There are two narratives related to the relationship between the United States and Russia running parallel to one another in contemporary culture. One, of course, is related to renewed political tensions that have arisen as a result of the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Putin and the Kremlin to rig the 2016 election in The Donald’s favor. The other is all about aesthetics. Designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia of Vêtements and Balenciaga as well as the brands’ stylist Lotta Volkova have led a seismic shift within the fashion industry at large by bringing post-Soviet aesthetics into the Western limelight. All of a sudden, bootleg sportswear brands, Cyrillic graphic texts, and Russian rock musicians like Zemfira are being fetishized by fashionistas and streetwear obsessed skateboarders alike. Somewhere between the political demonization and the fashion fetishization, however, lies a whole generation of youthful Russian artists making work that puts their specific view points into context. Baby, I like it Raw, an exhibition of video and photography (on view at the Czech Center in New York) curated by Czech Republic-born fine art photographer Marie Tomanova and art historian Thomas Beachdel, captures the spirit of a generation of artists trying to make sense of the Westernization of their Eastern Bloc homes while holding onto one spiritual truth: youth is eternal.
The show features a wide variety of subject matter united by a coherent aesthetic; most of the work utilizes the snapshot style of progenitors like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin capturing raw and human moments of youthful intensity. Tomanova herself contributed prints of an archive of diaristic photographs she had taken on an early cell phone camera (interesting that cell phone photography has become a vintage art form) while still living in the Czech Republic. Russian artist Slava Mogutin, perhaps the best known artist in the exhibition, contributed snapshot photographs full of nude Russian boys having good laughs posing for the camera. Ukranian art collective Gorsad goes straight for the shock with a series of staged photographs of very young looking teenagers in pseudo-fetishized poses. In Hungry Boy, a video piece by Sam Centore, a young man chugs a Gatorade and then converts the bottle into a makeshift bong to get lit; a simultaneous embracing and deconstruction of capitalism itself. The exhibition is heavily influenced by Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov who has for decades captured the beauty and pain of his Russian subjects. Baby, I like it Raw has a distinctive ‘Russian-ness’ to it: the brutalist architecture, the open spaces, the harshness of the landscapes and lifestyles. But it also emphasizes that certain things; art, culture, drugs, sex, parties and youthful exuberance; are not inherently geographical. [Thomas and I] wanted to show that the youth in the East is the same as youth in the West,” says Tomanova. “Youth is global.”
Marie Tomanova graduated with an MFA in painting when she decided to move to New York. Though she had always taken pictures, it was a trip to Francesca Woodman’s career survey at the Guggenheim that influenced her to pursue photography as an art form; it resulted in a series of lush and melancholic self-portraits largely set against a natural background. Tomanova and I spoke at length about Baby, I like it Raw, the infiltration of Russian aesthetics into Western culture, creepy wannabe New York fashion photographers, and Nan Goldin.
ADAM LEHRER: Specifically within the fashion industry right now, you have designers like Demna at Vêtements and Gosha, and Soviet aesthetics have become the source of much fetishization in the West. Were you trying to bring some context into those aesthetics that have infiltrated the fashion industry and Western culture?
MARIE TOMANOVA: You can see in America that there are lots of things inspired by the aesthetics of the east. I remember in high school my boyfriend was wearing adidas and nike and all of it was fake! Some of it was even misspelled! But it was about having that brand! That's what inspires Gosha.
LEHRER: Demna, too. Vêtements has embraced bootleg versions of its clothes.
TOMANOVA: Of course! It created this massive craving for the west. But all of a sudden, it changed. In the show, we are looking at what it means to have that sudden of a change, and how all these people are now encountering Western culture and building their identities through it.
LEHRER: I wrote a piece about Vêtements for SSENSE last year; I was trying to understand why this brand has gotten so much heat. I pointed at something Demna said in an interview with 032C, where he talked about how the wall came down while he was a child in Tlibisi and suddenly Western brands, music, art and culture flooded his head space. But now, with the Internet, we are all flooded all the time. So it’s like that post-Soviet cultural idiom predicted digital culture.
TOMANOVA: We didn’t see the natural evolution of culture; it came in like a flood. We utilized a different angle than what we see in mainstream media regarding the relationship between Russia and America. We wanted to offer a perspective on the Russian people: who they are, where they are, what they do, how they live.
I co-curated the show with Thomas who is an art historian; it was interesting seeing that American view on the same subject matter. Some of these images were so exotic to him, and I thought they were so normal. Easterners and Westerners see things differently in a lot of ways.
LEHRER: I look at someone like Lotta Volkova and think, “This girl looks so fucking cool!” The whole grime-glam rave punk thing.
TOMANOVA: And I think, “This is what my mom dressed like. (laughs)” But very beautiful, nonetheless.
LEHRER: I want to talk about Boris Mikhailov, who was an influence on the exhibition, and why his work so deeply resonates with you.
TOMANOVA: There are lots of artists that we could put in the show, but we didn’t just want it to be Eastern Bloc artists. We were going for a specific look: non-decorative, realistic and gritty. Mikhailov shows real people in real situations. He shows how sad life is and its dark moments. Real humans. He would also shoot old people; not just cute young kids. I love that picture of that old couple embracing each other half nude. It’s sad, but sweet that they are together.
We wanted to show artists that show the real moments. Even the more staged work of Gorsad: it’s about showing the feelings, attitude, and dark side of life that is always there but not talked about. It’s taking the dark side out of the taboo.
LEHRER: Mikhailov was relentlessly persecuted by his government, and I was curious if you ever felt any censorship before you moved here?
TOMANOVA: No, I haven’t. But I wasn’t doing nude photography when I was in Czech Republic. I was a painter. And in Czech, nude paintings are fine but nude photographs are not. At the same time, the Czech Republic is not as concerned with censorship as the States are. After being here for six years, I had never thought being nude was wrong or that taking nude pictures was wrong. Here in The States you get so much pressure doing nude photography, even though it’s the most natural state of the body.
LEHRER: Even my girlfriend will see me on the train reading Purple or 032C and nude photos come up and she freaks out going, “People can see that!”
TOMANOVA: (laughs) People are terrified of being nude here, even in their own environment.
LEHRER: I think it’s half old fashioned Christian morals that still are drilled into peoples’ heads and body anxieties that are encouraged from literally everywhere. I’m sure if someone even took my nude photos, I’d be cool with it but a part of me would look at my little beer gut and hate myself.
TOMANOVA: When I moved to New York, I needed a job and money so I volunteered for this “shoot.” It was really sketchy. I was posing half-nude for six guys in this garage with old cars and motorbikes.
LEHRER: Oh, no.
TOMANOVA: It was a Christmas-themed shoot. I was posing half-nude with a candy cane. They were telling me, “give me that orgasmic look.” (laughs) I’m praying these pictures never appear anywhere. It was terrible photography. I decided then to not pose nude for anyone other than myself. I want to control my own image.
LEHRER: Did that influence you to start doing self portraits?
TOMANOVA: Sure, yeah, and also to be more aware of controlling my own image.
LEHRER: I read an interview with you where you said that when you started doing self-portraits, it was hard for you to find people to sit for you…
TOMANOVA: I didn’t have any friends! (laughs) I finished my school, and I had an MA as a painter. I realized I couldn’t make any money as a painter. So I went to America as an Au Pair. Everything was new. I was overwhelmed and feared losing myself. I felt like photography was going to help me preserve that and bring something new to myself.
LEHRER: And in your self-portraits, I see someone trying to find their way in a new life. By contrast, this show is bringing you back to your roots. Is that accurate?
TOMANOVA: In a way, when I came to the States I was doing exactly what I was doing at home: taking pictures all the time. Going through that old cell phone archive, I realized I wasn’t even considering it photography, but that’s what I was doing. And then, I saw Francesca Woodman’s show at The Guggenheim and I was so in love!
LEHRER: Yeah, her work has that effect. Emotional.
TOMANOVA: Yeah. I realized, ‘Why am I not doing photography.’ And then I started pursuing it more seriously. There is a movie about her on Netflix, "The Woodmans."
LEHRER: I think a biopic starring Kristen Stewart as Francesca directed by Gus Van Sant, would be amazing.
TOMANOVA: That sounds good!
LEHRER: But I see that, her work had so much poetry, and your pictures have a melancholy to them. Do you think the images were melancholic because you were feeling alone?
TOMANOVA: The early pictures were melancholic. But it was also about sitting in front of a camera and finding out who I am. They were about self exploration. They weren't staged as much as they were finding places that resonated with me; if they reminded me of home or elicited a certain feeling within me. So whenever there was a place that I like, I just took a picture there. I did a series of self-portraits in nature because it’s important for me to escape the city. There’s no fashion involved. It’s just my body and belonging in nature.
LEHRER: Is Francesca Woodman your favorite artist?
TOMANOVA: Actually I would say my all-time favorite artist is Nan Goldin. I’m sure you could tell my little slide show was a little inspired by [The Ballad of Sexual Dependency slides].
LEHRER: (laughs) I definitely thought of it while it was rolling in the gallery. I totally wish the slideshow and music format would come back.
TOMANOVA: You get more feeling when you see photos in a video like that. I saw Ballad of Sexual Dependency many times, like 15 times.
LEHRER: I had had the book forever, but I never saw it with the music until I saw it at MoMA recently. And she has music that I love in there: James Brown, The Velvet Underground, Nina Simone.
TOMANOVA: I can sit there for 45 minutes and I’m amazed every time.
Baby, I Like It Raw: Post-Eastern Bloc Photography & Video will be on view until April 4, 2017 at Czech Center New York Gallery. text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE