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INTERVIEW: Anastasia Samoylova Captures a Moscow Between Acts

. 9 min read
INTERVIEW: Anastasia Samoylova Captures a Moscow Between Acts

by Sarah Pavlovna Goldberg

Before emigrating to the U.S., Anastasia Samoylova decorated store windows in Moscow. Sprinkled throughout the city, one could find her curated boxes, fantasy veneers that tempted passersby to stop and imagine what life they could have in exchange for cash, luxe escapes from the present moment and all its paradoxes.

After more than a decade of separation from her country, Samoylova returned home. Her Moscow series digs into the contradictions of the present-day Russian capital, where consumer fantasy lives amid massive Soviet monuments. She documents the cities’ multifaceted facade: the Potemkinesque scaffolding set to match the fronts of imposing buildings, advertisements for luxury and independence alongside the less luxurious machinery of quotidian life. Sometimes, Samoylova creates a trompe-l'œil that melds luxury and reality, creating drama between the two.

I spoke on the phone with Samoylova shortly after her return to Miami from Moscow, where she’d been completing a self-initiated residency at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow concurrent with the exhibition of her FloodZone project, which runs until July 28. The project examines the psychological effects of climate change in the southern U.S. and Miami. She has since moved to New York City.

Let’s talk about your residency at MAMM. What was that experience like?

The museum is located very centrally, in this historic, beautiful part of Moscow. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Kremlin. Living there was a bit surreal because so few people live there. It’s almost like a brochure of a city, and that’s what sparked my interest at first. There’s a lot of reconstruction, and as somebody who has always been interested in urban planning and urban geography, I couldn’t help but notice those things. I studied Environmental Design back when I lived in Moscow. They use those printed banners throughout the city to wrap the buildings that are undergoing construction, and the banners reproduce the features of the facade. It creates an effect of a massive theater stage with props.

Such facades are a reality, but also a metaphor. It’s very telling, if you look beyond the obvious (the construction site): this theatricality and presentation and how those have been so important and embedded in this culture. Prior to moving to Miami I was a studio artist, making lens-based works. I’ve come to observational photography fairly recently, but it is informed by an interest in artifice and assembly that one associates with studio work. Cities can be as constricted and artificial as a studio still life. Ironically, you couldn’t think of more different places than Moscow and Miami, but at the same time, I felt at home in Miami right away because of Moscow; at home in the sense that the visual representation of a place does not exactly fit all the underlying issues that you only find out about later if you’re there long enough to get a true insider perspective.

Absolutely. I relate to that feeling of being at home in Miami—my Muscovite grandfather settled in Florida. There’s this huge Russian population in Florida, and that’s surprising, because it feels not unlike my experience in the center of Moscow.

There are certain things you grow up with that you accept simply because they are familiar, yet you know they are toxic. Corruption, government negligence, and the disposability of the lives of everyday people are unfortunately things I grew up with. Those traumatic memories resurfaced very acutely this week in light of the building collapse down the street from where I live in Miami Beach.

The photo that you took of the Surfside collapse is shocking.

It’s so unsettling—and this is where I am so thankful for my camera. That distance, that perspective that a lens gives you; you are able to separate yourself and gain some perspective. It’s a survival mechanism, emotionally. But it’s hard to process. Even standing there, you can’t quite accept it.

I’m sure the toxicity is unbelievable.

I read in your previous interview with the Russian artist duo, they said “We live in Moscow, we don’t live by the sea.” And I thought about how much I relate to that sentiment, as while I was living in landlocked Moscow I dreamed of living by the sea, and yet living by the sea turned out to be as dangerous as living in Moscow. The risk part and the danger part are very carefully concealed. That’s a thread in my work.

A lot of your work—both in Florida and Moscow—focuses on facades. The fantasy Moscow seems accessible, because it’s being shown as an affronting part of the city’s architecture. And then you have the reality of Moscow. You capture the moments where they meet. How do you know when to capture this instersection?

It’s quite intuitive, and I’m glad you’re having that response. It’s about breaking down the illusion and being aware that we are quite immersed in that fantasy world and it has been built for us. I was little, but I remember the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was 7 in 1991. The disillusionment of ideals—that was the strongest collapse, stronger than [that of] the actual system.

It’s not like that has slowed down; it’s just morphed into something else. There were colorful Soviet posters with healthy, rosy-cheeked comrades looking at you—all their idealistic and patriarchal messages. We distinguish propaganda texts much more clearly than the agendas of more ambiguous images. And we identify the mediation of the text, the written word. So you’re conscientiously reading and analyzing. Text doesn’t just come at you haphazardly, but images operate in a very different way. They’re not analyzed with the same scrutiny. We tend to take them at face value and we live among them. The project is really about that. All of my work is. With this Moscow series, it’s quite apparent: What do they want us to believe? A lone, female figure is a motif throughout the series, a stand-in for myself. On the one hand, you have this independent woman, and on the other hand, the sense of isolation and being bombarded by this nouveau riche, consumerist culture.

The way you capture the lone woman motif fascinates me because you call the consumerism and masculine power structure surrounding her into question. There’s the astronaut with the bubblegum lipstick, the woman in the purple instagram outfit. It’s conversational—between the fantasized role for women and the reality of new independence.

During and immediately after World War II there was this illusion of equality in Russia. The real reason for that was that there were no men around to do both blue and white collar work, including manual labor, so women were called in and filled all those roles and jobs previously reserved for men, such as science, industrial agriculture and heavy machinery, public transportation, and others. After World War II, men in Russia were a gender minority and they got bumped up to even more privilege, and the patriarchal culture asserted its dominance further.

The problem of gender inequality is of course not limited to Russia, but that part about the need-based dangling carrot of pay and opportunity equality feels particularly sour. That period also came with a certain chase after men as there weren’t many left after the war and the society was traumatised for many decades to come. The patriarchal ideals dictated that women’s primary role and life’s fulfillment was in being a wife and a mother despite all the heavy lifting of the economy they continued to do. And then the horrendous stereotype of this Eastern-European bride emerged, since women were justifiably looking outward because of the scarcity of those resources to start a family at home. The stereotype came with a set of visual clichés: the hyper-feminine, demure housewife of fair complexion.

It’s interesting how quickly it became about sex, about being thin and blonde. And the correlation between men’s power and the women they have on their arms. In Moscow, there are so many avenues for men to meet younger Russian women, and often, sugar-daddy situations are seen as a ticket out.

It’s not like it’s unparalleled in the rest of the world, especially the developed world. There’s a whole cohort of escorts in Manhattan that is thriving, for instance. It can be a job. Even in the developed world the economic imbalance is severe. Finding a partner is an entire industry; just look at the abundance of various master classes on the subject.

When I was in Moscow I finally got to see Man With A Movie Camera on the big screen and then went to visit Dziga Vertov’s tomb. While at that historic cemetery of the Soviet period, I noticed a wide variety of elaborately decorated burial sites for a myriad of prominent Russian men, expensive sculptures and reliefs and props, all professions represented with incredible pizzazz; and a significantly smaller percentage of famous women’s graves, mainly from acting and other entertainment fields.

It’s funny, because it’s easy in an academic context to generalize a shared collective memory of Moscow, of Russia as a whole of communism. There’s a dissonance, though, between male collective memory and female collective memory.

It’s hard because white men are the most privileged slice of the population in the world, and they built this world for themselves. To even try to convey the emotions [of the female collective memory] is difficult, because they’ve not known it any other way. Public space was built for men by men.

I feel like there’s a lot of humor in the men that you’ve captured. I’m thinking mainly about the guy on the bench.

With that guy, even 20 years ago, I probably would’ve been too conscientious about photographing him. But now with my camera I feel like I’m finally reclaiming a piece of that public space for myself as a woman: that I have a right to be there and to observe and perhaps my point of view would find resonance. For a long period of time it felt like as a woman in a city like Moscow your role is reduced to being an object of observation but not an active observer let alone someone whose perspective would be seen and considered.

Absolutely. Moscow has a way of making one feel inferior.

It’s in the fabric of the city itself. Architecture is a manifestation of those cultural values, this Soviet empire, imposing buildings, where you’re shrunk into small proportions.

But being behind the camera, you’re in conversation with those facades and their manifestations, recording them.

Photography is never an accurate record of anything. It’s always a construct, and that’s deliberate in my work. These are observations, as much internal psychology as they are this external world. Of course there’s the anxiety I feel about the Russian political situation—and yet you can’t give up hope. It’s the same feeling here, in Miami: On the one hand it’s superficial and transient, facade-oriented, but at the same time there are many great things and people, it’s very diverse, and there are multiple small communities that are sticking together and affecting change.

Moscow is evolving. It’s not stagnant, not preserved even in the Putin era. It’s important to remember that Russia is coming out of centuries of totalitarianism. It was an empire. It’s never been fully the “West.” That’s another thing people forget: that it’s in Eurasia, and it’s always been suspended between several opposing philosophies. When I was working on Floridas, which is my next book, I was photographing central Florida and the Panhandle, and I went to a county fair. With many thousands of people in attendance, you see how the population of that region is getting the information from the same handful of sources and the culture stays quite insular. Sure, there’s access to the internet and other resources, but where is the motivation if you only know one way to live?

In both Floridas and Moscow, the insularity you capture seems like a product of centralized power.

I think that’s because Russia is just as isolated. And Moscow is a progressive front compared to the majority of “flyover” Russia. The Trump years —so crudely populist and divisive, so authoritarian and manipulative—have offered the perspective to see some deep parallels.

Sarah Pavlovna Goldberg is a writer and creative based in the Hudson Valley. Get to know her better: @powertool.danger

*All photos by Anastasia Samoylova