How does your Russian upbringing influence the way you perceive the world now?
I was only 21 when I had to flee Russia, and I almost felt like I was given a second chance, a second life. Since then, I have spent more time living in the US than in Russia. But I still consider myself a Russian-American artist and it’s really important for me to make the point that I’m as Russian as American and I’m proud of my heritage. The politics of the government certainly can’t diminish my love for my culture and people. I just hope that the political situation will eventually change for the better so that my country can become a more tolerant and open place. And if I can contribute my part to this process, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.
What are the most crucial things that people in the West tend to take for granted?
With my immigrant and refugee background, I appreciate a lot of things way more than the natives in the US or other Western countries. Obviously, there is freedom of speech. You can argue that now this freedom is under attack in the West just as much as in Russia – with censorship on the rise and social media being routinely used for surveillance – but you can still get away with speaking your mind and expressing your views without being arrested or killed.
I was prosecuted for my journalism and for being openly gay in Russia, which was and unfortunately still is a very homophobic country. People who’re fortunate enough to live in the West came a long way in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, gay and trans rights. It’s easy to forget a lot of advantages that those who came before us fought so hard for. This is something we shouldn’t take for granted. And we should also remember that all of this can be reversed. Nothing is written in stone and if we don’t defend our rights no one is going to do it for us.
How do you channel ideas in between different mediums and projects?
I started writing poetry and taking pictures when I was 13 or 14. My poetry could be described as magic realism and I think it’s a good definition for my visual art as well. I want to transform and reshape reality. Documentation, collaboration and transformation, these are the main driving forces of my work. I like collaborating with talents from different fields, because for me the medium is not as important as the message behind it. Sometimes the title comes first, then comes the image, or I start with a poem that turns into a drawing or a performance piece.
When I started off, a lot of people were telling me that I was doing too many things and I should just focus on one discipline, genre or medium. Fast-forward 25 years, and there has never been a better time for multimedia artists, presenting a scope of ideas across genres rather than doing one thing and one thing only. Because that’s exactly what used to be expected from most career artists: to do one thing over and over, so you can become famous and make money. What I stand for is the complete opposite of this outdated formula.
What are some of the things that you keep coming back to in times when you really need inspiration?
Remembering my humble upbringing and the conservative, rigid environment I was living in has always been an important reference point for me. I come from a poor family, my parents were both intellectuals and we had more books than furniture or clothes. We didn’t watch TV, and I was a total nerd reading nonstop throughout my entire teenage years. Nothing ever fell from the sky for me, and I had to fight for acceptance and recognition first in Russia and then in the West. Just remembering where I came from and that I didn’t have much when I was growing up makes me appreciate my current life and enjoy my success way more. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that I enjoy creating art and writing just as much as I did when I was a teenager.