Interview with Natasha Cherkashin

Moscow-based artists artists Natasha and Valera Cherkashin’s work(Valera and Natasha Cherkashin, Real and Unreal (installation, 2005).) can be seen in three upcoming exhibitions: their “Futurism and Nostalgia” will open on September 24 at the Great Neck Arts Center in Long Island, NY; a collaborative exhibition with German Artist Jorg Coblenz opens on October 21 at the Schneider Gallery in Chicago; and they will participate in the International Festival of Photography in Bratislava during November.

Sven Spieker: I’ll just begin by asking you what you’re doing at the moment, what your projects currently are and how they differ from what you’ve done previously. You’ve mentioned that there’s been some kind of a change in your work.

Natasha Cherkashin: Yes, you’re right. We’re working with the history and culture of many countries, beginning from our own country, from Russia.

Of course, times are changing, life is changing, and one day we realized that all this hatred has passed, and the soviet buildings had already become just a part of history. And the buildings would not remind people so much of the ideology, but would just be interesting historical architecture. Our theme had transformed and developed. We started working with the new period which we called “Mirages of Empires.”

Since 1994 we had a chance to travel. Our first trip was to United States, on the invitation of Steve Yates, curator of the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts. It was very interesting for us to see how it happened in other countries where the empires fell apart – like in Germany and Spain – what was left, and how people react now, and how they treat these memorials. We did a big project “Mirages of Empires” in many countries, including the United States. Even though people here say that it is not an empire, I think it is in a way, just a more contemporary one.

Now it’s a kind of new period for us, because we realize that all those changes that were so necessary and important for Russia in a way have achieved a certain point where they have just stopped developing so fast and it’s time to think everything over again…

Since 2003, we’ve started to work with digital technologies, and we think that in a new century, people’s mentality changes very fast, so we need to use contemporary materials and tools to express contemporary situation. The computer is the best tool for artists to express their ideas now. In a way, we continue doing what we did before, but now we are mostly interested in today’s life, and situation, because very soon it will also become history. So that’s the general idea.

S. S.: So you’re in the United States right now. So it would be interesting to know, what is your attitude towards the United States as a place to work? How does it differ from Europe? You’ve been quite active in America, not just here, but also in Japan, and, I suppose, other countries as well. But coming from Russia, what is the specific interest that working in the United States has for you? Is it sort of a place that you find particularly useful or interesting for your work?

N. C.: I think every country is very interesting, but especially interesting for us to compare – not to stay in the same country all the time, but to travel. Because when we travel, we really see how different the world is; at the same time we see that people are the same everywhere, but they “play different games,” depending on the laws and geography of their own countries.

Also, what I like about traveling is that you get to see how the world is changing, and how fast it’s happening. And now, world has become really small, and countries influences each other more than ever. Before, the world was more separated, and something that happened in America was very different from what happened in Russia. But now I see how more and more similar it becomes. And at the same time, of course, now America is one of the leading countries, I think it would be silly to say otherwise. And as any strong country, it possesses very strong energy and attracts everything most active. So that’s why it’s so interesting to be and to create in America and especially in New York. New York is one of our major themes. Unfortunately, now we are not so hopeful about the world, because situation becomes more and more complicated.

S. S.: You and your husband are, and this is in part what you were just talking about, you are present on many stages at the same time in many countries of the world. Do you consider yourselves global artists?

N. C.: That’s my dream to be a global artist. And we do what we can to become global artists. Because I think in reality art, especially visual art and music, these are two kinds of art that are understandable by people all around the world. And the visual language is the one which doesn’t rea lly need any translation. We see that people in other countries understand the message of our artwork and we are glad that we don’t have to do anything special for it. We just work seriously and sincerely.

S. S.: You are from Russia, and many of your works do reflect the more or less specifically Russian situation and background. Will that continue to play a role in your work, or are you trying to transcend that to get to a stage where that is no longer the main stage for your work?

N. C.: No, I think we’re Russian artists and, of course we were brought up in Russia, and we have all these roots, and to lose the roots is to lose a lot. For example – just my personal attitude – when we were in Japan, the most interesting artists for us seemed to be those who worked in a contemporary way but using Japanese traditions. And I think this flavor of something specific, and not only universal, is very important, and I don’t think we’re going to give that up. We will, of course, keep traditions of Russian art and develop them in contemporary way.

S. S.: And what is your view of the contemporary art scene in Russia at the moment, and how do you see your place in it? What is your attitude towards it, does it play a role in what you do abroad, for example?

N. C.: I think it’s a really good period for developing of art in Russia, because recently we had the first Art Biennale, which was quite interesting, and people from many countries came to see and participate in it. I’m very glad that now Russian art is becoming included and welcomed on the international arena. Of course, we will be very glad to take part in these events, and do what we can to promote Russian contemporary art around the world.

S. S.: Many Russian artists seem to have a much more critical attitude towards the west, towards the western art and western ideas in general than you have. You’ve been very open to working in the west, to working with institutions in the west. So it looks like there are certain differences between you, and not all, but many Russian artists who seem to have been working on developing sort of a more specifically Russian, as opposed to western, kind of discourse in art – a way of working and of speaking that is decidedly not western, that is defined by being different. And you have charted a different course. I wonder if you could comment on that a little bit.

N. C.: I think that now, when the world is so united, and we have so many oppositions to each other in many ways, of course, some artists may think differently. It’s normal; this is how it should be. The world should be different and there should be variety. Our approach is that you should simply bring your message to people and express it in a way that could be understandable. Of course, you should use traditions in your art and try to develop them. We don’t want to be in opposition to anyone. I think that in every country, art is developing in its own way, of course. In Russia, maybe, those traditions were stopped, or were under pressure during the Soviet time. And now, when the world became so open, Russian artists didn’t have the experience of how to deal with it. Some deal with it very well; they are included in the world process. Others, that maybe did not have a chance to travel so much, may feel themselves to be in opposition. But I think that happens mostly due to the lack of information about what really happens. When we meet with the professionals in the field of art here in the U.S., and talk with them, we see how deeply they understand what we do, and what they tell us about our art, I think is really important and helps us to find our way in this world art process.

S. S.: What do you think about the new, or not so new, nationalism in Russian art? This, in a way, goes back to my previous question, a kind of an attitude whose basis are the differences between Russia and the west rather than the similarities – people who are working on developing the way of speaking in art that is somehow specifically non-western. I deliberately don’t want to use any names, because then it would look like we are talking about someone in particular. But in a way, maybe we have already covered this issue in the last question. You have worked with many institutions abroad. I remember only the World Bank, but I think there were many others. I wonder if you could tell me about that collaboration and the kind of problems involved in working with institutions such as the World Bank. There are probably quite a few people that would think that this was a problematic thing to do, to work with an institution like the World Bank, especially now, that it’s headed by Mr. Wolfowitz, I suppose. But I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about those collaborations, and to what extent they’ve shaped your work and what they’ve made for your work.

N. C.: You know, I should say that this collaboration was very interesting for us; we never had any hard moments through this collaboration. From the beginning, it was very friendly. The curator of the World Bank Art Program posed this question: “We have a big reflecting pool in the World Bank, and I know you work with water. Do you have any ideas of what could be exhibited there? It was 1998, and we had already been working with portraits from foreign currencies, and we realized that they will soon disappear because of the Euro. It would be a part of our work that would soon become history, another Atlantis. So we suggested doing an underwater installation in the pool of the World Bank Headquarters called “Goodbye European Portraits, Hello Euro.” For us, the major idea of the project was that European countries would soon lose a lot of culture, history, and traditions because of changing of their money. We had that experience of changing currency in Russia already two or three times. And each time, banknotes looked worse and worse, and of course, they became less and less valuable. So we did our underwater installation with enthusiasm. For many people in the World Bank it was a big surprise “Why Russians are doing this project? Why not European artists?” This idea of loss of the culture of European portraits on banknotes and loss of cultural identity probably came to us because in our country we have actually experienced it. And what’s also interesting, as some Russian journalists noticed that soon after opening of our installation the WB gave several credits to Russia. Besides, the former president of the WB, Mr. Wolfenson, was very open to art, he told us during our meeting that our installation was his favorite one and he enjoyed showing it to his important guests from all around the world, including his friend Bill, because in the middle of the pool there was a portrait of Adolph Sax, who invented the saxophone. The installation was really well accepted, and I think it was an appropriate way to exhibit portraits from banknotes in the bank, especially in the World Bank, as it was kind of a world project. (<>)

S. S.: Do you think that there was any room for a critical attitude towards the World Bank? I mean, is there any kind of dimension to your work with these institutions that puts you at some critical remove from them? Many people have a very critical attitude towards this institution.

N. C.: For us it was just an artistic collaboration. Artistic, because we are not people from the business, finance or political field. For us it was important that WB will take part in all these changes in transforming from European currencies to Euro, and we thought it was a good time and place to express our attitude to these changes.

S. S.: What is your current project? In the beginning you mentioned digital images, and I was wondering about this transition. You said that this is the time when the computer seems most appropriate for expressing the ideas that we have. I wonder if you could say a bit more about this transition to the digital medium, how this happened, and also in what way you’re planning to use it, and also, what type of work you’re planning to do with it. Is it installations, online art? How will it differ from what you’ve done before?

N. C.: Our work with digital images was actually started in New York, in the school of Visual Arts in 1999. We gave a talk there, and when Charles Traub, the head of MFA Photography and related media department saw our new artworks he said that we should try to create works on computer. Actually our last works looked as if they were made on computer, though in reality it was hand work. Some people even called us “Russian computer.” Charles Traub offered us use of their computer room and gave us a person who could answer all of our technical questions. It took us just three days to create the first work: “New York Square 1.”(<>) We had a few questions on how to do this and that, but because we had an idea about what we want to do, it was easy to learn the few steps needed to do it. So the computer has just become a new tool to express the ideas we already had. But in 1999, ink could not last for a long time. Besides, we returned to our hand work, as we had what to continue there.

S. S.: So these were printed?

N. C.: Yes, they were printed, but later. Since that time, technology has come a long way. In 2002, we realized that we had done all what we wanted to do with the “Mirages of Empires” project. And then, we returned to our digital images again and continued to work with this new technique. At first we didn’t plan on them changing our lives, but step by step we became more and more involved and more interested in it, and now we had completely stopped doing the hand work. We plan to do only digital works. Of course it’s very easy to make additions in the digital format. But we decided not to print additions; we make each print on bronze, but if we like the work, we continue to work on it, and it becomes another image. We do not work on a specific big project now, but in general, we are thinking about possibility combining still images with some movement or video images. And now we’re in the process of learning how to use the new material. As soon as we realize that we are strong enough and feel comfortable enough, we will start to work on the bigger projects. (<>)

S. S.: Do you haveartists working in the digital medium that are particularly interesting to you, who you might point to?

N. C.: I can’t say that we follow anyone, or repeat after anyone…No; we develop our ideas that we worked with before, but just using a new tool. We showed our digital works to many curators and specialists in art here already, and many of them said that our works are very interesting and maybe more sophisticated than what they’ve seen so far in digital field. We are happy that our new digital works are already in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. So that gives us hope.

S. S.: Thanks so much; that was very interesting.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.