Dorota Michalska, 15 August 2018
A CARNIVAL TO OVERCOME ALIENATION
INTERVIEW WITH GLUKLYA (NATALIA PERSHINA-YAKIMANSKAYA)
Textiles were for decades disregarded as a “female” and “amateurish” kind of craft which stands in sharp contrast to “high art”. In the late 80. you graduated from the Mukhina Academy of Fine Art and Design in St Petersburg. What was the approach to textiles back then in Russia? Were they considered a full-fledged kind of art or relegated to the domain of crafts?
The Mukhina Academy in St Petersburg in the 80s was a very traditional art school where textiles were perceived as craft rather than art. Crafts were a very important element of visual culture in Soviet Russia. In the 70s and 80s artists often supported themselves by working on state commissions such as tapestries, textiles, or, more generally, interior design projects for state building.
My approach to textiles was quite different. It was more conceptual rather than purely aesthetic. I was very lucky because my teacher at that time was Boris Migal – a famous textile artist in Soviet Russia with a more avant-garde approach – who was very tolerant and supported my practice from the beginning. I graduated in 1989, my diploma piece was entitled “The Magic Eye”. It was already a conceptual piece – a sort of deconstructed textile made of grey and brown ropes with fragments of a broken mirror.
In 1995, you co-founded together with your friend Tsaplya “The Factory of Found Clothes”. The 1990s were a time of groundbreaking changes in Russia. How have those events informed your practice?
In the early 90s, I often went to the Puskinskaya Art Center in St Petersburg where a lot of artists from different generations were hanging out. It was there that – together with Tsaplya – we started working on The Factory of Found Clothes and the notion of fragility. In the 1990s everything was changing very quickly, capitalism was being implemented and a lot of people were left disfranchised. In this context, both Tsaplya and I started to explore the notion of fragility to underline how those historical and economic changes were affecting the most marginalised social groups in Russia: the working class, women, LGBT communities. This is also why we decided to work not just generally with textiles or materials, but specifically with clothes. We felt that clothing was a very direct way to approach the most intimate and delicate aspects of the human psyche. Also, in the 1990s in Russia you could experience a real merging of life and art and “dresses” expressed this fusion.
Textiles have a particularly complicated relationship with labor. Friedrich Engels’s and Karl Marx’s theorizations about capitalism were rooted in their observations of textile factories in XIX England. Today’s most of our clothes are produced in Bangladesh, China or Chile. How do you fabricate your clothes? Where do they come from?
Most of the textiles I use were handed down to me by other people. My friends constantly bring to my studio old clothes they don’t need anymore. I don’t really buy new stuff. In the past years, I have only bought some materials from a textile manufacture in the Russian city of Ivanovo. In the XIX century, the city was called the “Russian Manchester” because of its famous manufacturing industry. Ivanovo has also played a very important part in the history of class struggles. The working class movement was always very strong in the city: this is where the first strikes took place in 1905 which soon spread out across the whole country. Nowadays, most factories are struggling financially – indeed most have closed down in recent decades – so for me is especially important to buy those local products.
In the exhibition “Women at Work: Subverting the Feminine in Post-Soviet Russia” at the White Space Gallery in London you display a “shroud” dedicated to Timur Novikov – a key figure in the artistic scene of the 1990s in St Petersburg. Novikov is today mostly known from his fabric motifs which combine a pop sensibility with an avant-garde approach to textiles. What was your relationship with Novikov? Was his approach to materials in the 80s and 90s informative for your own artistic practice? How are those reflected in the “shroud” piece?
In the 1990s Novikov was an established artist both in Russia and on the international scene. Everyone knew him in St Petersburg. The younger generation of artists had an ambivalent relationship with him: he was a “master” figure, but at the same time we felt the need to distantiate ourselves from him. To put it simply our concepts were different, we worked with different subjects. He was this dandy figure, while I was more interested in the social and political context of contemporary art. However, after he went blind in 1997 we with Tsaplya felt the need to support him as our comrade and friend. We did a performance entitled “The Whites visit Timur Novikov”. My friends and I came to his house dressed in white chemical warfare suits with several gifts symbolising our respect to him as a great artist and person.
Textiles have played since decades a very important role in queer and “genderbending” communities as in the case of drag-queens performances or underground theatre troupes. Would you describe your clothes as either queer or camp?
I wouldn’t call my clothes camp or queer. But it is true that a lot of artists involved in textiles in Soviet Russia were gay or challenging the gender divide. My first teacher Boris Migal was gay, he died in the 1990s, I think he had AIDS. No one in Russia at that time spoke really about those things. But I think that textiles – and more generally interior design – was an area of art where a lot of people could find a sort of “refuge” from censorship and state control. This, for instance, was also the case of my father who was an architect interested in the ideas of Le Corbusier and in the Bauhaus. He couldn’t really put those concepts into practice in the Soviet Union so he eventually moved to interior design where he could work on more experimental projects.
Since 2011, you have been working on the project “Carnival of the Oppressed Feelings” which involves staging a carnivalesque parade in different cities in collaboration with immigrants’ communities. How do you see the connection between textiles and migration?
Textiles have a particularly complicated relationship to capitalism and colonialism. Very often the circulation of textiles was linked to mass – often forced – migration of people. During my workshops with refugee and immigrants I attempt to reverse this colonializing tendency: give the clothes back to those historically exploited communities while at the same time freeing the textiles from their original function as mere goods.
My artistic practice has changed a lot in confrontation with the immigrants’ communities in Bologna, Amsterdam and other European cities. I started to perceive working with textiles as almost an architectural practice. I often think of the workshops and the clothes we create in terms of an “invisible house”, a protective space. This is why I am increasingly often using industrial materials, especially isolating foams. Foams play such an interesting role within a construction: they occupy a space in-between, acting like a buffer layer between other materials. They are both resistant and flexible. This is very much related to my latest idea of the New Hybrid Human. Communism aimed to create The New Man, but today we need a different concept, one way more inclusive in terms of genders, identities and nationalities.
The notion of the carnivalesque – coined by Mikhail Bakhtin in his groundbreaking study on the role of the carnival in Middle-Ages societies – has been employed in recent years by many activists’ initiatives such as the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army or the Carnival against Capital. Accordingly to Bakhtin, carnivals had the potential to break down existing boundaries and to enable genuine dialogue. However, don’t you think that nowadays they have been mostly co-opted by capitalism and have turned into a holiday or spectacle?
Exactly. The contemporary carnival has become a dull commercial festival that reminds rather a march of the zombies. Bakhtin described the carnivals taking place in the Middle Ages as moments of profound reinvention, truly life-changing events – in the sense described by Alain Badou – where everyone is equal. They brought hope to people that a different kind of life, a different way of being with others was possible.
In my project, I am trying to go back to the original potential of the carnival. Which is of course very hard, exactly because of the reasons you mentioned. To me, the carnival is supposed to give presence, voice and visibility to immigrants and to imagine a better society. Each of the costumes was designed after months of meetings and discussions with the people taking part in the project. I try to give them space and help them to create their own visual language. The carnivals are also an opportunity to learn from refugees and create connections between them and the rest of society. I want to try to build an event where life and art can influence each other with the common goal to overcome alienation.