How long have you been creating art? How would you describe yourself as an artist - your medium, your viewpoint?
I've been into photography since childhood, although during my past life I had to work in different fields. I was a truck driver, a mechanic, a loader, but I almost never parted with my camera. I am good at using a camera as a profession, but if we talk about art, I prefer staging. It may sound pretentious, but I see myself as more a director of the theater than a photographer.
You have a noticeable style that is really rich, sort of Renaissance composition and deep chiaroscuro lighting. Would you call this your signature style?
It probably looks a bit like a cabaret. A tragi-comic cabaret.
Yes, I often hear comments about my recognizable style and deep light. I have a special attitude to light. I have worked a lot with theaters - photography and theater have a lot in common.
I'm interested in contrast. In all planes and at all levels of image processing. Classical art inspires me very much, as does the Bible. As well the circus.
Where do you live and where do you come from? What led to you to emigrate and make a new life elsewhere?
My family and I are from Russia. I am from St. Petersburg; my wife is from Siberia. I always knew that Russia was a terrible militaristic state. I served in the Russian Army. I must say these were not happy years of life. Constant moral and psychological messaging by the government that there are enemies around.
I hated this totalitarian, militaristic monster even before it became mainstream. In general, that's why I left.
When Putin came to power, I was twenty years old. Now I’m forty-four. And about ten years ago the situation in the country began to deteriorate. People began to be imprisoned; widespread censorship began. The rhetoric of propaganda channels has changed in an extremely aggressive direction. Then the terrible opening of the Olympic Games in Sochi, like dancing on the spine of the starving population. The annexation of Crimea.
Fighting inside, against the repressive machine that Putin has built, is almost impossible. Thousands of destinies are broken, people are tortured and killed in prisons. No courts, as well no justice. And when my child said that at school instead of lessons, they were learning military songs, we decided to leave.
I arrived in Berlin eight and a half years ago, with a trunk full of lights, a camera, and not knowing a word of German or English. The children adapted quickly; they are already quite European. It's still a bit difficult for me. Learning two languages at the age of forty turned out to be an exhausting task. I even cried a couple of times in class. It’s both funny and sad.
But not for a second, not once in all these years, have I regretted that I left. Before the war, I often heard questions: "Do I miss Russia?". I just laughed in response. Now the questions have changed. The most frequent of them is, “How did you leave and what needs to be done to emigrate?”
What are some of the artworks that you have created in 2022 and 2023 that have a Ukrainian theme, or are meant to support Ukraine? What led you to do so? What has inspired you? Are you adapting your personal style to pieces that support Ukraine?
In the first days of the war, we all only sobbed, moving from sobs to hysterics and back. But no matter how terrible it may sound, gradually everyone got used to it. The war has become everyday news. You wake up in the morning and check social media in the hope that Putin is dead, then disappointedly pour yourself a coffee and get to work. At some point, I said to myself the phrase, “the show must go on”. And so, the guys and I filmed The Funeral of the Dictator, where on the tombstone it is only written “Putin Huilo”. The headstone was exhibited in the gallery of the Panda Theater, Berlin.
This year’s works that serve as my commentaries on the current state of Russia are called The Emperor’s New Clothes and May 9th.
As I said before, my style is tragicomic theater. Of course, it's not easy with the comic part now. But the more anti-war markers in art, the more attention to the horror that is happening. Putin must be stopped. By any means possible. This little man. He is just a thief, the most ordinary thief, but something broke in him and he seriously believes in his destiny. After all, he built palaces for himself, destroyed the opposition. He stole enough money for 100 generations. But human greed knows no bounds.
There is a tale in Russian folklore about an old man and a goldfish. It grants all the wishes of the one who caught it. And no matter what she gives, it's still not enough… An excellent illustration.
Your take on Klimt's "The Kiss" in light of this war is very beautiful and striking, and went viral last year. It also won international contests. What can you say about that one? Are you still producing prints of it to raise funds?
I must admit I did not expect it to turn out so beautifully. Everything worked out here, both the surroundings and the story behind the picture.
When the realization came that the war would not end quickly, Ksenia Kazimirova and I filmed The Kiss 2022, which became widely known. Now I transfer money from the sale of this picture to the guys in Ukraine directly.
There's a story there. Ksenia's friend, Yulia, is in Ukraine and is collecting money for her husband Yurii, who is fighting at the front. Yurii was an IT specialist before the war, and now he has more than a hundred soldiers under his command. Our heroes in the photo, as it were, played the two of them. So I transfer money to Yulia, and she buys something that is needed at the front. Not a lot of money, of course, but still something to be collected and sent.
And, of course, the artists. The persons in the frame, Dennis and Tatiana, are a real couple. He is a policeman, she is an actress and a dancer. Both are from Germany. He is strong and confident, she is sensual and fragile.
Color, light, world-famous composition and, of course, contrast. The golden blanket is not in a field over an abyss, but in a basement under bombardment. When I look at the printed image, it seems to me that I hear the sounds of shelling and the buzz of shells and bullets, but it's somewhere behind the wall. Here, within the covers, there is only the breath of the heroine and the rhythm of the beating of two hearts.
In this frame, by the way, there is no Photoshop at all. The entire scenery was built live in my studio. This is one of my rules. I like to do everything for real, build everything myself, and not use graphics or 3-D modeling in art.
Are you currently involved with any artistic initiatives in support of the Ukrainian people happening in Berlin or across Europe? Are you selling your Ukrainian pieces, or making prints?
Selling my work is the basis of my survival in Europe, since photography and art are the only way I earn money. The situation on the art market is not simple now: first COVID, then war. But I manage to sell pictures, transfer money to Ukraine. I sold a few prints with The Kiss 2022. People love this picture. They buy it well.
Half of the amount from the sale of the picture goes to the Ukraine support fund. I sent several thousand euros to Ukraine. I understand that this is nothing for the country, but for me as a modest artist it is a decent amount.
As for public events in support of Ukraine, I probably try to stay away from them. Everyone helps in any way they can. I am more useful in the production of pictures than in a painted and dancing crowd. I often stick my pictures on the subway wall. This is probably my favorite type of exhibition.
It must be difficult being a dissenting Russian living in Berlin through this. How are you feeling about your homeland? And is it part of what makes you feel compelled towards creating the art you've been putting out?
My children and I still have Russian passports, and have not received German citizenship. The FSB is not asleep, and now even going to the Russian embassy in Berlin is scary.
But it's not difficult for me to be Russian in Europe. The fact that I have a burgundy-color passport does not make me a priori a bad person. In my work and at home, neither I nor my children have ever faced someone's condemnation of our formal belonging to the Russian state.
The education system in Russia is practically destroyed. In some cities, schools literally do not even have toilets. Children go to the toilet outside. Poverty and hunger. The fact is that in most families, in most Russian cities, TV is the only entertainment available. TV and alcohol.
Propaganda methodically, from morning till night, says that Russia has two enemies: the West and the Gays. Literally, I'm not making this up. I assure you, if you live a week with a Russian TV, you will begin to doubt yourself. Propaganda has faces. And these are the faces I really want to see in the dock, like war criminals. All this is a product of the system built by Putin, similar to Nazi Germany in the ‘30s.
The majority of Russians, deceived by propaganda, are wrapped in St. George ribbons, and now this darkness has moved to drawing a meaningless letter Z. Do you understand that this letter really does not mean anything?
But while the majority of Russia supports the assassin in the presidency, to say "it's not Russia bombing Ukraine, but Putin" is lying to oneself. No, it is Russia that is bombing peaceful cities, and it must be stopped. And only then may one consider any of their personal issues.
How are you finding the mood in Germany in terms of supporting the Ukrainian people after twenty-one months of full-scale war?
As for the mood in Germany, I often hear, even from intelligent people, from native Germans, the phrase “well, everything is not that simple.” “The world has always been at war.” I don’t know what to say about this. The older generation does not seem to see the threat. Many in Europe do not realize that the war has come to their threshold and Ukraine is now the only thing that separates Putin from going further.
What are your hopes for the end of this war? Do you intend to keep making political art, or return more to your prewar motifs?
I really hope that the teeth of Putin's military machine will not be able to bite off the piece that they’ve grabbed, and the Ukrainians will break those teeth. I really hope that Europe, like the whole sane world, will continue to help Ukraine. I really hope that everyone involved in the outbreak of war, involved in war crimes, as well as propagandists, will find themselves in the dock and will not escape responsibility. I really hope that the war will end.
And I, as an artist, do not see a topic more relevant for myself now than the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people, which I am going to keep addressing in my works.
A note from the artist: If someone decides to help directly, without intermediaries, then here are the verified addresses. This money goes straight to the people who fight and heal. It will definitely not be lost in corruption scandals.
[email protected]; PayPal Юлія Сіренко. 4731219631457706, Sirenko Julia Andreevna.
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