Born in Moscow, Anastasia Alekseeva moved to Colchester in the UK when she was twelve. She completed an art foundation course at Colchester Institute, before going on to study for a BA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins (CSM) – part of University of the Arts London (UAL). Working across different artistic mediums – including performance, film and photography – Alekseeva was nominated as a finalist for The Other Art Fair’s inaugural Graduate Art Prize, with her work on show in a special section at the fair’s King’s Cross edition in July this year.
Richard Unwin: Why did you choose to go to Central Saint Martins and did the course turn out as you expected?
Anastasia Alekseeva: When I came to the open day I really liked the light and space inside the building. It felt open and immense. I felt empowered by it and I think that’s what drew me in.
At first the course felt a lot more open than I anticipated. It’s a bit like a free fall – it’s very free and everything happens very quickly, so at first it’s a bit like falling through the air and not really being able to control how you’re falling – and it challenges you in that way. But you learn to believe in what you do and to analyse your decisions. I think art school is great in that way – you’re not spoon-fed anything and you’re largely left to weave your own learning. The tutors and the technicians are all fantastic and support you along the way, I feel very lucky with the tutors I had during my time at CSM. They prod your work and sometimes it can seem brutal, but in the end it always pushes you forward and teaches you to find the right questions in your practice. I feel very well equipped after studying at CSM.
RU: Your work seems to draw on influences from fashion photography and dance, with movement – or the suggestion of movement – a recurring theme. Have your artistic interests and influences changed significantly since studying at UAL, or does your work continue to reflect more long-standing interests.
AA: Before I came to UAL I did a lot of photography and that has been a consistent medium, but there is so much that seeps out of photography that the medium doesn’t permit you to grasp. For example a good image gives an impression of a certain kind of sound that holds your attention and makes you pause. Of course this doesn’t reveal itself explicitly when looking at a still photograph and this frustration with silent images brought me to work with sound. So in the second year of my degree I focused more on sound and an interest in movement naturally appeared from that. I was interested in how sound can transform a body or a space and make it appear dense, watery or metallic, or make it disappear altogether.
Fashion photography grew from this branch too. When I was growing up in Colchester, I would get my friends or myself to pose in front of the camera. I would carefully direct the shot and later digitally manipulate the image to make the subject fly, or fragment, or melt. There is a lot of performance in this process, which I adore. And that is also one of the things that draws me to fashion photography.
RU: Could you talk a little bit about the work you presented at The Other Art Fair’s Graduate Art Prize section in King’s Cross. How long have you been working on that particular body of work and what are the ideas behind it?
AA: At the fair I presented a performance titled ‘Contingent’ – where two performers run and hide from each other, communicating through a clay ocarina – and a film titled ‘Glove’, as well as a print series – ‘Echo’. I’ve been working on this body of work since March and it came together for the degree show at Central Saint Martins.
The body of work was influenced by thinking of languages as liquid pockets of identities and sensitivities that you dip into when you start speaking or thinking in a different language or mode of place. When you don’t wield a language fully, you bypass verbal expression by body language and listening, inventing your own way of communicating. ‘Contingent’ explores that by giving the performers a prosthetic tongue through the ocarinas, and they are free to invent a melody as they run and hide from each other in the space. ‘Contingent’ was the first to emerge in this body of work and the questions that surfaced from it fed into the film, ’Glove’. That piece is far more abstract, with a whistling mouth sliding into the frame, a pulsating, talking elderflower and ghostly fish – like hands that slither through a darkened space. Light, sound and space were important elements in the making of the film. It was originally designed to be a projection that responded to the architecture of CSM, so the different elements would seem to emerge and fade into the walls. I was thinking of the building as a score that becomes activated by the movement of performers or the projection.
RU: Do you still have much connection to Moscow and Russia and do you ever go back there? It must have felt like a big event to move when you were twelve. Do you still feel like the years you spent as a child in Russia continue to influence you today?
AA: I do go back to Russia and/or Ukraine to see family once a year or so. I grew up in Russia, but I’m also a little bit Ukrainian – so when I was growing up, every summer I would spend three months there.
Undoubtedly my Russian/Ukrainian upbringing has fed into my work. ‘Glove’ came about from looking at Russian folklore and animations, and the sound design was inspired by Bjork’s album ‘Vespertine’ – probably the most tactile and sensitive of her albums. There is a song in the album called ‘Hidden Place’ – in the video, colourful worms leak from Bjork’s nose and eyes. I saw it one Ukrainian summer when I was five. The video filled my five year old’s imagination with terror and wonder – I saw it in my nightmares for a year and sort of fell in love with it. So now I associate it with Ukrainian summers (spent in and around the southern city of Mykolaiv, close to the Black Sea) – the place has the most wonderful light that seems different to other places I’ve been to, maybe because of the way the Soviet high-rises are positioned. It goes through all sorts of colours and the heat causes a lot of plants and insects to grow and shrivel. It’s a magical place to spend the summer when you’re very young, so a good proportion of my aesthetic started to form at that time.
RU: Have you ever made sound–only pieces and do you think you might in the future? And do you plan to continue working across different mediums?
AA: I’ve made sound sketches but they never reached a point where I can call them a work. But recently I bought this super long extension chord for speakers and I’m excited to play with sound spatially. I plan to work across different mediums for the next few years at least and then see what happens!
RU: Are there any particular artists or art movements that you find inspiring?
AA: PC Music has influenced me a lot recently.
RU: Has listening to music released by PC Music effected the way you work with sound?
AA: Probably not consciously at first, but I started working digitally a lot more and also paying attention to the individual characters and personalities of each sound and seeing how they can form together, but also how they can clash and break – the process is a bit like having a petri dish with loads of microbes that have their own modus operandi, and it’s like trying to get them to work all together.
RU: Now that you’ve finished your BA, what’s next for you?
AA: In the next few years I want to grow as a photographer, so I’m hoping to work much more with designers and artists. There are a couple of projects lined up for this autumn that I’m particularly looking forward to.
From October I will also be sharing a studio space at ACME with a few people who also graduated from CSM, so I will be continuing to make work there for the next couple of years.
RU: It’s great that you’ll have studio space in London to continue your practice. What projects are you planning to work on in the autumn?
AA: I’m planning to shoot another film with Jane O’Sullivan – she just finished a BA in fashion and her work is just so gorgeous. We collaborated on a short video in June and it was one of my favourite things to work on recently.
I’m also going back to Ukraine this month so I want to film some footage and put it together into a documentary. I’m not sure exactly how it will go but I know it will be called ‘Mothertongue’ and it will be split into very short chapters, and each chapter will be like a song.
Article by Richard Unwin
All images courtesy of the artist, Anastasia Alekseeva