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Kseniya Ovchinnikova: The Installation Artist Breaking Through Female Taboos

Photos courtesy of LiAnn Grahm

By: Sophie Velocity Wilkes

Want to know what happens when skin, dreams, fetish, and cheesecloth combine? Check out the work of Kseniya Ovchinnikova!

Ovchinnikova is an artist who primarily creates immersive experiences in New York City. Her work deals with human connection, femininity and experiences as an observer of the world. Her experiences as an introvert, frequent traveller, and immigrant have shaped her perspective and impacted her unique art.

HS: How did you get started as an artist?

KO: I grew up in Russia until I was 11. It was post-Soviet Union which is very interesting because it’s like, all of a sudden, borders are breaking down and products are coming in, like barbies and sneakers. I came with my mom to Arizona when I was 11 and went to school. I actually dropped out of college in my third year, during very different times. I came from a time during a different mentality of a different country where being an artist [wasn’t an option]; I myself didn’t know what that meant at the time or what my possibilities were. I still think that word hasn’t been demystified quite yet; we’re still figuring it out. I was studying interior design and business in my third year and just was not in that place. Right after highschool, I probably should have travelled. Basically, I moved on a very spontaneous whim to Seattle.

HS: Why Seattle?

KO: Well, Arizona is very different from Russia; it’s very warm and hot, has a dry climate. Not a lot of diversity. I was like 22 or 23 at the time and felt stifled. I wanted that sense of self. I was not really knowing who I was by not really stepping out and exploring. When I got to Seattle, I was really lucky, and, all of a sudden, surrounded for four years, which is how long I lived there, by this artistic community. I lived in this place called The Monarch where there were all these poets, writers, and musicians. Everything just kind of exploded nightly together. It was wonderful and [the place] where I took in a lot of inspiration for what I’m doing now. Places have a way of revealing things about us, sometimes much later in life. I was really inhibited and introverted most of my life and this kind of helped my come out of my shell. My friends and I would shoot short films and have these nightly soirees where we would drink wine late and smoke cigarettes and talk about life. It’s the creative acts themselves, not even just making things, doing things that feed creativity down the line.

I’m sure New York is the same. I totally moved here on a whim too. I guess I have a tendency to do that. When I moved from Russia, I had not gone back until it was my fourth year in Seattle, when my mom and I decided to take a trip. I’m a fast-paced person on the outside, and it kind of gave me the bite for a city. I realized I was done with Seattle and needed to go somewhere else. At that time, I was 26 or 27. When I came to New York, I went to the art students league and was studying life drawing. It was a really interesting part of my life. 

HS: You mentioned making short films; what do you generally consider to be your artistic medium?

KO: So, now, I do several things. One of my loves is interactive installations. When I was a kid, I always wanted to experience things, not just have them standing still. I always wanted to touch and play with art. I had that witty, slightly rebellious desire to play. I never grew out of “kid-mode,” and I think that’s very important. So now, I make these playgrounds for adults. The idea is that you go through the exhibits like a forest and really get to touch them and interact with them and other people. They move around the spaces. There’s classical theatre where you sit down and watch a play unfold. With interactive work, there is no fourth wall. As an audience member, you have the freedom to interact with elements of a world that is presented to you.

I guess the point is that I have a lot of interests! I like movement and performance, building things with my hands. I was actually developing an interactive piece called Nocturnes with two other collaborators for two years. We had two development shows and then a main show for four days in April. It was like a world of dreams, and the story unfolded within that. Now, I’m working on a project called Fletish, like “flesh” and “fetish” in one word. It’s all about exploring femininity, not necessarily from a female perspective but how it’s viewed by society and a lot of the taboo about our own bodies. It’s all really witty, not supposed to be taken seriously. It’s just for one night. This one I’m actually apart of; I’m one of the performers. I’m collaborating with two other artists, Joanne Leah and Olive Hui; we’re all building it but also participating in it, which is a little bit daunting but exciting. It’s a very vulnerable place because it’s touching on certain taboos, and there are elements of eroticism without the oversexualized innuendos. Like “what do we do with flesh?” or everyday rituals like brushing your hair or how you put makeup on. Bodies will be painted; there are elements of cheesecloth, petting forks, edibles. It’s our baby. Sometimes when you’re heavily underfunded you actually have more creativity. There’s more free room to play.

HS: What inspires your work?

KO: Being an immigrant and travelling, living in a city with such diversity, and being an introvert my entire life have often made me an observer of the human condition and of femininity in general. I think I grew up pretty comfortable in my own skin, and I also realized there’s a lot of transience in our lives. There’s a beautiful Japanese term called “wabi-sabi” that’s an aesthetic of imperfection and transience. What I do is use cheesecloth and dye them so there’s a little bit of my mothers love of textiles in that. I apply the cheesecloth to a hard surface, wait for them to dry, and mold them into hard shapes and install lights in them. I’m obsessed with skin- it’s how we store ourselves, our information, and how we perceive the world. It exists everywhere, on the surface of a building or the street. On a dirty street, there is some semblance of another life, another story hidden within that. That enlarged really inspires my work. You have to look out for these things. You can go into a building and know it has a story; there have been lives that have been close to these places. I like stories of the past superimposed onto the now. When you start talking to people you find that some people have lived your stories and vice versa. 

HS: How has New York changed your art?

KO: I think, in New York, people are more open than in other places. People want to share and talk. They want to connect in a genuine way. There’s so much history, connection, diversity. The hustle is a daily thing. If you’re trying to get somewhere, you have to catch the wave and stay on it. You have to keep your own balance. Is it the hottest art scene? Absolutely not. In other places, people have to create. It’s a desire to say something.  When things are very smooth and life is seen through rose colored glasses, it’s very hard to say things. In New York, a lot of people just try to shock. There’s not necessarily always a grit. It’s still there, you just have to look for it.

Sophie Wilkes is a New York University student and contributor at Honeysuckle Magazine.

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