Art Is a Deep and Multifaceted Conversation
Yana Vasilyeva is a contemporary artist and researcher from Krasnodar who works in the fields of photography, sculpture, and installation. In her artistic activities, she leans on visual codes and symbolism. The author often depicts human interaction with nature and explores utopias, fragility, corporeality, and the influence of information flows.
Artist and researcher, member of the Union of Photo Artists of Russia, prize-winner of international contests, participant of international festivals and exhibitions
Yana Vasilyeva is prize-winner of international photo contests (the International Photography Awards, the Prix de la Photographie Paris, the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers, etc.). She is also participant of such festivals and exhibitions as the Head on Photo Festival (Australia), the Berlin Foto Biennale (Germany), the Pingyao International Photography Festival (China), the Palm Springs Art Museum (USA), and the Young Photographers of Russia.
Viewers can look at the artist’s works infinitely and find new messages and layers of meaning put into them. Her pieces of art are always deep and metaphorical. They encourage people’s thoughts and self-analysis.
In her interview with the Global Women Media, Yana Vasilyeva told about her studies, visual codes, and opportunities of the language of art.
– How did your path in art begin?
– I have a creative family. My father is a blacksmith and my mother was a jeweller for a long time. They were always creating something and making sketches and designs for their works. My sister and I have been in that creative atmosphere since we were children. That influenced greatly our perception of the world.
Even when we were small children, my father took us with him to the forge. We made creatures using waste material and watched my father with admiration as if he were an alchemist. We were interested in literally everything: how he heated iron and then created incredible shapes out of it, how he climbed into the huge furnace to clean it at the end of the day.
As my father likes to say, my training in blacksmithing still takes place ‘through our hands’. After observing his work process, I come to many solutions independently. However, sometimes my father can guide me. Today, I still help him with some of his work. Simultaneously with that, I use metal as a material for my own artistic projects. In fact, some blacksmithing tools and equipment are really dangerous and difficult to use. My father used to insist on his doing some phases of my work instead of me. However, I am a maximalist in artistic terms. It is extremely important for me to do everything on my own, to get in touch with the material and let the whole process pass through me.
– You were born into a family of blacksmith. That is where your passion for sculpture and installation originate. What is the source of your interest in photography?
– I believe that photography found me. My parents brought up very versatile individuals in my sister and me. They allowed us to develop in all the areas of our interests. We learned foreign languages and took piano lessons.
When the first Polaroid cameras appeared in Russia, we got one of them. Although it was quite expensive at that time, my parents never prohibited me to use it. That’s how I started running everywhere with the camera, taking weird shots, and exploring everything around me.
When recalling the images that I shot in my childhood, I find echoes of topics and techniques that I consciously use in my art today.
I’ve grown up over the years but the camera has stayed with me. I gradually came to commercial photography and then completely escaped from it into art. However, it should be noted that I could not call myself an artist for a long time.
I graduated from Kuban State University with a degree in International Relations. I had an idealistic picture of global peace and the contribution I could make to the solution of world problems. That picture collapsed quite quickly but the set of values remained.
Fortunately, my parents didn’t insist on me becoming a diplomat. That’s why I just got a good education and kept on finding my vocation.
As a university student, I went to the USA twice within a student exchange programme. After my graduation, I decided to continue travelling.
My worldwide travels required money I didn’t have. Photography helped me a lot with that. I started working as a photographer at an American cruise ship. We sailed around the Caribbean, crossed the Atlantic, and survived a terrible storm on the way. I finished my contract in Europe when I was on a cruise around the European Mediterranean.
I had bright memories of that work despite the fact that it was uneasy: I had to work 12-14 hours per day with no days off. I shot about 5000 photos per day following a certain sample and had to take heavy equipment with me everywhere. However, for me, photography became that very guide to the world of travelling and learning about other cultures.
Upon returning home, I experienced a complete burnout and didn’t do photography for almost 2 years. I gradually resumed my photographic activities and, after a long break, I found myself at the peak of commercial shooting.
The year 2014 was a watershed moment for me. I realised that I could no longer pursue commercial work but photography was an integral part of my life. If felt that we were tied together. I still experienced an acute need for being involved, just like in my university years. Thus, I finally saw that I could express myself through art. Art made it possible for me to seek equality, oppose violence and destruction, speak out against socio-cultural problems and other issues that concerned me. Thanks to photography, I returned to blacksmithing and reopened it for myself in a new light. Feeling the urgent need to get back to volumetric artworks, I started making my own sculptures and installations.
– What are the most interesting things in art for your personally?
– The opportunity to discuss topics that concern me in a language that is close to me, provoke thought forms in my viewers, create entire worlds, and develop our inner filling is the most interesting thing for me.
On the one hand, art always reflects the social, political, and economic topics relevant to people. On the other hand, it serves as the reflection of the artist and transmits his or her world picture.
Art doesn’t give you answers to your questions. For me, art is also a process of utopian rethinking of some of the opportunities that we have or could have. I also consider art as a way of establishing communication, a deep and multifaceted conversation, and a means of triggering our fantasy.
For me, art has become my freedom and something without which I can no longer exist. Of course, support is important for independent artists like me. I earn my living with direct interaction with collectors. I am funded by royalties, grants, and scholarships. I am currently working actively thanks to a grant from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Its support is particularly timely and important for me because it allows me to create freely.
– Which of your projects do you consider to be the most significant ones?
– I don’t have any works or projects that I would consider my best ones. I’m quite self-critical about my art.
However, the Soul photo project is probably one of the most significant works for me. I have been shooting it together with my mother for several years already. Today, the project is limited to photographs. However, I plan to complete it with installations and sculptures soon.
My mother is a rare person with an invincible romanticism and heightened sensitivity of perception. For many years, she has suffered from depression and an inability to express herself. She has a number of chronic illnesses, including diabetes, and that has caused major vision problems. The project became a multi-layered bridge to the space of her creativity. It is somewhere quirky but certainly fascinating.
The process of creating the Soul photo series became a way of fulfilment for both of us. It is our path away from emotional alienation and sensory deprivation. During our collaboration, things that are taboos for my mother (body and corporeality, showing emotions, hugs) and conservatism go away. The armour falls away and freedom emerges. This story is not about illness but about how a person can live and feel in changed circumstances that he or she can’t influence. It is a journey towards openness.
It should be mentioned that my mother is a really strong person. Just recently she underwent a lens replacement surgery. A long way towards recovery awaits her but my mother can at least see something with her right eye. She has also not been crushed by the joint disease. Until a few years ago, my mom was a jeweler. She painted a lot and created her original jewellery products, which were sometimes very large. Her hands were twisted with pain and were swelling from arthrosis. That led to her inability to continue jewellery activities. She has shifted her energy to collecting and growing plants. Searching for the rarest species from literally all over the world is one of her hobbies. Our house now has a mobile greenhouse ‘circulating’ through space and time. Eyes and hands have found their reflection in the project and become new chapters.
– You exhibit your works not only in Russia but also abroad. What, in your opinion, makes exhibition platforms in different countries different?
– Generally speaking, I would not divide art in terms of its national belonging or any other factors.
An artist’s work either evokes feelings or leaves the viewer indifferent. It doesn’t matter much what country the work is exhibited in. The language of art is universal and, in some terms, individual at the same time.
In my opinion, the difference lies in the communication between different institutions and artists, in the level of development of the work ethic.
– In your creative activities, you lean on visual codes. What does that mean?
– Visual codes are peculiar keys that I give to my viewers through my visual language, metaphors, and layers of information inspiring their reflections.
My works are about subtle relationship with fragility (for example, that of body and nature, mentality and consciousness, reciprocity and solidarity), purification of media and decoding messages; exploring personal and social nuances; creating multi-layered worlds with the presence of fiction, and building communities around them.
My works always have a concept but I never impose it on the viewer.
I like to visit galleries, museums, or contemporary art centres, form my independent opinion on what I see, and only then read the explanations and curatorial texts.
I have a photo project called Defragmentation, which is a series of still-lifes where I explore the idea of introspection and existence in a clipped culture. I also ask myself about the peculiarities of my vision, the meaning of particular objects to me, and the part of the symbolic messages embedded in them that I can decode. When being alone in the kitchen and having only light from the window, I used what I had around me at the time of making the works: kitchen utensils and food.
I position my still life paintings as sculptures. I spend whole hours making them and turn my creative activity into meditation and purification process.
The term ‘defragmentation’ itself is about what we do with our hard drive to make the computer faster. I invite the viewer to defragment their own internal ‘hard drive’, reboot themselves, and look at familiar things from a new perspective.
My work is a ‘layer cake’. Through colour, light, and metaphors, I want to start the process of ‘reassembling’ the viewer, of immersing him or her into these layers. I want my audience to start questioning what each detail means and what associations the images cause.
For example, I have a work showing two over-ripe pears. Some viewers compared them to an elderly couple. The colouring of the fruit reminded people of age spots and their placement was a metaphor for mutual support.
It is very interesting for me to find out what people see in my works. That is how they are engaged in a process of co-creation.
‘Conquerors of the Dawn’ is my another project linked to symbolism, metaphors, and co-creation. Each sculpture consists of two parts: a driftwood and a forged shell. While investigating the traces on the wood left by the currents, it is important for me to study the materials and collect ‘those having spent some time’ in rivers, seas, and oceans. Without rotting, they were thrown ashore. I pick them and transform the material. The piece of wood becomes the reflection of corporeality and the formless snag becomes the soul of the creature hidden under armour, under protection that we sometimes need so much in today's world. It is also important to make sure that the tree is not ‘imprisoned’ but can easily ‘get out’ and remains untouched by the fiery metal.
To create my sculptures, I collect driftwood from all over the world. Creating a large flotilla and resonating with the idea of unity and building utopia, people send me different pieces of wood they found.
The name of the project itself refers to a fictional ship from a story by Clive Staples Lewis. In that story, different characters on the same ship overcame different situations. My project is very much the same: we are all very different, each of us has his or her own course of action, desires, and goals. However, in a global sense, we all want the same things: happiness, health for our loved ones, and stability. Many things become possible thanks to mutual support. In my project, I am saying that we are all like ships with their inner compartments, bulkheads, open decks, and secret dark holds. We are Conquerors meeting the challenges of a new day with every dawn. Like free winds, we pass through wicked shoals and underwater icebergs to conquer the depths and expanses as part of a fleet of our fellows.
– What inspires you?
– I don’t believe in inspiration that comes down to the artist like manna from heaven and stimulates him or her to create. I believe in working hard and art is a lot of constant work. I would rather use terms like 'strength' and 'support' instead of 'inspiration'.
For me, strength and support lie primarily in my family. My sister and parents support all my ideas, even the craziest and most complicated ones. They don’t tell me that some of my initiatives are stupid or unrealistic. They just help me to find a budget or tools, materials, and ways to fulfil my ideas.
Nature also gives me a big boost of energy. I was shaped by the forests of Ubinka, Mezmai, the waters of the Black Sea, the territory of Kuban, Adygea, and the nature of the North Caucasus, a crossroads of civilizations. I spent there all my childhood and that inevitably left its trace on me.
Nature gives me a sense of freedom and tranquillity. It inspires me and becomes my stable pillar of support.
The energy of interaction with people and like-minders is important for me. I draw inspiration from different cultures, ideas, collectivity, and solidarity.
Recently I was invited to take part in the Young Photographers of Russia festival in Kaluga as an expert in a portfolio review. It’s unforgettable when very young authors show you their works with glowing eyes full of enthusiasm, when you see like-minded people living for the sake of their work and projects. I believe, such communication is the embodiment of great strength.
Photos by Katya Krylova, Ivan Erofeev, Alina Desyatnichenko, and Yana Vasilyeva
Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov