You’ve used creative-commons licensed images in the past, as well as taking your own pictures, do you consider yourself a photographer or a visual artist?
I don’t think much about definitions when I am actually making work. They don’t help. There is a natural crossover between using found images in my ongoing project Landscape Sublime, for example, and making my own observational photographs (FloodZone, Floridas, Image Cities) because so much of my work is an exploration of the visual conventions that shape the image world around us, and of how these conventions help to condition our response. So, there is always something reflexive in my work about image culture.
Landscape is at the heart of your work, why do you like to deconstruct it?
Yes, landscape is nearly always present in one way or another. Perhaps the key here is the triple meaning of ‘landscape’: a type of picture, a type of view, and a type of place. The three cannot really be separated. The experience of a place is shaped in advance by our experience of images of it, and of related places. It is easy to realise this, but coming to terms with the profound implications of it can take a long time. It is a moving dynamic.
You’ve also reflected on the photographic medium and its influence on our society, what conclusions did you draw?
The writer and curator David Campany once said: “We must have our way with images, or they will have their way with us.” Sometimes it feels as if society is in some kind of love-hate dependent relationship with images. It can be exhausting, fascinating, overwhelming, liberating… But it is always quite intense – for me at least. I think an artist using photography cannot escape being aware of the medium’s uses outside of art, in daily life. And even if the artist is not aware, the viewer is. So, photography in and as art tends to be a refinement or reflection upon photography outside of art. And part of this, for me, involves a reflection upon the influence of photography on society. That is always there in my work, somehow.
You grew up in Moscow and were trained in environmental design and painting. How has Russian art and avant-garde influenced your work?
The women of the Russian avant-garde have affected me deeply, but in different and not always obvious ways. There are traces of Constructivism in my compositions and use of color, and in the oscillation between deep space and the flat picture plane. The pictorial boldness in my work comes partly from those influences too – a need to make the work as visually compelling as possible. Also, many of those Russian avant-garde women were incredibly versatile, aspiring to work across disciplines and without borders, between the fine arts and the applied arts, between pictures, three-dimensional space and architecture.
Recently I have made giant, mural-size works for the outside of buildings. I cannot imagine me wanting to make work like that without the influence of the Russian avant-garde. Having said all that, my work is very different from that. I have absorbed those influences quite organically, I think. I don’t emulate them.
You have mentioned that you find contemporary photography ‘derivative and redundant’, can you elaborate on that?
I think photographic art has always been a matter of a few pioneers opening up new directions and a lot of followers. I think also that photography is made up of shared approaches, shared conventions that belong to nobody, so there is a natural exchange that goes on. If we look beyond mere style, genuine originality is actually quite rare in photography.
Your projects often reveal underlying societal or environmental issues, do you consider yourself a militant artist?
I am not militant but I am concerned and engaged. Art is not a great space for activism. Activism tends to want to encourage the right answers. Art tends to want to encourage the right questions. Both are important.
Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘female gaze’?
Only as a theoretical and political abstraction. It’s useful on that level but it doesn’t describe the realities of the complex relationship between gender identity and looking. There seems to be a lot of confusion around this point at the moment, and debates often end up presuming that if you identify as female then your ‘gaze’ must be ‘female’. We seem to have forgotten the lessons of psychoanalytic theory, which insist upon identity always being layered, multiple, and shifting. Yes, in a largely patriarchal society there are experiences common to women, and to men, but it makes no sense to presume each group is defined by and limited to a type of ‘gaze’. That’s just not how subjectivities are lived and embodied.
What women artists have inspired you?
From the Russian avant-garde, which I mentioned earlier, Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter, in particular. Beyond that, there are so many. Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, Hannah Hoch, Berenice Abbott, Barbara Morgan, Barbara Kasten, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Astrid Klein.