shy veneer I do have a very fiery personality, I’m emotional and sensitive, but also very social and cheerful, does that make me schizophrenic? No, but perhaps I’m a little nuts, a bit psychotic. Art is an effective therapy for schizophrenia and many artists that inspire me have been drunks and mentally unstable. But I make a point not to drink and paint.
JH In your work, sexuality is overtly eroticised. You maintain a strong opposition to pretty and superficial portraits through your depiction of subjects that deviate from norms. Would you agree that your work celebrates a post-feminist ideology? Do you identify with yourself as a post-feminist?
VB Yes. I read a lot of theory connected to sexuality and power, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault. I also tend to Joseph Butler for his ideas about the transience of identity and so on. I’m in the midst of working on a project to promote post-feminist artists and to invite those artists to join the sex workers union in Russia. I believe in the legalisation of brothels in Russia to ensure that the women are better cared for if they are in need of medical assistance or legal protection. One of my endeavours while I’m in Sydney is to conduct interviews with union members and sex workers to gain some insight on what it’s like for women here.
JH Your work explores the aesthetics of the ugly, or as you have said in an earlier interview, finding “beauty in ugliness”. People are attracted to the unattractive, particularly when you consider Francis Bacon’s retrospective at the AGNSW for instance, his depictions of the body without organs, distorted faces, images of horror and terror, the show has had a wonderful public response. What is it do you think that artists and audiences alike share in their fascination with deformation? Is ugly the new Sublime?
VB I can’t speak for all artists but for me I am majorly influenced by the philosophy of Nietsche who claimed that the truth is ugly and that art is the thing that keeps us from perishing. It’s about deconstructing and exposing the truths of human existence that we are so fearful of: death, decay, degeneration. My work resides in the neo-expressionist vein of art, because as much as my work is dealing with darker themes and inner emotional turmoil, it uses more of a psychedelic palette rather than brooding colours. I really enjoyed the Francis Bacon retrospective, we saw it earlier today, but Bacon does differ from where I’m at aesthetically. I draw more from artists of the New Wild movement, of whom I would like to mention Kippenberger, Baselitz, Oechlen, Fetting, Immendorff, Lupertz and Penck. These artists influenced me as well as my favourite contemporaries, who include Daniel Richter for his intensity of colour and composition, Peter Doig for his abstract landscapes, Cecily Brown for her eroticism, Jonathan Meese for his postmodern allegories and sculptures. These artists are sexually provocative, offensive, some of them are also making commentaries on dictatorships in the way that I am.
JH In one of your video works, you step into a corporate building, presumably for a job interview, take your clothes off, lie on a CEO’s desk and erotically lick the soles of his shoes. This is clearly a comment on female subservience in the corporate world and it’s pretty confronting stuff. Sexual perversion and subjugation have been continuous themes in your oeuvre, do you find that you can express these themes through video in ways that you cannot through painting?
VB Painting always has layers of meaning. With video work the meanings tend to be far more straightforward. That video you speak of was a result of a friend who tried to get me to go to a job interview. I went so far as to buy the clothes; the high heels, the suit and everything. When I decided not to go to the interview, I needed to find something to do with all the clothes I bought, so I thought it would be a good idea to use them in my next video work.
JH Do you ever have doubts while you perform, do you ever think to yourself “is this shit?”
VB I am in such a state when I perform where I am so engaged and focused on what I’m doing that there’s no room for doubt in my mind. It’s a process, you never think of the result at the time – that comes after.
JH In your conversation with Anatoly Osmolovsky, you said that you would like your viewer to be emotional about your work, be it positive or negative. What has been some of the most astounding feedback you’ve had thus far on your work?
VB When somebody told me they were shocked that they were shocked about my art.
JH What’s your daily routine like in Moscow?
VB I get up early and paint all day in the studio, it’s like a 9 to 5 job I guess. And then by night I go to openings and support the art community. I think it’s an important part of being an artist, to support your fellow artists and be aware of what others are creating.
JH What ambitions do you have for the future?
VB To continue painting and performing. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
Vika Begalska’s exhibition Podes and Antipodes will be held at Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks Street Waterloo, opening Friday March 8 from 6 to 8pm. She will also exhibit video work and live performance pieces across several venues in Sydney including At The Vanishing Point at 565 King St, Newtown and an experiential installation show at Alaska Projects, Wednesday February 27.