sasha rudensky's photographs document the new culture rising in a new eastern europe
Meet the artist examining the loss of Soviet ideology and the culture that emerged to fill the void.
The New East Photo Prize is a brand new initiative celebrating contemporary photography from Eastern Europe. Established by the Calvert 22 Foundation — the UK's only not-for-profit institution dedicated to contemporary art from the region — the aim is simple: to champion new perspectives and shake up the outdated manner in which former Soviet Union countries are represented.
One artist leading the charge is Russia-born, America-raised Sasha Rudensky. For Rudensky, photography is a way of retaining a connection to her heritage, examining, in her words, "the loss of Soviet ideology and the culture that has emerged to fill that void." In Tinsel and Blue, a series of images shot between 2009 and 2015 in Russia and Ukraine, Rudensky delves into the relationship between truth and illusion, aspiration and frustration, as well as the myriad problems of self that come with it. With her work currently on show at the Calvert 22 Foundation in London until December 18, we speak to the photographer about the series, and broadening perceptions of the East one image at a time.
Where did the title Tinsel and Blue come from, and what aspect of New East culture were you attempting to narrate?
In Tinsel and Blue I was interested in examining a larger sociological question concerning the vacuum created by the loss of Soviet ideology and the culture that has emerged to fill that void. In other words, what has shaped and come to characterize the generation that came of age during the upheaval of the 90s and the strident capitalism of 00s? The photographs don't offer a definitive answer, but the title frames the central issue: the space between façade and interior, offering that up as a possible clue. The opposition of words and associative meanings speak to a contradiction between private life and public persona — as presented through décor, costume, and architectural settings — revealing a fissure between a veneer of glamour and the melancholy of unfulfilled fantasy. I like the ambiguity of both terms: tinsel is shiny, but cheap. Blue is a color, but also a state of mind. When writing about my work one reviewer astutely referenced Goethe's Theory of Colors, where Blue "is said to disturb, rather than enliven." I like that interpretation.
How would you define your style of photography?
Any kind of definition of stylistic or philosophical affiliation is either too reductive or too general. For instance, the term "documentary" can imply a myriad of contradictory meanings, none of which are particularly helpful in pinning down or differentiating one photographer from another. I am an artist, and not a photojournalist, and as a result feel comfortable and even compelled to filter the world and interpret it.
You're now based in the U.S. Do you think of yourself as more of an American or Russian photographer?
It is really both. I was educated in United States, which contributed to not only the kind of artist I became, but to the very fact that I became an artist. However, my early visual memories of Soviet Moscow in the 80s, as well as early years after coming to United States and the double life of an immigrant, are at the heart of why I photograph.
How did you find your subjects for Tinsel and Blue?
I met people accidentally and on purpose. Occasionally I had a specific idea for a photograph generally focused on an archetype that I wanted to include in my cast of characters — an oligarch, a policeman, a rich housewife. I did research and asked friends to connect me with people who might be interested in being photographed. Then there were times, which happens in photography, I would stumble on something or someone that I fell in love with instantaneously that gave me a new idea or even changed the direction of the project. Access is one of photography's biggest challenges, and I owe a tremendous amount to those friends in Russia and Ukraine that helped me open doors and made introductions.
Do you have a favorite image from the series?
It is hard to pull apart a body of work into individual images. Also, I change my mind all the time. I don't have my photographs around my house, but if I did, there are some I would have an easier time cohabiting with than others. There are certainly pictures that played a pivotal role in helping me to articulate the overarching ideas of the project — but it is really hard to pick a favorite child.
What is it about the East that continues to draw you back?
Part of what I am accessing when I make photographs in Eastern Europe are the imagined and missing pieces of my own experience, a life I would have led had I not hopped a plane and gone off to America. That perspective, of simultaneous astonishment and recognition, of being an outsider with inside knowledge, is part of what has brought me back for all these years and has contributed to my development as an artist.
How can photography broaden perceptions of countries in the East?
When I was younger I was motivated to photograph in Russia in part because of the kind of work that was coming out of there at the time; work predominantly made by western photographers, who saw it as a place of dramatic extremes, of horrifying poverty, mind-boggling wealth, rampant lawlessness, nostalgia for the Soviet past. There was certainly plenty of material on offer that supported those takes, but by and large those projects felt simplistic and exaggerated, and very much made from a point of view of an outsider. I wanted to make photographs that were personal and nuanced, that focused on a more intimate reality that stood in for bigger ideas.
Over the years I have become less idealistic, but am still predominantly interested in elucidating private experience and a personal vantage point, which I find to be more revealing and as a result more poignant. It is always fascinating to gauge the difference in reception of my work in United States or the west in general versus Russia and the New East. On a superficial level images from Tinsel and Blue can be seen as seductive and exotic, a glimpse into a stranger-than-fiction reality. On a deeper level the photographs meditate on aspiration, failure, an effort to transform and transcend immediate surroundings, all of which are human and universal desires. At the risk of sounding obvious, isn't one of the great ambitions of art is an attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves?
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Sasha Rudensky