In the Studio

Anna Jermolaewa

Vienna, Austria

»I am a realist, no matter in which medium.«

When Anna Jermolaewa is not traveling, the artist, with roots in St. Petersburg, lives and works in a Viennese apartment in an old building. Here, surrounded by the art of artist colleagues and a remarkable collection of Soviet vintage curiosities, she produces the conceptual, often critical and enigmatic humorous video and photographic works for which she is well known. We have visited the artist and talked with her about her world of ideas, the stories behind her art, and her rediscovered passion – painting.

Anna, you came to Austria as a young woman and have been working in Vienna for many years. Can you retrace your path from Russia to Vienna?
In 1989 I moved from Leningrad to Poland. Thanks to a Polish woman who had helped me to escape, I could go with one of the shopping busses to Vienna. Many years later, I made a video about her. Originally, I had not wanted to go to Vienna but to West Berlin and then on to America. And it is actually very funny that I have stayed here for so long and that I intend to stay even longer.

That was shortly before the so-called “Wende”, the turning point. What has moved you to still escape during that time of political thaw period?
At the time I have still been a well-behaved student in a conservative art high school, but after school I was at home in the dissident scene. My partner at the time and I were the co-founders of the first opposition party. For one and a half year we have produced the party newspaper in my apartment. Although it was the time of Perestroika and Glasnost, but we must have gone a step too far. One morning came a KGB house search and proceedings were instituted against us accusing us of anti-soviet agitation and propaganda. When friends helped us to get an invitation to Poland we took the chance.

What affected you to stay in Vienna and not to go on to West Berlin as you had planned?
We first tried to seek asylum in the American embassy. When that did not work out, we stayed at Westbahnhof for one week without money and food. The next attempt was trying to reach Paris by auto stop. But at the border in Salzburg we were arrested and brought to the refugee camp Traiskirchen. Therefore I stayed in Austria. I have been granted political asylum. Nevertheless, the first five years I just wanted to go back home. It was very hard in the beginning. In the meantime, however, I have become a great Vienna fan.

17 Anna Jermolaewa
18 Anna Jermolaewa

With the change of place your interests have developed further, from academic painting through politics and art history to a completely independent artistic production.
Of course, one laves behind certain things to return to them perhaps some time later. In retrospect, for example, I have hated the education as an academic painter. I was convinced that it has ruined my imagination. The technique, however, was so deeply engrained that I have automatically continued to work like this in Vienna until I could separate myself from it and cut up all my old canvases – in the meantime, the bag with the shreds is now in a collection.

So this step was necessary in order for you to turn to new things?
Precisely. It was after this liberation that I started photographing and filming and I have passed the entrance exam for the Academy of Fine Arts after the fifth try. That was the year in which the Academy renewed itself: The old fantastic realists retired and new people came – among them Peter Kogler with whom I studied. For the first time there was a class for new media! It was the ideal time for me to begin my studies and it was also the first time that I felt comfortable in Vienna.

What role did Peter Kogler and your class at the Fine Arts play in your development?
Peter is a wonderful teacher and a good friend. Under his guidance this class was like a family, everything was based on collaboration and support. That was very important to me. Fifteen years have gone by since we completed our studies and we are still a click. Some of my former fellow students are my best friends, and no work leaves the studio without us having discussed it together.

Can you describe your art for someone who doesn’t know you well?
I would call myself a concept artist. I always start with an idea and only then do I look which medium is best suited to best realize the idea. In the process I am still a realist, regardless of the medium. My topics are always experiences I had or observations from my travels, never something fictitious. In the beginning is always the idea. The tools are secondary. I am convinced of this and this is what I am teaching.

09 Anna Jermolaewa

The Penultimate (Carnations, roses, orange tree, cedar, tulips, bluets, saffron crocuses, jasmine, lotus), 2017
Exhibition view of Recurrence, at Zeller van Almsick; (c) Zeller van Almsick

Ecce multitudo, 2017
Exhibition view of Recurrence, at Zeller van Almsick; (c) Zeller van Almsick

Ecce multitudo, 2017 
Exhibition view of Recurrence, at Zeller van Almsick; (c) Zeller van Almsick

Your present exhibition “Recurrence”at Zeller van Almsick will present works in various media?
Yes, the exhibition is a good example to sow how I use different media. There will be photography, film, and painting side by side, which will all be thematically connected through “recourse”. In one room, for example, I juxtapose the nude drawings of my study time with a current video by switching sides and live through the situation of being a nude model observing the distribution of roles between object and subject. A second work deals with the so-called color revolutions, a series of non-violent regime changes that always proceed after the same pattern and a color or often also use a flower as the symbol of identification. I have actually established a “herbarium” of these revolutions.

Only recently you have returned to painting again.
Yes, exploring the nude drawings of my study times I was encouraged to paint again. For a long time, painting was taboo for me, but after twenty years of cutting videos it is liberating to paint again. Already the smell is wonderful! And in the evening it is so much more satisfying to have painted a picture than to have cut a video for ten hours. Painting has made me really happy. However, everything is still quite new, respectively been newly rediscovered. Therefore I would like to give myself time and become clearer about some things.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your work?
Often they are very mundane everyday things. Suddenly an object emerges that matches a question that I am pondering. In my first video works for example I have recycled my daughter’s toys or kitchen utensils. The objects I then use as metaphors or an opportunity to tell a story. Even if one of my works looks like a minimal sculpture, it hides a story. One could describe it as “narrative minimalism.” The pure form conceals a story, not as in Minimal Art where it is rather about “You see what you see.“

So the images that you superficially show serve rather the transportation of contents?
Precisely. A good example for that is my work bout the flowers, which have become the symbols for the revolutions about which we have spoken. Here it is certainly not about esthetically beautiful bouquets but about the political charge they embody.

07 Anna Jermolaewa

Which profound meaning does your work about the cats of the Hermitage, the St. Petersburg Art Museum, have which is well known?
With the cat portraits I have created a pleasant, almost kitschy surface of sweet cats. The story behind it is curious, because the cats have already been acquired in 1745 in the fight against mice and rats and enjoy the status of coworkers. It also conceals the tragic story of the siege of St. Petersburg during which the animals disappeared; they were eaten. This was the only way for the inhabitants to survive, that too do the sweet cat portraits refer to. 

Despite the various media that you have chosen, your artistic oeuvre forms a coherent whole. What is the connecting element?
It is about life conditions, about the conditio humana and the questioning of power structures. I would not even say that I am an especially political or apolitical artist. Situations that recount the life conditions of people can be found in the private and public realm. I came directly from politics to art. At the time, we had demonstrations, flyers, and our magazine. Now I use other methods, but I hope nevertheless to be able to sensitize, point to things and ask questions.
Are there personalities that have formed you or are forming you?
I certainly have heroes. They change constantly. Situationists like Guy Debord or forerunners of the Dadaists like Arthur Cravan have been among my idols. I was also very impressed by Pussy Riot. Pjotr Pawlenski, for example, is someone whom I observe intensively at the moment. He says that power mechanisms are the actual material of his works, and he recently set to fire a French bank after he had received political asylum in France. It has fascinated me to be so rigorous in what one believes without any concern for the comforts of life. I consider that very honest. Furthermore I am inspired by many filmmakers like Agnès Varda, Roman Polański, John Cassavetes, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and at the moment especially the women filmmakers of the Berlin School.

11 Anna Jermolaewa

Here is a world map with any amount of needles in places that you obviously have visited. Is traveling inspiration for you?
It is totally important to me to travel. I would go so far as to say that my ideal work situation is actually the hotel room. In a hotel there is no day-to-day life. There I can think well. My idol in this respect is Vladimir Nabokov, who has spent a large part of his life in hotel rooms. Perhaps my love for travel has to do with the fact that until my escape I could not imagine to see any country outside the Soviet Union.

One cannot always be on the move. Where and how are you the most productive at home?
Most of the time I can actually be found with my laptop on the bed. I believe that describes my work situation best. Meanwhile I cut entire films on my bed, but I also work on photographs and sometimes I even draw there. Only oil painting is difficult in bed. (laughs) A long time ago, I have gotten into the habit to work from home, because I have brought up my daughter for the most part alone. It was impossible to disappear for hours in the studio. So I have integrated my work completely into everyday life (or the other way round). In the past, computers were still slow. Rendering took an enormous amount of time, and so one could use the waiting time for doing the laundry or cooking or something like that. And the most beautiful thing is, when the cat lies on your lap, but unfortunately it has died. 

01 Anna Jermolaewa

A propos filmmaking! You are just trying to make films.
That’s correct. Before I could not imagine producing something for the movie screen. My videos were better fitted for room installations, running in a loop. Now I have tried a new format, and my film Leninopad recently premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival, which I am very proud of.

That’s great! Congratulations! Let us go back to traveling for a moment. Which kind of power do you actually draw from traveling?
The most beautiful moment for me is sauntering in a place where I have not been before not knowing what lurks behind the next corner. In such moments being sensitive for discoveries is much more pronounced. One is awake! One sees things that one would normally pass by. After three days in one place this sensibility dulls again.

Can you give an example for a work that emerged from such a discovery?
I don’t look out for exotic things – quite the contrary. One work quite at the beginning of my career materialized like this and is very important to me: Hendl Triptychon. For this work I have filmed three ways of grilling chicken in Acapulco. Harald Szeemann has seen the work and that is how I was represented already in my second study year at the Venice Biennale. And the basis for this work was the alertness which lets one see things while traveling that are actually not bound to a place but are omnipresent.

Here hangs a picture that seems to capture a situation from a safari in Africa. A woman observes a giraffe. Both the giraffe as well as the woman wear striking patterns. 
This picture for example materialized on my latest journey. It was a cruise to the Bahamas with the extended family. Following the cruise we were in Florida, in Disney World and in the Universal Film Studios. This was definitely a way of traveling that I normally don’t undertake. But in any case it was an interesting study. So it is a safari in Africa but a safari in Disney World, Orlando. It is actually a completely fake situation, and that interested me, an entirely constructed situation of a natural event. The picture could stand for the beginning of a new work cycle. I am working on it at the moment. In 2016, I have realized a work in Disneyland in Anaheim, near Los Angeles that also explored this fake world. 

Besides the fact that you are just discovering painting again, have you any other plans?
Some time ago, I have traveled the West Coast of the US extensively. I was particularly impressed with the landscape of Utah. Never in my life have I seen something so spacious. And very unexpected meetings happened there, which brought an idea for a film. Together with my partner Scott I plan to realize a large film project there to which I am looking forward to.

05 Anna Jermolaewa

Interview: Gabriel Roland
Photos: Florian Langhammer

Anna Jermolaewa's Website
Zeller van Almsick, Vienna

#loveart, #annajermolaewa

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