The desire of being alive, a conversation with Alexandra Sukhareva

About time, light and matter: how Russian art resists

Alexandra Sukhareva (Moscow, 1983) is a Russian contemporary artist whose practice focuses on the meaning of the process, including concepts and notions like time, light and matter. After beginning from painting, she moved to a wider variety of media, like sculpture and chemical experimentation. This week marks the closing of her exhibition “Take Off the Mask, Take Off the Hat” in collaboration with fellow Russian artist Denis Koshkarev – on show at Apalazzogallery, Brescia, since last May.

Withdrawing from the 59th Art Biennale in 2022, right after the beginning of the war, she was among the artists who started a conversation on the role of art in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. Many artists, especially in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, felt like there was no point in doing art – as though the most powerful action art could take was succumbing in a loud silence. Most then went back to their practice, passing through activism on the way.

Art has always been a powerful tool, and a tool to challenge power – those in charge have always been aware. At times of political instability, artists are feared and contested. With their work, they have the ability to move something deep in the public conscience. Art scares, power reacts. Since the beginning of the conflict, Aleksandra Skochilenko was one of the victims on the Russian side – she was first detained in June 2022 and has now been in jail for months. The reason for her arrest was an art/activism performance: she slapped supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans.

Making art means being connected to something more profound than the material world we live in. That art is still made, that conversations through and about art still take place, is a sign of hope and openness in itself. We spoke to Sukhareva about her most recent work, the evolution of her practice and the relationship of time, matter and light in it.

Can you please introduce how the concept behind “Take Off the Mask, Take Off the Hat” was born? How did it develop to get to the result? 

Denis and I were in continuous conversation during 2022, and we both were looking for the special quality of simplicity. Once he said that the man of the future is inevitably assembled from the fragments of the past. And I said that this means the end. I have no hint of optimism regarding this, but I’m still optimistic about idea of looking for the human. At the same time, we’ve initiated our dialogue with the question about desire: what does such a generalized desire as the desire to keep living mean today? Thus, when I’m trying to touch the problems of light, burning or imprinting, – that which come along with the chlorine effects on canvas, – I try to reach the ambivalence of desire.

Alexandra Sukhareva & Denis Koshkarev, Take Off The Mask, Take Off The Hat, APALAZZOGALLERY, 2023 – Photo by Melania Dalle Grave, DSL Studio
As for the exhibition, I wasn’t ready for the idea of an exhibition in the very beginning. Many formats evidently collapsed for me. Later I’ve understood that the only medium I would want to work with – is chlorine on canvas. 

How does this exhibition relate to your previous work? What has changed?

I used to work with chlorine corrosion since 2009. In the beginning it took me some time to turn away from the pure expressiveness of this method. I’m glad that I’ve quitted wonders, there was a lack of human presence. The second reason was, probably, a potential infinity of variations of any abstract expressionism or any eclecticism – such an eternal cycle of hopeless overproduction.  By 2009 I moved to the studio in the countryside, and I was captivated by the chemical and, speaking widely, natural conversions. I felt in my own experience, how to be jealous of nature… Simply, of the stubbornness of Spring after a long and severe Winter. Nowadays I doubt that there is something charming in it, since the natural instincts and animal being at large are truly totalitarian. Wild trees cannot avoid the order to blossom in May. However, today I’m still interested in mirroring as partly natural process, but much more – in things that don’t mirror, and that is why, probably, they are not popular in the existence. 

How have the last years influenced your practice, if at all? 

I became a mother, I’m still becoming. This made me face and reflect on a bunch of previously impossible things. Many reasons to wonder about!

How do the concepts of light and time interact? From a certain point of view there almost seems to be a connection with photography - is it the case? If yes, how do the two worlds relate?

It’s usual that my works are sensitive to the light, whether it is silver prints on glass, chlorine canvases or another chemical work – sooner or later light will take its toll. As for connection with time, the glittering of life today is sharper than before, as if it tends to be much more dazzling; and it is uneasy to find a shadow even during the darkest times in depressive sites. I would even argue that this brings up its special effect – when the “known” and the “visible” permanently go apart.

The comparison with a photograph is close to the actual methodology: I deal with the imprints. I would only add that in comparison to the memorable photo, art can carry something more than conventional “passed reality”. I tend to think that art is like a relationship, it can witness your desire, but such a desire which you can hardly reproduce once you leave your studio.  

The ordinary photograph is a duplicate of a framed light, while art carries the desire which is different to other desires, one that is not contagious. Even if a portrait or a landscape can give your sight back from the wall, something in the very artwork is capable of staying away from any mirroring. 

Alexandra Sukhareva & Denis Koshkarev, Take Off The Mask, Take Off The Hat, APALAZZOGALLERY, 2023 – Photo by Melania Dalle Grave, DSL Studio

Looking at your work, it feels like we could start to consider both matter and determinism differently - the human hand suddenly seems a little less relevant and the world around us a little more - is this way of thinking a part of your artistic practice? 

I agree with the intuition in your question about a vastness of the environment. I only hope that the hand still manage to leave signs, that the hand can throw a net of meanings over the environment.

How do you work with matter? What do you feel - if you want to and can describe it - during your creative process? 

In Latin, “matter” is related to “forest”, and I also hear German “mutter” in it…  looking ahead I could even discern a “mother land”. Maybe, I would describe my work, emotionally and conceptually, in terms of my relationships with the familiar cultural environments.

In an interview I read, you mentioned the importance of living and thinking about the present, and I found that both so relevant and powerful. It is a notion we have mostly lost. How do you think people benefit from living in the present? And what is the role of art in this context? (Big question, I know, but I couldn't stop thinking about this since I read the interview and associated the concept to your work)

I hope that the present is a proper platform for disclosures, for micro-logy of the events which cannot wait and cannot be theorized anymore. 

Recently I was recalling a story from my childhood. I was a kid; I was playing in my room when suddenly an ordinary crow flew to our balcony. It was watching me through the tulle. In that moment I thought that the past can be “predicted” in the same way we can forecast the future from the present moment.

I remember these specific words, “to be predicted”, in my head. However, today I would interpret it as the “past, which is not separated from us” when the means of production of our past are not completely alienated from us. I guess, some of my contemporaries, who witnessed several collapses (such as the collapse of the Soviet Union or later reforms affecting memory), can confirm this feeling, when you cannot detect yourself in some single unique past. You are not an assemblage of conflicting parts but rather a blinking function. What I wanted to take from this story is, probably, this clear sense of present time and the defined presence. It is not as captivating as the future was after WW2 and not so comforting as the past appears to be in contemporary mass ideologies.

How has the experience with the Biennale in 2022 affected your practice, if at all? Does the political situation matter in your practice at all? 

I split activism and artistic practice. And… after all I don’t want to choose art in spite of everything. 

Do you think Russian art and artists should have a role in contemporary socio-political issues?

I know they do. However, this chapter must be well understood, conclusions don’t have to be taken as ready-mades from any historical past.
Matilde Moro
Scroll to Top