Bought demonstrators, a beheaded Lenin sculpture, and cat pictures: Anna Jermolaewa’s work is deeply influenced by social structures and political themes. In this interview, Jermolaewa talks about her contribution to the 6th Moscow Biennale for Contemporary Art, Russia’s current political situation, and her new show at Vienna’s Kerstin Engholm Gallery.
At age 18, you fled the Soviet Union and escaped, first to Poland and from there to Austria, where you stayed at a refugee camp in Traiskirchen. I suppose the current events probably bring up a lot of memories and great compassion with the refugees. How do you deal with this situation and how does it influence your everyday life and your work?
The current situation is not directly reflected in my work. I pay close attention to it because it moves me. It brings up memories and people tend to ask me about it. I’m of course very much interested to see how different countries deal with it. I’m also quite concerned about the fence in Steiermark.
In Norway I did a work on this subject: there is a short border with Russia with just one crossing-point. On the Norwegian side there are containers filled with bicycles and that caught my attention. Refugees fly to Russia and then cycle across the border from Murmansk. There’s an agreement at this crossing-point: the border may be crossed only by bicycle. Because of the current legal situation, refugees can’t cross on foot or by car, and that’s why they cycle 120m to get across the border. These sometimes huge, sometimes tiny bicycles, left at the border, have moved me deeply. Some of those bicycles aren’t even totally unwrapped because they’ve only been used once. However, this work isn’t finished yet, I’m still working on it.
Everyday life, your own story and history in general influence your work. What’s the motivation behind your works? When you deal with your own story, would you describe your work as an effort to come to terms with it?
To me, private stories in general, and particularly my own story represent a larger context. I use these stories as links. In the same context, I of course also work with my own story. These are the themes that I know best.
In December 2011 you flew to St. Petersburg to take part in one of the largest anti-Putin demonstrations that have been possible over the last years. A demonstration that may well have been the last of its size since laws were adjusted accordingly after the event. What is interesting is that shortly after, several pro-Putin demonstrations took place. Demonstrators were probably, or even obviously, bought. This is very common. Many people in Russia try to increase their income that way. You used this practice for your own contribution to the 6th Moscow Biennale. You bought demonstrators for a demonstration, both for and against the Biennale, and therefore both for and against contemporary art. Why is there so much criticism against contemporary art in Russia?
The Russian Church is especially against contemporary art: it is Russia’s number one enemy. Any freedom of belief as well as any liberal approach to sexuality is immediately silenced. It’s very common for uniformed policemen to storm exhibitions and destroy works, in the name of faith. A really terrible situation. I consider the church as dangerous, because Putin uses it, among other reasons. Unfortunately the church is very much corrupted and in combination with Putin this is a very problematic situation.
I had been interested in working with the theme of bought demonstrators for a while. The energy of the people who demonstrated in St. Petersburg in 2011 ended up being completely suffocated. When it became clear that the elections had been manipulated, people were simply fed up. Instead of prohibiting these demonstrations, the government had simply developed a new strategy: all of the sudden, there were pro-Putin-Demonstrations as well – in even more central places, with even more people. College students were forced to participate or else they’d be taken off the university register. Entire buses would take demonstrators from the provinces into town and more demonstrators were bought.
How many demonstrators where involved at the 6th Moscow Biennale? Did they show any interest in the motives of the demonstration?
Most of the times, these professional demonstrators aren’t given any information concerning the causes they are demonstrating for or against. Nobody cares! All they know is when and for how long they need to be there, and how much money they’re going to get for it.
I bought 120 people for the Moscow Biennale and only three asked what the demonstration was about. It was very interesting to observe how the bought demonstrators acted while signing up. Some took the lead, and made sure that everything was well organized. Later they marched in double rows to the venue where the Biennale was held.
More than anything else, I was interested in those political bodies that were selling themselves. In preparation for the demonstration, I and my colleagues had prepared some slogans for and against contemporary art. The demonstrators were allowed to choose what slogan they wanted to use. The demonstration lasted four hours. Inside and outside. At 7PM they all lined up and I paid them: 500 roubles each, that’s less than 8 euros. The payment is usually taken care of in a hidden place, far from the public eye. Instead, I filmed the process. I didn’t notice it at first, but they were mainly elderly women who simply can’t live off their retirement and are forced to take such jobs.
What was the demonstrators’ reaction when they suddenly found themselves being part of contemporary art instead of being “just” part of a demonstration?
It was very interesting to observe how they dealt with the slogans. A woman asked a man to explain the word “Biennale” that was written on her banner to her. He told her that a Biennale is a contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years. It made her happy because she thought she had caught something good. Fellow artists that were present at the time, later told me that some of the demonstrators walked around the venue with great curiosity. All of them thought that the demonstration was real. They were well trained in what to tell the media. When asked, they’d always sustain that they hadn’t been bought, that they were activists and had made their banners themselves. Upon receiving their payment, many of them asked when the next demonstration would take place.
Besides the politics of your native country and your own story, another subject you focus on in your works is the relationship between man and animal. At first sight, those works seem to escape the confines of hierarchy. Yet some complex themes exceed seemingly pure aesthetics. Why were you interested in discussing the relationship between man and animal? Is there a higher goal, a message you want to get through?
I love animals. As a little kid, I wanted to be a veterinary. I’ve always had a close relationship to animals. When I lived with my family in a prefabricated slab building in Leningrad I would feed stray dogs. Animals are simply part of my life. In my works, they often appear as metaphors.
Cat photos are among the most frequently goggled and most popular images on the internet. In your work Hermitage Cats, you show portraits of 40 cats presenting them very much like the “Tables of Honor” in the Soviet Union. The cat portraits on the internet are mainly created out of a predilection for cats and tend to be linked to an aesthetic point of view. The background of your works is much more complex. Cats have been working in the heritage of your home country for 250 years. They’re employed to chase mice and rats. From a cat’s perspective a very attractive job. A kind of cooperation. But only as long as man allows it, as World War II has shown. During a siege and the resulting famine, all the cats were eaten. One could say that cats became saviors, real heroes. In the works that reflect the history of man and animal, are you aiming to criticize the way animals are treated?
My cat work is definitely intended to be understood in a political way. These 40 cat portraits can be really cheesy and may remind us of a cat calendar. And that’s intentional. The cheesy surface catches the spectator’s attention to then gear it toward more serious subjects.
One of your latest works, “About Goats and Women in Oil Production,” shows how animals increasingly produce or are used to produce products for men – until men no longer considered the result as satisfactory. Why did you pick this subject?
I like to show larger contexts. That’s something I also do in my work about the goats in Morocco. I went there twice and had the opportunity to study the local production. The subject is complex: for centuries, peasants have been using their goats to eat their argan trees’ nuts, thereby softening their shells for any further production.
But then big corporations moved in. They no longer wanted goats to be part of the production. They didn’t want the final product to have a strong smell. Nowadays only small farms that live off their own products have kept using goats. Morocco now also has a state-subsidized women’s initiative. These women who are now working in the argan production have grown very self-confident and are proud of their production.
How do you see the relationship between animal and man today?
That depends on the individual culture we’re dealing with. I was interested in doing the work with the goats and the one with the cats because they illustrate the collaboration between man and animal very well. I see it as a perfect deal.
How do you create your works? Do you start with a theme, or do your subjects and works come spontaneously?
Both. The goats were a discovery I made during a trip. As for the cats, that’s a story I had been familiar with for a long time.
What is your new show in the Kerstin Engholm Gallery about?
There’s a clear line. There’s the Ukrainian removal of images that I observed this summer. In the course of de-communization a lot of image rhetoric was removed from public space. In addition, I show a work that I’ve been working on since 1996 – basically my life’s work. Every five years, I return to the same place: I always film the same subway station in St. Petersburg where I grew up. With a hidden camera I go up and down the escalator while always filming the opposite escalator. That’s my personal Five-Year Plan.
Exhibition: 15/01/2016 – 05/03/2016
Kerstin Engholm Gallery • Schleifmühlgasse 3 • 1040 Vienna • Austria