"IMAGINARY WORLDS OF TOTAL FREEDOM"
A conversation between Nikita Shokhov and poetess Galina Rimbou
Galina Rimbou: Tell us about the “Utrish” series: how was it photographed, how long did it take, what sort of contact did you have with the people you photographed?
Nikita Shokhov: This idea of an unusual Biblical interpretation was something I’ve had in my head for several years. I had dreamed of being accepted into VGIK [Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography], so I studied photography, painting and looked at many classical paintings of religious subjects. But later, during my studies at the Rodchenko School, I traveled twice to the Black Sea and photographed people at the beach there. When I saw people at Utrish, I immediately recalled the Bible and decided to take some photographs the following year. The preparations for the shoot took a few months. I even had a script - several hundred scenes to photograph, but ultimately I managed to photograph 40 scenes at most. The shoots took three weeks, but there were organizational difficulties: usually actors are paid, but I couldn’t pay the people I was photographing, so they were not very well-disciplined.
GR: The photographs are very candid, as if you captured a moment from life, but aren’t they in fact posed photographs?
NS: That’s absolutely correct. I established certain conditions for the people and told them which scene from the Bible they would enact. They grew accustomed to the role, improvised, and I just captured the moment, like a journalist.
GR: You worked with the Biblical subject only through painting?
NS: There were two types of subjects - the first from from well-known paintings, the second directly from texts.
GR: The photographs make it seem as though this is some kind of a closed community, and it really contrasts with our everyday lives, where we can’t take the liberty of undressing whenever we want; people have to choose special places for that, sometimes even hide themselves.
NS: Yes, that was true in Utrish during the Soviet period. People were driven away, but again and again, they managed to return. In the 1990s, it was the opposite - Utrish flourished, and now there is another stiffening of morals. That’s natural.
GR: Are you, yourself, attracted to nudism?
NS: No, I don’t practice nudism.
GR: Were you dressed when you photographed the nudists?
NS: Yes, I was dressed.
GR: And how did they respond to that?
NS: Without a problem. If you’re dressed, it doesn’t mean that you can’t approach them and socialize with them. Their nudity has its own objective, a philosophy, harmony with nature and things like that…
Empty Hills festival, 2011
GR: That’s not true, for example, I don’t embrace any of that philosophy, and I still go on holiday to nudist beaches all the time.
NS: Then you’re just comfortable like that.
GR: How important is the theme of sexual liberation for you? Can we say that you work with it?
NS: Absolutely, yes.
GR: Who do you take your cues from in erotic photography?
NS: Nikolay Bakharev, Sergey Chilikov, Igor Mukhin, also Terry Richardson, Ryan Mcginley, David Lachapelle and other, mostly American artists.
Moscow Night Life, 2010-2014
GR: There are new laws that, to me, seem designed not only to restrict, but also, in a way, to deform the sexual lives of people living in Russia. We don’t know what the limits of these restrictions are. Do you think that in this situation, art could change something? Is it possible to change something with photography?
NS: I think that photography by itself can’t change anything. But that is something a whole movement, reflected not just in art, but in all other spheres of life, can achieve. Yet in general none of this - restrictions, censorship - is new in Russia. There’s nothing surprising about this.
GR: Are you ready to reconcile yourself to that?
NS: Today there’s an loosening, tomorrow a crackdown, then again an loosening...Everything moves along a sine wave as usual.
GR: That’s to say your position is passive? But isn’t it likely that this “sine wave” depends somehow on us too?
GR: You have a series on Moscow nightclubs. How did you start shooting clubs?
NS: I moved from Ekaterinburg when I enrolled at the Rodchenko School, and when I was still living there, I worked in a photo studio and gradually began shooting clubs.
Black Sea Vacations, 2012
GR: For money or just to do it?
NS: First it was for money. I even have one photograph saved from those days. It was in my portfolio when I matriculated and Igor Mukhin liked it and proposed that I try to shoot clubs here too. It was very difficult to get into Moscow clubs. It’s a closed world where you need accreditation to photograph. I later received my media accreditation for the high life entrance and everything became easier. But I didn’t work there for long.
GR: Is it really possible to call night club life the “high life”?
NS: Money and sex rule in clubs. Of course, there are different clubs - some focus on music and socializing - but as a photographer I preferred those where money and sex rule. In these clubs, if a man who doesn’t ostentatiously show that he’s flush with cash, or a woman doesn’t radiate sexuality, they won’t be let in. There are no other people there.
GR: What’s your take on that? To what extent do your sexual views correlate with what you saw there? Do you want to be a man like that and have that kind of woman?
NS: No, I don’t. This was just interesting to me as another world, another universe. It’s not that I’m against that kind of life, but I’m not for it. I just observe. This has always existed.
GR: But it was in, let’s put it this way, other formats. If we look at Ancient Greece, then “intercourse” with the liberated woman, who always has her own world, her private space, plays an important role. Women who go to such clubs and radiate “liberation”, as it were, might themselves be subjected to the “enslaving” stereotypes that are imposed by the community that they are immersed in, or wish to be part of. And this is not just conforming visually to an image, they completely constitute themselves based on these images and it’s unclear what they’re ultimately ready for in sex, or in general, how important that is. If we take clubs, they’re not actually places for sex; people go to play the game. Is it possible that that game replaces sex and relaxation?
NS: Yes, it’s a sort of parallel world. People like a story.
GR: In your photographs, there is a visible critical take on that story.
NS: Of course, there is. But the people I shot there seem beautiful to me. Photography makes them different.
GR: I understand it’s difficult, but could you somehow briefly formulate the main themes and ideas of your work?
NS: In his book Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin constructs an interesting analysis of the carnivalesque aspect of the world. He divides our entire life into the serious and the informal. In other words, there is reality and the ideal. And as we see, not much has changed since Antiquity. The entire life of a modern person is divided into a routine, whereby he must work and observe class-based, official, familial barriers; and leisure. I take the topic of leisure from different spheres of the present. And they most definitely can be united based on utopian criteria: Utrish and Empty Hills, like imaginary worlds of total freedom; an ideal world is specifically invented where there is no need to work, where there’s a lot of food, sex, money and alcohol. Depicting the world of madness in a grotesque light inevitably brings down the “high”, peculiar traditions of Classicism. Human bodies appear in all their straightforward materiality and unattractive naturality.
Original interview in Russian on "Honey and Milk"