Olga Tobreluts

The Hall of Art in Budapest, also known as Kunsthalle, has recently launched its new exhibition season with The New Mythology – a solo show featuring works by Russian artist Olga Tobreluts.  It is the artist’s first collaboration with the museum which has been made possible through the active support of the Ural Vision Gallery from Yekaterinburg. The preview night on 5th September was extremely well-attended. The director of the museum György Szegő welcomed the guests. The curator of the exhibition, the renown Russian art critic and author Arkady Ippolitov, who also happens to be a Senior Researcher at the Western European Department of the State Hermitage Museum, was also present at the preview.  The opening night coincided with the launch of the exhibition by the internationally acclaimed Brazilan photographer Sebastião Salgado, which also resulted in the influx of  the crowd of international contemporary art collectors, museum professionals, art gallery owners, art critics and press who strolled  inquisitively through the rooms of the New Mythology exposition.

The works on display spanning between 1995 and 2017 embrace three stages of Olga Tobreluts’ artistic development. Inspired by Timur Novikov and his vision of Neo-Academism, Tobreluts’ art took a radical turn in the early 1990s, when she embarked onto the career of a video artist, shifting from painting to computer graphics, photography and 3D modelling. Having come the full circle, the artist then gave up media art and returned to painting in the early 2000s. However, her vision remains empowered and enriched by her experimenting with computer technologies: this results in various optical effects achieved in her paintings. Moreover, for this exhibition, Tobreluts created her own VR version: now anyone can step into the mythical world, inhabited by moonlit sphinxes, and walk around the nocturnal desert to discover oneself standing between the huge paws of the sphinx whose breasts and head are towering threateningly above their head.

Nowadays, Tobreluts is firmly associated with Russian Neo-Academism. Founded in 1989, the New Academy was and is an important movement in contemporary Russian art. Tobreluts can be easily named its ambassador, in style, idiom and spirit. In the words of Arkady Ippolitov, curator of the New Mythology, it was only logical that Olga’s art should have emerged in St. Petersburg – the city steeped in neo-classical heritage, which provides a natural backdrop to city’s everyday life. Tobreluts has been a member of the New Academy since 1994. Being appointed head of the New Technologies Department, she became the trend-setter, with many of her works becoming representative of the movement. Throughout her career, Olga managed to keep a step ahead of others by introducing new, pioneering techniques that were later developed and taken further by the media artists of subsequent generations, the best known among them is AES + F group.  At some point, Olga was even dubbed “Helen of Troy equipped with a video camera and a computer” by Bruce Sterling. Olga’s versatility, creative talent and original thinking did not remain unnoticed: in 2016 the Russian Academy of Art elected her honorary academician for her artistic achievement.

The current exhibition consists of three major sections: Day, Evening and Night. The first part symbolises the daytime, noon. It is the saga of heroes, whose ancient images emerge with contemporary faces.  In early 1990s, the series of antique sculptures, dressed in fashion brands, won Olga the Griffelkunst First Prize for Best European Computer Graphics. In fact, she shared the First Prize with well and scandalously known French artist Orlan – no small feat!  In 1999, Tobreluts presented her new series Sacred Figures at the Tate Gallery’s exhibition Heaven in London. Her works attracted much attention and featured on the covers of  Art, Attitude and the Observer magazines.

Olga Tobreluts, Six Women (Self- Portraits, detail), 2005. Courtesy Kunsthalle, Budapest

Another series represented there is dedicated to multiple roles played by contemporary woman: the warrior, the hunter, the muse, the lover etc. In the words of Olga, these six mythological women are the embodiment of her roles  played in life: at some point she classified and identified them with six antique goddesses. “I have given a certain image to each side of my character. So, I ended up with some sort of a matryoshka doll which contains everything about myself”, — explained the artist.  However, at some point in her career, no matter how successful, Olga lost interest in media technologies and moved in another direction. In her opinion, something that used to be edgy and avant-garde, was superseded by new technologies, ideas and developments. It is only what had been tried and tested by the time, that deserves attention. As the artist has summed it up, she now attempts to produce “a contemporary work in a contemporary idiom, which resembles an old fresco”.

The viewers then move into the second room: the Evening. There, Olga narrates the story of Lucretia and Tarquinius, which brought Roman monarchy to an end and inaugurated the republican rule.  The fact that the story is narrated through large photoprints and colossal video installation, turns viewers almost into first-hand witnesses, as if the artist was documenting the event or producing the report from the scene. The beautifully lit images speak of passion, resistance, pain and retribution. The artist takes up a classical subject, and dwells on the nature of violence, its ethical and political repercussions, as well as the fluidity of roles of the perpetrator and the victim. Here, Olga explores a new dimension of the classical subject and offers her own interpretation of  the woman’s role in contemporary society. She raises the issue of female power which can oust a man from public scene, and turn former victim into violent aggressor.

The third part of the exhibition features Olga’s most recent works and takes one on a metaphysical journey. The paintings and graphic works are displayed along canvas prints and convey the atmosphere of the Walpurgisnacht as it has been described in the lesser known II part of Goethe’s Faust. However, this time the spirits arrive at St. Petersburg. It is also here, that one can step into the VR version of this mythological world by walking through the desert with the sphinxes.

According to art critic Antonoio Geusa, who wrote Olga’s short biography for the exhibition,  “taking mythology and history as a starting point, Olga Tobreluts builds a new reality that transcends the historical context and connects to the present. Whether or not using elements of traditional mythology, her ornamental myths speak of the present. Tobreluts’s stories are in fact effective artistic tricks, enabling the modern viewer to readily understand them. By means of diverse forms, she reinterprets the important mythological figures of the history of Western culture, and in these unique myth-structures the viewers can discover their everyday environment”.

We managed to interview the artist following the opening of her exhibition.

The entrance. Courtesy Kunsthalle, Budapest

Olga, this is not your first exhibition in Europe. How do you find your cooperation with Kunsthalle in Budapest?

Well, true, I took part in over 200 exhibitions in different museums across Russia and Europe. Mostly, these were group exhibitions where the artworks were displayed in order to support a certain curatorial point of view or statement. I had about 20 solo shows, and this fact helped me to realise that it was more natural for an artist to exhibit alone. It is during a personal exhibition that the artist can fully and completely express what excites and interests him or her most. And certainly, this new exhibition helped me to articulate my approach towards certain subjects and display my works the way I have initially intended.  For instance, I have always wished to show my Tarquinius and Lucretia video installation in a large format. Finally, this became possible. The whole exhibition space works beautifully, the museum team are highly professional.

What was most valuable for you in working on this current exhibition?

I received an offer from Kunsthalle in Budapest almost simultaneously with the  MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts in Debrecen. So, I was facing the task of planning two different, and yet connected, exhibitions,  so that people could travel from Budapest to Debrecen,  as if they were going to see the sequel to the Budapest show. Therefore, I organised my works thematically but in such a way that instead of being disrupted,  the narratives would complement each other.  This is quite a challenge, because it can be very daunting for an artist to prepare two exhibitions at two  different and rather large museums at the same time. Bearing this in mind, I have only words of praise and gratitude to the  Kunsthalle Budapest and its staff, as they were all  very supportive and very professional in the way they were helping me to shape and translate my vision through this exhibition. The whole team worked  to achieve the best possible result: a fine catalogue was printed,  the walls were painted, the partitions were rebuilt, the lights were installed – everything to meet my requests. And I am extremely grateful for this.

 All three components of your exhibition interpret classical themes. How does the classical heritage and its re-evaluation help you deal with our present realities in your artistic work?

Contemporary adaptation or interpretation of classical themes is the main idea of ​​my work. At various stages, I was interested in different mythological subjects and their present-day manifestations. Sometimes they do not connect with the historical prototype at all, however, when one starts to immerse oneself in the subject, there is so much in common, because history unfolds as a spiral, and although its shape changes, the content, the message, remain almost the same.

Frankly, I do not know any artist who would not derive any inspiration from the classical past. How he uses it (whether he accepts or rejects it) is another matter. However, the source always remains the same: the creative artistic findings of your predecessors. The avant-garde is born at the moments of great change: when the ruling regime, the way of life, the philosophy are changing. Nowadays, I have a feeling that we are entering the age of stagnation, but in the days of my youth, several revolutions occurred at the same time: the revolution in music, in visual culture, in technology, and finally, the fall of the communist regime in the USSR. Without doubt, this all had a great impact upon me and my artistic development. However, at that time, the classical language was the most avant-garde, since the Antiquity, the classical past and academic principles were in exile and considered a disgrace. To recur to classical, academic images at that time was so radical, so very much against the grain, that nowadays when it has become a trend, it is hard to imagine this. Nevertheless, in the early 1990’s I could hardly name any contemporary artist, except for the followers of the Neo- Academism in St. Petersburg, who would work with classical heritage and re-interpret it.

What dictates your choice of a classical subject?

In most cases, the choice comes from an experience or a certain situation. I pick up the story, start dwelling on it, pondering it over, and eventually, the connections with mythological narrative begin to emerge and shape themselves as images. Certainly, it is possible to get carried away by other sources of inspiration, musical and literary, or draw inspiration from the real world. Still, personally, I am fascinated with the European mythology which, like a mushroom spawn, shoots off its hyphae in most unexpected directions. The last exhibition room in Kunsthalle dwells on the second part of Goethe’s poem Faust, and namely, on his description of the Walpurgis Night. Goethe who worked on this part for a long time, wrote how Mephistopheles enticed Faust with the image of Helen of Troy and, searching for her, they took a balloon ride to ancient Hades. There, Goethe re-awakens all ancient evil spirits and describes them in great detail. While researching on these mythological creatures, I could not escape the feeling that they were familiar to me. Eventually, I compared their images with the images of those people who took their wish to look fashionable and young, to the extremes. For instance, with those who became far too fond of plastic surgery for their own good in an attempt to reshape their nose, lips or enhance facial features.  This is how I drew inspiration for the image of Lamia mentioned by Goethe.

Also, my visit to a gay club in Brussels, where one could observe fusion of female and male characteristics in one person (like muscular male torsos with beautiful large female breasts),  gave birth to the image of a contemporary sphinx. The images of sphinxes used to vary from century to century, remaining indicative of stylistic and artistic preferences of their contemporaries.

Olga Tobreluts, Tarquinius and Lucretia (details), 2005. Courtesy Kunsthalle, Budapest

What about the expressed feminist component of your art?  Your interpretation of the history of Tarquinius and Lucrezia seems familiar, yet highly unusual and original: history merges with myth and deals in archetypes. Do you offer it as an alternative to the now dominant feminist approach?

Feminism does not stand still — it develops. The aggressive phase gives way to,  or is being gradually replaced by a new interpretation of the female role. This installation is a critical reflection on the strengthening of the social role of women, the devaluation of men, the substitution of their social functions,  and as a result – on two possible ways of  the societal development. Which one of them will become a reality: the new fundamentalism or the devaluation of the masculine? Time will show.

In this case, how can you account for the direction the whole exposition takes? Is it a descent from the realm of heroes and gods to chtonic beings and Hades or vice versa?

You have probably seen this famous Byzantine image of the Synaxis, or the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai: it features the ladder to Paradise, by climbing which the saints reach the heavenly realm. Along the way, many of them get tempted and fall into the Mouth of Hell. In the same manner, how many of us, now living, will escape the snares of ancient Hades? Probably, very few. The patterns of our life and the structure of our society for the last hundred years (since the Olympic games have been re-introduced), the passions we pursue, are more reminiscent of the society in the Antiquity, rather than Christian times. And with return to the Antiquity, ancient mythology and ancient chtonic deities will also come back.

Do you plan to develop this particular project further?

After the opening night  the project almost instantly received its further development. Now I am sure that I will continue shooting videos in early October with my Serbian artist friends in Novy Sad. This will be an exciting unfolding of the plot because we came up with incredible images after the Serbian stylist Srdjan Sveljo joined the project.

How the approach of the New Academy and its founder Timur Novikov can be relevant today? What was so revolutionary about it?

Today, interpretations of academic art and classical heritage are becoming mainstream, and I think this fascination with classics and academism will soon seize Europe. It is enough to refer to the range of subjects embraced by the artists participating this year in the Venice Biennnale and  and point to some exhibitions running until end of November to get this point across. The New Academy simply looked far ahead and beyond this, and was among the first to demonstrate the avant-garde potential hidden in the Academism.

Please, tell us about your next exhibitions.

On September 30, my works feature at the exhibition Women & Photography at Udine, Italy. This show will comprise works by 152 most important women artists of the XX and XXI century.

November, 25 is the opening date for my next personal exhibition at MODEM in Debrecen

The New Mythology exhibition at the Hall of Art in Budapest will continue until 12 November.