Our contributor Ksenia Kazintseva recently spoke to artist Anya Gleizer, whose practice is rooted in cultural memory and the exploration of folklore. She works across installation, sculpture, performance and painting, creating immersive environments and nostalgic landscapes with natural materials. Anya completed an MFA at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford and is currently working on a project with the Pitt Rivers Museum. She is also the founder of the Flute & the Bowl, exploring the relationship between science and art.
Anya, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me! Shall we start from the beginning? How did you get into the arts?
I always wanted to be an artist, but as my mom emigrated, she had the vision that I would develop a normal career and earn money. I studied Conservation Biology, which is about environmental systems, and those within them. It’s important to distinguish this wasn’t like Environmental Sciences which are more about the social component between these. I then went to work in an Alaskan lab, where they were working on a joint project between Chukotka and Alaska as they have some similar species. I was really troubled by where the funding for these environmental projects was coming from, for example BP who inevitably perpetuate the concerns in the field. I think much of the funding went to pay the researchers (we were looking into Gaga – a type of duck) and filtered through BP, meaning not only that a large portion of it was not going to the resolution of certain issues, but also that BP had editorial control over what was said in the publications.
My grandmother is a biologist, and I’ve always cared about nature, she would tell me about the expeditions and I wanted to be there, in Taiga. Even now, I wish instead of quarantining I could be there. We don’t know much about the Arctic and Sub-arctic region in Eastern Europe, and even if research is published, it circulates between few researchers instead of fuelling social movements to preserve the land. So, in 2013 I decided to move back into art, to be able to communicate these things, because art is able to tell the story, to create a fairy-tale that moves people and encourages them to take action.
I got a scholarship in Edinburgh University and began my studies there in Fine Art, and then went to Oxford for my MFA. It was the best programme of study I’ve ever experienced, and I learnt so much, met so many incredible people, from the technicians to the professors and other students. The environment is so encouraging, and you’re able to connect with scientists from different fields for projects, which is brilliant.
This is so interesting, and I’m especially fascinated by the work you’ve been doing with indigenous communities in Eastern Europe. We discussed aspects of cultural memory and what is preserved before the interview, so I wonder if we can dive a bit deeper into that?
Absolutely, I think this is something that’s not really spoken about in Russia, because of the economic situation, and when native rights movements developed in the US, the USSR collapsed and people were focused on something completely different. And now, these communities are trying to take action and be heard in government, but as the economic situation is once again complicated, it hasn’t become a priority. The state of life in some parts of Siberia is quite difficult, and it is a really important conversation to have. There is a lot of movement to use land for industry, when it has sacred meanings, and has been used by native communities for many decades.
My own work with Siberian people came so naturally, because I was a biologist and we would stay in different small villages – the people were always so kind and open. But I can see their circumstances, and local governments don’t often pay attention to them, and I really want to help. At the moment, luckily, people are becoming interested in this, and there are activist movements across the world, advocating for indigenous communities and their rights, and I’m hoping we will catch up.
I had a theory that it’s happening in the post-industrial landscape, people have moved on from their villages, and their relationships with each other and nature in favour of the city and better employment prospects. Even if we were once in touch with these things, I feel they are slipping away. But we are seeing that it is becoming fashionable to remember your traditional upbringing, connect to your spirituality since there is a hole for many people where that used to be and they are struggling to find deeper fulfilment. It’s also interesting in the context of the UK, because there is a lot of content about what Russian culture is and is not in light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
I think it is relevant, and there is also a key difference between Russian culture and indigenous culture because of course, Slavic people were at one point natives, but the difference is that people who lead the traditional lifestyle one generation after another saw change throughout Perestroika, and even before that, when the collectivisation meant that deer, for example, were put into communal heards and then distributed or killed unsustainably. Of course these are big changes for them, but those who continue to live the traditional life, migrating with the seasons, connect with culture and nature in a different way than what you might describe. Of course, families in the post-industrial space that are now remembering how amazing it was connecting with nature and traditional crafts with their grandmas in country houses, are longing for this (and I am no exception) – but it is so different from the indigenous culture that we talk about so little.
Absolutely, do you think you can you talk a bit more through the concerns that indigenous communities are facing?
Of course it depends on what area we are talking about, I can’t speak for all of those communities. But in Evenki, where I have been working in Siberia, Krasnoyarskiy Krai, there are a range of issues that are local and will be resolved by local groups, and others on the regional politics level. Recently, Evenki were called Evenkiyskiy Autonomous Distric, and now it’s part of the Krasnoyarskiy Krai. Because of that, all decisions about how Evenki manage their local governance are taken in Krasnoyarsk. And Evenki natives are therefore normally not the ones making decisions, these are made by Russian people, with interests around Moscow. Russia is generally very centralised around Moscow, where Moscow and St Petersburg are very different form the rest of the country, and there is a question around who is responsible for the resources for example.
In several regions like Kuyumba, there is oil, but where is it being sent, who is receiving the profit and who are the workers being hired to extract it? The decisions around this are not made locally, workers could be sourced from Turkmenistan and paid lower wages than if locals were hired. So then, the local community is basically walking on oil, but they are unemployed and have no rights to it. So, if people who are profiting from it are not living in the region, they are equally less likely to care about when and how the oil is extracted, as well as what the ecological implications are. People who actually live there would have likely chosen to manage the resources differently because they are interested in ecological stability in order to maintain their traditional lifestyle, and for it to be sustainable for future generations, because that is the way they survive.
There are also lots of health issues. And also, there are lots of really clever and ambitious children in schools, for example in a school in Bakit, where children come from even smaller villages. They want to break into life, and there is little interest to support the traditional lifestyle and continue traditions because there aren’t many resources for it, and it isn’t part of education. So there’s a lot of interest in going to the city and earning money. It would be really beneficial to have educational programmes that teach children about the importance of the traditional lifestyle, so that it isn’t forgotten as this can happen really quickly.
And your last piece ‘Granny’s Bones’ really touches on this as well?
That’s the last big performance I made, it was purchased by Mansfield College which is great, because it’s on display in the entrance hall and can raise awareness of these issues. Sir Paul Ruddock sponsors his collection to be held at Mansfield College. The piece is about Evenki and the historical connection between Oxford and Evenki, as there is lots of history here to do with that.
And there’s also a performance piece which features some wolf masks, where the wolf acts as a translator between Oxford and Evenki. The story of the VR film and performance that it’s part of, will hopefully also include Galia, from Evenki, which I believe is the first time Oxford will host someone from a Russian indigenous community to share something. So, the wolf appears in all the places where anthropologist Maria Czaplicka, who taught at Oxford and went to Evenki to bring back a huge amount of material from there, including the first piece about shamanism in Russia, and Asia. Everything that was written afterwards, references her work. She was quite impressive, travelling across Taiga in winter on deer, for example.
The wolf plays two lullabies: one from Evenki, and one that is well known in Russia “Bayu, bayushki, bayu”. He is kind of a spirit who connects the two worlds, following Czaplicka’s footsteps to restore balance which was thrown off by her behaviour in Evenki. She brought back objects that remain in a museum collection in Oxford, that she shouldn’t have touched. Some of them were dug up from the graves of locals, including one I found with their help based on her photographs. There is still a cemetery there. I am dreaming that this project will help me offer the museum and university to return these objects to the grave which we found. They are idols that belonged to a shaman (sculptures that represent the animal spirits of the shaman – one is a crow and one is a fish). The wolf will wonder until they return to the earth.
There are some white wolves as well, right, who walk in a circle? Or is that a different performance?
Ah, yes, this is a separate shorter video about these wolves playing childhood games. But there is only one red one, although I made lots of different versions of it initially – I was working with children in Taiga during the winter outside, so these masks often break and have to be remade. The fur that’s attached to it is also new, it was a gift.
There are probably 10 of the white masks, I asked the volunteers wearing them to create a pillow fight. The gallery is quite large, and there is a mezzanine where people were able to watch from above if they didn’t want to volunteer. And when you are wearing this mask, you can’t really see, so when a pillow hits someone, although they are not hurt, they begin acting like an animal because they don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s really interesting to observe. People, especially men, become quite serious. So it feels kind of like a strange zoo, which to me was interesting because it feels like that’s how many see indigenous people. When people decide to study these communities as outsiders and do not recognise their humanity, and establish their culture as something that is static and can be studied, it becomes this kind of zoo – you see something that’s alive, unmitigated by intellect, instinctual.
I then edited these wolves to be in the snow, and it’s just making me think about how much I miss the snow when I’m in the UK. There isn’t much of it here. One of my close childhood friends is studying documentary filmmaking in Portugal, but I can see how our work overlaps. White space is really significant in my practice, and features in every piece, including the leaf storm that you saw first. It’s about that infinite, enveloping space like in Chukotka – it’s my favourite environment, and I’m constantly trying to recreate it, this archetypal space where the earth begins to disappear and blur together, and it’s unclear what is real and what is not. So these wolves spin in this snow storm, and the red wolf appears. But then he hands his main character hat to the children from the villages I visited, who take the story in their own direction, picking up the camera and filming the wolf (who is in that scenario, me). Because the piece is in VR 360 degrees, people can put on the headset and immediately be transported to Evenki, or Oxford.
I always want to show the West our banal, positive, simple reality, not through politics, propaganda or long conversations about the relationships between countries, but more through the lens of just living. Some people see a village where everything is broken and old, but I see only the beauty of these little cabins. If I can share that atmosphere with people, then the work is a success.
I think of old trams, with cracked leather and dusty windows, through which falls a very specific kind of light. I can paint it, but I can’t describe it, and it’s so familiar. In that is this sacred simplicity and emptiness, the one represented in all my pieces through the white space. If I can share this very basic thing with accuracy, then I am doing something right.
I know what you mean, I was reading something recently about the fact that light is different in different countries.
Yes, exactly, here in the UK, the sky is different. In the US, it is a completely different kind of sky too. The only place where I found something similar to what I know to be the sky in Russia, is France. It’s low and kind of curved. It’s really important for painters, for example my focus was traditional painting and iconography. Nobody really has the time to contemplate these things via traditional painting, and I’m trying to use the new media to create the same kind of feeling.
I can completely relate, making installations with music and natural materials, and cross stitch, I think I am trying to do exactly that. I think it’s hard to describe it in words, but if you can let people feel it, that’s when they might start to understand. I think as international relationships strain, it becomes all the more important to focus on what is human.
Absolutely, politics corrupt relationships between people. Many are ready to discuss and understand things, and hear each other, but reading something in a newspaper or on Facebook, can really fuel misunderstanding, and even hatred, which is not attached to anything. I used to take people around the Baikal region, translating for American tourists, and I was really annoyed when people would criticise everything. Especially, poverty, because it is a result of the relationship between the USSR and the US. And blaming people for being poor or not fixing something when they are in survival mode, I think is just not right, so I couldn’t keep taking those kinds of groups there. I vividly remember being asked to find pizza in Irkutsk, and saying right away that it would be better to have something local, to immerse oneself in local culture, but they refused (needless to say, I was right and the pizza wasn’t so good, although I imagine now there are plenty of good places of all kinds there). And then of course they made the conclusion that the food in Russia isn’t good, although they were not trying anything that locals would eat.
You make art too, right?
Yes, all about folklore and heritage preservation and how important it is to have a balance of tradition and the contemporary in education. I was really missing the traditional aspect at university, so quite interested in researching its significance and how it can enhance contemporary art practice. I think in Russia it’s very traditional, but in the UK it’s really conceptual, and I’m really craving something in-between.
I agree with you, the way the art world is developing now is that artists are now placed in the position of craftsmen – making work to order. And the curator is now the project manager. And the actual curator is the person who is funding the show. So it feels like all the roles are kind of displaced. I’m working towards a PhD broadly in the field of Geography because I’m interested in the cross section of art, politics and the environment. And I’m making independent projects, but I want to have the autonomy to make the kind of work that I want to. Having worked in theatre and costume design, I figured out it wasn’t really for me. I think the reason I accepted the challenges of a creative career, which are especially evident in the pandemic, is to tell the story that I need to tell in the West. I want to have the agency to decide what I am talking about. It feels like it’s easier to do this if you have that balance, as you say.
I think conceptual art is everywhere and there is nothing wrong with that, but what I love about Oxford is that they support really creating new things. You must make things, simply having an idea will not get you success. It’s important to use ideas to make something real and tangible. So what I think is interesting is that this incoming trend in art at the moment is not only about craft, but also about social action, which is amazing. As an artist, you need to have a justification for why you should be supported. And I think if you’re helping communities, or raising awareness of important issues, then you are playing your part in improving the world. Of course, long term work in a specific area connecting with people is most impactful.
I recently spoke to artist and educatorAleksandr Rhyzhkin recently exactly about this as well, and touching on funding available for the arts. On one hand, there is still a lot available for research projects or specific areas, but then you must either be tied to a gallery or institution to secure it. And on the other, I’m seeing that schools are facing funding cuts and often can’t let students take art for a full year, like I was able to do way back when. And I’m obviously not saying that the sciences or sports shouldn’t get this money, but I think the social aspect of art, the way it connects people and raises awareness of global concerns, makes it really important, and a key part of education. And the fact that access to this education is now not available to everyone, is quite alarming.
Of course, when there are financial difficulties, the arts are cut first, but in the UK there are many good programmes. I think in Russia there is a strong traditional current, but it isn’t sustained in the way it is in the UK through funding. To be an artist in the former, sometimes it feels like you would need to renounce everything from family to ownership, and if you don’t have any philanthropic support, it’s hard to get into the right places. Because of this, I see a lot of successful artists from Russia now whose work I don’t consider to be as important as some others for whom it takes a lot longer to get established in the industry. Typically, I see conceptual art that isn’t very deep because it’s created by those whose families have the financial means to support them, but whose lifestyles are also far removed from the rest of the country. And so, it doesn’t tell the Russian story.
Art that is steeped in Russianness or Eastern Europeanness is all over socials, but it’s not necessarily in the contemporary galleries. For example, my friend’s mother is a very established costume designer, who knows everything about historical lacemaking and similar techniques that make pieces accurate to the period within which they are meant to exist. These kinds of professionals are rare, and she learned this in a Russian university. But these professionals are not well-compensated, while we could actually really use them here in the UK.
It would be so interesting to have a mobility programme of some sort where they could visit and work abroad. You already have experience of running a collaborative project, like the Flute & the Bowl right?
Yes, we bring together scientists and researchers from different faculties like Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Environmental Science with artists so that they can develop collaborative projects and present them. And we also use these to set the tone for what questions we are researching, what is most important at the moment. At the moment, we’re working around climate change and social shifts, how we can support them or mitigate any negative consequences. This is on hold because of Covid, we were going to exhibit in Paris, but are now waiting to see what happens.
And in London, are you a Spiritual Ecology Fellow? I love the name of the role!
I was originally really sceptical about this, but it’s at the St Ethelburga’s Centre, it’s a little old church near the Gherkin, hidden away and surrounded by glass and metal since that area has been developed. It’s a really interesting organisation, they have several projects: one to do with supporting refugees, one around spiritual ecology, and one about indigenous leadership. It’s run by a really small team. Spiritual Ecology is about the relationship between religious or spiritual practices and venues with ecology. Because many religious people believe that God made a balanced world and handed it to Adam to oversee. And many churches are really interested in raising awareness around climate change. So they organise clean up initiatives that are small, but mighty if they all work together. I think what’s also really important is that religious institutions are aligned with a more conservative agenda, while climate change is somehow more at the forefront of the liberal one, so this helps the message reach more people, because all the resources are shared. The project welcomes a range of faith groups including pagan and spiritualist communities.
This really unites my interests across biology and art. You can just go and visit them, they have dinners and lectures where anyone is welcome.
I had no idea something like this could exist, uniting areas that on first glance can seem very different.
I also had no idea! I was a fellow there and studied to be able to create the Flute & the Bowl, which is my project. They helped prepare about 20 people to run something of the sort that’s their own. I had just come back from an expedition along rivers Vitim and its inflow Lena, looking for abandoned shaman villages, where they moved in the USSR to avoid persecution. Shamanism almost disappeared because if it, and now there is a neo-shamanic movement. Real pagan believers are very hard to find, so we spent about a month in the area, and then I flew in for a gathering of the people on this programme with St Ethelburga’s Centre. And it was quite funny having to switch over from camping in the woods and hiking, to this meeting, but also culturally the shift was quite sudden. For example, feminism in Russia is quite different from the life I experience here, and so just being back in society here was bizarre at first.
What really shocked me at this meeting though is how well people got on despite their spiritual differences. They all loved their local environment. Some people were suffering from the oil extraction in their area because those who worked at the plants got cancer, and those who did not, were swimming in lakes and rivers poisoned by oil. While others could understand the harm in an abstract way but had not experienced it first-hand. What they all needed was connection. But I think if they had met outside of this meeting, they would not have got on just because of how different they are. But this is all politics of course, and isn’t conducive to making real change.
I have got to go, and I know some of our readers will be interested as well. What’s next for you? What are you working on? I can imagine quarantine creativity can be complicated space wise.
Ah yes, we are coming back to my original issue which is that my work is everywhere, in different countries, and nothing can be exhibited at the moment. We’re working on that exhibition in Paris for the Flute & the Bowl in April 2021, then the museum project here in Oxford with Galia, but we have to wait till the borders are open – maybe in February. And also, I’m translating a book into Russian. What I think is interesting is that a lot of anthropologists who have worked in Russia come, work and then write their papers abroad, never having them translated for the people featured in them to be able to read. I feel like this is a big problem. I understand that publications are typically in English, but the information is then not accessible to the locals.
When I was in Evenki, I spoke to a local newspaper so that people know about us and why we were there, because we came as some foreigners, playing with children in wolf masks. So, we wanted to keep the contact alive, and I am translating Maria Czaplicka’s book about shamanism because I think it’s really important that they are able to read it, and to this day it had not been published in Russian, although it exists in Polish, English and a range of other European languages. I’m doing this work for the Ministry of Culture of Evenki. I am also working towards the PhD. In terms of my own practice, I am painting two icons, and want to start a new series of work, but I don’t have any wooden plates, or access to the studio. I’m basically working in the kitchen, and the cats sometimes come and sit on the icons.
Thank you so much! It’s been amazing talking to you, and I’ll include links to the Flute & the Bowl, and to your website so that everyone can have a look. And if you’ve got any upcoming exhibitions, we’ll make sure to share them around as well, of course right now with the pandemic, we’re just waiting to see what happens.