“Society creates rules that become part of our consciousness and we carry them inside for all our lives.” Order reigns in Safronova’s paintings, which box their subjects in with regimented lines and grids. She grew up in a Soviet provincial town, before studying at Moscow State Academic Art Institute, somewhat obscured from the global movements of contemporary art that she later came to explore.

Classroom, 2014. Private collection

You were born in the provincial Soviet town of Rzhev. You’ve said it influenced your worldview—can you explain that influence?

I spent most of my childhood in Rzhev, a Soviet provincial town similar to others in our country, with typical Khrushchev-era houses built after World War II, remnants of nineteenth-century architecture and Stalinist buildings, green parks with Soviet sculptures, a central square with a silver-covered figure of Lenin where parades and demonstrations took place. Life had a single look across the whole country. We played the same games, we had similar clothes and toys, and the whole world around us was equally ascetic. This minimalism has influenced me so far in my work—in the choice of plots and details, in the selection of architecture and interiors. The city emptied out in summer, everyone tried to go to villages and allotments, the yards were empty, the children left for pioneer camps. I was often all by myself. My childhood life passed on the outskirts of the system that supported this life; there was a sense of being a part of a large organism with high goals. At that time I did not notice this, but now, when I try to capture the structure and interrelations of communities and microsystems, I understand that I could not do this without this childhood perception of a big country and sense of joy that you live in such a place.

7am: Waking up. Ward, 2012. Courtesy collection of Moscow Museum of Modern Art

You did your art education at the Moscow State Academic Art Institute. What did you study exactly? What impact did that have on the paintings you make now?

I studied monumental art in addition to painting. There was a lot of practical work with materials that were new to me: mural, mosaic, sgraffito, work in architecture, models of projects. It was an interesting immersion into ideas of space and the need to cope with large volumes. We studied ancient Orthodox churches, sketched the compositional schemes of paintings and learned to see the principles of plotting; we also made copies of European paintings. I used all of this later. I often use the monumental principles of space construction in my paintings. Now I often paint icons and I really to do everything by hand.

“I understand that I could not do this without this childhood perception of a big country and sense of joy that you live in such a place”

  • New Year 47х69 сm 2013_from series The game of general view_Courtesy private collection
  • Defender of the Fatherland Day_47x66 сm 2015_from series The game of general view_Courtesy private collection
  • Left: New Year, 2014. Private collection. Right: Defender of the Fatherland Day, 2016

Studying at the institute required great immersion. We barely had enough time to complete the programme; modern art existed somewhere in parallel. After graduation, it remained unclear to me how to relate to the modern world having been brought up on samples of the past. My knowledge of contemporary art was then random and fragmentary, there was no system. Knowing the work of various contemporary artists, I did not understand what problems they had created. It was at the level of “like/dislike”, but I could not understand how to relate to this. Therefore, after the institute, I needed additional education, and I attended the Institute of Modern Art and Free Workshops at MMOMA in Moscow. There I found the understanding about what was happening in art now (and why), and a balance between internationalism and a more local mentality.

Office, 2016

Your series such as Routines, Game of the General View and Office are interested in institutions and the ways in which they shape and constrain individuals. Where did the idea for these series come from?

Each of these projects describes in its own way the process of human socialization, self-determination and adaptation to the conditions of modern society using a different thematic landscape: a childcare facility, psychiatric hospital or standard office. Where is the boundary between the general and the particular, the typical and the individual? Society creates rules that become part of our consciousness and we carry them inside for all our lives without questioning and analysing them. In some ways, this is an intangible form of prison which exercises an invisible control over people.

The Routines series is related to my personal experience of hospital. The days were very similar and moved very slowly. Later, my friend told me about his stay in a psychiatric clinic. The places we were in were different, but we had a similar understanding of the situation. What happens when a person does not have a specific goal but has a daily routine? The idea occurred to me to convey all this hospital action in a series of paintings. I managed to visit a psychiatric clinic in Rzhev and collect the necessary material there.

5.10 pm: Procedures. Bathroom, 2012. Courtesy collection of Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Later, in kindergarten on the Saturday voluntary work day (a day of organized volunteer clean-up work for the good of society), I was assigned to clean the toilet, and I saw pots with numbers and lockers with numbers; each child had their own number. This is how the project of Game of the General Vie appeared. It’s about the process for preparing children for integration into the matrix of adult life through games and introduction to a regime of obligations and law-abiding. The paintings show everyday life in kindergartens and schools. I emphasize uncomfortable but important moments for the child, when it is necessary to do something “obligatory” which results in anxiety and uncertainty. To read a poem, to jump into a swimming pool, to catch a ball, to take a chair. The painting New Year shows the real situation when girls are given pink bunnies and boys are given blue rockets. Thus, models of gender difference and social roles are laid out.

“Position gives stability and a meaning to life as well as a sense of self-importance or of usefulness to someone else”

The Office series came about as a reaction to the daily passage of the same routine—glass office buildings, like aquariums, in which the life of the inhabitants is visible. Days are usually regulated and monotonous, years pass by. Position gives stability and a meaning to life as well as a sense of self-importance or of usefulness to someone else. In exchange, you have to comply with rules and perform functions; no need to take initiative. Employees work on one big thing, but on weekdays it comes down to performing routine activities. Life is stretched out in one endless working day, time stands still in monotonous scenes.

Ready! 2018-19
Ready!, 2018-19

How do you go about composing your works?

My work begins with a small but thorough sketch, which I later use as a plan of action. I formulate the composition in it, structure, mass, energy of light and shadow, dark and light. Then I collect additional materials, take photographs, make drawings, I create types and characters on paper in the way they will later appear in the paintings. Where architecture is involved, I make perspective constructions. For example, in the series with the hospital, I first made a model of the building. After that, I rebuilt the interiors in perspective and developed the plots in this space.

The painting itself usually begins with grisaille, I work through everything without colour. Then I sketch lights, backgrounds and bring glazes. This technique makes the painting feel more processed and powerful. The process itself of creating a picture is very long for me. The picture should convey to the viewer this passage of time.


R_E_Volution 1918/2018

Until 10 March at the Motorenhalle, Dresden

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