Maria Agureeva interviewed by Anna Komissarova
Photography: Michael Kovynyov
Style: Denis Paley
Hair and makeup: Maria Moskvitcheva
As art critic Aleksandr Evangeli duly noted, Masha Agureeva’s art is a medial adventure of an image. It also turns out that the whole of her artistic career is a streak of adventure. The artist told Anna Komissarova about non-accidental accidents in art, feminism with the face of Scarlet Johansson, latex experiments and exit from a “Russian hallway”.
A: Your first exhibition, «Formcolor», took place in 2009. Already then you started mixing mediums – of art, of flesh..
M: And photography.
A: Yes, I’ve got a question about photography. You studied in Saint Petersburg, and the influence of St Petersburg school of art and photography is very noticeable in your works, with all its mixed technics: cutouts, painting, collage. How much of an heir of this St Petersburg tradition do you consider yourself to be?
M: I majored in graphic design and advertising in St Petersburg, but this particular series was made purely intuitively. I didn’t know anything about modern art back then and didn’t know any artists. The influence may be explained by the fact that I was living there and breathing the same air. My immersion into art context happened suddenly, which is very typical of me. I just find myself in the whirlpool of events.
A: Do you mean you woke up one day and decided to be an artist?
M: Of course not. There was an art school, university, and an immense desire to be an artist. But what kind of an artist, what I was supposed to do – I had no idea. It was my lucky chance when I met curator Lisa Savvina. She had just started working in AL Gallery. It was summer, the director of the gallery was on vacation, and Lisa decided to make a show for me at her own risk. Then the owner of Moscow’s art gallery “Gridchinhall”, Sergey Gridchin, got interested in this series.
A: Was he in Saint Petersburg then?
M: No-no! He actually saw my pictures on Facebook.
A: Not bad!
M: He saw my work and said to me: “Come along, we will do an exhibition”. So, without much hesitation, I came to Moscow. The funniest thing is that this series was sold twice. One of the visitors bought everything. And then right after him another person bought four pictures out of ten. Can you believe it? It was like kicking the door into the art scene open! Even seems somewhat impolite. Everybody goes through thorough education, Rodchenko’s school of art… Sergey Gridchin was one of those who advised me to continue my studies, but the voice in my head was arrogantly brushing them all off, “Let them all go to hell”… I don’t know whether it was a mistake, but I chose the empirical way. Sasha Evangeli played a huge part in this process, having saturated my brain with art conceptions. He was curating my exhibition at the “Factory”.
A: About Sexuality and Soviet sport?
M: Yes. This series was also successful. It was nominated for Kandinsky prize, and another wave of luck got me to the next level – I met Maria Pecherskaya. We have now been working successfully for four and a half years.
A: There is an episode with “Tremendous Chicks” in your artistic bio. What influence has this project had later on?
M: Yes, it was another coincidence that our paths crossed with Ksenia Sorokina and Vika Marchenkova, and we started working together. It was my first experience with video and performance, they were completely new mediums for me. But Vika knew video inside out. After our collaboration had come to an end, I realised I wanted to work with video further, and my first performance followed.
A: In one of the episodes you, Ksysha and Vika take up roles of successful American artists. You are standing next to a fragment of your work saying something like “These are my favorite colours: yellow, pink, purple, green. I cover them with varnish because I like everything shiny”.
M: Actually, this is true to a degree. I like glossy surfaces, and spent a lot of time finding a technology to achieve this effect in my work. The viewers are fascinated by them just as much as I am. Almost everyone wants to touch them. I see how people fight this urge and I am happy that sometimes it is difficult to overcome. One person once whispered in my ear: “When you turn away I will lick your work”.
A: Looking at this video now, in 2018, it may seem that you were mocking at the future versions of yourselves. Today you are about to become a very successful American artist, your favorite colours are still yellow, pink, purple, green; and the works are shiny. Don’t you feel you’ve become hostage to the art-system that was once a subject of irony and criticism?
M: We were making fun of Russian reality and wanted to be a part of an American one. We were pretending to be New York artists who accidentally found themselves in Russian Kuzminki, trying to figure our how to survive under Russian conditions. Now I want to build myself into a different system, I would like to test my abilities and limits. American structure of art seems attractive to me now
A: What exactly do you mean?
The shell of the pearl shines brighter, 2018
M: The scale. I would like to work with a larger scope of materials, more expensive ones, like marble, metals, and try to mix them with plastic. And, of course, scale up the size of the work. Which means a whole different level of production costs. To be able to do that I need the circumstances to change. I haven’t yet had any suitable offers to make this happen in Russia.
A: Did your attitude to the American art scene change after you experienced it yourself?
M: I had a more idealized picture in my head before. Now I realize that no one will greet you “with posters” at arrivals. You have to work hard and for a very long time. Nonetheless, I can see myself clearly within this system, I can see what I could achieve. In Russia you often agree to fill in the niche that already exists, whereas in the USA you can control this process. I was amazed when I went to a modern art biennale in New York. It looked so daring, it could have been an art school degree show. I was under the impression that all the curatorial decisions were made right on the spot: “This has to go here, and let’s put this there”. The whole show was so fluid, agile, and the works – fairly audacious. That’s what the American system of art is like. Our system is much more academic, therefore, the scope for artistic development is very limited. As a result, you have to follow this narrow “Russian hallway”, you can’t dig up a “diversion trench”, if you do, the soil underneath will collapse and you will drown. Some kind of explosion has to happen.
A: Your work is rather feminist, but it seems like you don’t want to identify yourself with this movement?
M: I can’t say I support it fully. When I met curator David Ross, he told me: “You are such a great feminist!”. You had to see the expression on my face! He was surprised and asked me: “Why?”
A: I have the same question: “Why?”
M: I am, of course, interested in feminism. I witnessed demonstrations and parades in the USA, and I have to say that these forms of protest are developed much better there than in Russia. It’s difficult to fight for anyone’s rights here at the moment, while in the USA feminism is an integral part of politics and racial considerations. Of course, there are aggressors and inadequate people everywhere. But I still prefer it when Scarlett Johansson shouts out from a tribune: “Go to hell, Donald Trump!”. Maybe this is a very popularized and exaggerated version of feminism. But it looks much more attractive than the aggressive forms that it sometimes takes over here.
A: Talking about women and America. Is it right that the series with folded latex and glossy colored plastic emerged after your New York residency?
M: No, it was after my first trip to New York. It actually hit me like a bullet in the brain.
A: Your new series is reminiscent of the works by John Chamberlain, who used to crumple together old car parts, and Lynda Benglis, who poured colored latex directly on the gallery floor.
M: Yes, of course, I have seen these works live.
A: How much of an influence did these works have on you?
M: I like Lynda Benglis’s personality, I like her works. It’s a shame not all of them are preserved in a good condition. The ones made of wax, metals, polyurethane look great, while her latex floor sculptures, where she mixed latex with paint, unfortunately don’t look as good, even though, these are her most important works. I’ve been thinking, that each artist creates a work at some point, which determines who she or he is to become. For Benglis it could have been sculpture, but then this impudent photo appeared in “Artforum”, where the artist is posing with a dildo, as if it was a jab of a needle. And it was absolutely bang on. I’ve still not had such a piece, but I’d really like it to happen.
A: So what “jabbed” you in New York, what prompted you to experiment with latex and liquid plastic?
M: I was once walking home and got lost in Greenpoint. There is a passage from Willamsburg to Greenpoint, a little quarter built-in with glass-covered houses. This transparency amazed me so much that I kept coming back there several nights in a row, it was my personal theatre. I used to sit on a bench looking at how people live in these glass cubicles. Some of them didn’t even have curtains. I guess the feeling that you are living in a fish tank disappears after a while. Actually, America at large is a story about a plastic frame, which doesn’t exist. You create yourself, model your image, a glossy surface. It’s not an accident that they have so many life coaches.
A: Looking at this series, you do associate it with a kind of a display, where subjectivity comes down to a glossy surface, where there is no more boarder between the external and internal – they flow into each other.
M: I was trying to combine two materials – at first it were white concrete and plastic. After my first trip to America I had an acute feeling of contrast between synthetic and organic, the depth of internal and deliberately external. First successful sculptures from this series were shown in MMOMA’s exhibition “One inside of the other”, curated by Anna Arutynyan and Andrey Egorov. Then I started experimenting with natural latex and plastic. America is actually very inspirational because of the fact that there is nothing real in it. You can, for example, walk into a store with healthy food and see seemingly natural fresh flowers. Then you move on and see crates carelessly stacked one on another with fresh fruit in them, just as if it was a market. But then you realize that everything is made of plastic, even the crates – everything is a wholesome plastic construction. It may seem that the price tags are written by hand with a chalk, but no — it’s a print, it’s fake as well. This condition of fake-façade is everywhere. It was an amazing discovery for me!
A: Is there something behind this façade?
M: It is difficult to say. I tried watching people in New York. Almost anyone who I talked to were immigrants. They all start playing this game and successfully become part of the system. One person, who likes New York a lot, told me that he doesn’t know another country where people are so willing to let their freedom go. They want everything to be decided for them. I was haunted by a feeling of a slight disappearance when I was in New York. Los Angeles is a different story. If you can’t get through to a person at 5 pm, it means he’s got his sneakers on, and jogs by the ocean, or doing barbeque at his backyard. You always have a choice: you can work, or you can chill out in a nice place. And it’s great – the very possibility of finding balance is very attractive. New York in this regard in ruthless and uncompromising. One more bonus from the City of Angels is affordable rent. You get it why artists from Los Angeles work with large formats. The question of rent for a young artist is very important. I felt immediately that I could start working productively with size here.
A: Speaking of disappearance, your new work “Dust” can be seen as a statement about a subject in an era of self design and techno glamour. It turns itself into dust in a fit of deadly narcissism. One can see an interesting evolution: from corporeal fragmentariness, which can be observed in your earlier work, to complete dispersion.
M: Yes, but there is a screen, one out of five, where dust starts living its own life, it becomes free of fixation on anything, free and endlessly renovated. It is an eternal process of self rebirth in the new, unknown forms.
See Maria’s profile on Abode.
Translated from Russian by Galina Svirina
Edited by Anna Glinkina