Ms. Marina Fedorova is a city artist. In Russia this term may sound strange, but in the Western world it is used quite often. It may seem clear and simple: a city artist is someone who depicts the city and its inhabitants, and yet there is more depth to it. Yes, it’s about houses and the people living in them, but it’s also about city optics: shop windows, glass window panes, reflections, refractions, and the occasional flash of sunlight on the rim of a bicycle wheel.
Of course the mixture of the real and virtual life is relevant, too: we see a geek checking in on Foursquare at the next café table, an elegantly dressed lady with her child, but then there is also Humphrey Bogart sitting nearby with a cup of coffee, Clark Gable at the bar with a shot-drink, and was that, by any chance, Jean Dujardin who, in his famous The Artist smooth dancing gait, has just turned the corner onto Liteyny avenue? Are they cinema projections? Look-alikes? Copycats? And also the vixens from Sex and the City or A Brief Guide to a Happy Life? Or are they not vixens? And these city slickers? And the narrative swings: starting out as a city-com, progressing as a horror, and ending as a fantasy? And all that’s left is another geek with his laptop and cold coffee. Besides, it is what everyone is reading right now – not serious stuff, something for a beauty parlour, like Murakami. If you combine all these, plus a bunch of other ingredients, shaken, not stirred… Now that’s what truly intoxicates the city artist.
A fair question to put forward: haven’t there been other depictions of city life before this, all that ‘underbelly of Saint Petersburg’? There has also been ‘the magnificent Saint Petersburg’ (London, Paris, etc.) Well, we can respond that it was the traditional genre art in various forms: if you are into social criticism, here are your drunken craftsmen or a bank bankruptcy; if you like the careless and the fashionable, there are balls and theatres galore, nobles and uniformed youth… Genre art was focused on a specific subject, it required an underlying rationale.
That said, in Yuri Pimenov’s New Moscow the initial intention is already less straightforward: a girl is driving through the happy Stalinist Moscow right into the future, while in a couple of years the Bright Path film will see the Soviet superstar Lyubov Orlova literally soar above the city in her car. The reality and phantasms of Stalinist elites were becoming one… However, that was still a far cry from the pointedly ideology-free mix of realities, projections and retrospectives that a modern urbanism can achieve: life was still lagging behind then. Much later Guy Debord would conceptualise about the society of the spectacle. The staged nature of modern city life is obvious; this accounts for the equality between physical and virtual characters that inhabit it, for cinema being projected onto life and vice versa, and for the special role of optical effects and reflections.
Ms. Marina Fedorova is the perfect city artist. She has a resource of ﬁgurativeness that is rarely found today. I wonder who was this mythical Paris who gave her the apple – the apple of her eye that is so sensitive to city optics. Or, more specifically, modern optics in a physical, not metaphysical, sense: there have simply never been so many reflective surfaces, stationary or mobile, in any city landscape.
Besides, she has a gift for natural positioning. Her message comes from within this free-flowing city life. She lives in a world of optic realities and mirages, and visualises them with equal persuasiveness. She tries on not only fashionable items, but also the behavioural and emotional quotes she snatches from films and novels found on the must-read list of any forward-thinking person. Of course, there are a few initial restrictions: this is not the whole of the city life, but only a slice of it. Those keen on the class approach may call this the new bourgeoisie. I wouldn’t argue with them. One can surely look for other slices. But this one is good enough for me. It represents, inter alia, the atmosphere of the normal advanced modern society, not that of nouveaux riches or siloviki’s children, rather of the Starbucks goers than Côte d'Azurjetsetters. Yes, they are young. Yes, they are European-minded, but traditionalists and fundamentalists have their own motivational artists. It is this kind of youth that sets the tune, I’m sure. If you don’t catch up, you are doomed to gloom.
A certain critic has said that Ms. Fedorova thrives on trash glamour. I think that would be too cerebral and deliberate an approach: the value of her art is that she lives her city life in earnest, in its trash glamour and other dimensions. That’s her life. She a Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne artist of the year, for what it’s worth.
Let’s get back to positioning: the inclusiveness and absorption are of great importance. An outside view calls for social criticism… But smashing shop windows like the anti-globalists do is definitely not Ms. Fedorova’s trade. This glass is too precious in her visual world based on the fluid relations between the material and the illusory. What is the use of execrating the society of consumption, spectacle or whatever, if the city artists have always felt the vulnerability of their world? It’s just that the fears and phobias of these artists come from within, not without this world.
Ms. Fedorova has initially caught attention with a few pieces channelling an endearingly positive vibe. She lavishly used the hedonistic resource of her unique vision, that purity of her eyesight that allows here to capture the colour and dynamics of situations. This accounts for her trademark tracing colour lines. The retina registers movement, the moving object trails a colour line behind it as if blurring the focus. This was a fast-paced and basically inviting, liveable world: of course, there were tensions and threats, but those were, as pointed above, mostly film quotes. They were tried on and even lived through: the cups splashing coffee hung suspended in mid-air, the ominous bikers rushed into the well-ordered picture frame, the spies with hoods pulled down over their eyes were lurking in the corners. However, these disturbing periods in life had a make-believe, transitory quality, like a dream you could wake up from and brush away its fears and longings. The situation has changed in her recent works. Of course, the allusions to the iconic archetypes all still there: the Firestarters, Nikita, etc. But they are no longer quotes. They are so rooted in the Artist’s consciousness (and in the public’s, I presume) that they seem to push the limits of what is acceptable in real life. Thus there is nothing surprising about what is going on: rioting dummies, uncontrollable street signs marking the reality at their whim, colour traces putting on flesh and ready to strangle or fondle, whatever they choose. Trash comes to the foreground and predicts such recycling that we’d be praying to see the end of it. More important still, the cars, the dummies, the rubbish heaps – everything is aflame or ready to catch fire. What is it – an auto-biography? A Firestarter artist? An artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Or maybe it’s not about the artist, but about the city life itself: Could Ms. Fedorova be seeing a subsoil fire blazing up under the asphalt? I wouldn’t know. Ms. Fedorova is capable of expanding the limits of authority of the city artists. She also has an opportunity to step out of this – important, mind you – representational niche towards a new horizon. Edward Hopper and Eric Fischl started out as city artists, didn’t they?
Alexander Borovsky, Ph.D.
Head of the Department of Contemporary Art, State Russian Museum,