Published  13/11/2015

Valera & Natasha Cherkashin: ‘There is no future without understanding our past and our present’

Valera & Natasha Cherkashin: ‘There is no future without understanding our past and our present’

The Russian artist couple talk about the importance of history in their work and the beginnings and development of their multimedia art practice, encompassing photography, performance, video, digital art, painting and drawing


Valera & Natasha Cherkashin made their mark in the emerging contemporary art scene in Russia in the early 1990s, at the height of perestroika. It was then that the couple staged their famous performances in the Moscow metro and the installation The End of the Epoch. 1990s at the Moscow Library for Foreign Literature, which made them the ultimate voices of perestroika, expressing hopes and anxieties connected with the changing political climate in Russia. The exhibition at the Harriman Institute focuses on this early period in the couple’s work, showing 13 manipulated photographs made in honour of “Last November,” the final sanctioned celebration of the Bolshevik October revolution, which had taken place on a yearly basis since 1917 in Red Square in Moscow. The exhibition contains works from the series Art for the People, based on photographs of the bronze statues of Soviet workers and peasants made in the 1930s that decorate the Moscow metro station Revolution Square. Originally, these photographs were shown in the exhibition 4 + 4 Late Modern: Photography between the Mediums and in the personal installation Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe, curated by Steve Yates at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in 1994.

I spoke to the artists when they came to New York for this new exhibition.

Natasha Kurchanova: Could you tell me about the exhibition on view at the Harriman Institute? It contains your early manipulated photographs. These works brought you international fame and became your signature of sorts. How do you make them? Some people compare them to dada collages, but they remind me of paintings by Russian cubo-futurists. Did you paint before you took up photography?

Valera Cherkashin: I have much experience as a painter, but by the time I made the images exhibited at the Harriman Institute, we worked only with photographs. The exhibition contains 13 works. They were all made in the early 90s. Because we are painters, we use photography as material to make work. A photograph brings with it a certain space, which is defined by optical laws. However, this space does not correspond to our visual understanding of the world. When I look around, I see spaces that are invisible, but existing. For me, the photograph is the basis, which serves as raw material that could be used in one’s thinking and in making of a work. In 1980, through [the Russian visual artist] Mikhail Shvartsman, I met Francisco Infante. At that time, Infante worked with artefacts, which he introduced into nature. Under this influence, I began to introduce drawing into photography. Natasha and I worked directly on photographs, on matte paper, with a retouching pencil. I managed to create a different space instead of the photographic one. Then I realised that I could not only add drawing, but also take away details of the photographic image. We used bleach to lighten the photographs, sometimes to the point of the complete erasure of the image. Later on, we transferred text from newspapers on to the photograph, thereby adding information to the image.

Natasha Cherkashin: Here we were helped by a chance occurrence. We were in a hurry to finish making a gift, and Valera was using a newspaper to dry the photograph quickly. All of a sudden, we noticed the imprint of letters on the work. Valera panicked at first, but I told him not to erase it, because it looked very interesting. From that time on, we began consciously transferring text into our work by rubbing it on to the wet photo paper. Later, we began tracing letters with bronze paint for emphasis.

VC: In these images, the surface shimmers, creating a palimpsest effect. In the late 90s, we gave a series of lectures at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Charles Traub, head of the photography department, called our works the “Russian Photoshop”. One day, in 1999, he gave us an instructor to demonstrate how to use the actual computer program.

NC: We learned how to use Photoshop rather quickly: in three days, we were able show him our first digital works.

VC: My first photographs date to the early 60s. They were mostly images of my developing body. By the time I turned 22, I decided to study art seriously. However, I was not interested in receiving a diploma and, therefore, did not want to become a student officially. So I started to work at the Kharkov Art and Industry Institute. I wore a crimson beret and had a beard and long hair. I looked like a painter and had the nickname Modigliani. In truth, I never considered myself a painter – it was all a play. Shortly before my employment there, I was offered admission to the Kharkiv Theater Institute, bypassing the entrance exams. I was shocked, because I was taught that everything had to be done according to strict rules. I refused the offer with the words: “I do not want to play other people all my life. I want to play myself.”

NK: I notice that your first international exhibition was organised by Steve Yates. Could you tell me how you met him and how this exhibition came about?

VC: Steve Yates came to Moscow to find photographers or painters for his exhibition 4 + 4 Late Modern: Photography between the Mediums at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was a curator of photography at the time. The exhibition was dedicated to unusual ways of working with photography. Steve planned to include four artists from the United States and four from Russia. He liked our work very much and invited us to participate in this exhibition. In the beginning, we did not believe in the possibility of this project, because, before we met Steve, we had several curators promising to include us in international exhibitions, but none of the plans had ever come to fruition.

A few months later, Steve came to Moscow again and saw photographs of some of our installations at the Moscow Library for Foreign Literature. He wanted us to make a similar installation in his museum in Santa Fe. He said: “I can offer you space for your work, but it has one disadvantage – a fire door, which is always closed but cannot be blocked under any circumstances.” I answered: “A closed door is a good thing. We have Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, which closed its doors as well.”

We began preparing for the exhibition, but soon Steve called and said that the funding for our travel to the US had been cancelled, because the exhibition’s sponsor had withdrawn its support. We had no money to buy tickets, but we were helped by another chance. At that time, we had an exhibition at the IBM headquarters in Moscow. At the opening, the collector Tatiana Kolodzei introduced us to Samuel Harrell, the head of the board of the Kolodzei Art Foundation. In talking to him, we mentioned our upcoming exhibition in Santa Fe and the fact that we had lost the funding for travelling there. He then bought two works from the exhibition, which paid for our round-trip tickets. This was a generous gesture of support. We can say that, without it, our lives and career would have been different.

Our exhibition in Santa Fe was called Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe. We labelled the closed fire door “Lenin,” and it became the door to his mausoleum. We used Russian newspapers to make figures of people forming the queue to the mausoleum. During the opening, we also created several portraits of Americans from local newspapers and added them to the queue as foreign tourists. Yates was our first model at that exhibition; we placed his figure at the head of the line. We even had a border guard, performed by an assistant curator, Jay Rabinowitz, who guarded the border between Santa Fe and Moscow. By the way, the works hanging at the Harriman Institute now were shown in Santa Fe.

NC: Kolodzei advised us to buy a standby ticket from Delta, which helped us tremendously. Anyone travelling across the Atlantic on that airline could buy it for $500. It was valid for unlimited flights within the US for a month. We bought these tickets and used them well, flying from Washington DC to Santa Fe, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami Beach and New York. On the way, we met museum curators and collectors, many of whom would buy works from us. David Travis, the curator of photography from the Art Institute of Chicago, was our first customer in the US. A month after landing in the US, we returned to New York with a large stuffed suitcase and pockets full of money.

NK: The exhibition at the Harriman Institute is not typical for you, because you tend towards totalising installations, taking over the space completely. I am thinking now of your projects Travel as Art; Art in Diplomacy and The World Atlantis – all them are totalising in the sense that they tend to take place in many countries and consist of multiple works and performances. Your “classic” exhibitions, such as The End of the Epoch. 1990s, Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe and Mirages of Empires are also totalising installations, which absorb the viewer.

VC: In general, yes, we often make totalising installations, in the sense that we like working with unfamiliar and even difficult space and transforming it. Our first collaborative exhibition was The End of the Epoch. 1990s, which took place in the Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow in January-February 1991. It was the birthplace of many ideas that were elaborated in our later projects.

When we first came to look at the exhibition space, all we could find were dirty stands with bright red connecting cubes. We did not have time to repaint them and decided to make the entire installation match them. On the way home on the subway, I thought of using red and black newspapers. The idea of crumpling newspapers to use as a background also originated there. Four years later, we started to crumple our photographs. At the entrance, we hung a framed fresh issue of the newspaper Pravda. Then the viewer entered the stairs, over which we built The Arch of History from red bricks and Soviet-era postcards. The stairs led to the second floor, where our exhibition continued. They were covered by a carpet made from issues of Pravda; we called it The Road of Truth.

The main exposition was in the shape of a cross, which was turned and slightly curved towards the entrance on the side. At the crossing, we placed the Hourglass of History consisting of two clear semi-spheres.. Behind it, the viewer could see a large work showing people demolishing a Lenin statue somewhere in Ukraine.

In the centre stood a sarcophagus, containing four busts of Lenin. At that time, there was a lot of debate about Lenin: people could not understand if he was good or bad. Accordingly, we made two of these Lenin figures kissing and two turning away from each other, symbolising our internal discord. This exhibition was closed by the director of the library ahead of schedule.

NK: Your performances in the Moscow metro were so successful then because they were conducted in an enclosed, self-sufficient space – the Revolution Square station – which was a readymade space for your arrival and action. There, you performed many famous pieces in the early 90s, such as Underground Wedding and People’s Love of Art for the People, after which the writer John Spurling called you “the founders of underground erotics”.

VC: Yes, the metro station Revolution Square was a space that was readymade for our work. Like Infante, we had to make a good artefact that could become part of the existing space without destroying the atmosphere created by the architecture of the Moscow metro. We understood with time the underlying meaning of the station’s iconographic programme. All the statues of revolutionary workers and peasants in this station kneeled – they couldn’t get up. They were placed under heavy arches. It’s a powerful metaphor. There is a well-known story that someone noticed it before the opening of the station and people who worked on this station began to panic. They were getting ready to be accused of state treason. When Stalin came to look at the station, he uttered, approvingly: “[They look] as if [they are] alive.” The meaning of these words, like much of what he said, was ambiguous. In any case, people were lucky not to be put to death in connection with this project.

When perestroika began, we understood that we were losing an entire epoch. We were also losing the culture to which I and my parents belonged. The generation to which my parents belonged, of course, not only survived the war, but also won it, thanks to their belief in the ideals of this epoch. My father fought in the Finnish war, from the beginning to the end. He spent the entire blockade in the surrounded Leningrad. It was only in 1946 that he returned from Austria in the rank of an officer. When he was examined by a doctor before demobilisation, it was discovered that he had a duodenal ulcer. He was given seven years to live at most. When he returned from war with this diagnosis, he could have received a disability pension. Instead, he burned all the papers about his disability and illness, because he felt that he could not slack off – he was young and strong enough to work to rebuild his country. He went to study, then worked, and became one of most respected citizens of the city. The time that made people like my father was becoming history. We could not ignore it.

NC: Our performances in the Moscow metro were attempts to establish a connection with the Soviet culture when it became devoid of its ideological charge.

NK: Your water installations are also based on this idea of a totalising space, because water is an element that creates space by filling it. When did you begin working with water?

Valera: Our very first action with water took place when we first saw the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco. We were so astounded by its might that we gave the ocean the most precious thing we had – our artwork. There was a cameraman with us who recorded this action. Later, we conducted a similar action with the Atlantic Ocean, in Miami Beach. After that, we bathed our works in the fountains of London, Paris, Rome and Berlin.

NC: Our very first underwater installation took place in 1996 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. It was called German Atlantis. It was dedicated to the unification of Germany and was sponsored by the German television broadcaster DW International.

VC: In 1999, we did one more underwater installation in a reflecting pool at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC. It was called Goodbye Favorite European Portraits: Hello Euro. Once again, we turned our attention to a cultural phenomenon that was becoming history, only this time it was the culture of portraits of famous people on European currency. The banknotes of European countries were losing their face and being replaced by a uniform, faceless euro. This underwater installation lasted for six months. It was financed by the European Union, Air France and the World Bank art programme. After this installation, the World Bank acquired 15 of our artworks for its permanent exposition.

NK: From the beginning of your work together, you seem to have been interested in history and with the continuity of history and the present moment. Could you expand on this?

VC: At the beginning of my own career as an artist, I was interested in nature, in women, in bodies, in space. I was enrolled in one of the first studios of bodybuilding, in the first karate studio, and then I was one of the first hippies – I was unusual among hippies of the former Soviet Union, because I did not do drugs. Then, I met Natasha and we began working together. During perestroika, social and political changes took our creativity in a different direction. We realised that we had a duty as artists and citizens to mark the epoch in the life of our country that was becoming history. The main idea of our totalising, cosmic projects was that we needed to rethink this culture. There is no future without understanding of our past and our present. So we began working with the past and with the present, with whatever was happening day in and day out in the politics of our country and in our lives. If the country was undergoing privatisation, then we conducted a ceremony of privatisation of statues in the Moscow metro; if the Subbotniks were officially abolished, then we returned them. We were convinced that we needed to preserve love for our history, so we did a project, People’s Love of Art for the People. We also performed a wedding between a live woman and her favourite statue from the 1930s in the Revolution Square station of the Moscow metro.

NK: How did you meet and how did you begin working together?

NC: We met on the subway. I was going home from my pantomime class, and Valera was going to his cousin’s wedding. We were riding in the same car; the train was half-full. When Valera entered, he positioned himself across from me. He looked dapper with his short haircut, wearing a fashionable jacket. He began systematically measuring up all the young women in the car from head to toe with his gaze. When my turn came, I started laughing. He smiled in return. We smiled at each other until we arrived at the final stop. Then we talked all the way as he walked me home. It happened 33 years ago.

VC: And so we started dating. Her friends were asking if she was going to marry me. She would answer: “If I were to marry, it would not be him.” In half a year, on her birthday, I went to propose to her. On this occasion, I did my first watercolour, bought flowers, and put on my best suit, which I had brought from my hometown of Kharkov.

NK: Did you study art officially?

NC: Valera studied art privately. He took painting and drawing lessons when he worked at Kharkov Art and Industry Institute. The advantage of this position was that he could choose his teachers himself.

VC: In a way, I am an unofficial graduate of this institute I studied a lot by myself. It was possible to get anything in the former USSR through friends. I could check out Sigmund Freud’s books from the medical library, for example. Also, I was very interested in exploring Nikolai Fedorov’s cosmism. The studies at the institute allowed me access to the library of the Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad, where I could work with [Mikhail] Matyushin’s colour charts. There was a lot of attention paid to the study of colour at Kharkov Art and Industry Institute. It was then that I figured out colour for myself. Then, in 1979, I left for Leningrad to join the Sterligov group. I met some remarkable people there – the poet Viktor Krivulin, for example. The Sterligov group valued me, but I stayed with them only for a year and then left for Moscow. I realised that the centre of contemporary art was there.

NK: What are your present projects?

NC: We have an unfinished project, Global Underground, dedicated to metros in different countries of the world. This project was launched in New York City. We always ride the metro here and encounter very interesting types. I like Times Square station of the Red Line trains in particular, because it has a good view of the platform on the opposite side of the station. It looks like a theatre stage to us. At this station we took the first photographs for this project and reworked them in Photoshop. Every work we make consists of multiple layers. It is a digital montage. After New York, we made similar layered works from photographs taken in the Moscow metro. Then Valera made a list of the most interesting metros of the world. He counted them and there were 33 in total. So we called our website The Global Underground project took us to Sweden, Spain, China, Paris, London … Many of our flights were sponsored by Swiss International Airlines. We took photographs in 24 countries and now we have works ready for 18.

VC: One of the exhibitions on the project Global Underground was held at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art organised with the assistance of the Swedish embassy in 2008. There, we showed large photo collages and two video installations related to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

NC: Also, in 2011, we did a big project for Dubai Road and Transport Authority. Apart from the metro, it asked us to make works about other modes of transport: buses, taxis, monorail and water. The exhibition was a very ceremonial affair: it was opened by [the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai] Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself.

VC: In 1996, we started working on the exhibition Russians and Americans Brothers Forever, in which we asked people what they thought about the possibility of unification of Russia and the United States. We approached more than 15 people, among them Harriet Fulbright, Studs Turkel, Steve Yates, Sandra Philips, John Taft … The first reaction of most of them was negative, but they changed their minds after thinking about it more. We plan to continue this project.

NC: In the past five years, we dealt with several heavy and difficult themes, such as Premonition of World War III, Apocalypse; Diplomats of War and Apostles of War, and Vibrations. Now we feel that we need some peace and quiet. We found it in the archives. We decided to take care of our own archive by putting it in order. Our first archival project is a book of our performances, actions and happenings. We found a lot of written records and photographs related to this material. We thought that we would make a small, skinny book, but as we work on it, it keeps growing. Valera started performing as early as 1962, after all. At the moment, it has more than 200 pages. We were right to start working on compiling our archive. It turned out to be captivating, complex and serious work. It revealed that our life turned out to be art quite literally.

• Natasha and Valery Cherkashin: 1990: The Last November is at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, New York City, until 24 November 2015.

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