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Art is sex

Alisa Yoffe, an artist, Berlin-Nizhny Novgorod

The collaboration between two galleries in Nizhny Novgorod – 9B Gallery and Futuro Gallery – resulted in Alisa Yoffe’s residency and two new exhibitions. One of them, «What’s the Address?», has already started, and the other one will open soon at the beginning of the following year. We met Alisa in Nizhny Novgorod just after her recent project «Aperto Raum сurated by Alisa Yoffe» opened in Berlin. Together we talked about art, monthly exhibitions, her suprematic costume and life strategy of an artist.

You immediately went to Nizhny Novgorod after your Berlin exhibition, by passing Moscow. You mentioned that’s a cool and right decision– Moscow shouldn’t absorb everything. And that’s great – you hop on a train and, 4 hours later, you are here, in the exhibition full of awesomeness. Why is the theme of decentralization is so important for you?

Alisa Yoffe: That’s the modern view on culture and space for me – we can exchange ideas and images without any local district center of capital involved. We have modern technologies that help us communicate in all kind of places. Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod are equal in that sense. Culture be where I be. I look on the world through my own lenses. Got a body to move around and can relocate it from one point to another. When I’m in Tokyo, Paris, New York, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan – it’s still me working in the local context. With the help of digital technologies, I share my images with others and insist on absence of any separate states, including Russia – there is no limits for me. I think we all can travel and share our cultural practices. In general I perceive my projects here as a circus performer trip. Big top circus – went in, performed a trick and moving on.

From the start I noticed that your exhibition doesn’t interfere with any local context, though you are in residency for a month straight.

A.Y.: Yeah, I was asked about interaction with local crafts and communities, but it has nothing to do with the exhibition. There was an idea to use local things, but I realized that’s a dull and generic approach, everybody anticipates something like that by default. An artist arrives and starts messing with local craft specifics, thanks, not this time. In my exhibition I show what I’ve seen in Berlin – in The Vorderasiatisches Museum and The New Museum. But those local things I borrow here I’ll pull out elsewhere. It’s like a virus. Here I get infected with something to carry that to another place.

Let’s discuss your Berlin exhibition. The name «Aperto Raum сurated by Alisa Yoffe» makes a special emphasis on your curatorship. Why?

A.Y.: First of all, the phrase «Curated by» is a reference to Kasper König’s exhibition, «Curated by Kasper König», where I participated. Kasper asked me the same question about the name «Curated by Alisa Yoffe» during the event. I told him I filled the whole place with myself. After all I’m a curator for myself all day every day. I can participate in your exhibition, and you can oversee me in your show, but I imagine my life as a permanent show with me as a walking headliner. Back to the big top circus metaphor, I manage my big top circus show all by myself. But «Aperto Raum» is a space inside the former textile factory and belongs to the art collector Erika Hoffman. She provided the facilities on the ground floor to the folks – the curator Elena Yushina opened a non-commercial space for discussions, exhibitions, with library and reading room. They even publish a newspaper down there – published two numbers before my exhibition, my number was the third. I asked them what you might call it when you fill a newspaper or a magazine with content, and they replied «curated by». So that’s mostly a wordplay with the newspaper that I «curated» and also called «Curated by Alisa Yoffe». I filled it with old news about myself: digital images and Igor Mukhin’s photos documenting our work process for last 10 years. Than I traveled to Kasper, gave him a number and described it as a «newspaper with not fresh news». The moment about circulation is crucial for me. At the end of editing, there is always a significant amount of different variants of every single picture saving on my iPhone. That’s how I wanted to depict this circulation.

What’s the Address? show by Alisa Yoffe at FUTURO gallery/ director and operator Vitaly Akimov/ music by Bhima Yunusov/ expositors – artist Alisa Yoffe; art critic, curator and art historian Sergey Khachaturov; сurator and art critic Valentin Diaconov

You are drawing on smartphone app and, if necessary, let’s say, for a specific project, you recreate those drawings in form of pictorial canvases?

A.Y.: Yes, exactly. I started doing that lately. My need to draw is permanent, but it’s not convenient to store the works in my workshop, it burdens me. After all, I like movement. Digital technologies allow to keep an archive in cloud services. I’m a cloud painter and fascinated by the fact that everything is in cloud storage. I got no other things but my little costume. Well, you know, I paint, add a thing or two, save, change something again, then save, may roll back a couple of steps and save that too.

Let’s get back to the circulation factor. How is it represented in «Aperto Raum сurated by Alisa Yoffe» project?

A.Y.: The paper interacts with my exposition, and an exposition plays along in a sort of way. Yes, the exhibition is about replicability and circulation as well. When it comes to the digital pics I paint, there are always some changes. Is that the same picture after editing? Or a different one? Images of a man and a woman repeat themselves throughout my project. Man with a smile and a man with a penis. Clerk with a bow-tie, here is where he smiles, and here is the place where the penis at. The second picture is about a woman, they blow up in her mouth, penis is up there with a sperm drop hanging. She smiles in one pic, but I malformed her face in another. Her eyes bulged, cheeks bloated, some other transformations happened to her face. And the third picture contains two parts – one of them is a little smiley with a penis sticking out down below. So this looks like a pornographical scene too, but it’s based on a dried mango package I saw in grocery. There was a smiling mug on a package, and the creature kept dried mango in it’s tiny hands. I replaced mango with a dick. An erotic, rather even pornographic exhibition. A bit turned up, funny and mocking, an idiotic one. And I circulated the paper in a way, just throwed it over the floor in the same space with paintings, so that it could be possible to step on an image by chance.

Pornographical and erotic motives are constantly reflected in your art. Why are they so important for you?

A.Y.: Here I should agree with Kasper König, because I read his words as a message from official big man, with museum director status and all that. He wrote what I always felt and understood: art is sex. Visual art is a very intimate and close relationship indeed. Communication with Igor Mukhin influenced me as well. As a photographer, he understands pretty well the nature of voyeurism and process of looking and examining in general. I understand interaction with art work, and with any visuality, as something going through a retina into your brain, getting calculated, pumped into blood system, sticking around and nourishing you. And I’m sure the picture that you saw somehow infects you, contaminates with information. You cannot say you didn’t see that. You can forget or push it out of sight, out of mind, but it’s forever with you on some level. It’s like you already experienced it. Infiltration happened. That’s why art works, visual culture and art on the whole are a kind of intercourse for me.

Harald Zeeman’s exhibition «Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works — Concepts — Processes — Situations — Information)» is an essential motive of your Berlin project. He is often referred to as «the first independent curator». Seeking for independence – what it means for you?

A.Y.: Crossing with Harald Zeeman was Elena Yushina’s idea, I’m a practitioner first and foremost, the theory is not that important. Concerning independence, it’s a very thin line. Sometimes I’m dependent, sometimes non-dependent. Sometimes I succumb to conventions, and sometimes I’m fully free. Who can divide everything into black and white, independence or dependence? I exist in society, where I’m depending on people, who visit my exhibition or not, give me a place for my works or not, produce the paint I’ll draw with or not. I’m in society, already incorporated. And if I would declare myself as a fully independent, that would be just a pose. Somebody would fall for that and others may say «Yeah, Yeah, you are independent, you say «No name!». Come on, god damn it, everybody knows my name. This independence game is for the youngings. It turns on, it sounds eight, but it’s a complete lie.

What tasks did you set for yourself here in Nizhny Novgorod?

A.Y.: I approached making pictorial canvases and organizing my own exposition as a curator in the full sense of the word. It was important for me to reimagine myself in different ways, try to see myself as a painter-stainer, who works not just with a painting in a canvas, but with a painting as an object. Here the painting becomes an object, it’s not exhibited on the wall – it’s exhibited in space. Canvases collide in a hallway, clash one into another like layers. Like two walls or partitions reclined on each other. One of the two protrudes as a tongue on top of the other. And the other one is wider and exposes the «back», the painting stretcher on the sides. And they block the passage through the hallway, so you have to head to the left, where you see a big canvas blocking a passage to the balcony and obstructing all windows. You head forward into a huge hall with many canvases of the same size. One of them is on a aluminum truss stretch shape similar to a movie screen froze with an image. The canvas is transparent and lets you see walls, it’s ready to let through both the light from the wall and… viewers’ gaze from the hall.

The walls in the main hall are textured heavily, it must be hard to use them for your works.

A.Y.: Yea, walls are very expressive here, didn’t want to compete with them. That’s why I decided to «dissolve» my painting by throwing layers of paint in the air. These layers soldered a transparent synthetic veil as one bed of synthetic acrylic paint. Another canvas of the same size lays on the floor, it has cringles too and is thrown on a floor as a big carpet (by the way, a Turkish carpet from The Vorderasiatisches Museum is depicted on it). The only thing I did extra was to write my name with gigantic letters on top. It works as a brand, a reference to «here could be your advertising» theme. The work reminds me of Hermes shawls. And the rest of canvases are rolled up together. The suspension belt they hang on is painted pink. It’s the same color as the canvas lying horizontally, so that the horizontal-vertical correlation and color ratio are revealed. The roll itself is neither painted white nor primed white. This is a textile with two painted statues from Egyptian section of The New Museum in Berlin reminding of sarcophaguses, something made from natural material, sandy-colored, egyptian-themed, including black tints.

It’s been a month since you began your residency. Tell me what you’ve been doing here. What projects were you working on?

A.Y.: I fully concentrated on current exhibition. For me it’s a valuable project, from the works that represent completely different forms of pictorial art to the catalogue I typesetted by myself. After the Berlin newspaper, where the designer was involved and helped me with typesetting, here I did all single-handedly. The catalogue looks like a leaflet or can be circulated as such. Still got some more works ready at the residency, but I keep them for later, for the final exposition. Speaking of which, the video of a production process is present at the exhibition. A production of only one painting though. I drew in a real movie house with a transparent canvas pulled over the screen. That was such an interesting experience. I was a movie character walking off the screen into the real world and painting this very picture. This place is conceptually important for me. We also made a video in the «Nebo» shopping mall. It has the same double glazed window raw as we got here at the exhibition place, and offers a nice panoramic view on the city. We documented the whole process in a video. The locations were essential. In one case they showed me like Belmondo suddenly turning to the viewer and breaking the fourth wall by talking (in my case it was by painting myself). And in the other case they showed me as somebody painting on the background of the city panorama – in any moment the camera could move from me and focus on the city instead, showing cars turning on the road or getting stuck in a traffic jam. It’s a really picturesque view out there. And later we made a video during the opening of the exhibition with beautiful young film director, Vitaly Akimov. We first met in St. Petersburg, he’s very talented and cool. It was a lot of work for real.

You mentioned that you will make another exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, so you’ll have two projects as a result of your residency. The impression is you whip up exhibitions every month.

A.Y.: Yes, exactly – every month. As for the second exhibition, we will open in in the end of January – beginning of February, but I’ll have to depart to close my Berlin project in January, 19.

Tell me about your suprematic costume. How the whole thing started? What was the situation when it first appeared?

A.Y.: I created my costume last year for the Amsterdam exposition «All girls to the front». The one where Hedy d’Ancona made a speech at the opening, she’s a former minister of welfare,
health and culture in the Netherlands. She is well into her eighties, a female politician and a second-wave feminist. I understood she was preparing a speech, and as an artist I would barely stand against her heavy political message. You know, my main weapon has always been a visual language, and I had to come up with something on par with her political speech. And I knew it gotta be clothing. I took a shirt and painted a few geometrical figures on it. Two squares, two arcs and a triangle. Of course I visited Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam prior to it where Malevich and Mondrian were exhibited at the time. Looking closely, I realized avant-garde to be a cultural export product in Russia. In this case I adore the fact that Malevich avoided anything pictorial or iconic, but I turn the situation inside-out: I take geometrical figures and form a certain sequence, making an illusion of a naked body in a distance. This image is very conventional, I may sit, and the composition will change so that nothing would be seen. Back in Netherlands I painted marks «Bonne Suits» on jackets and pants. Later they won a national design contest with that project and made a clothing collection with my drawings naming it «La Russie». They still produce good costumes at affordable price close to 200 euro. At some point I understood I need to look official. Need a classical jacket. So when I come in – everybody, behold, I’m officially naked now. This is an official statement, period. Not just a generic painted shirt or dress, but a canvas pulled on a peripatetic painting stretcher.

What do you transmit to the people by wearing it on the streets?

A.Y.: I represent my art. For me it’s a mobile exhibition, you walk and show portable graffiti. While generic graffiti is bound to one place and you need to move there, here I will reach you myself. This is a nomadic graffiti.

But do you have one jacket or several? Something tells me you’ve got a few.

A.Y.: Actually it’s the same jacket I made for The Uffizi Gallery, worn out quite a bit now. But I bought a bunch of white jackets, just haven’t painted them yet.

We did an interview last summer during you exhibition «Under the pavement – the beach!». You’ve changed a lot since then. From our communication I got an impression that most things have lost importance to you, or rather you got rid of a whole lot of everything to focus fully on art. Is that your new strategy?

A.Y.: Yes. My new strategy is to make efforts while building up right momentum. I spend my energy on art and art only, and it loves me back. That’s what my life is like. It’s a mission. I remember joking and telling an advocate, Vladimir Berschader was his name, that I’m a bride of canvas. And he was like «Who? Canvas widow?». And so I thought «Damn, if there is a place for a bride of canvas, must be a canvas widow too». Everything works for me just fine. I live in visuality, in art. I see it, it charges me, and I love it. I communicate with other people with a help of pictures, make a living, see others feasting their eyes on my paintings. I use them for barter, let’s say, first I painted for guys from Richter, and they gave me a free residence at first. And next time they gave me a discount. My pictures really make for it. I made current exhibition in exchange for my works and gave away to art collectors my series created in The Tretyakov Gallery. I showed it in Richter, and guys sponsored my exhibition and provided more than a million. For me it’s a straight barter, a collaboration of a sort. This really shows how works of art function. One gallery collaborates with another, as I give away paintings to be able to make even more paintings.

Does such concept as environment mean something to you? Sometimes I have a feeling you left the studio on Burakova street dissapointed. I remember you mentioned looking up to «older» pals, and by that I mean artists, who had more experience than you, and that didn’t lead to anything good.

A.Y.: No, I’m not disappointed in anything. It’s a sequence of random… intercourses (laughing), collaborations. I move on and meet some new people. Like in a fairytale helpers. You meet a hedgehog, meet a fox. Then you simply move on. On certain stages of my life I discover people I can do something with. The experience still remains after all, I feel I can share it with others. The same thing happens to the works – they will surely find their place anywhere.

Photo and interview made by Eugenia Zubchenko
Translated by Ivan Loginov