FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
VALERA AND NATASHA CHERKASHIN’S PHOTOGRAPHIC STRENGTHS DEFINE AN ERA.
As of this writing, I am pleased to present an on-going series, a Q&A dialogue with an outstanding selection of photographers whose work spans many genres and are established in the global sphere. Their powerfully strong and explosive imagery has captured the eyes of museum and gallery curators worldwide, as well as secured homes with private collectors. Stimulating artistic and thought provoking photographic imagery characterize these artists who have explored and broken boundaries within the photographic medium.
For this first interview, I would like to thank Natasha and Valera Cherkashin for the opportunity to share their story with my readers. I caught up with the husband and wife team at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute where a lecture/presentation of “End of an Epoch” formalized the evening. While the couple resides and works in both New York and Moscow, they have been exploring not only the cultures of the former Soviet Republic, Russia, and the United States, but Great Britain, Germany, Spain, France, Japan, China and other countries since 1988. The Cherkashin’s have held more than 140 solo exhibits and more than100 “performance and art happenings”. To date, their work has been the subject of over 60 television programs; including CNN, Deutsche Welle, Italian Super Channel, and Russian TV, and have been featured in over 250 publications, including Art+Auction, Art Forum, Washington Post, and Stern magazine.
“…Valera and Natasha work like sculptors: on an armature of historical structure, they drape layers of contemporary references. In a phrase: their images reveal the transparency of time…”
–Stephen Mansbach, Professor of the History of Twentieth-Century Art,
University of Maryland, College Park
Renay: Take me back to the ‘70s – the cold war era of the Soviet Union. Explain the climate of culture and what was your objective in the your delivery of photographic expression.
Valera: The ‘70s was the time of Brezhnev and stagnation. From the early ‘70s to about 1985, life was very stable, peaceful and there was no innovation. By the middle of the ‘70s “unofficial soviet art” appeared – until then the state regulated the arts and what could be exhibited (allowed). I remember a group of artists with an unofficial exhibition in a barren field in Moscow. It was work influenced by western culture and a lot of foreign journalists were invited. Considered a great scandal and denounced by the government, bulldozers were sent to destroy the work. This was the beginning for us as artists. The journalists wrote strong articles, which put pressure on the government, and in turn there were even more unofficial exhibitions occurring after that. Moscow and St. Petersburg became centers for it, but it’s influence impacted creatives all over the country. It is important to note that photography at that time was not considered to be art.
REM: Creatively when did you become a team?
NC: I thought we started to collaborate after several years of our marriage, but now, looking back, we understand that our collaboration started from the very beginning of our relationship. We discussed Valera’s new works and our discussions influenced his creativity from the selection of negatives to the photo prints we made in bathroom, as it doubled as a darkroom for photographers. Later on we worked together to produce collages.
VC: My interest in photography really took shape in 1960 when I received my first camera at the age of 12. My relatives had cameras for personal and family photos, and I wasn’t allowed to toy and experiment with them. So intrigued by the camera’s possibilities, I saved my money until I was able to purchase a “SMENA 6” which was a small and inexpensive 35mm one with a self-timer. I started with a series of self-portraits and continued this trajectory. I moved to Moscow, which I believed was the center of contemporary art in 1980, after a brief study in St. Petersburg to learn the traditions of the Russian avant-garde.
REM: How difficult was it to obtain equipment in the Soviet Union? And the expense?
VC: In the USSR people mostly used amateur equipment. The average monthly income was about 90-100 rubles a month. The cameras were not very expensive. My first cost 7 rubles (about $6 at that time). One could buy enlarger for about 25-30 rubles. A roll of film cost 35 kopeks and a pack of 25 pieces of 10×12 photo paper cost 3-5 rubles. I don’t remember any professional labs in the 60s or ‘70s; everybody developed film and made prints at home.
REM: Your work is an extensive display of imagery woven into rich layers, making remarkable statements. Let’s explore your achievements combining “happenings” and your photographic technique in a 3-dimensional arena. What was the motivation for that?
NC: By 1968 Valera‘s photographs were more sophisticated as he started to study and create drawings, paintings, lithographs and etching. From 1983 -1984, Valera and I included photography in our artworks. We began with black and white silver gelatin prints on matte paper, drawing on them with a retouching pencil. Within two years we used bleach, colored pencils, silver and gold acrylics, and airbrushing with watercolors. In 1991 we transferred texts from newspapers onto photo paper. Soon after we created our first collages with actual newspapers. That artistic period was named “End of the Epoch” and led to a photographic series. These works later became an important part of our larger works and installations. Sometimes Valera took pictures of models, but at the end of 1980’s we mostly photographed people in the streets, or in the Moscow metro. After our first trip to the US in 1994 our style has changed as well as life in our country. We realized that the Soviet era was over.
REM: Was it revolutionary? I mean in subject matter as well as the use of these mediums? And the response?
NC: We did not know anyone who created, as we did, at least not in the Soviet Union. By the 1990’s many publications took notice and we were invited to exhibit our works, first in Moscow and by 1994 the U.S. was calling. An exhibition at the Sante Fe Museum of Fine Arts was well noted. It was actually a group exhibition, entitled: “4+4, Late Modern”, curated by Steve Yates. The museum featured our works in a separate room. In this space was a big fire door. We wrote “Lenin” above the door and it became Lenin’s tomb. Our whole installation was called “Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe”. In the middle of the room we constructed a line of people, made of Russian newspaper “Pravda”, and, at the opening gala, Valera and I asked several visitors to pose with our newspaper figures. We added the “American tourists” to our line of newspaper images, but this time they were constructed with pages of the Wall Street Journal. It was a great “happening” and, as you know, the photos of this event were part of our recent lecture at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
“…Your work definitely has roots in the idea of the Russian Constructivist period. I’m very impressed with all your ideas. I think it’s important to have unique and original ideas, which you two definitely have. And I would recognize you work now in any place I would see them.”
–Ralph Gibson, Photographer, New York
REM: How do you define your genre of imagery? Part fine art, part journalism?
NC: We don’t determine our genre. Our work has a wide spectrum. Our artistic expression is based on current events, so perhaps we are documentarians with our own signature. We use all our creative energies to bring our images to another level, which perhaps can also be defined as fine art. We don’t use any studios, or special light. Mostly we photograph in the streets, subway stations, in the open air. Perhaps our style belongs in a category by itself, and this style is always evolving so that is why it is hard to categorize it.
REM: The digital revolution. How did that change the dynamics, the trajectory and narrative of your work?
NC: In 1999, we were invited lecturers at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The director of the photo and media department, Charles Traub, who was familiar with our work, offered us an opportunity to learn the computer, along with Photoshop. Until that time we were still in the darkroom. An assistant was provided, and although we mastered the new technology and the design aspect very quickly, we found the new inks on the market were not long lasting, so we returned to professional silver gelatin for our printing. We have created digital images only since and in 2004 we bought the Canon G4. While Photoshop is a wonderful instrument, you are lost without your vision and inherent artistic skills.
REM: What is the statement you are making?
VC: There is no future, without understanding the past and our contemporary societies.
REM: How as artists were you affected by Perestroika, the period of social and economic reform?
NC: Perestroika gave way for the dissolution of the Soviet Regime, yet economically our country was completely destroyed. It was a very difficult time to survive. A lot of major institutions suddenly collapsed or were closed yet, new organizations appeared from nowhere. They called themselves Academies, Universities and so on. With the influence of all these new ideas, and freedoms, which we embraced, Valera and I decided to create our own museum – a virtual one –the “Cherkashin Metropolitan Museum”.
In Russia, we have many very grand memorials to the Soviet era, and our idea was to highlight some of them. One in particular, was the Moscow metro system, Metropolitan. Moscow’s metro is hailed for it’s splendor and grand design and was our theme for more than ten years. Our museum also features lectures, exhibitions and installations. In addition, if you see our website we have published books, created video installations, and maintain a very large archive of material.
REM: Yes “Metro Series” and “End of an Epoch” are both quite extensive. What do they reveal?
NC: The new “Metro Series”, which we started in 2005 also known as “Project Global Underground” was an international project. It delves into the complexities and nature of cultural diversity. It features a number of artistic dimensions in addition to our extensive variety of archival prints and includes video, animation and other digital forms of art to reveal and underscore our study of a global transport network. The viewer travels through a virtual underground within different countries and cities. In the 21st century, with the unprecedented freedom of movement of individuals, Project Global Underground highlights visual characteristics of each mass transit system – reflecting both mutual as well as uncommon cultural distinctions. Also designed to identify the extraordinary history and technological achievements of each, it projects the unique character and ornamentation of each station, its urban background and development, and the inhabitants of each city. The virtual subway includes stations from 33 countries – Moscow, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Dubai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, among others.
REM: And “The End of and Epoch”?
VC: “The End of the Epoch” concerns itself with a collection of images, perhaps 300 – 400, that reflect a period of time, the 30’s through the 50’s. This was an important period in Soviet life because it was a time in our history when the Soviet Regime was born. Stalin was ruling and the installations of many memorials were achieved. It was the time when it expressed power and greatness. We call it “Empire Mentality”. Our future plans are to include studies and comparisons of other imperial cultures, including Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Spain, Italy, among others with its expression in art and architecture, noting the differences and similarities.
“…Valera and Natasha Cherkashin work with deeply rooted social archetypes – universal symbols of human existence. They are interested in the presence and development of these eternal archetypes of human civilization in the present, in real life. Being true artists, the Cherkashin’s have a heightened power intuition and sense the shadow forecasting the future. Their purpose is to express in a form of art how the eternal is refracted in the momentary.”
–Dr. Aleksandra Shatskhih, New York City, 2011
REM: What’s next?
VC: If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans…
For more information, please visit: www.metro33.com
Facebook: Natasha Cherkashin
All images courtesy of Valera and Natasha Cherkashin
Image: #1 Natasha and Valera Cherkashin
Image: #2 People’s love of art. Moscow Metro, Revolutionary Square 1991
Image: #3 “Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe” 1994
Image: #3A “Moscow’s Red Square in Santa Fe” 1994
Image: #4 “Global Underground, Dubai” 2011
Image: #5 “Statue in Moscow 1991
Image: #6 “Demolishing of the Statue of Lenin” Ukraine 1990
Image: #7 “Underground Butterfly” Moscow 1991
Image: #8 “The End of an Epoch _ Worker and Peasant” Moscow 1991