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The chief curator of the Golubitskoye Art Foundation Alisa Bagdonaite in conversation with the resident Foundation Alisa Yoffe
Alisa Yoffe in conversation with Alisa Bagdonaite
Alisa Bagdonaite: Hi Alisa! Thank you for agreeing to become the first participant of the Golubitskoe Art Foundation artist-in-residence programme. It must be quite a challenge to be the very first resident, especially when a project is in the bud, and things are still shaping up. Thank you for your confidence in this initiative and for the trust you put in us. Please, tell us why you decided to participate, what you imagined it would be like and how it all unfolded.

Alisa Yoffe: Thank you for your trust. Being a resident is a great honour. And, when you reached out, my first thought was that this place had great political and social significance. Here's the [Black] sea, here's the Kerch Strait, here's Crimea and here's the Taman Peninsula, where we are now. There are archaeological sites and museums here, not to mention all the seaside recreation facilities. I painted the latter as well, by the way. As you can see, I was really interested in discovering the local way of life. I wanted to know how this place has been living since Crimea became part of Russia

Bagdonaite: It meant a lot to me how the entire process changed the moment you arrived here. To me, your presentation for the Golubitskoe Estate winery employees was a bit of a demarcation line. Because it was their first introduction to both what we do at the Foundation and the first resident.

In fact, it was the first time that an artist was a rightful resident of this place, and I witnessed it click, I saw the images you came up with in response to this place. At the same time, right up until your arrival we'd been discussing a more static structure in our phone conversations. Tell me about this shift from the original concept to this new topography. How did you come up with Taman Diary? What contributed to your decision?

Yoffe: Yeah, my initial idea was to do a project with what I'd already created, with my preliminary sketches. I paint on my iPhone, I move around a lot and often show the archives painted somewhere else in new places. At the meeting with the museum staff, when showing the first sketch I made at the excavation site, I noticed that the head of the lab recognised this place and it was as if I felt things click into place. I felt a connection and realised that I needed to take responsibility and paint this place in a way that would tempt a local to rediscover it. That meant working side by side with these people and getting immersed in the local context, not offering something I brought over from somewhere else.

Speaking of the format, these are all paintings on canvases, mounted on stretchers. Again, I first landed here with the idea of making an installation, but the local texture is just too vivid. Recreational facilities, pool floats, swim rings, a plethora of souvenirs: fridge magnets, key rings, towels – everything is very lush. And so I decided to fall back on minimalism, which there definitely was a lack of – paintings. There are hardly any paintings in this place. That is, should you feel like popping into a museum in Taman, Temryuk, Anapa or Kerch, you'd sooner come across a historical and archaeological one, not an art gallery.

Bagdonaite: Tell me how you built your relationship with the locals. The first place you visited was an archaeological excavation site and, in fact, you never stopped exploring those. What were your 'stomping grounds'? Who did you meet there? What do you remember the most? What did you include in the show and in the catalogue and what, on the contrary, remained in the background, so to speak, and why?

Yoffe: I have a bunch of sketches and studies. For example, Grape Diary, which I'm planning to put on display later. I went to the archaeological site in Phanagoria and met a local resident, Evgeny Zhulay, who then introduced me to a researcher at the museum in Taman. This led to visiting other excavation sites and meeting lovely guides and people, from cashiers to labourers. They have a great sense of humour, they listen to music and are happy to stop for a chat and pose. I just hung out there for hours on end drawing people digging and working, while the guides filled me in on the details about this place.

What places have I visited? I've been in Phanagoria, it is located a little further down the road from Golubitskoe Estate towards Kerch. Also Taman, Taman's archaeological sites, the Hermonassa-Tmutarakan settlement. We've been in Kerch. If you go in the opposite direction, towards Krasnodar, you'll happen upon an open-air military museum, as well as Temryuk Museum of History and Archaeology, which, by the way, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Bagdonaite: At the Zarya CCA residency the artist had to interact with the new urban fabric that is generally quite easy to grasp and that was already recognisable as the territory was colonised back at the end of the 19th century. We encountered the architecture that we'd been well familiar with, Soviet architecture. As in, look, this part of the street looks like a section of Moscow's Arbat Street, it's like coming home, basically, we could reach out and touch it.

How do you feel about a place with many layers, where you have to sketch symbols relating simultaneously to today, yesterday, the day before yesterday, as well as to the time of Christ –– and all of it within a single phone screen? Is there any responsibility for the artist in this 'time travel'?

Yoffe: It is all about responsibility, always. I wanted to share and showcase my vision, my diary. I called the story of my journey Taman Diary and put it together as a series of canvases: 10 vertical paintings on one wall, and 2 horizontal ones on another. And these ten look like Facebook stories. Do you remember those vertical images?

Bagdonaite: Facebook stories.

Yoffe: Yeah, stories. You can swipe through them and see that one of your friends is currently hanging at one place, and another has just posted a pic from somewhere else. And so I imagined myself in different locations. As if I travelled and posted ten stories unfolding simultaneously. In addition to the archaeological sites in Phanagoria at 7 metres deep, there is an excavation from the Hermonassa-Tmutarakan settlement at 13 metres deep. Although archaeologists claim that the mainland there will be at 16 metres deep, a few more metres remain.

The Museum of History and Archaeology in Temryuk. The meeting with the researcher and deputy director of the Phanagoria Scientific Centre, who gave us a terrific tour of the facilities. All of that is happening simultaneously. And in the park named after Mikhail Lermontov, a woman is braiding the hair of a girl who is staring at her phone. Different stories are unfolding at the same time.

And the two large horizontal canvases are made up of square fragments forming a grid as if we were looking at an Instagram feed. One of the paintings portrays people posing next to military equipment and tanks at the open-air military equipment museum. Kids and their parents often climb those tanks or cars from the WW2 era and pose for photos. In the second painting, in contrast to these tanks, one can spot people swimming in the sea and sunbathing on the beach literally from a few steps up the dune. I really wanted to show people relaxing and people climbing military equipment, referring to the fact that there is a state of relaxation and there is a state of colossal tension. Different states of culture and pastime.

Bagdonaite: State of peace and state of war.

Yoffe: Kind of.

Bagdonaite: This must be seen in person, naturally. I will repeat my question though. The show's composition aside, what subjects would you keep for later? Why did some things come to the fore, while others remained in store and what will happen to them?

Yoffe: I have a huge archive of museum exhibit sketches. The newspaper that we published for the opening featured an exhibit from the Temryuk Museum of History and Archaeology. It is a tombstone, with a woman carved in the slab. It was in the newspaper but didn't make it to the show, because it did not fit the format. It was not vertical. I may use these artefacts later, but they are archived for the time being. I also have sketches from the vineyards and the winery. I observed lab assistants at work, wine being made, grapes taken care of. But this is a separate story, a different one. Meaning, this is not Taman Diary but Grape Diary, which will have a life of its own. Together with the chief winemaker for still wines I want to make an exclusive, limited edition bottle with a signature label and cork.

Bagdonaite: How do you feel about this? Do you find it exciting to branch out into the new territories, new media?

Yoffe: I am excited about collaborating. And when I see a person who is passionate about grapes and making wine, who tastes it, drives to the field and speaks about the taste using incredibly poetic descriptions... The way he processes his grape juice also changes the taste. It's all very beautiful and it's creative. It's like painting only with other means, and of course, I'm interested in doing something together.

Bagdonaite: I forget what smell was in question, but I remember Evgenia Romanova mentioning her sense of smell.

Yoffe: The smell of fallen leaves? Vineyards have a special smell because leaves fall, they are laid out on the ground so that gradually they compost and turn into fertilizer. And they produce this musky-sweet scent of decomposition. But in contrast to this, for example, grape juice that was freshly squeezed from green grapes and kept in a cistern for two days smells and tastes like green tea with notes of citrus fruits. This is very unexpected. The grape juice that tastes like green tea.

Bagdonaite: Tell us about your travels. You've been in other residencies and travelled around the globe on your own. You've made a lot of work while finding yourself in a new context, in a new situation of some kind. How did your residency at the Foundation fit in among these journeys? What are your tips for someone who comes here for the first time? How is this place different from, say, the Nizhny Novgorod residency and your projects in Western Europe? What should one expect, look out for? Some pitfalls, perhaps?

Yoffe: This place is incredible – not only is it beautiful on its own but also it has a view of the sea. You can watch people work. You can pop into a museum, look at the items discovered at a local archaeological site and then go and see people work on this exact excavation and how they pick up objects, shards and fragments, how they clear them. And all of it against the backdrop of this incredible landscape. The excavation sites are where I would send a new resident first because they really introduce one to archaeology in a very hands-on way.

Naturally, holidaymakers are also an exciting crowd, very colourful and intense. And the fruit! And the hues! The vineyards are, of course, a special place – there are many of them and they are not the same. There are different grape varieties, some have very large berries. They are called berries, aren't they? And there are more thick-skinned grapes, which, when they begin to ripen, sometimes explode from the pressure within. So this is a very diverse place.

Great views open up from the workshop at the resident's house. An artist can sit in their studio and watch the bend of the bank. This is an unusual angle that allows you to see the wave from the side. You are not in front of the sea when the wave rolls over, but you look a little from the side and see the waves roll to and from the shore. This could result in very special landscapes if that's what the artist does. The wave in profile.

Bagdonaite: One last thing. Why did you need this experience? What did it give you? What are you taking away from it? Has it changed anything for good?

Yoffe: I think that it has allowed me to meet and communicate with different people who work with different materials and do different jobs. The greatest value of collaboration and exchange of experience is that it allows you to understand how other people live. And this is the most precious thing that I'm taking away from this trip.