Marina Alexeeva is considered to be one of the most significant media artists today. Since 1990s Marina has been creating micro-installations called “Life Boxes”. Lately, animation was incorporated and projected inside these boxes. Marina’s art belongs to the rich European tradition of model making that dates back to XVII century. “Life Boxes” are enjoyed internationally and collected by various patrons such as, for instance, Sir Elton John.
This year Marina Alexeeva presents her Art at the Shtager Gallery stand at the London Art Fair from the 22nd until the 26th of January 2020. Marina’s new UK series illustrates everyday life situations in an absurd manner. They depict environments of human habitation such as a school, a gallery or even a ballet theatre. For the first time, the artist turns to acutely political topics of today, such as sexual harassment and Brexit. Marina Shtager talks to the artist before the art fair.
Marina Shtager: Marina, could you tell us about your career, where did you start your art training, for example?
Marina Alexeeva: I graduated from the Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design in St. Petersburg, Department of Ceramics and Glass.
Marina Shtager: Your boxes with interiors started to appear even in the 1990s, although at first glance that did not relate to ceramics. It looked more like theatre design, didn’t it?
Marina Alexeeva: It was not connected to theatre, and I don’t like theatre very much (laughing). It needs to be said that I tried to apply myself in different areas. In the 90s in St. Petersburg there was an artistic group called “I Love You, Life!” consisting of me, Marina Koldboskaya, Marina Teplova, and Zhenya Kamenskaya. Our first exhibition was held at Pushkinskaya Street, 10, where we covered all walls with collages. I was inspired to do this after seeing a room of one man, who served on a submarine, developed a mental health condition, and sometimes had to be admitted to hospital. In his room all the walls were plastered from floor to ceiling with collages from cut out images and even objects like a pillow or an axe. This, I’m telling you, was Contemporary Art at its best! I was inspired! I thought, can I do this too?
Marina Shtager: A kind of Rauschenberg undiscovered by the world, Ilya Kabakov would have paid a lot to see this room!
Marina Alexeeva: And from this moment on we embarked on the road of Contemporary Art – not just ceramics as Arts and Crafts.
Marina Shtager: You were born in the Soviet Union, have gone through all the political and social upheavals of our country, and still you have kept a cheerful and sad smile of an intelligentsia person – how have you managed to preserve yourself? At that time probably no one was interested in your boxes and Gisich Gallery did not exist. Was it difficult to work without recognition?
Marina Alexeeva: It was really the most fruitful time, because you had absolutely nothing to lose and you could simply make what you wanted. Seeing yourself as a nobody gives you some wild freedom, doesn’t it? And as you are gaining experience and expectations, you are gaining responsibility too. The most creative state is when you don’t know how to do anything and you are nobody!
Marina Shtager: A wonderful message to young artists!
Marina Alexeeva: Absolutely! Total freedom, I am even envious!
Marina Shtager: You started to make video transmissions, Media-Art at that time, when it wasn’t at all popular in Russia. Tell us please how your video characters finally appeared in your boxes.
Marina Alexeeva: That’s true. At first I made boxes with interiors without characters, but they lacked life, and I tried to make an accompanying video in the simplest way I could – like putting a monitor behind the window. But it was not exactly what I needed. Later my life’s journey brought me to Sergey Karlov, an engineer, who created a special engineering system inside the box.
Marina Shtager: But we will not reveal this secret… So, regardless of not being in demand you together with your husband, Boris Kazakov, in the 1990s moved into a wooden house in Kolomyagi (an area of St. Petersburg) and organised in this house and its garden an Art space called “Country Life”, which is now more than twenty years old. What have been the important moments of “Country Life” in the last twenty years?
Marina Alexeeva: Yes, it is a rather large house, modern architecture. While we were refurbishing the house, I had a thought that we could organise exhibitions there, so I started inviting artists. New ideas were being developed, at first just for fun, but then the process drew me in, and a lot of people joined. We had no one to report to, we did what we wanted, it was also a moment of freedom. It was a very popular place; good artists were exhibited. I published five issues of the “Country Life” magazine. Now this role in St. Petersburg is taken over by “Lyuda” gallery. When my career took off, the pace of “Country Life” slowed down as it required a lot of my time and energy.
Marina Shtager: And how many boxes have you made so far? One hundred, a thousand?
Marina Alexeeva: Well, no, less than a hundred. It is very labour-intensive. I can make five or six boxes in a year, more than that would not be right. More would be without joy, and insincere. This work requires time. Sometimes it flows, and I can make three or four in a row. And another time, there is nothing for six months. Such is the process, there are no rules here.
Marina Shtager: And how are these works perceived outside the Russian context? Could you tell us about the works shown in London? Why have you chosen precisely these works?
Marina Alexeeva: My Art does not require translation; it is understood by anyone. The works to be shown on the Stand in London were specially created for Marina Shtager Gallery. This series of works doesn’t have a name yet. Most likely it will get its name when it’s completed. This is a logical continuation of the series of boxes with illusions, which I made before. A special technical solution allows to inhabit the interiors of the “life-boxes” with video characters and stories that continue to develop and become more eventful, transformative and transformational. In this series of works made for London, which I like very much, I deliberately introduced an element of “Englishness”. This emphasis is purely my own and subjective, carefully non-judgemental, like a gaze from the side, from above, from below and from the side again, this is not a gaze from “inside”. As if I were a foreigner who hasn’t been to Russia, and believes that bears roam streets of Moscow.
Marina Shtager: And how do people usually react?
Marina Alexeeva: The reaction is very childlike – first, a smile appears on the face of the person looking through this little hole, then they burst out laughing… In reality a viewer sees a completely analogous micro-interior, like a “doll house”. Each micro-space has its own character – a classroom in school, a bedroom, an office, a theatre stage, a gallery, etc. Events taking place in each box are an illusion. This is just a reflection of the goings-on and the whole picture adds up exclusively in the mind of the person looking. To be honest, an interior can perfectly exist without its population. Created in the mind of the author, a story can go on forever. Chains of associations with eternity, the present day and actuality are being mixed in multiple ways, without any emphasis, like a stream of transformations. These are not meditations, these are lists of emotions and movements, accompanying a human being in contemporary world. Like in real life, the viewer receives several streams of information at the same time – contemplation of hand activity, following the movement, receiving the sound.
Marina Shtager: And what is your favourite series?
Marina Alexeeva: My favourite series is the Museum Series – Museum of Zoology, Museum of Communication, Museum of Revolution. I had fun with those, those are still boxes without video. And with video there were interesting boxes with four sides.
Marina Shtager: I believe that there was nothing worse in my childhood than a trip to the local History Museum, for example, so boring! My grandmothers took me there all the time, it was like an endurance test!
Marina Alexeeva: But do you agree that an image of a museum has remained in your memory? And from the popular ones there was the “Stand” with different flags invented by me, with video characters of our presidents and different “Faces of Power” – from Medvedev to Osama bin Laden. Everyone had so much fun. Also “Crime” and “Punishment” series was very popular – mine are two different unlike Dostoevsky’s.
Marina Shtager: And how did the works end up in the Elton John collection? Did he really visit “Country Life”?
Marina Alexeeva: No, he was playing a concert in St. Petersburg and someone took him to the Gisich Gallery, where he bought three boxes straight away.
Marina Shtager: Wow! Phenomenal!
Marina Alexeeva: There was another funny story. Olga Sviblova was expecting a visit from the then president Medvedev in the Multi-media Museum. She put considerable effort into getting my video boxes to Moscow, including the “Crime” and the “Punishment” – the ones which Elton John later bought. The boxes were more or less intelligible for the gaze of such a high-ranking individual. Sviblova was explaining to him my interpretation of the “Crime and Punishment”. He responded that he got it, as his son was in the ninth grade at the moment reading the book.
Marina Shtager: And what about Medvedev, has he then become your patron?
Marina Alexeeva: Oh, no! Presidents are not made for that; they walk tall and look important.
Marina Shtager: And the President of Austria, what work did he get?
Marina Alexeeva: A very good one, a two-layered installation, with changing lights. It depicts a –a person, who at first is in his flat on the sofa, and then the room turns into a forest, as if the person finds themselves inside their own dream. It is even a little scary, when one interior suddenly changes drastically, but the video continues to roll. (Ed. A “Lightbox” by Marina Alexeeva called “Dream”, 2013. 1/3 was officially presented as a gift to the President of Austria, Mr Heinz Fischer, to mark his birthday by the director of Vienna Contemporary, Dmitriy Aksenov, from the Gisich Gallery stand.)
Marina Shtager: Please tell us how your collaboration started with the “Electrotheatre of Stanislavsky” and Vladimir Rannev. How did this idea come about to place your video characters on the stage of a real theatre and bring them into dialogue with human actors?
Marina Alexeeva: It is true that Boris Ukhonanov collaborates with Vladimir Rannev and Ukhonanov offered me to mount a production. Rannev found me, he saw my works probably at “Solyanka” in Moscow. He called me and we started carefully slowly getting to know each other, just in case… As a result, Vladimir took some samples of my boxes to Moscow and showed them to Ukhonanov, who was surprised to discover such a thing and agreed to go ahead. He took a risk. We couldn’t finish the work for two years and very few people believed that we could finish the work of such a large scale
Marina Shtager: This is completely revolutionary for a drama theatre.
Marina Alexeeva: Well, two “Golden Masks”, that means a lot. Two years of very hard work. The fact that actors appeared inside a video on the stage, together with the re-reflexion, of course, makes your brain explode!
Marine Shtager: I have an impression that in this theatre at the moment there is a concentration of the best brains and talents of our generation.
Marina Alexeeva: This is true. Everything they do – there are always steps into the unknown. People take risks and are not scared to do so.
Marina Shtager: But you do not like theatre!
Marina Alexeeva: I didn’t like theatre for a long time. For a long time it was all the same. In my youth I overdid it, going to theatres, like any proper young lady. It was all the same all the time and I didn’t like it. But contemporary theatre is interesting. It’s as if all Art forms are mixed together organically. Such a phenomenon as Jan Fabre appears, and you realise you can mix any artforms in one work – literature, music, theatre, Contemporary Art like in our “Prose”.
Marina Shtager: What examples of Western Art do you find inspiring?
Marina Alexeeva: Banksy, for a number of reasons. I adore him, it is a shame that I did not see his Disneyland, I am dreaming of getting into his hotel on the border between Israel and Palestine. It is really cool. This person is hiding his identity and can do whatever he wants to do, total freedom, and you can feel it.
Marina Shtager: This is not your first participation in an International Art Fair. How would you compare London commercial Art scene to the ones in Moscow or St. Petersburg? What do you think about the state of Russian Art market?
Marina Alexeeva: My ideas about Art market, Russian or London, are rather unclear. I, as an artist, can only judge it by the intensity of my work being sold. I understand that there are fashionable mainstream works, which are popular at one time and are not interesting at another. In my opinion this can’t and shouldn’t bother me as an author, so that the temptation of fame does not become a commercial component of my motivation to create. Comparing commercial Art scenes is the prerogative of galleries, it is their professional responsibility. Of course, influence of politics on this narrative does exist and some can see Russian artists and gallerists as potential “poisoners of Salisbury”, but this way is not productive for a thinking person and these people are in the minority
Marina Shtager: Vladimir, could you give us some feedback about your collaborative work with Marina Alexeeva on this extraordinary play?
I saw Marina’s work for the first time fifteen years ago at the Navikula Gallery. When I was thinking about the way the play should take shape, I had a problem of how to show two texts at the same time – one text by Chekhov was sung by a choir and the other text by Mavleev was given visually as an hour and a half long comic. I did not like the idea of projecting onto the stage, we needed to find a way of combining those two texts into one whole. And then I remembered about the boxes, I called Marina and we met, she was interested in this idea – to show her video Art of the size of the whole stage. It was not easy to find a technical solution, but the main thing was that Marina was enthusiastic about the idea. For the first time living humans, actors who read the text by Mavleev, entered her video. We managed to make my idea of combining real – actors who sung the text by Chekov played at the same time as the characters of Mavleev and the video was hanging in the air.
Marina Shtager: Did the actors see the painted characters?
Vladimir Rannev: No, they can’t see them! It was difficult for the actors, they had very specific spots, where they had to stand. Occasionally they had to go into the auditorium to see what they were taking part in. But I must say that the actors, and the director of the theatre, and all the stage management staff were completely enthralled by Marina’s video. This was indeed a unique experiment in theatre design. There were a lot of positive reviews, delight, articles and acknowledgement – indeed we invented a new genre. Just now the “Prose” has finished touring in Germany.
Marina Shtager: Do you have any more plans to stage another play with Marina?
Vladimir Rannev: Yes, I do but it is a secret at the moment.
On the 22nd of January at 4 pm at the Shtager Gallery stand GO6 Marina Alexeeva will take part in the official programme Insight-Outside talk run by LAF 2020 under the guidance of Denis Maksimov. The event is FREE, but registration is required. Please follow the link to register.