Russian has impressive body of work

2007-04-21 - Peter Goddard – TORONTO STAR

These days, becoming an art star is a pretty bloody business.

Elena Kovylina has the heart for a bit of bloodletting, though – as well as the legs, fists, chest, chin, eyes and many other points in between for it. Viewers wanting to follow the course of the Russian artist's work need only chart its bloody progress across her often visible, often battered body.

Kovylina's capacity to sustain and utilize self-inflicted pain is suggested – but only suggested – in Pick a Girl (2006), the artist's self-portrait at the Pari Nadimi Gallery. Coy, academic and underworked, the small oil painting comes from her notorious Pick a Girl performances presented last year at the Sydney Biennale and the year before that at Art Moscow.

In the sketchy oil on canvas at the Nadimi gallery, the artist appears wide-eyed yet hardly innocent. Looking apprehensively up to her right, she appears to be staring into the eyes of an unseen man who is about to pin something through the bare flesh on her chest.

She seems unaware of the pain that's about to come – or uncaring. Typical of many of Kovylina's performances, she's aggressor and victim here, the good comrade getting a medal for her uniform and the near-helpless enemy about to be stabbed.

 Things were a whole lot rougher and bloodier in the site-specific performance piece itself. (Indeed, things can get too rough with Kovylina. Boxing, an earlier performance piece where she offered to really slug it out with people in the audience, was cancelled last year for fear of legal repercussions.)

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Eye Candy Elena Kovylina

2007-04-19 - EYE WEEKLY, Toronto

 Russian performance artist Elena Kovylina's 2001 piece Waltz is a growing legend, and Pari Nadimi Gallery gives Torontonians a rare opportunity to see video documents of two of its best incarnations – in Berlin in 2001 (its debut) and in Miami in 2005. Kovylina, with her searing feline eyes and impeccable bone structure, seems a born performer: her beauty, as with precursor Marina Abramovic, becomes a tool with which to lure audiences, and then to expose and make awkward their expectations and prejudices. In Waltz, Kovylina is a brazen symbol of her own country: decked out in military garb, she invites audience members to dance with her to Marlene Dietrich's version of “Lili Marleen,” intermittently pinning medals to her chest, taking serious swigs of vodka and smashing shot glasses on the floor – until she staggers and, ultimately, can barely stand. Obviously, Kovylina's appropriation of the Dietrich persona, not just in soundtrack, but in clothing and behaviour (steely elegance to start, masochistic abandon to conclude) makes special sense in Berlin, but also broadly and successfully conveys Russia's Cold War pride and its troubled, post-glasnost links to the global economy. Likewise, Waltz takes on stereotypes of Slavic femininity, ones propagated both by international media phenomena – mail-order brides and sex trafficking, for instance – and by works of high culture, like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky's The Idiot, in which Dietrich-esque heroines become victims of circumstance and their own fiery wills.

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2007-03-21 - BY YULIA TIKHONOVA – WHITEWALL review

Once a distorted society with a pathological animosity to sex, post-Soviet Russia is now drowning in sexual imagery
— artists’ bulimic answers to years of abstinence.
The side-effects of Stalinism’s repression, criminalized pleasures, and zipped nudity. Echoing this sudden sexual emancipation,
RUSSIAN CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS explore the once-condemned lexicon of the body without an ounce of residual morality. by addressing the detrimental legacy of Soviet sexuality, which still permeates Russians’ mentality.
 One of these artists is Elena Kovylina, who through her performances implies eroticism, acting out the different roles that contemporary Russian women expect to take in society. The artist literally uses her naked body as performance medium. In her show Boxing (2005) Kovylina appropriates the image of a macho woman bychallenging a male volunteer from the audience to spar with her in the boxing ring.The artist intends to let herself be defeated by a man. Through the act of a fair fight Kovylina challenges the contemporary status of Russian men who lost their previous superiority and are now having to compete against the strengthening position of women. In the performance Waltz at Miami (2005) the artist references the rise and fall of Russia as a superpower by dancing out a waltz while drinking vodka. Again, she invites volunteers to dance with her.The artist drinks shot after shot, and when intoxicated, she plays out her role unrestrained. Interestingly, in her approach Kovylina heavily references works by Western performance artists of the 1980’s, such as Carolee Schleeman, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic. The difference however, lies in the fact that the artist revives the rhetoric of feminism, while appropriating it within a Russian historical context. Since there was no previous feminist tradition in Russia, the maturity of Western women’s studies could not be simply transplanted into new ground. The concepts of male and female equality needs to be reworked through the public consciousness and art practice alike.The originality of Kovylina’s performances lies in the legitimacy of her commentary on the contest of sexuality and gender roles that Russia is undergoing. In the project Pick up a Girl that was recently presented at the Sydney Biennale (2006), Kovylina addresses prostitution, which has become a somewhat desirable profession in the post-Soviet era, in which money is the prime objective, and the easier it is to get it, the better.The audience was invited to participate in the action by picking up cutouts of a woman’s figure from the naked breast of the artist. By the exploitation of her voluptuous feminine body, Kovylina plays out the act of sexual allurement and even solicits as an escort on her Web page.The oscillation between being strong one minute and then submissive the next mirrors the ambivalence of the personal position of the artist, who is also lured into the glamour of high lifestyle. In fact, by and large Russian society is now become entangled in the insatiable consumption and magic power of consumerism which is achieved through affluence.

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© Elena Kovylina, 2003-2008
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