An Interview With Yelena Popova (Primary, 2013)
Yelena Popova is a Russian-born painter based in Nottingham, and the following interview took place at her studio at Primary in the winter of 2013. An abridged version appeared in LeftLion magazine in November 2013. This full transcript of the conversation is published here in advance of the opening of her exhibition After Image at Nottingham Contemporary, set to run from July 16 – 25 Sept 2016.
I know you grew up in the Urals in the old Soviet Union, now part of Russia, so I wanted to start by asking what first brought you to Nottingham?
I came to the UK ten years ago now and the reason is simple. I met my British husband in Russia, when he was working there, and when we married I moved to England to be with him, so it was a family reason. We lived in Hampshire, at first, but then Stuart got a job at Nottingham Trent University and that brought us here.
Your home town in the Urals also has a very interesting history, which your video work, The Unnamed, explains. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, the place I grew up was a closed town, part of a secret network of places built around the Soviet Union during the Cold War to make components for nuclear defence. It took me a long time to come to terms with how strange this fact of my biography really was, because obviously I grew up there and it seemed normal. But Stuart, my husband, was fascinated by it, and loved to tell the story to people, so perhaps he helped me to see it from another perspective. I think being in England allowed me to see more clearly what the Cold War had been, particularly because when I had a studio at Oldknows in Nottingham a little later, there was a project we did there about memories of that era, so that led to me thinking about it more and bringing up a lot of personal stories that have been important to my work ever since.
The video is called The Unnamed, but did the town have a name?
It had a number, a post-code, and officially it didn’t exist. Even today it is still a closed town, but that secrecy is obviously not so important anymore. It was part of a network of towns that were built to serve Cold War defence and science interests, so one town might be a laboratory town, where research was done, and another would be dedicated to manufacturing of components. The idea was to make a chain where all the different parts of the process were carried out in different places, so that it was harder to locate or attack the network servicing the Soviet defence shield. If you Google the phrase ‘secret towns’ or ‘Soviet closed towns’ you’ll find more information about it online.
When I first met you a few years ago, you were making a lot of performance alongside the painting, so you were doing things like the ‘Martian Gardener’ or ‘Ninja Mickey Mouse’ as performance works but now you seem to have moved over entirely to painting.
Yes, that’s true. I don’t think of myself as a performance artist any more, but I don’t think I ever did. It was an interesting medium to try because it allows discussion and really immediate contact with an audience. I’m now interested in how I can bring some of that immediacy and responsiveness into painting, so it isn’t just a flat surface you look at in one particular way but something that can set up the same kinds of dialogue with a viewer as a live event. I did my MA at the Royal College of Art in painting so that influenced me a lot, too, because it showed me how painting as a medium could be more fluid and versatile than I’d allowed. I realised I could do all of those things that had interested me about performance in this medium.
Is this why the paintings are usually arranged the way they are? There’s something performative about the way they’re balanced and staged when you show them, isn’t there?
Yes, I always want to put the viewer in a position where they are much more involved in seeing and reading the work. We’re used to a very high speed of looking and reading information from images so these paintings I’ve made since my MA are very interested in complicating that and making you look from lots of different angles and positions. You have to move around the work, slow down and look more carefully than perhaps we’re used to doing now. You can’t just glance at these paintings and take everything in immediately.
Do you see any threads or tensions between your Russian background and your English context in the work? You often seem to refer to things like Russian constructivism, those traditions of abstract painting from the early days of the Soviet Union, but also to things like traditional portraiture and figure painting.
Absolutely. I’m very interested in those things and I think it helps a lot in making the work to have a particular idea or territory of ideas in mind that holds everything together. You create a kind of space out of certain ideas that help to give the paintings an identity and purpose and those tensions and relationships are things I think about a lot. It gives a certain direction to the mark-making and means there’s a back-bone or base that gives some unity to the practice, a continuity. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing sometimes but for now I find it comforting and it makes a coherent body of work easier to think about and construct.
That unity does seem to be there, with the video works seeming to relate quite strongly to the paintings. In Particulate Matter, for example, there seems to be a link being made between the closed towns of Cold War Russia in the past, the new industrial development in China of today, and the post-industrial mining towns of the East Midlands.
Well, when you’re making a video there has to be an interesting story, something to hang everything on, something that helps to concentrate all the different ideas you want to bring in. So in The Unnamed that’s obviously the fact about the secret town from my own biography. With Particulate Matter, I went to Beijing to do a residency for a month and decided not to worry about making work there, but to look, to explore and film the place I was in. I wasn’t going to spend the month in a studio painting, as that would have been a waste of the opportunity, so I was out and about, looking at things in the street, filming and making notes on things like the construction of new buildings, the industrial developments and so on.
How did the China material become linked to the local, East Midlands stories?
The themes emerged very slowly. One thing I saw in China was men compacting coal with no masks or protective clothes, and it fascinated me because it was like going back into a much earlier phase of industrialisation, different to anything I’d seen in Russia or Europe, but probably how it was in those places in the past, before Unions and workers organising themselves. So these men would pack coal, pour concrete, all those things with no modern safety precautions. The air everywhere I went in China was heavy with pollution, so that became something that interested me, and made me start thinking about coal mining and industrialisation back in England.
And then you found Bill Hill, Grandad Hill, is that right?
Yes. After I came back from China myself and Stuart went to the Cattle Market in Nottingham, where I saw a couple of amateur paintings of pit heads, which we liked and bought. Then we turned a corner and saw another fifteen paintings, obviously by the same person, which all had writing on the back, so we negotiated with the stall holder and bought all of those too. The writing on the back had memories about the things in the paintings, and so we decided to try and find out more. We were able to find an old address on one of the pictures, and through that found the painter’s son and discovered he was still alive. It became a real quest to find this character, and it happened that he had been a miner and had a problem with his lungs from mining, so it all began to fit together. It was such a chance, a beautiful chain of events that led to Particulate Matter. You can’t do that every time you want to make a film, you have to wait for the stories to come along!
I’m interested in your comment that China felt like a time machine back into an earlier phase of industrialisation.
That’s how it felt, as though you were going back to the past. When I was there, the work going on was everywhere, and in the film you can see bridges, towers, apartments, roads, all being built. If you look at those old photographs of New York in the early 20th century with the men sitting on girders or walking around high up on open-sided skyscrapers, well it was exactly like that in Beijing. You just have this sense of returning to that kind of earlier time. I suppose I went with expectations that I’d see the kitsch tourist China of silk scrolls and dragons, you know, but I didn’t see any of that, apart from one or two short day trips to see things like the Great Wall. What I saw instead was the city, and quite a raw city, bursting with all its energy, money and sweat. That was my impression of China.
I know you’ve shown a lot of work internationally since you graduated from the Royal College. How has the Soviet material of something like The Unnamed worked with people who don’t share the background or know the story and its context?
It’s been a lot of work, but I am excited that something like The Unnamed, which is now a couple of years old, is still getting interest, so it’s been seen in New York and Germany, and in each place it has a slightly different meaning because of those countries’ different experiences of the Cold War. When I was making the film I was always conscious of how it might work in places like the United States or other Cold War ‘enemies’, as they had been at the time, so it’s been exciting to show it in some of those places. Oddly, when I showed it to my Russian classmates and my parents, it wasn’t so strong for them, probably because they already knew those stories. But it does seem to connect very strongly with people from other places. In Germany, particularly, it really seemed to stir people’s memories of that Cold War period, and I had an amazing conversation in Berlin with a woman from Japan, which was around the time of the Fukushima nuclear accident, so she could relate to it because of that. So, yes, The Unnamed has very Soviet material, but it seems to work better for audiences from outside.
Perhaps it needs someone British or German to see the importance of a story from the former Soviet Union, and that might be the reverse of Bill Hill, where maybe it needed a Russian to see the interesting possibilities in those amateur paintings by a long-retired local miner.
Yes, I think there’s some truth in that. Once you point out the story, it is interesting for people, but the hard part is finding those stories worth telling in the first place. They don’t come along every day, and you can’t really force them into a piece of work. It has to come together very naturally, for me anyway.
You also have an interest in gender as an aspect of your painting. You’ve talked before about the subtle way you apply paint and make marks, or use curves instead of straight lines to bring a ‘feminine’ element into the foreground of the paintings. You also refer to dance and movement in this context so could you talk about that?
Have you ever seen film of the American Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s? They’re nearly all male and white and they play this role of the hero in their own studios, you know, the male artist making his big, bold abstract paintings, so I definitely try to steer away from that and work differently, and I think I am conscious of those questions. I also wonder sometimes if digital is potentially a more ‘feminine’ medium. Apple Macintosh design feels quite feminine to me, so I do refer to those kinds of shapes in the work. There’s also a very deliberate passivity, if that’s the right word – a relaxed, less assertive presence I want the work to have, which might relate to that opposition to those ‘heroic’ masculine Abstract Expressionist ideas of what painting can be.
But within that, you’re using things that are often thought of as ‘masculine’ too, like the complex geometries and mathematics of the curves, a very precise way of working, an interest in graphics, technology, architecture and design, when things like that are often thought of as male preserves.
Yes, it’s not straightforward. I think about those tensions between male and female ways of working, but I’m not sure my conclusions are consistent. Maybe I will think more about gender in my paintings as I go on!
There are also some complexities about how your work is framed by curators when it’s shown, so sometimes you’re seen as a British artist, sometimes, like at the Saatchi exhibition earlier this year, you’re shown among other Russian artists, or artists thought of in terms of having grown up in the Soviet Union. You seem to slip back and forth over those borders, which is interesting.
The Saatchi show was very interesting because it didn’t focus on the artists who are seen as part of the Russian art scene, which is relatively small, or who are known as the most successful artists in Russia, but instead brought together artists with connections to Russia who were often living elsewhere. I met quite a few artists through that show, so it was very interesting for me to meet other artists with Russian backgrounds who I didn’t know about before. They weren’t necessarily artists living outside Russia either. There were some artists from Moscow in the show who aren’t part of the establishment there. But I don’t think nationality is an issue for me anymore. I’ve been in England for ten years now, so I’m probably at least as much British as Russian, in some ways.
And do you identify strongly with Nottingham? You’ve been part of the scene here through several different stages in its recent evolution, so I wondered if you could talk about how this particular city might have shaped your approach.
Oh, it’s a major influence. It’s been brilliant being here all the way through. It’s very easy to find a studio, for a start, because when we lived in Hampshire, when I first arrived in the UK, I had to create a very small studio in the garden, but when we arrived in Nottingham, Oldknows Studios was still active, and there were big spaces there. But it wasn’t just having the space to work, it was the way I could get to know people on the scene very quickly, too. Nottingham has a great asset in Nottingham Trent University, which constantly nourishes and re-seeds the scene with new artists. And because it’s a small city, the scene is quite tightly knit and supportive, so things happen and can be made to happen. But what Oldknows also gave me was a sense of having a routine, which was important, especially because when we moved here I lost the jobs I’d had to structure my time around in Hampshire, so having to go to the studio every morning and come home in the evening, and basically treat it as a full-time job for a whole year was very useful. Oldknows was very cold, and there often weren’t a lot of people around, but I was able to work very intensely for a full year. Later, I met people like Geoff Litherland and Simon Raven and we developed exhibitions and performances together, so it was very exciting, and I was lucky that by the time Oldknows closed I was already starting my MA at the Royal College, which helped me to keep up that momentum. Even then, I was part time on my MA, so I could come back regularly and participate in things in Nottingham.
What year was it that you first came to Nottingham?
It was 2007. The nice thing was that after I’d spent that year working in the studio at Oldknows, and started to think about showing some of the work I’d been making, it was relatively easy to put together an exhibition. I used the Hand & Heart gallery, as the space upstairs at the pub on Derby Road was used as a gallery at the time, and the fact that I could do that was amazing. I could decide I wanted to do a show and go out and make a show happen, more or less by doing it by myself. That was my first solo show in Nottingham and it was incredibly useful in helping me to meet people and get the work seen, which led to making other things happen.
I suppose, compared to somewhere like London, it is possible to do these things here, mainly because of the prices of renting space.
Yes, absolutely. My studio at Oldknows was very cheap, which is what made it possible to have it and spend a year working very intensely without having to make very much money to justify it. There’s also the fact that all the spaces I’ve had to work in around Nottingham have always been within ten or fifteen minutes’ walk or cycle from my home, which makes the studio very user-friendly.
And I guess that in turn means there are more people using the studios available, and a more active and supportive environment to make work in?
You can get out and show work, or people can visit you to see what you’re doing at your studio, and that’s important. When I was working in my garden studio in Hampshire I think I did marinate in my own juices there because I was on my own and didn’t have that network of people I could talk with about what I was doing and share ideas. Since finishing the MA, I’ve had my studio at Primary, so again there’s that community of artists around me, and this time, my studio is warm in winter, too. So things keep getting better.
The last question, I suppose, is to note that obviously your situation has changed drastically this year, having become a mother, so what are your plans for the next few years?
Well, first of all, we’ve looked at nurseries for Max, but he also, for the moment, does sleep at the studio, so I’ve been able to carry on working. I hope that will continue, and I can balance my studio time with looking after Max and carry on, but the past two years have been so intense, in terms of the amount of work I’ve been making, that I probably do need to step down a little from that because it’s been exciting, but isn’t really sustainable for the longer term to keep working non-stop at that level of intensity, which is what I have been doing.
But then that couple of years seems to have given you a body of work that can still be shown, so as you said about The Unnamed, which you can show in different places once it’s made, I think the show you have at Harley Gallery is the second or third time you’ve shown the Portrait Gallery Withdrawn group of paintings now.
Yes, that’s true. The Harley Gallery show is the third time those paintings have been seen, and I do usually tend to work on a project, a group of works, rather than one painting at a time. So The Unnamed is one statement, Portrait Gallery is another body of work that carries a different statement, and that’s what I tend to do. I’m always looking at the story or strong statement that I want to make in the work, and I think I can only really hope to find perhaps one or two strong statements like that in any one year – the kind of ideas that I can create a strong body of work around. The Unnamed was made in 2011, Portrait Gallery in 2012, so that seems to be how it works for me.