Project by Sergey Sapozhnikov

Sergey Sapoznikov. No title from the series Dance. 2016. 32’38 min. Black and white video. Artist assistant: Suren Khurdyan. Models: Alexander Khislov, Anna Kosa.

Part 1

My grandmother, Yevgenia Vasilyevna, enthusiastically used a camera to record my childhood and everything that happened to our family. So, you could say that a love of photography was passed on to me by inheritance. Back then, while still a child, I understood the process as a means of perpetuating one event or another. As an embodiment of the memory of them. Of course, that is banal, but how should everything start?

I began my first experiments in photography in 1997, when I was thirteen. Back then, in Rostov-on-Don there was a great vogue for roller-skating and I became thoroughly engrossed in that subculture as well. We had our own skating clique - we got together often, skated and, of course, took pictures of each other. And, as in any subculture, we had our own aesthetic. With the aid of photography, we were able, on the one hand, to determine how correctly and attractively we were performing our tricks and, on the other, to make ourselves look cooler in the pictures than we really were. I quickly grasped that capturing an interesting moment was very hard, so I sought ways of simulating them. In other words, I was working at the boundary between documentary and staged photography, albeit in a very naïve way.

In the late ’90s, the fashion for graffiti and break dancing arrived in Rostov. Like the majority of my skating friends, I naturally got caught up in the trend. I started break dancing, but after twice breaking my leg, I decided enough was enough. It was just at that point, while I was stuck at home with my leg in plaster, that I started to think seriously about drawing.

I don’t see any point in describing the history of Rostov graffiti. It was all constructed on imitation and a desire to put the emphasis on quality in the designs. While I was still at school, I became disillusioned with that and reckoned it all very tedious. Quite quickly I started to find it interesting to go beyond the bounds of the subculture, to get into the area of experimentation. Constantly changing styles and using various pseudonyms as signatures, I engaged in a search for new approaches.

The end of that period came in 2003. By that time, I was already making large backgrounds using paint roller that bore more resemblance to abstract paintings than traditional graffiti. With them I ended up in the first small book of Objects produced by Igor Ponosov in 2005 and accompanied by an exhibition in Moscow. Admittedly, I didn’t feature in the subsequent parts of the book, because Igor reckoned I had moved too far away from street art and progressive graffiti.

I ought to say that throughout my graffiti period photography was present too. I often photographed details of my work and the stages in their creation. But at that time it was simply a desire to preserve my work. Designs on walls don’t last long - people paint them over or spoil them, so in most cases there is nothing left but the photo.

At some point I developed an interest in using photography not as a way of documenting the graffiti, but as a means of expressing myself in its own right. That’s how the idea of the first small artistic shoot arose in 2003. It’s hard for me to explain what’s going on in the pictures - it was a first attempt to assemble some sort of structure out of chaos. The location I chose was a drain near a transport depot. The place struck me as unusual and reminded me of the Zone in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.

Here I should explain that, after becoming disenchanted with graffiti, I simultaneously discovered the world of serious cinema. With great delight, I began exploring the work of such directors as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini and Jos Stelling. I was strongly influenced by the camerawork of Sven Nykvist.

Cinema changed my attitude to photography and gave my creative work a completely new trajectory. I began to think in terms of artistic series and seriously considered a career as a photographer. Of course, the influence of the subculture was still fairly strong, which is why I took pictures with a fish-eye lens - the majority of rollerbladers and break dancers used them back then to shoot their moves. You might say it was an attempt to combine the subculture experience with new impressions.

In 2005 my approach to photography became more serious. At this stage I did a lot of work with Albert Pogorelkin, who acted as my model. We had known each other for a long time from the graffiti crowd and understood one another well. In the first pictures from that period you can also notice the influence of break dancing - Alik would imitate the unusual poses characteristic of the style that are called "freezes". A year later, though, our series started to develop in a completely different direction. I entirely abandoned the fish-eye lens and have never gone back to it. The desire to work with tricks and poses gave way to a trend towards abstract compositions. The idea arose to work with studio lighting and to take entirely staged photographs, simulating the situations and the required impressions from the shot.

My fascination with cinema and an intensive study of the history of the arts probably had their effect here. The subculture gradually vanished from my field of vision. My shared story with Alik lasted seven years, and then we completely stopped working together.

A new stage had begun.

Part 2

I had known Sasha Kislov almost since childhood. Our paths crossed back in the early 2000s. Sometimes we hung out together, discussing this or that. Sasha would tell me how things were going in break dancing. In contrast to me he was seriously involved with dancing all that time. I first invited him to take part in a shoot, when I was working on the Drama Machine project (2013-15). After that experience, we decided to shoot a series about dance. It must be said, we were lucky with the location. The former pasta factory had a hall with a seriously leaky roof. The woman who kept an eye on that part of the building had fitted the room out for the battle with the rain - it looked fantastic and reminded me of my own sets.

Shooting just dancing by itself wasn’t interesting, But I decided to see what the limits of what Sasha was capable of were and go on from there. For the start the choice fell on black-and-white photography and an external flash. That was the first artistic series that I shot on a digital black-and-white camera and, of course, digital technology opens up entirely different possibilities.

The next step was that we invited Anya, Sasha’s girlfriend, to the shoots. With her some sort of love story came into the dancing. In general, the theme of a man and a woman dancing is one of the most interesting for me. It was especially engaging to try to reveal it through the prism of the subculture, having decided to return to its aesthetic after looking at Sasha’s style.

Then I remembered about the iron structures that I had made for shooting the previous project. We kept them in Chaltyr, outdoors, so we had no trouble working out in the country all summer. We were in no rush. We took long breaks, studied the character of the pictures and had lively discussions about just how things were turning out. Once again, I became convinced that the initial concept and what emerges as a result are completely different things. In 2016, I got the opportunity to shoot a video on the stage of the theatre 18+. The plot of the piece still turned around the theme of love. But the main question I explored was what is break dancing nowadays and can it become anything more? Generally speaking, my work with Sasha is probably an attempt to answer that. The fine boundary that we at one moment erase altogether, and at another try to restore.

The next important stage was Cabaret Kultura at the V-A-C live festival in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. For a number of reasons that was an entirely new experience. First of all, I was working with a foreign dancer for the first time - besides Sasha, a French girl, Sarah Augeras, also acted as a model. Secondly, there for the first time in my entire career I installed my sets within the gallery and after shooting them I left them there for the viewers. Before that I was in favour of a closed shooting process and showed the already finished results. We also took some of the photographs at the Barbican, a thoroughly enchanting place with unique architecture. Thirdly, for me it was the first job where I combined photography, music and dance in real time. The performance itself lasted 17 minutes. At first Sasha danced in absolute silence, and then a slide-show of my works began with a live musical accompaniment from the composer Alexander Selivanov and the classical musicians Kasia Ziminska and Yoanna Prodanova.

I really liked what emerged as a result, although I had probably violated all the principles that I had previously cherished. But on the other hand, you have to develop somehow.

The next episode flowed smoothly out of that experience in London. At the festival I met Peter Taub, former director of performance programs from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He was just in the process of selecting projects for the Space Force Construction exhibition organized by the V-A-C Foundation in Venice in 2017. Peter really liked the video piece Dance and he invited me to take part in the exhibition.

In the process of preparing for it a new idea appeared - I wanted to juxtapose completely different dancing styles. Already in Venice we found Marjolaine Uscotti, who works in contemporary dance professionally. It was very simple to work with her because she grasped everything on the fly. For my part I was acting as a choreographer for the first time and tried to achieve maximum contrast between Sasha’s style and Marjolaine’s.

Over ten days, twice a day the pair danced outdoors on a street stage with a metal construction that I made specially. It was very interesting for me to observe how Sasha and Marjolaine developed in the course of this. The script laid down just the number of entrances and the rough pattern of movement around the stage - regarding everything else they had complete freedom to improvise. In other words, no two performances were identical. For my part I filmed everything, then selected the best moments and turned them into an artistic video in its own right. I think that in this we came the closest to the culture of performance art.

I also discovered how wonderfully Sasha’s subculture past can work and how interestingly it contrasts with Marjolaine. Perhaps it was not the result that I expected, but I reckon we made great advances in the search for an answer to the question of how new styles come about and what potential for development the subculture might have.

After Sasha and I returned to Rostov, we continued our research. As a location we again used the rooms in the pasta factory with which this story began. This time I wanted to make the space more expressive - I added scenery and set up theatrical lighting.

That is how our latest video in the Dance (2016) cycle came about and I consider it the right finale for the project.

In the three years that we worked together, Sasha’s level grew and became more individual, less subcultural. He lost the delivery and speed typical for break dancing. A totally different mood appeared. Many of the old elements changed significantly. New interesting forms began to grow out of the subculture. In essence, I also formed in the same way as an artist. But could it have been otherwise? Everything new arises out of the constant reassessment of existing experience.

With the exhibition Dance I want to draw a sort of balance of the whole story. But it should not be considered a full stop - more of a pause to take stock. It’s not for me to say, whether the project has been a success, but for me it was certainly a long journey that took practically 20 years. Beginning with those naïve shots with the roller-skates and childish impressions, it has brought me here and made me what I am.

Now, though, looking back and thinking about everything, I understand that the topic is not yet closed. This is only a first attempt to tell about an aesthetic that was born outside the walls of art schools, about the time in which my generation was formed. And, of course, to answer the question that bothered me and everyone that was at one time caught up in the subculture - would it have been possible to find something new in this?