Conversations... with Elena Kovylina


Elena Kovylina is a Moscow-based artist whose confrontational performances concern the political significance of a woman’s experience in Russia today. Taking on the varied roles of author, aggressor, and object of desire, Kovylina’s devastating and visceral social critiques have made her among the most prominent young artists currently working in Russia.

Her signature piece—the only one thus far seen in the US—is Waltz, a 2001 performance in Berlin that was documented on video and shown in the exhibition Russia Redux #1 at the New York gallery Schroeder Romero in September and October of 2005 and was performed by the artist this past December at the NADA art fair in Miami. In Waltz spectators are invited to dance with the artist, who is otherwise engaged in a strange ritual of decorating herself with military badges, downing shots of vodka, and smashing the empty glasses on the ground, all the while becoming precariously smashed herself. The audience’s role gradually shifts; whereas at the beginning of the performance Kovylina offers them a pleasant dance, by the end of the piece they’re confronted with having to support the slumping, wobbling, nearly incapacitated artist.

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Pyotr Bystrov – Tsaplya | Doing Right by Lena //// A Conversational Fragment

2004-05-05 - What is to be done?

This whole stupid project about relationships, -
Is a project on absence and the impossibility of love
I told you from the first that all of these texts and
poems are surrogates of true emotion, neurosis.
Totalitarian, eugenic, perverted,
Many-layered life-threatening psychosis.
"Where-ever there is love, words will lie".
Get it?
Leave me be forever. I want to throw you out of my head.
You nasty little leech, pin-pricking at my brain,
You bloodsucker. Die.
I seem to be insulting the paper itself,
 Forgive me.

 Elena Kovylina, February 14th 2003

Pyotr Bystrov (P.) …Lena Kovylina, my woman, doesn't make my life very comfortable at all. Zero point zero zero comfort. Nothing but discomfort. But I find it motivating to face her endless demands, her claims, the conditions that she sets. They motivate me to grow personally. I'm telling you: unlike all the other guys, who sit around at home comfortably, sleeping and eating, nobody's degraded or anything, they're all still alive, but it seems like they're all resting or hibernating, because their girlfriends let them do so. But I'm constantly chasing Lena, who is a person you will always have to catch up with. She never yields and is far more energetic than me in many ways. She's a person who has made herself what she is. Like Baron Münchhausen, she's constantly pulling herself out of a swamp by her own hair. She's strong enough to take any risk, to win or to lose, to experiment. So our love and our relationship is actually completely different from all of the relationships or loves that my friends are involved in, some of which, in my opinion, have lowered the stakes of their experiments, deciding to take it easy.
Tsaplya (Ts.) Recently, you've been taking part in Lena's projects as an assistant and have been less focused on pursuing your own art, even though you've been quite successful by Russian standards, both as a member of the "Radek" group and as an artist in your right. Does this mean that you're willing to play a secondary role for the sake of your relationship?
 P. I can afford to play a secondary role. I've always been immensely attracted to those figures in culture who didn't realize even half of the potential they had.

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Joschka Fischer zeigt Russische Kunst

2003-06-03 - Von Joe F. Bodenstein – PROMETHEUS

Berlin (bpb) Der deutsche Außenminister Joschka Fischer ist Gastgeber einer Ausstellung "Russische Künstler sehen die deutsche Hauptstadt", die am Donnerstag, dem 3. Juli 2003 im Auswärtigen Amt in Berlin eröffnet wurde. Der russische Botschafter Sergei Krylov bezeichnete die bilateralen Kulturbeziehungen als sehr gut. "Die gemeinsame Jahrtausend alte lange Geschichte von Russen und Deutschen ist von vielen Begegnungen der Kulturen voneinander geprägt", sagte der Diplomat vor zahlreichen geladenen Gästen. Fischers Staatssekretär Jürgen Chroborg schrieb im Ausstellungskatalog: "Für uns Deutsche ist der Blick auf die Stadt durch das Auge russischer Kunst eine spannende Perspektive."
Viel Beachtung fanden die neuen Bilder des Malers Genia Chef. Er gilt als der profilierteste unter den Teilnehmern der Schau. Nach Objekten wendet sich Genia Chef nun der Malerei zu. Dabei hat er sich die antiken Statuen von Berlin als Motiv gewählt, die sowohl das Kriegsende mit grausamen Zerstörungen der Stadt, das Nachkriegsdeutschland und die kommunistische DDR überlebt hatten.
Plakative und dekorative Beiträge sowie Fotografie-Kunst mit stimmungsvollen Motiven kamen von folgenden Künstlern: Aleksandra Koneva, Valery Koshlyakov, Elena Kovylina, Georgy Litichevsky, Marina Lyubaskina und Alexander Tokarev.
 Die Europäische Kultur Stiftung Berlin (EKS) hat das Engagement von Außenminister Fischer zur Förderung des Kunstdialogs ausdrücklich begrüßt. Konsul B. John Zavrel erklärte als EKS-Direktor für internationale Angelegenheiten: "Das Kulturpotential Russlands und ehemaliger Ostblockstaaten ist sehr groß. Der gegenseitige Kulturaustausch muss noch stärker werden, vor allem mit Tschechien. Dies würde den Beziehungen der Menschen in beiden Staaten sehr gut tun."

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ARE YOU CRAZY? is the title of a series of artist talks which raise the issue of "irrationality" and open this important element in the works of young artists for discussion. Everyday situations are normally judged according to logical criteria. In contrast, artistic actions create the possibility of pushing the limits of the given social standards or even going beyond the established narrow confines of rational behaviour; for an artistic act does not require the legitimisation of a predetermined goal.
Is it the main purpose and intent of the artist to question the accustomed strategies of daily routine by incorporating breaks and disruptions into ordinary logical structures?
What role does the artist play within the framework of "rational" social constructs, when his or her actions cannot be measured by such criteria?
Is it the artist's purpose to play the fool - much like court jesters or children - by inverting and thus reflecting habitual patterns of behaviour?
These are just a few of the questions that will be discussed with the invited artists in conjunction with their individual artistic positions.

The performance artist Elena Kovylina often puts herself in dangerous situations in relation to the audience. Viewers are often faced with the challenge of having to choose how to intervene in potentially life-threatening situations, which underscore the question of who is really in control. In one performance the artist rowed far out into waters of the Black Sea in a small wooden boat. Members of the audience eventually came to the decision to rescue her in a motor boat and she was safely brought back to shore. In "Make it yourself" the audience was given the option of kicking away the chair on which she was
 standing with a noose around her neck. In "Schießstand" the audience was asked to shoot at the artist as a living target; Elena Kovylina was hit by a bullet. A work with a particularly Russian flair was "Walzer" in which she danced with different men chosen from the audience. The dance was interrupted by short breaks, in which she drank a shot of Vodka and pinned a medal onto her jacket. The performance ended in the hospital, where she was admitted for alcohol poisoning.

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Contemporary Russian Art Newsletter

2003-05-01 - Olesya Turkina –

Contemporary Russian art is a phenomenon that emerged quite recently, 15 years ago, simultaneously with Gorbachev's perestroika. Its instantaneous and brilliant appearance on the international arts scene was related to certain utopian hopes of the late 1980s. In the epoch of the political transformation of the world, as earlier in the epoch of the great geographical discoveries, it seemed possible to discover an unknown land of Russian art (likewise, Cuban, Chinese, Mexican, South African art), left behind since the time of the avant-garde. Were the hopes placed on Russian art justified, or during the process of its institutionalisation, did actuality turn out to be much more interesting than cultural demand? How does contemporary Russian art function now, at a time when artists have an ambiguous attitude to national identification? The task of this News Letter is to show what constitutes the Russian art scene in 2003, propose certain "thematic" routes, mapped out for contemporary Russian art, including such sections as political, feminist, corporal, media. These themes, repressed in the preceding period, became the object of artistic reflection during the process of fundamental changes that took place in the USSR. Then artists had the opportunity to remove themselves from the uniformity, even in their opposition to Soviet political, economic, aesthetic context. The political context, the existence of art in the epoch of mass-mediasation, gender differences, and the corporality of art have remained important for contemporary Russian art throughout the three periods into which it can be tentatively divided. These are, first, the period of discovering the unknown, revolutionary Russia which began in 1987 (in fact the forerunner of this period was the underground art of Moscow and Petersburg, historically the most active centres of art) and lasted until the early 1990s. The second period was distinguished by the political and corporal radicalism of the generation of artists which replaced it. It culminated in 1997-98. And finally, the third period, which started in the late 1990s and continues to this day, is characterised by a certain neo-modernist tendency, expressed in the wish to embody the Great Narrative in art, and to institutionalise contemporary Russian art.

 Since this News Letter is the first one, inevitably is has a historical section. The latest productions of contemporary Russian artists were presented on the basis of the most important exhibitions, which were held or are being prepared for opening in 2003, both in Russia and abroad. Thus the 50th Venice biennial doubtlessly is one of the most important events. The participation of the artists in the biennial is obligatory mentioned, at the same time when more complete information on the Russian pavilion is to be found on the official site. For analysis of the latest works done by Petersburg artists, the large project "Graz. Cultural capital of Europe 2003" was important, held in January-March this year. Contemporary media art (Moscow and Petersburg) will be presented at the exhibition "Neue Ansaetze/ Zeitgenoessische Kunst aus Moskau", which opens on 31 May in the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle. Material for a description of the current situation in Russia was gleaned at the 7th International Art Fair "Art Moscow 2003" and especially the non-profit project Art Moscow Studios that followed immediately after the fair. When choosing artists, their international renown was taken into account, as well as their importance in the Russian context, for example, personal exhibitions held in such major museums as the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum, and the presence of their works in the collections of state museums. Although the News Letter genre presupposes that material is organised on the principle: that which is new. Nevertheless, exactly the thematic approach seems most adequate for this News Letter, since it lets us look at the contemporary Russian situation from the certain historical perspective.

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© Elena Kovylina, 2003-2008
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