New East Digital Archive
Troubled youth
Russian video artists address the problems of a generation

The following works are by Russian artists who are using video to address the social, economical and political issues faced by the country’s young adults. The topics range from universal “Generation Y” problems such as gender roles, unemployment and unpaid internships, to troubles more specific to Russia, such as militarism, political confusion, and the transition between the Soviet and modern realities that many millennials experienced early in their lives.

Millennials and their problems have been an attractive topic for op-eds and talk shows for a while now — and often the discussion takes a condemning tone. Twenty-somethings are accused of being lazy, entitled, and narcissistic, of having short attention spans and being unable to process information that doesn’t come in bite-sized form. Their obsession with video — YouTube, Vine, etc — is often said to be part of the problem. It seems appropriate, therefore, that these artists are using the medium closest to the generation to talk about its problems. And as serious works appearing in gallery environments, they are also a way of reclaiming the medium and challenging the notion that it is only for lightweight, dumbed-down entertainment.

Polina Kanis, Eggs

Polina Kanis is a Kandinsky prize laureate and regularly appears in lists of “10 of Russia’s best performance artists”. In Eggs she uses her skirt to catch eggs being thrown at her by someone out of shot. The simple catching game acts as a metaphor for female fertility and life balance. As soon the artist catches an egg, another one comes flying from a different direction — there is no time for rest. The performance echoes Nu, Pogodi!, a popular Soviet video game in which the player controls a wolf trying to catch eggs falling from the top of the screen. As the action of the video intensifies, eggs come flying faster and more frequently, like a more difficult video game level, and most end up breaking. The ones that Kanis manages to catch are put into a proverbial single basket. And still, no matter how full the basket is, by the end of the video Kanis is covered in raw eggs and (literally) walking on eggshells.

Watch the full video here.

Alena Tereshko, Girl From The Urals

Alena Tereshko is a young St Petersburg-based performance artist who often uses video and recording in her work. In Girl From The Urals, the artist, a young woman, is sitting at a table, eating a seemingly endless supply of pelmeni (traditional Russian dumplings), as she sings an old folk song in which each new verse starts with a new number, a sort of Russian Ten Green Bottles. The song is about the woman’s mother trying to arrange a marriage for her, and each number is a different suitor that somehow didn’t work out. Sometimes the artist starts sobbing, before stuffing her mouth with pelmeni again and continuing to sing. The cycle of sobbing, eating, and singing starts again. The folk song reflects the conservative expectations for a woman to be married by a certain age, which still prevails in most parts of Russia.

Watch an extract here.

Zhanna Nagoryanskaya, When Grenades (Pomegranates) Fly

Zhanna Nagoryanskaya, who was born in the Russia's Far East but now works in St Petersburg, gained popularity with her installation The Mother Loves You, which consisted of a large room filled with stuffed plush breasts hanging from the ceiling, between which the audience had to navigate. The concept of When Grenades Fly is built around Russian homonyms — the words for “grenade” and “pomegranate” are identical in spelling and pronunciation. The artist sits eating pomegranate seeds, picking them out and covering herself in the fruit juice as she eats more and more. The traditional understanding of pomegranate seeds as a symbol of fertility and prosperity starts to give way to an anti-war message as the red juice resembling blood drips from the artist's face accompanied by the sounds of war.

Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazansteva, Masks

Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazansteva, who has several solo shows and art awards behind her, predominantly works with the video format. In Masks, people wearing paper masks of famous Russian politicians party and consume a whole table of traditional Soviet foods: pickled herring, sausage, caviar, and mayonnaise salads. Two-facedness and hypocrisy is suggested by the masks as the politicians “eat” the Soviet Union, destroying it while making it look like a friendly get-together. Real human eyes peeking from the paper masks add a surreal element. The video also seems to hint at the lack of new faces in Russian politics, as most of the ’90s politicians depicted on the masks are still in the game now, 25 years later. The result is a political landscape in which young people feel they have scant representation.

Watch an extract here.

Tatyana Akhmetgaliyeva (with Mikhaela Mukhina), Farewell To The Slavery Of A Job

Tatyana Akhmetgaliyeva uses different media in her work: from video to giant woven panels. This video discusses the place of jobs in young people’s lives today, and the resulting stress and the disproportionate work/life balance that prevails. A person in a cartoon penguin costume hands out flyers on a street. Gradually, the person starts to act less like a promoter doing a job and more like a real penguin that is somehow a tourist in St Petersburg, walking around the city admiring the architecture and looking out longingly on the Gulf of Finland. Sometimes the penguin thinks he sees other penguins like him but every time he approaches them he finds they are just empty costumes, suggesting that he might be one too.

Watch the full video here.

Tatyana Akhmetgaliyeva, Paper

The video initially shows regular paper dolls, a popular Soviet and post-Soviet toy, cut out of paper, with child-like features and retro clothing. After a while, they are joined on screen by more adult-looking Barbie-like dolls with revealing clothing and “sexy” features. The Soviet dolls look naïve, childish and out of place next to the new “western” dolls, creating a metaphor of a transition that the country went through in the ’90s, changes that the children of that era experienced first-hand. There is also the added layer of another, more personal transition: from girlhood into womanhood, with its ever-growing list of requirements to look and behave a certain way.

Text: Sasha Raspopina