Interview by Elena Vaninetti
All images © Varya Kozhevnikova
Varya Kozhevnikova is a visual artist based in St. Petersburg (RU). Her work explores the notion of identity and female nature combining documentary and performative approaches. Balancing between fact and fiction, direction and improvisation. Her project 13.31, created in collaboration with her daughter Lera, analyzes the complex universe of a mother-daughter relationship through a series of playful self-portraits. The work has been published internationally and exhibited for the first time at Festival Circulation in Paris last March.
Elena Vaninetti (EV): Motherhood is a complex system of joy and duty. Having experienced becoming a parent at a very young age and growing up pursuing a career as an artist, what is like to be a mother for you?
Varya Kozhevnikova (VK): When I became a young mother I was a student and I had to work in parallel to support my little family. I did a lot of different jobs not related to the art field, such as advertising manager, even a short experience as a business coach. At that time I couldn’t afford to be a full time artist. I’ve been able to dedicate myself more seriously to art when I met my husband. At first, I was just fond of photography, then I graduated from photography school and began to work on artistic projects. I didn’t have any exotic trips or sensational facts to report, so I just addressed my attention to stories related to myself and people around me. My interests have always been focused on relationships between people, the feminine universe and the role of artists in our society. My work had nothing to do with my daughter until she and I decided to explore the boundaries of our relationship with the help of photography. It happened at the most complex moment of her teenage time.
(EV): The 13.31 project was conceived and developed all in one Summer. How did the collaboration with your daughter begin?
(VK): In 2019 when Lera was 13, and I was 31, we decided to spend summertime in the countryside. We were in a small village far from our home, with no real entertainment, just a lot of fresh air, physical work and a sauna. Before the trip, I suggested to Lera to work on a project about us, about how different and the same we are. Lera liked the idea probably because she often heard from relatives and friends: “you are so similar to your mother”.
She needed to find our differences in order to understand something about herself. In short, the teenager wanted to separate from the mother. We started to work on the project before leaving the city, we kept a diary where we talked about our relationship and about ourselves. When we arrived at the village and got used to the place, we started to work on the images. We didn’t plan what would be in the frame. We only had in mind the general scene: the location and the clothes. We shot everything with a self-timer. We learned how to work as a team, we argued and fought sometimes but the experience definitely brought us close. We didn’t want just to make funny or beautiful photos, but to experience the process. Therefore, each picture is a performative act.
(EV): Are you planning to work again with Lera?
(VK): Of course, I’d love to work with Lera again if it will happen someday, somehow. Last year, when we sat at home in Quarantine, we played with our make-up skills and did some live streaming on Instagram, talking and showing what we can do. Of course, this is not a performance, but I like when we do something together. And no matter if it’s just for us or for other people. We have no creative plans for the future. But of course, it may happen at any time, as it happened for the project 13.31.
(EV): Self-portraits appear often in your work. They seem to be a playful tool for exploring universal topics such as identity and gender. How did you start to point the camera at yourself?
(VK): I started to photograph myself for my first photo series “Flowers for Rita”. But it was more a documentary approach. I truly started to play with self-portraits later in the making of the “I’m not sure” project. In this series, self-portrait becomes a tool of control and self-irony. Further, in “13.31,” me and my co-author Lera used body language trying to depict our relationship.
When it comes to choosing which self-portrait to shoot and select, I quickly realized that I needed to keep some distance in order to produce the image that will work better with the overall idea. So I started to think of myself as a character. I found this approach very helpful.
(EV): I noticed that you are using Instagram more as an artistic platform lately. What are you working on?
(VK): At the moment I am not working on any specific project, I just share pictures on my Instagram. I’m interested in the concept of system failure in society and technology.
I began to notice that some of my pictures were banned by the Instagram algorithm for “nudity or sexual activity.” so I started to play with the system in order to find out where the border was. After that I deliberately posted a few explicit naked self-portraits appealing to instagram to come and find me. “Hey, Instagram, look at my pussy”. The game was on.
I play with gender stereotypes and provocation using myself as a model, interpreting different personas. Sometimes I have the chance to use my style even when it comes to commercial works. You can see more on my Instagram account!