Katerina Belkina – about the sources of ideas, about gender roles and sexuality, social phobia, agoraphobia, and the way all this diversity mingles and transforms in the process of creative research

Katerina Belkina is one of those rare artists known by sight and instantly recognizable by their specific style. The intricate course of life from Samara to Berlin, distinctive visual language, clear range of topics, impressive list of exhibitions around the world, demand in the art market, a number of international awards and prizes, along with the love of admirers, form the phenomenon of her personality. Photo critic Feodora Kaplan talked with Katerina Belkina about the sources of ideas, about gender roles and sexuality, social phobia, agoraphobia, and the way all this diversity mingles and transforms in the process of creative research.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Not a Man’s world” series

Bleek Magazine: Katerina, it is written a lot about your education and the beginnings of your creative research, but I would like to start from another point. Some inner creative urge is familiar to every artist. What does prevail in your work – pure personal emotional experience or your reflections on culture and art in general?

Katerina Belkina: It is inseparable, I think. At first, you grow up and learn to see, hear, and feel. Then at some point, an urge for action arises. For some reason, this is the brightest moment, which incites a creative soul immediately or later on to unfold this spark into a clear image of what you’d like to tell. Initially, it is always a strong emotional moment or a personal experience, formed grain by grain. Yet, then you need a cool and balanced reflection and as calm and rigorous approach to your work, a craft process. All these make you grow. I like the metaphor of opening boxes. There are knowledge and ideas as if hovering all around us in closed boxes. Creative people, including scientists, are more sensitive than others; they can «see» their boxes. Then they feel an urge to open them, extract their contents comprehend and introduce it to the world in their unique interpretation. This often happens unconsciously. Especially at the beginning. Later you come to understand the process. You start to agonize without it. This is often called the «throes of creation» or the «lack of Muses». Yet, in order to convey a particular idea clearly and carefully, you need experience and skill. They come only with practice and time. Sometimes quickly and massy, sometimes it takes longer.

I like the metaphor of opening boxes. There are knowledge and ideas as if hovering all around us in closed boxes. Creative people, including scientists, are more sensitive than others; they can «see» their boxes. Then they feel an urge to open them, extract their contents comprehend and introduce it to the world in their unique interpretation.

Bleek Magazine: Your optics is obviously feminine and your subjects and themes are gender. Would you more likely call your art «feminine» or «feminist»?

Katerina Belkina: My optics is built-in; it is attached to the brain inside the woman, so it cannot be avoided. At the same time, I do really dislike the term «feminine». Nobody calls science feminine, when a scientist is a woman. This formula is similar to «feminine driving». After a couple of decades, when the quantity of men and women drivers will become equal, it will be funny to hear. The level of skill, knowledge and talent does not depend on gender and directly comes from one’s education and experience. The same is with art. However, I do not react to such definitions, except that with humor. I believe that art has no gender. There are different views on the same issues, according to personal experience of the author, different artistic approaches. I do not consider myself a feminist either. I do not defend any rights and have no propensity for moralizing. My work deals with observation and narrative. Why women? I’m not original here. This is historically established – I’ve been brought up on the history of art from prehistoric times to the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is difficult to put all those museums with predominantly female images out of the head and to get rid of antique aesthetics.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Not a Man’s world” series

Bleek Magazine: Then, what is femininity for you? Of what does female identity consist? Can it be assembled or imagined as a set of anything – any symbols, qualities, actions, or, for example, roles, as in your series «Not a Man’s World»?

Katerina Belkina: Yes, it can, as much as masculinity. My work is a reflection of the inner substance of a modern woman. Meanwhile, her outward appearance may be very different – this is our achievement, our trophy obtained over time. The freedom to choose, how to show oneself. And the inner image I have consists of emptiness, lightness, modesty, fluidity, changeability, philosophical view of things. Our time dictates a woman to be ever more changeable and mobile. This is agility, but firmness. Flexibility and lightness in body or decision-making, compliance, but ability to hold one’s ground. The demands of time and place are contradictory. To be light and heavy. Many women are different, but they strive for this state. It makes the existence easier. The roles in «Not a Man’s World» are just those, which we choose, or which are chosen for us.

Our time dictates a woman to be ever more changeable and mobile. This is agility, but firmness. Flexibility and lightness in body or decision-making, compliance, but ability to hold one’s ground.

Bleek Magazine: The roles are chosen by those who perceive a woman as an object of watching or possession, it seems? Then the fragility and elegance of your heroines, with their bleached, smooth skin and refined features, fit into the strategy of submission to the so-called «male gaze». On the other hand, they look extremely cold, as if they are alien to any vital sensuality. What place does female sexuality take in your reflections?

Katerina Belkina: I’d like to think that this coldness is only outward. Not that I reflect on it, on female sexuality. It is present in my works among other things, as given. It is our important feature, granted by nature to every woman in a varying degree, increasing with age and with age extinguishing. It is present in every woman and every man. The question is – what is the audience and what is the context? I’m not speaking about the notion of sexuality hyped up in mass culture – vulgar and primitive, sticky as a gum underfoot. As if one correct prevailing taste has been set – sweet, for example. Everyone should like only sweet stuff.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Paint” series

Bleek Magazine: What is the role of the invisible man then, the one who is never present in the frame but, undoubtedly, implied by the context? And how does it correlate with the one that occurred in your series «Paint» where the woman is the muse, and the man is the creator?

Katerina Belkina: The role of the invisible man is ambiguous and in each of my series is different. He is clearly present in «Not a Man’s World», as the behaviors of its heroines, arise from the relationships with their partners. «Home Work» is a satirical sketch on the theme of what I’ve just said – that artistry has always been a male privilege. In «Light&Heavy» the man is represented by the entire space: the Soviet and post-Soviet architecture, frozen air, emptiness and featurelessness, but at the same time the power and inflexible will. Yet, the story exists only in the context of interaction between men and women in Russia. «Paint» is a homage to the art of the 19th and the early 20th century, when a woman still was a muse. Nevertheless, this series is not about gender, yet again. It is about the hidden sexuality of the shy artist, expressed through the model. The artist is often bashful and shy. Only art enables him to put all his cockroaches on display. When the viewer is dissatisfied with these or that piece of work, I always suggest him to imagine, that by other means it could be much worse and perhaps even more dangerous.

Bleek Magazine: Speaking about the artist, to what extent your works can be called self-portraits, and what does determine your choice whether to work with your own body or invite other models?

Katerina Belkina: They cannot be called self-portraits, they are not. My choice is to work with my own body almost all the time, until I get tired. Sometimes I take breaks, but they are usually short – only to look away, so to speak. One and the same model is the main hero or heroine, who unites the whole complex series. This urged the development of my own style of storytelling. It is my personal theater, where I speak about different aspects of life and express myself through my characters. Choosing oneself as the main model is also determined by the deep and accurate contact between the model and the author. Dealing with social phobia one has little choice. Thus, I get rid of all the difficulties of incomprehension on the shooting stage and gain energy and time to deepen into the topic, scrutinize it and communicate the idea more accurately. There are some disadvantages as well. First of all, it is a certain isolation, lack of interaction with the outer world. Yet, on the other hand, it is an advantage too. I do not really need anyone in my creative work, except for my family. And it is not quite clear, whether it is good or not.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Home Work” series

Bleek Magazine: What is photography for you in all this process? Is it the material for your further work?

Katerina Belkina: There is photography as art or documentation, it’s not about me. There are many wonderful things, which have nothing to do with me. And there is photography as the material as you have noticed. I am a drawer. Yet I haven’t chosen paints, sculpture or something like this. The realism of photography, its proximity to us appeals to me. And my drawing skills help me to transform the picture and approximate it to my mental images. I like this embarrassment one feels in front of my works at shows – what is this? Is it a painting or a photograph? Photography and Photoshop are my two instruments. Photoshop is also a compensation for a limited budget and technical obstacles of shooting. Joking apart! Limitations of all kinds is a common problem of Russian contemporary artists, which in time develops into a personal style. And, as far as I understand, it is difficult to eradicate, even with the moving to another country. We create in spite of all, on the basis of limited resources. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Photography and Photoshop are my two instruments. Photoshop is also a compensation for a limited budget and technical obstacles of shooting.

Bleek Magazine: Using Photoshop, you achieve ultimate sterilization of space and everything within it, as in the series «Empty Spaces» and «Light&Heavy». Meanwhile, female body gets extremely purified of everything physiological, not to say plasticized, sometimes appearing to be a thing among things. What is the conceptual reason to visualize the images in such a way?

Katerina Belkina: I would call it a detailed scheme. I remove everything that seems unnecessary to me to simplify the composition and color scheme. I do not like visual garbage and mess. Small details in abundance make me itchy. They prevent me from concentration on the essentials. Perhaps this is some defect or a feature. The same can be said about bodies and faces. I do not see all those moles, wrinkles and hairs. I see people in whole. And it’s not just me. I sterilize them without erasing individuality but creating a summarized, clear image. In real life, of course, every detail complements the character, but I do not like how it looks in the picture. I show a sort of scheme of the character and space, using the language of lines, proportions and color.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Light&Heavy” series

Bleek Magazine: In «Empty Spaces» you start working with the urban area, meanwhile the scenery appearing outside the windows is as lifeless as the heroes. What is the glass between the heroine and the industrial landscape or monotonous scenery of dormitory areas? Is it the outer boundary of the inner world of the character or the sign of derealization of reality and neuroticism of modern society? And why do the heroines of «Light&Heavy» come out on streets of the city?

Katerina Belkina: Yes, the glass is the border of one’s box. All we do is looking through such glasses – from our houses, from transport, through monitors. Why are we looking through them? I do not think that is because of neuroticism. In modern megalopolises we are so huddled together, we sit on each other’s heads, so, of course, we want to isolate ourselves. This is logical. Rambling in the nature environment, you are open, returning into the concrete, you slam the door. Otherwise, you will be caught and got. Hence, social phobia is a disease of big cities. In «Light&Heavy» the heroines come out for happiness. Seating at home, you cannot catch any fish. This series is about hunting without a goal. Because in Russia the goals are imposed on women. Hunting and race. Yet, here hunters themselves become hounds, because those goals are alien to them.

In modern megalopolises we are so huddled together, we sit on each other’s heads, so, of course, we want to isolate ourselves. This is logical. Rambling in the nature environment, you are open, returning into the concrete, you slam the door. Otherwise, you will be caught and got.

Katerina Belkina

Katerina Belkina. A photo from “Empty Spaces” series

Bleek Magazine: In your new series «Revival», from which I’ve seen only two images yet, you once again turn to a purely feminine practice – motherhood. What will be the continuation?

Katerina Belkina: Well, no, «Revival» is not about motherhood, it is only a symbol. This series is about the return to the spiritual. The 21st century is the century of loss of faith. The borders of right and wrong are blurred, prosperity ruins spirituality. People have only recently started to live in comfort; the task now is to learn to combine physical comfort with the development of our soul. It is hard. Somewhere there was a gap in time between the religious period and pop culture. Yet, faith is such a vital need of our psyche that people look for its new incarnations or try to transform the existing ones. And since these searches occur from time to time, this leads to a cyclical repetition. If Renaissance is an escape from the influence of the Church to the exploration of identity and the living material world, «Revival» is an escape from consumerism and materialism, imposed by the society, to the exploration of oneself and personal spiritual growth. Neorenaissance in everyday life.

Bleek Magazine: You are one of those artists in demand in the art market. What do you think is the secret of this success?

Katerina Belkina: There is a list of ingredients in this recipe: some flair, which certainly can be developed, stubbornness, «iron bottom», experience, as the result of this ironness, sensitivity to the environment, which can be called intuition, communicativeness, good luck, and fast reaction. Intelligence, of course. This is the ideal. And this set, unfortunately, is not my case. Each of us may have something missing from the list; therefore, it is necessary to compensate it with an increasing amount of other ingredients. In my case, it is stubbornness. The problem with this stupid success in that climbing up the peak is not enough; you do also need to stir your limbs intensively to stay there. But it is better not to think about this. Yes, the secret of success is not to think about it! Here is the secret of failure – undoubtedly, it is laziness. Physical and spiritual. The artist, rise! Go! Lift up your iron bottom! Oh, this is so contradictory.

There are no stupid or uninteresting subjects. There are lazy artists and formal approach.

Bleek Magazine: It seems, iron bottom is not so easy to lift up, but if this obstacle has been already overcome, what is next? How a photographer can find his theme, develop it, and most importantly – how can he get the attention of critics, gallery owners and collectors?

Katerina Belkina: I’m not a photographer, so I can give an advice only to hybrids like me. First of all, pick a theme that totally carries you away. As in childhood – I will not stop playing until I finish. It should be interesting! The subject, which touches you, will touch the viewer, on the assumption of wholeheartedness and hard work; you cannot scamp here. But as in any interesting game there comes a moment of difficulties. When you do not know how. You should stay the course. Don’t be lazy and don’t be afraid to reshoot if you do not like the result. Work and rework, as many times as necessary until you achieve a satisfactory result. And the most important thing in choosing a theme is to go out of the room. The narrower the world, the more difficult it is to find a subject.

When the theme is chosen, read on it, think, look through others works. Movies, museums, books will help – analyze them. Give yourself time to reflect – this is the most important stage in the process. Think, but do not hinder your intuition. It will lead you in the right direction, especially with the experience it comes.

Katerina BelkinaKaterina Belkina. A photo from “Revival” series

Now importantly: there are no stupid or uninteresting subjects. There are lazy artists and formal approach. If you have in mind only the rhyme tears-fears, then you have not thought or felt enough or you’ve come short of creative erudition. The more the artist knows, experiences and feels, the broader is his palette.

There is no need to attract the attention of critics and gallery owners. Engage your audience. If you’ve done something perspicuous – show it to people. No pretexts that you are not able, that you are not an art manager, will lead your ideas out of your home. Do not advertise yourself, just show! Publish in social networks, submit to the competitions and festivals, associate with others to make group exhibitions. There should be plenty of you, if you’ve done something really interesting to the viewer. Together with the audience, those whom you expect will come, those who would like to show, sell, buy and just help. There is a small remark: do not stay confined to your area, city and country. The world is huge, and, perhaps, tomorrow you will find yourself on its other side, where your work will be appreciated.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Feodora Kaplan. Translation: Daria Kuznetsova.