No Superfluous Movements

An interview with Russian artist Sasha Pirogova about merging contemporary art and contemporary dance in her practice

Alexandra Artamonova

Let us start in a manner customary for artists’ bios and various exhibition catalogues. And so, the artist Sasha Pirogova, residing and working in Moscow. A graduate from the Faculty of Physics at the Lomonosov Moscow State University; trained in contemporary dance; a graduate from the Alexander Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia, the New Media workshop. Winner of the 2014 Innovation Prize in the New Generation category for her video entitled ‘Biblimlen’. Winner of the Present Continuous V-A-C/M HKA (Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art) Acquisition Programme for young contemporary art. With Grisha Bruskin and the Recycle art group, has been selected to represent Russia at the 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Works in video and a discipline she refers to as ‘body movement studies’.

What kind of movement can it be? Sort of inessential, trivial, commonplace, mundane ‒ from balancing on the edge of a puddle to frantic thumbing through a book in search of the relevant paragraph; from some kind of pottering around the kitchen (like frying eggs) to sitting on a windowsill.

Who can be the author of the movement? Or, to be more precise, whose body is reproducing this movement? The bodies of the artist (Pirogova frequently appears in the footage of her early films), other dancers and other artists, reminiscent of antique sculptures, frozen at the moment of completing an action ‒ tilting of the head, raising of an arm, etc.

Fragment from the ‘Biblimlen’ video (2014)

In what kind of setting can we see all of that taking place? In any kind, actually: on a pot-holed city street; in an old abandoned uninhabited flat; in a typical inhabited flat; in a library reading-room; in a museum storage room; in an empty and sterile space devoid of any attributes. In other words, the setting can be completely customary, familiar. Incidentally, apropos the sets. It is interesting to observe the transformation of Sasha’s relationship with space from one work to the next. If in the early pieces the space prompts her movements, becoming an associate, if not a full-fledged partner, in everything unfolding on the screen, in the most recent ones it is nothing more than the requisite pure background that merely underlines the rigour of the performers’ movements and the lens of the artist’s camera.

Also importantly, the artist initially was present in this space, engaged in a dialogue with it, shared her bodily experience of movement; later, she left ‒ or, to be more precise, stayed outside the frame. Which is exactly what we discussed with the artist Sasha Pirogova ‒ about the moment when you realise it is time to leave the frame and the moment when the ambitions of the video artist prevails over the ambitions of the dancer; about purity of language; about new works, and also a bit about what will be presented at the Venice Biennale.

Still from the 16-minute video AGON (2016)

First off, it still seems important to define, in some way or another, the area in which you work. It would probably be fair to list all the things that you are involved in, to varying extent. You have a degree in physics...

True, but I have never worked as a physicist.

Fine, so an artist, director, performer. And, it would probably fair to say, a choreographer as well?

Right. I don’t particularly like the director part. Performer ‒ not really, either. I do not perform anymore, after all, although there was a brief stint that I did not find completely satisfying.

Why not?

I understood that I failed to reveal and realise myself to the full as a performer. Regarding the question whether I am or am not a choreographer, I have been pondering that a lot actually. It is a good term, but a very restricting one, I find. It’s what all these terms do really; they tend to pigeonhole you, to impose restrictions. And that is why I like the word ‘artist’: an artist works without any boundaries.

Still from the 16-minute video AGON (2016) 

Let’s stick with ‘artist’ then?

Yes, please, if we may. (Laughs.) Listen, I graduated from the Faculty of Physics of the Moscow State University, but physics has never played a role in my life properly: while I found the studies interesting, I never really considered working in science seriously or work in my speciality in general. Actually, I was recently thinking about the difference between an artist and a choreographer; it was important to solve this problem for me. And what I believe now is that a choreographer focuses more on studying the potential of the body, while an artist concentrates on the potential of the image; form is secondary for them.

So let’s talk about your performing practice. In your first works, you did appear in front of the camera, which means that you staged, you invented the so-called dance, you directed it and, in addition to that, you were also the performer. Was it because you needed to see yourself from outside at the time? And were you satisfied with how you looked in the footage when the shooting was completed and you sat down to edit the material?

That’s probably the reason why I decided to stay on the other side of the camera ‒ that I had not reached the level of skills necessary to be a dancer. I was having problems with being inside the action and simultaneously understanding how the situation looked from outside, but it is important to me to control the visual form. There are no such rigid restrictions in a live performance: you can move your hand in one way or perhaps in another, and it will not influence either the spectator or the energetic charge of the situation. With a video, it is another story completely, an equally important one: you have to understand from which angle to shoot, how to place the camera, and so on. In a way, it is also working with energy, albeit a somewhat different one.

Besides, the whole thing did start with me having a dancer’s ambitions, and it was important for me to take a look at my movements through the eyes of an onlooker. And it was difficult to view myself in the footage in a detached manner: I caught myself mostly looking at myself when I was going through the footage, and in quite a critical way, at that. Because of that, I was unable to judge the effect of the video as a whole. Basically, I feel much more comfortable and productive now that I stay on this side of the camera.

Stills from the ZERO LEVEL video (2012)

You have mentioned in some interviews how important it was for you to see Jérôme Bel, who is, of course, one of the leaders of the so-called non-dance movement; it is more like a question in the shape of a dance: no-one knows when and with which gesture it begins and at which moment it comes to an end. I wonder where did your, as you say, ‘dancer’s ambitions’ and your interest in contemporary dance in general come from?

I have this childhood memory: I loved to watch the Culture TV channel, and, at some point, I accidently stumbled on either a news segment or a trailer for a new programme ‒ in other words, a very short video. It lasted no longer than a couple of seconds; it was a fragment from some kind of dance production: people in leotards rolling on the floor with little candles in hand. And that struck a really powerful chord. I also attended a dance studio as a child. As a student at the university, I wanted to carry on dancing and tried to find some kind of trend that would suit me, but nothing seemed to be quite what I was looking for. And I remember a moment in late summer when I realised: this is it, the time has come. And I simply googled ‘school of contemporary dance’ or maybe ‘contemporary dance in Moscow’, and the first link that caught my eye lead me to the TSEKH website.

Also, at the time, this moment of my starting to attend classes of contemporary dance coincided with a stretch of equally intensive studies of French. That was ten or so years ago, when the French Institute used to bring all sorts of dance productions to Moscow, and I saw them all. I watched and I watched, and after some time it struck me that I had seen everything there was to see ‒ and also what the actual scope of these works had been. A few years pass, and I realise that I have actually seen Jérôme Bel, and how lucky I’ve been to have had this opportunity.
In all, the dance aspect was responsible for shaping my artistic career to a great degree. I did, of course, visit all sorts of exhibitions at various museums of contemporary art; however, that was more like a pleasant cultural pastime to me. So there were two directions, dance and contemporary art, and I found both of them interesting. 

Still from the 10-minute video ‘The Queue’ (2014) based on the novel by Vladimir Sorokin (1983)

Perhaps it was important that you viewed all these things from a tabula rasa perspective, without any knowledge of the context...

Yes, exactly: dropped by and saw it. It’s only later that you realise how lucky you have been. It started to dawn on me that physics was not going to be my future after all; at the same time, I was already quite immersed in a scientific way of thinking – I needed to teach myself to think in a different manner.

It’s also that when you are dancing, particularly that kind of ‘strange dances’, as I saw them at the time, you start to think in a different way. A more open one, perhaps. Your head works differently. Basically, I found the effect I had been searching for in my dance practice. I must say that I applied myself to that with various degrees of regularity. I was not very consistent during my studies; after the graduation, I spent a year working, so that gave me an opportunity to attend classes regularly. And then three years ago I had this opportunity to attend a performance workshop by Mari F. Scaroni, who works a lot with Meg Stuart, and over the course of just a week some sort of magic happened to me, almost like a sort of portal opening: I started to think in such an open way ‒ exactly the way I had wanted. After that, it did not seem that interesting to actually dance anymore.

Still from the 5-minute film ‘Urban Practices’ made with Anna Norina, Yana Norina and Alexander Sutyagin (2012)

And how did you dance classes at the TSEKH relate to your studies at the Rodchenko School?

As I was attending the dance studio, I started to realise that I wanted to go further than that. I generally subscribed to this classic approach: if you wish to explore something new, you need to get some education in this area. So I started to think about choosing a direction in which to move on. The Rodchenko School was one of the options, and it so happened that I gained admission there.
It was all very interesting the way it happened: immediately after my interview at the school, I went to Yaroslavl to attend Brain Dance, the first video dance workshop by Olga Dukhovnaya and Konstantin Lipatov; the theme of the workshop was defined as site-specific; and so Anna Norina and I did a one-minute dance video. We were asked to find a location somewhere in the city that would then serve as a point of departure for the choreography. So we wandered around for a long time, until we found a giant puddle with tram track running right through it and made a video about us walking toward one another, balancing on the rail, and trying to get past. So basically we made this piece, and then I forgot all about it.

It is true that everybody seemed to like it at the presentation, but for some reason I somehow could not take it very seriously ‒ so I shelved it. At some point, my teacher Kirill Preobrazhensky told me about the Extra Short Film Festival curated by Dmitri Bulnygin, and I sent them my video on the eve of the submission deadline: in fact, I did not have anything else at the moment. And then it was time for my first review of students’ works, which takes place once in a trimester, and on the day before the presentation I received a letter: they had accepted my work for the contest. So I decided to show the film at the presentation. Surprisingly, I had not until that considered that sort of thing a resource for my art. And yet I felt so surprised and motivated by this favourable reaction that I decided to continue working in this direction.

Video ONE WAY, a collaboration with Anna Norina (2011) 

So what was it that changed in your attitude?

I started working harder. Started to apply my intelligence to the whole thing. (Laughs.) I literally started to try and avoid superfluous movements. Take ‘Biblimlen’, for example: there is not much actual action. To put it crudely, each movement can be described in a single word ‒ two, max. What is taking place in the frame? Searching, shifting books, leafing through them ‒ an abstract kind of language, and I task myself with simplifying it to get the message across to the viewer. I am not telling a specific story; I am conveying feelings with the help of certain means. I love the language of movement most exactly because it rules out the pigeonholing of people according to some sort of linguistic or cultural principles; everybody can understand something, depending on their worldview.

Video ‘You Sleep All Night and... Then You Don't...’ (2012) 

I think we have now approached another very important moment which cannot be disregarded when speaking about your works. This concerns the transformation of the space in which your characters move. The thing with the tram rails is clear, and then there were some films where the set was important and complemented the movement – like the decor of the extremely typical flat in ‘Sleep the Whole Night Through But Then Again Sometimes Not’, or the empty old rooms in ‘Number 20, Flat 17’, or the library reading halls in ‘Biblimlen’. In your latest works, however, the space becomes sterile, containing minimum reference to some sort of context. It is a bit like dancing and doing similar things at home, in front of a mirror, namely ‒ in a familiar and private setting, and then suddenly getting on the stage. Which kind of space do you currently prefer to work in?

Yes, the space was important in the first piece. It was important in ‘Biblimlen’: I used to visit a library, and it is there that I first came up with these images. But before I found myself there, I had been watching video works by Pina Bausch in which the themes of loneliness and alienation were so powerfully present. While at the library, I kept contemplating this important subject on which the entire film was hinged: the subject of people getting stuck in space, isolation and feeling lost. As for the latest film, space no longer matters that much: the set is simple, the kind that exerts no pressure. The title of the work is ‘MONO’, and through it I arrived at the question of the performative quality of the video itself, of how to involve the viewer in the actual piece, making them less passive. The situation where someone visits an exhibition and stands staring at a single point, into a rectangular window, is very comfortable for the viewer; that is why I decided to remove this comfort zone and put two screens facing each other. The idea is for the viewer to divide their attention between two sources of visual information. It is also important that ‘MONO’ involves a lot of working with sound: even if the viewer is focusing on one of the images only, he or she is distracted by the sound coming from the other monitor. To put it in very simple terms, it is a story interaction between people and microphones: on one of the screens, the story is told from the human point of view, on the other ‒ from that of the mikes. The finale sees the two reunite again with the help of sound. And this is where something happened to me for the first time ever: during the editing, I was approached by a technician, who asked me simply: but what does the whole thing mean? And I realised: if I am unable to explain it to this man in very few words right now, I will never explain it to anybody. And this is what came to my mind: ‘It is a piece about microphones conquering people to give them freedom’. The technician did not comment in any way, but he did seem to give it some thought.

Stills from MONO (2-channel video installation, 2016) 

What are you going to show at the Venice Biennale?

It is going to be a new piece about absence of borders. I always describe my works in a single word now. (Laughs.) I would not like to discuss it in detail while I’m still working on it. It is a somewhat elastic process; besides, the maturation of the idea and myself during the preparation stage is also quite lengthy.

All right, then let’s go back to dance again. Most of the time, you use the word ‘movement’ instead of ‘dance’. Could you explain how you differentiate between the two and what do you understand by the term ‘movement’?

When I was still following the development of contemporary dance quite closely, I noticed that ‒ in fact, similarly to contemporary dance ‒ it was gradually moving away from strict formal frameworks. It is important to understand that, globally, contemporary dance has a history of its own, spanning quite a few decades, while the history of contemporary dance in this country dates back some twenty years, if that. And that is why, when you say ‘dance’ to someone in Russia, the word evokes the notion of a certain form in the other person’s mind. And I would not like this notion of form to appear in people’s minds when I am discussing my objectives. I convey feelings. 

Still from the 9-minute video ‘Number 20, Flat 17’ (2014)

It is also interesting that, I think, on the Russian art scene, contemporary art and contemporary dance do not seem to intersect. And I find it strange, because (and now we are about to mention the choreographer, which you do not believe yourself to be) the choreographer of contemporary dance is not merely composing movements but also examining, analysing and recording them and acts, as demonstrated by the practice of, say, Charmatz, as an artist and a performer in one.

Generally speaking, separating contemporary dance from contemporary art is the done thing anywhere in the world. But then again, as you just said, there are exceptions like Boris Charmatz or Tino Sehgal, who brought choreography to performance art. But there is no universal merging between the two areas, and this is hardly surprising. It is the result of a difference between the two approaches: in choreography, the focus moves from movement to image, while in visual arts it is from image to movement. What art does is a certain zoom-out; the question is: what can movement signify in the frame? Art analysts, I think, generally still find it difficult to perceive a moving picture; they are used to things being static, and they don’t really comprehend dance as yet.

Perhaps, and yet, if the demand for you as an artist is anything to go by, while they may indeed find it difficult to read your kind of picture, they nevertheless also need it. It was way back in 2009 that the performer Liza Morozova said that ‘contemporary art needs dance like air to breathe’. Her point was that it was exactly those artists who, in one way or another, worked in dance performance who were an example of not only interdisciplinary openness but also professional ecology, a certain practice of retrieving oneself which, according to Morozova, had been lost in the Russian art milieu.

Well, Russian contemporary art generally lacks many things. There was a period when there was a certain rise of performative practices; art turned its gaze towards dance, various kinds of ephemeral practices. I think that it happened as a result of a certain negation, due to an overproduction of objects of art. And yet interest that is created by negation is not always a good thing. In my works, I try and convey a feeling, a sensation. I believe that it is a fundamental concept both in art and life in general; a correct relationship with reality evolves from feelings. Critical art is directed towards analysis of imperfections of a world order born from an incorrect relationship with reality. By virtue of my educational background, I find it important to work with the cause, not attributes of a phenomenon, and that is why I work with feelings: that is how you can change an individual viewer’s relationship with reality and therefore, if we apply the principle of superposition here, also the whole world. I believe in the power of art, and that is why I practice art.