Tatiana Antoshina on Museum of a Woman
04 Oct 2018.
Tatiana Antoshina in conversation with Igor Grebelnikov
How did the idea of gender and the theme of femininity appear in your work? Was there a watershed moment for you? How did these ideas come together into the synthesis of a woman’s museum? Don’t you think that the woman is treated as an object in the title?
In 1987 I was preparing for a PhD art history exam in Stroganovka (editor: Storganof Art College), which is considered one of the most difficult. I was nervously leafing through my books, one by one, and suddenly I burst out laughing: I realized how many naked female bodies there were in art history! At the same time, there were almost no naked men, not counting those from the classical period. I concluded that contemporary art was in fact a ‘museum for men’, where everything corresponded to their interests and tastes. This was perhaps not surprising, given the fact that most collectors, customers and artists were men. Now the situation has changed and there are many women in the art world. However, in art, there are still more images of the female body and female artists themselves choose ‘female’ subjects. But to me this is nonsense! I would personally rather paint or look at handsome young men.
Tatiana Antoshina. Quantum leap, nstallation, 56 Venice biennale. 2015
It is essential for women to develop a critical view and the ability to listen to their inner voice and their own feelings. That’s how the idea of the ‘Museum of a Woman’ came to me. It should be a place where everything is in accordance with the tastes, viewpoints, and interests of women, as we haven’t had the ability to voice these for quite a long time.
First, I needed to create a statement, something that would define the concept of the museum to come. I chose 12 of the most famous paintings, such as ‘Luncheon on the grass’, ‘Spring’, ‘Olympus’ and ‘The Turkish bath’ and staged a photo shoot in the style of each of these, swapping male and female characters and vice versa. I wondered how the perception of these paintings would change, and how their contexts would transform as a result. I staged the first photos of ‘Boy on the ball’ and ‘Olympus’ using a cheap hand-held camera in 1995. The mere process of this photo shoot and the relationships with the models (my friends and renowned contemporary artists like Elena Elagina) were as important for me as the results; the photographs.
Tatiana Antoshina. Luncheon on the Grass. 1996. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
In your photos, referencing classical painting, men and women change places, which is a simple, but at the same time, radical artistic gesture. Why is the erotic component so important in these works? Is it more for irony’s sake or a real call to reconsider gender roles?
The eroticism appeared unconsciously, since the idea was quite formal. But we were young, beautiful and enjoying life and everything around us. At that time, we believed that the best was yet to come. I will cover another reason for the eroticism later.
As for the irony, this is more created by the state of ease that the pictures portray in relation to their classical counterparts. Critics accused me of inaccuracy in their composition and some details, but I am not a schoolgirl and we are not sitting an art history exam. Accuracy posture-wise wasn’t of importance to me and I didn’t require it from the models. I don’t think that Monet or Picasso treated their work in such a serious and reverent way. Anyway, I liked that we were breaking the tradition of worshipping the sacred classics.
When I was conceiving this project, the word ‘gender’ was not part of my vocabulary. But in the mid-90s I met Masha Chuykova, Natasha Kamenetskaya, Anya Alchuk, and other artists who researched gender problems in art, organized exhibitions and made publications. It was through them that I got acquainted with feminist theory.
In 1997 the photo series ‘Museum of a Woman’ was exhibited in Marat Gelman’s Gallery, for which I am endlessly grateful to Marat. He was probably the only person with influence who supported me. The artistic community received my project in an unfriendly manner and there was a lot of criticism in the press. Even the fact that the gallery was number one in Moscow didn’t help.
Tatiana Antothina. Card Players. 1997. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
So, it was creative work that brought you to feminist theory? It has a long history. To which branch of feminist studies do you relate the most closely? How do you translate this into your work?
Yes, at first, I had a creative idea and then my own feminist theory emerged. Having acquainted myself with the works of the American feminist artists, I realized that unfortunately their strategies wouldn’t work in Russia: at the time of Perestroika naked women stained by plaster or disposed sanitary pads were unlikely to interest anyone as a form of art. What was happening in real life shocked people much more. Generally, I didn’t stick to any specific western feminist theories, but I borrowed some terms and concepts.
For example, ‘man’s gaze’, which means a man’s active, assigning gaze, when a woman becomes an object of man’s desire. And I started to manipulate this concept by taking away the active erotic gaze from men for myself. This is how my artistic feminist strategy was shaped: its main tools are the change in the perspective, roles and angle. The furious public reaction proved that this strategy works. My position is more radical than of some western feminist artists from the conceptual viewpoint. In my later projects, for example, in the series ‘Voyeurism of Alice Guy’, I proceeded to develop this strategy.
Tatiana Antoshina. Voyeurism of Alice Guy. 2003. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
It should be noted that at that time Anna Alchuk was had the same approach in her works, and it had theoretical and philosophical preconditions. Anna, who published collections and articles and curated gender exhibitions, was in fact our spiritual leader. My creative strategy and my modest achievement was probably that I was the first artist in Moscow who called herself a feminist in 1999. Together with Anna Alchuk, we founded a Moscow school of feminism in art, which never grew into a unified movement. Now I am continuing it alone.
In the Soviet Union, especially in its early years women’s rights were guaranteed like nowhere else on the planet. Can you speak about any special Soviet experience or specific of the feminism? And why politically declared equality didn’t solve women’s problems?
Yes, feminism in Russia had a unique path of development. It is true that the Soviet women were some of the first to receive constitutional rights: the right to vote and take part in the governmental affairs, rights for vacation, education… However, gender discrimination existed in the Soviet Union and it still exists in Russia today. For many it is invisible: it lies in subconsciousness and in public opinion. Severe patriarchy has sprouted roots not only in general public opinion, but amongst intellectuals as well, an example being the Moscow conceptualist artists. And it is typical not only of men from all social strata, but of women, too.
Negative attitudes to feminism were partly formed because for many it is linked to the Revolution and the Soviet power. However, the main reason is the patriarchal mindset, fake patriotism as a background to the negative attitudes to Western values and American feminism. For example we have a new wave of religiosity.
Tatiana Antoshina. Devoted to Marina Abramovich. 2008. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
As you can see, there is no issue with human rights, which we have, but to raise people’s understanding of their rights and especially amongst women. In this situation art is the best possible tool for our movement. Thus, it makes sense to establish a ‘Museum of a Woman’ as an art institution, a physical space, educational programme and artist’s residences, with an exhibition programme, art collection, etc. At first, we tried to organise it with Natalia Kamenetskay, who became an active leader of the Moscow movement, was organizing large-scale exhibitions and publications and was developing an archive of the gender movement in Moscow and rest of Russia. However, this attempt was not successful, and neither was the second with Marat Gelman in Montenegro. Feminism does not easily grow on Orthodox soil, at least in the form of Western feminism.
Tatiana Antoshina. Northern Tales. Vladivostok. Installation. 2017. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
We need to have our own feminist art programme, which already exists. It doesn’t imply gender wars but declares a woman and her mindset a leading force in the development of modern civilization. It demonstrates a new world view and system of values. Who, if not a woman, who creates new life, can be an example of humanism, a guide and creator of the newer and better world?
It is obvious that modern civilization with its cult of science and technology, power, money and consumerism has reached a deadlock. The further humankind goes away from nature, the more it resembles an iron machine, and the more helpless it becomes without the crutches of technology. The collapse of Cartesianism and Newtonian physics and the old system of values is obvious. There is a need for a new unified system of values. Neo-syncretism tries to develop this. It is based on the postulates of ‘Theory of evolution’ and ‘Living ethics’ by Helena Roerich, and the works of Russian philosopher-cosmists, the theory and practice of ‘The tree of life’ by Arkadiy Petrov and other philosophers.
In your opinion, in what way should feminism develop? And what role does art play in it?
Art is at the centre of our programme. In the new world, which is being now being built, it is not science or technology, but art that plays a leading role in public consciousness. A man must move away from making crutches, and similar mechanisms, to developing his own natural abilities. Art has the potential to breathe life into new philosophical movements. As for science, it will still develop and will transform and become more art like. It will be above rampant consumerism and technological progress.
‘The Museum of Woman’ should become the laboratory of a new life. Its people should be examples of ecology and a healthy lifestyle, have a humanist attitude to all living creatures and be creative. And it is not only about the art process, but also about developing the abilities of flying, underwater swimming, feeding with air as the plants do with photosynthesis, distantly sharing thoughts, being forever young. In other words, to broaden one’s physical, mental and spiritual abilities. It is necessary for us to create workshops led by specialists from different areas.
Art will expand its borders. Aesthetics will restore the values which modernism has lost, such beauty, spirituality and the heroic.
Tatiana Antoshina. Bestiarium. Ceramics. 2018. Copyright: Tatiana Antoshina
Will the museum be run by women?
In general, yes. But men can also take part if they share our views.
As long as inequality exists one of our main activities will be supporting those who suffer from discrimination. A human being is a measure of everything. A person’s life is of highest universal value. Female activist artists will work in the ‘Museum of a Woman’. Among the younger generation of feminists there are many talented and enthusiastic people who can contribute to the common cause.
In order to gain support for our future organization, we need to explain to people what feminism is today and spread this knowledge as widely as possible.
Moscow, September 2018. English translation: Jacob Jones
Tatiana Antoshina, b.1956 is a Russian multimedia artist whose work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale (56th Venice Biennale, State Pavilion of Mauritius, 2015), Moscow Biennale and the Asian Art Biennale. Antoshina’s work has also been the subject of numerous solo shows in Russia and beyond, including ‘Museum of a Woman’ held at White Space Gallery in 2004.
Igor Grebelnikov is a Moscow-based art critic and journalist. He is currently the art correspondent for Kommersant and formerly for Harper’s Bazaar Art.