'Beauty' at Erarta Museum, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Xenia Ostrovskaya.

Xenia Ostrovskaya is a graduate of St. Petersburg State University Faculty of Arts and a student of the Vienna University of Applied Arts. She discusses her latest exhibition ‘Beauty’ featuring ceramics, graphics and paintings at the Erarta Contemporary Art Museum in St Petersburg. The main subjects of the exhibition are air travel and the transformation of the largest European capitals in the mega-cities. Theodora Clarke: Xenia, so how did you come to have an exhibition at Erarta? Xenia Ostrovskaya: There was an open call for their exhibition space which I applied to. Pavel Markaitis, the curator from Erarta, saw some photographs of my exhibition in Vienna, Austria and offered me these two rooms to exhibit in. I was given complete freedom and had over four months to produce new works. TC: So what was your overall concept for the show? XO: The exhibition is called Beauty and in a way I was taking a risk because the word “beauty” is not really welcome in contemporary art. I wanted to express the subject through objects which are not associated with beauty, so not flowers and butterflies, but instead falling planes and falling houses! I introduced porcelain plates into the installation, which show views out of the airplane windows so you can follow the journey from Vienna to St Petersburg. I first studied porcelain art in St Petersburg where I am from originally. [She points at the installation on the wall]. This is the plane itself and this is the falling sky. Here are parts of feathers that I pressed into the bottom plates, burnt and then added colour to so they become almost like fossils.

'Beauty' at Erarta Museum, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Xenia Ostrovskaya.

TC: What attracted you to the motif of flight? XO: My first exhibition in Vienna was devoted to immigration and it was very interesting for me to explore what is in between St Petersburg and Vienna. What is the connection? For me the connection is the fear of flying. I am afraid to fly but I must fly because I study there! So it’s a trip, which I can’t avoid This is The Black Box. I used a stuffed bird, and I pressed it into a porcelain plate. It has a symbolic meaning, because after a plane has crashed the black box stays just like the bird’s print stays on the plate after it has been burnt. TC: How did you find your training differed as an artist in Russia and then in Europe? XO: I decided to study first in Russia to get the basics of classical education, so if I needed it I could use it. But I also wanted to study conceptual art in Vienna, as you learn to think with space there. Here in Russia you learn to make decorative things and you don’t really get to build installations. TC: In your work there seems to be an interesting mix of both conceptual and traditional forms of art. So in a way this exhibition is bridging the gap for you? XO: Yes. This is my second installation and I am interested in finding real beauty in unusual objects. Here is a silk print which I also made in Vienna which is symbolic. I wanted to create a clash between installation and theatre. My main idea was to change the meaning of old objects. For example, I took objects seen as trash but by casting them out of porcelain I turned them into expensive decorative objects. I found some old bricks in Vienna and I cast them out of porcelain. These are beautiful objects of decorative art, but they are the part of my conceptual installation.

'Beauty' at Erarta Museum, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Xenia Ostrovskaya.

TC: What was the process for making this work? XO: It took me about four months and each brick takes two hours to make. And when you lift it in its plaster mould it weighs 30 kilos, and you have to turn it in the air. So it’s a hard physical work, you don’t need a gym! I made them all in my university in Vienna. So it’s a long process, but I love manufacturing things, and I love using my hands. TC: You work in lots of different media. Why is that? XO: I think it’s very interesting to be able to work in different media. If I need an abstract painting I can make it but equally if I need symbolic bricks I can make them also. For example, this abstract painting is called Penetration, and it’s about the penetration of light through old ruins. First I decide what I want to create and then I decide which media to use. In this way the concept always comes first.  This is what I’ve learnt in Austria, because in Russia normally you learn a technique and then decide what to make. I think that both approaches are important, for example, my colleagues in Vienna sometimes suffer from the lack of academic training. The public in Russia still find it difficult to understanding art. People come in and they look at the installation and they don’t understand it, for them if it’s not skilfully done, it’s not art. That’s the problem. With my exhibition I wanted to bring this type of conceptual art to Russian museum visitors. This is also why I wrote explanations in Russian so people can understand better what my works is about.

'Beauty' at Erarta Museum, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Xenia Ostrovskaya.

TC: What do you think about the state of contemporary art in Russia today? XO: It’s a complicated question because on the whole there is a lack of tradition in teaching and understanding the history of modern art. I studied art and graduated three years ago and we hadn’t even had an idea of what was going on in the art world today. Some people try to make contemporary art here, some go and study abroad, or they try to imitate something, but they don’t really have the understanding just because they don’t get the chance to learn about it. We have some institutions here in St Petersburg and one school of modern art, Pro-Arte, and we have two schools in Moscow. However, they are still very young. But the good thing is that our schools here are free. Pro-Arte, for example, holds an open competition. There are also some traditional academic schools, and the majority of people who study there don’t have any understanding of what contemporary art is. They think they still have to paint like in the 19th century and that the better they paint, the better artists they are. That’s why I think we must go and study abroad otherwise this is a huge gap in our knowledge and training. Of course there are some conceptual artists in Russia, but just a few, it’s not like in Europe. This is a big problem for us. TC: Who has been your greatest inspiration as an artist? XO: William Kentridge. I think you can notice his influence in my drawings. We had a big Kentridge exhibition in Vienna about three years ago, and I was shocked at how expressive and free his contemporary work is. He is definitely my greatest inspiration. TC: So when did you first get exposed to modern European art? XO: This was when I came to Vienna to study art. I looked at installations and I realised that I didn’t understand them so this was why I had to study abroad. Above all though I wanted to learn to draw, that is why Russia was my first choice. TC: What do you think about the 20th century Russian avant-garde artists? XO: Filonov was my favourite artist when I was at the art school in Russia, because I loved his paintings and because he was in-between classical art and modern art. I made a presentation about Filonov in Vienna, but received almost no response, as nobody had heard of him. From the photos of his paintings, others couldn’t understand why I liked his works so much! TC: After this exhibition at Erarta what are your future plans? XO: Next year I would like to take part in several exhibitions in Vienna and graduate from the University. And then I want to go to London to continue my studies. Beauty. Exhibition of ceramics, graphics and paintings by Xenia Ostrovskaya. 08 February – 03 March 2013 Gallery wing of the building, halls 2A, 2B. Entrance free. Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, St Petersburg http://www.erarta.com/eng/gallery/about-gallery/