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Martyrs & Matryoshkas
Red MongolPhotography Karina Akopyan

When art blurs the lines between religion and fetishism

Martyrs & Matryoshkas is the meeting point between Russian Orthodoxy and London’s fetish scene, Karina Akopyan tells us more about her latest show

Russian-born, London-based artist Karina Akopyan’s work is a unique blending of the past with the present. In her latest exhibition, Martyrs & Matryoshkas, she draws upon the symbolism, folk tale and ritualistic elements of her Russian Orthodoxy heritage and mixes in the dark voyeurism of London's fetish scene. It’s a form of escapism grounded in realism.

Her art is a combination of paintings, photography, sculpture, installations, video footage and costume pieces featuring vivid colours and brazen figures. Whether it's dripping blood, gimps, PVC or role play, this is provocative art intended to spark a reaction. Stripped to its core, it speaks to much deeper issues within the human conscience. Karina’s art deals with the intersections that lie between feminism, religion and sexuality, boldly questioning ideas of memory and the fixedness of identity while exploring the boundaries of what is considered to be ‘normal’. We talked to her to find out more:

How has a strict Russian Orthodox upbringing impacted your work?

Karina Akopyan: I grew up in an interesting setup. While my own family would definitely say they believed in God, I never felt they really meant it so literally. They didn’t go to church very much compared with a lot of other families I knew and occasionally slipped up and did things that contradicted their faith. I believe that they only would say they were religious to fit in the society they lived in. Being religious is associated with goodness and with family values in Russia, and they wanted to play the part. So in some ways, I was very, very lucky that I was never really forced to take part in this charade.

But what did get to me was how people would use faith and religion to cover up other things or to shame other people, or literally use it when there was no other argument. I am constantly surprised with how many people of my age are very religious. But if pressured from a young age to accept something, the majority does. I guess the feelings I take from that are those of confusion, unfairness and anger – and I try to transfer it into something else. When I was growing up I felt like everybody was given same kind of a pill, but it didn’t quite work on me. Instead, I wanted to analyse and ask questions, and not talk very much but listen and make conclusions.

With all that, orthodoxy and religion in general, I think religious art is just simply beautiful. It is very pleasing visually and I can’t help but be attracted to it – the patterns, the colours, the epic subjects. Scenes of hell and heaven...I also can’t deny they include some interesting, sometimes dark, deep topics. But just like people often use religion as an excuse for bigotry and judgment, I don’t have an issue with using religion for its symbolism decoratively and taking some ideas and analysis from their subjects.

“I think religious art is just simply beautiful” – Karina Akopyan

Your art is preoccupied with opposing themes i.e. purification vs dark sexual fantasy, pain vs ecstasy, how important are binaries to your artwork?

Karina Akopyan: I love extreme opposites of everything. This is really how I approach every topic. It’s not just like that with art actually, but also with every problem I face. When trying to solve a problem I look at it from completely opposite ends and sometimes things are seen more clearly. It’s easy to hate, it’s easy to be opinionated, but once you try this method you quite often discover new things about yourself, quite often not very pleasant. That’s why I don’t claim to have the answers, I just want to try to see everything in a few possible perspectives – and then you can really play with imagery and symbolism.

I think it also comes from my own personality. I constantly swing from being most responsible, planning and thoughtful adult to a self-destructive monster that only looks for trouble. I am not sure how the switch happens. But while my creativity is linked to my monster my responsible adult actually gets things finished. So I think this constant struggle of those two very different people really shows in my work.

To a degree your art presents an opportunity for escapism alongside this, what do your want your audiences to get out of your work?

Karina Akopyan: I would like people to think that it is some form of escapism. It is for me. We all have those moments when we are daydreaming or let our mind wonder, I create my artwork like that. Art by visual association. When you are thinking about something and a random at-first-sight element joins in and turns in into something else. We all have memories (made up and real), aspirations, sex fantasies, animalistic urges, childhood issues linked to our families, need to love and be loved, need for closure, need to learn and understand.

My art at the very core, stripped of all Russian themed visuals and patterns, is about what and how humans feel. I actually think it’s quite fragile and gentle. I am mainly interested in how our identities are created and how our memories and perception of things changes us. How we communicate and analyse ourselves, and why we feel things that we do. And I want people that view my work to ask themselves those questions. But at the same time I don’t claim to have any answers and I want everyone to make their own story or opinion about what each one of my works is about. No two people had a same life and story and same piece just can't talk to anybody in an identical way.

I like questioning ideas of normality. My target is to open discussions and to get some feelings and emotions out of people in the world where emotions have fallen out of fashion and everything is just too clean cut and polished and cold.

“My art at the very core, stripped of all Russian themed visuals and patterns, is about what and how humans feel” – Karina Akopyan

How does the concept of Feminism intersect with your art (if it does at all)?

Karina Akopyan: I am a feminist. I am drawn to portraying women much more than man and you can notice that in my work very clearly. I am a woman and identify as one and I lived my life facing issues that only women sometimes have, especially when I still lived in Russia. There are battles to be won with feminism still here but In Russia, they are much more obvious. It's still very much considered that woman’s role in Russian society is to mainly be a wife and a mother. Covered up as family values, throw religion in the mix and you get the picture. Also, Russia always had a strange relationship with sex and women. While in Soviet times the slogan was “There is no sex in USSR”, now there are images of mentally unstable women –who actually love sex.

Everywhere you look in Russian media women are being exploited like pieces of meat, even while it's still a taboo. From a young age, girls in Russia are told that a goal is to get married and to have a family and ideally to a man who can look after you. Girls are still getting married at a ridiculously young age with the government trying to encourage them to have more children. One of the main reasons I left Russia when I did was because of that. I felt like it was going to be extremely difficult to keep my values and not to get alienated by friends and family. There is still a similar issue all over the world with female sexuality only being acceptable when it's sold. It all makes me extremely angry.

In regards to your video, what are the main messages you are trying to communicate about your art and how is that emphasised by the music sample accompanying it?

Karina Akopyan: This video was an unusual project. It was my first experiment with film so it took a lot of effort and figuring out to do. Also, quite a few people were involved and I am much more used to running a one-woman show. Originally I wanted a short film that shows off all of the characters I created over the last few years. It is a rather simple idea but the characters themselves are quite vibrant and do most of the work really.

I had quite a clear idea which colour I wanted for each character and they all represent different things. Me boxing a 2m Russian Doll with vampire fangs with word “Evil” painted on it. I don’t really think I need to do a lot of explanation in what it can represent. Evil hidden behind face of traditions and national spirit, me literally fighting ways of my own country? I think I’d prefer to let the viewer decide and build their own perspective. Strange white and blue gimp masked lady being a bad cook, making a bloody mess in the kitchen. Is this directly linked to the feminist topics I spoke about earlier? Very likely.

Each one of the characters (they are costumes, but to me they are formed characters that you can turn into once you put the outfit on) had a little message of their own but its not in any way different to my photography or painting. They are all part of the same story and everything I said about my other work previously applies to this film too. But it was rather exciting to see it as moving image! I think this film is a very good summary of all of my previous work and ideas but presented in a slightly different way. I felt it was maybe a bit more silly and light-hearted and we were all just having bit of fun too. I had friends and performers from the fetish scene involved in the projects and it did really feel like a party!

With music I took the same approach but mixing extreme opposites, we decided to mix some soviet movie soundtracks at the beginning and end with some more contemporary dance beats. Those soviet soundtracks do bring a lot of childhood memories! And I have played on a lot of my childhood symbols in this video, but in a twisted way of course.

See Karina Akopyan's show Martyrs & Matryoshkas at the Truman Brewery between the 9th-19th December