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Diana Markosian, “A New Life”, from Santa Barbara (2019)
Diana Markosian, “A New Life”, from Santa Barbara (2019)San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Diana Markosian

Diana Markosian recreates her mother’s dramatic soap opera reality

This autobiographical photo story depicts Markosian’s mother who, inspired by 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, boldly escaped poverty in Russia by marrying a stranger in America

Diana Markosian was seven years-old and living in poverty in post-Soviet Russia when she was woken in the night by her mother, Svetlana, and told they were going on a trip. Without saying goodbye to her father, they left the tiny apartment in Moscow, where the entire family shared one bed and spent their evenings lit by the glamorous US soap opera Santa Barbara on their tiny battery-powered television set. With no knowledge of where they were headed, she boarded a plane with her mum and her brother, and was transported to a new life in the sun-drenched abundance of Santa Barbara – the near-mythical destination in Southern California they’d dreamed of on those dark nights huddled around the TV set. 

It wasn’t until decades later, when she was 27, that Markosian learned the mechanisms by which her mother had managed to bring them to America. She tells Dazed, “Trump had just come into power and he was announcing his immigration policies. I was just talking to my mum about how lucky we were, and she began revealing the fuller story of how we came to be here.”

Having signed up with an agency enabling Russians to connect with Americans for the first time, her mother had begun a correspondence with the man who met them at the airport when they landed – the man who would soon become Markosian’s stepfather. “I think the growth that I’ve had to make in understanding this story is really accepting how bad it was,” she tells Dazed. “I just had to understand, it was that bad that my mum had to do something like this. It was that bad that she decided to take such a chance.”

To unpick the complex, knotty threads of her family’s past, and to understand this story from the point of view of her extraordinary mother, Markosian’s first American solo exhibition, Santa Barbara at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recreates scenes from her childhood in Russia, their journey to America, and their subsequent life in California. Working with Lynda Myles, a scriptwriter from the original soap opera, a casting director, and a group of actors, Markosian re-imagines this dramatic episode in her history from the point of view of the undisputed protagonist – Svetlana. 

“It’s a fairy tale straight out of the soaps,” wrote Myles. “The brave mother and her little boy and girl are hungry and cold. Then a fairy godmother appears, waves her magic wand and transports the young woman and her two babes to the magical city of their longing. This is where the fairy tale ends and real-life picks up.”

Santa Barbara is a captivating story about immigration, excavating conflicting memories, family mythology, matriarchies, sacrifice, grasping the complexities and ambiguities of adulthood, and the redoubtable desire to live your life to the fullest. Markosian reflects, “I never knew that women are this courageous.”

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of images from the exhibition. Below, we talk to Diana Markosian about Santa Barbara, problematic mother and daughter relationships, and trying to touch the elusive past.

Could you tell us a bit more about your mum and what she’s like?

Diana Markosian: Bold, courageous. I’ve never met anyone like her. She raised my brother and I on her own, and on her terms. She allowed me to really believe in myself and encouraged me to want more from my life. There was never an expectation of who I needed to become, but when you see someone sacrifice so much for you, there’s not a lot of room to fail. My brother and I, we were aware of where we had come from. And we were also aware of how monumental this decision was to come to America. When you have that upbringing, it’s hard to take anything for granted moving forward. 

“I think Santa Barbara was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. To say it’s escapism would be an understatement. It was just entering this other world that didn't feel real” – Diana Markosian

That’s such a gift. What are your memories of Russia?

Diana Markosian: I was seven when we came to the US. My family’s Moscow on both spectrums. There were days of just looking at the sky and finding characters within the clouds; feeling this free, pure existence of being on an adventure, almost like Tom Sawyer. And then there’s another side of it where I understood our reality, which was much darker. 

I was born just a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. My family lived in Russia, while my extended family lived in Armenia. We were between both countries. In Moscow, we had a home we couldn’t afford. In Armenia, our families lived with no water, no electricity, just a kerosene lamp in our dining room. I have this memory of us playing cards in the middle of the night in my grandmother’s home. Everyone bundled up in winter coats. In the corner of the room, a tiny red battery-run TV that played the show, Santa Barbara

There were moments of waiting in bread lines and hustling for food. It was this very humble childhood, where nothing was kept from us. I remember finding these black rocks, and looking at them in the sun, and seeing cartoons. And when we came to America, just to give you the context of it, we turned on the TV and I stumbled upon Cartoon Network, which I didn’t know was a 24-hour cartoon channel. And I stayed up the whole night with my brother, watching Tom & Jerry, Flintstones. We never had that sort of luxury of having cartoons, actually played on a TV. I think we were scared that if we fell asleep, it would all come to an end. 

The soap opera Santa Barbara obviously has this huge significance in your story. As a child, what did it represent to you?

Diana Markosian: I think Santa Barbara was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. To say it’s escapism would be an understatement. It was just entering this other world that didn't feel real. There was such a lure, such a fascination with America. It was such a contrast to what our life was. Today, when I’m putting myself in my mum’s position, I think I would have done the same thing, had I known that was the alternative to what my life was, I would have 100 per cent make the same decision. I didn’t feel like this before, but after creating this project, after really understanding what happened to us, I would’ve made the same decision. 

I think there’s always the question of at what cost and how. And I think that’s a very privileged question to be even asking because, you know, I think when you look at the story, you’re like, ‘Wow, wait, she did all of this? And, why? Why didn’t she stay with him?’ I think these are all very privileged questions that are easier to ask when you’re looking at something back in time. 

That was the biggest thing for me – as a creator, a daughter, even a director, all of those roles – I had to really understand that I couldn’t come in from this place that I’m sitting in right now where I can actually look back and observe or understand. There was very little room to absorb and understand for my mum at the time, it was just survival, you know, for lack of a better term.

How involved were you in her plan at the time? When she was making initial contact with eligible potential men to date, was that something that you were involved in as a family?

Diana Markosian: I was in the dark about all of it. So I wasn’t aware of any of it until we arrived in America. Even on the aeroplane, I didn’t know where we were going. My brother knew, but I was definitely not a part of it. There was this fear that we wouldn’t really make it. That something would go wrong. I think my Mum was trying to protect me. 

What were your initial impressions of your new life in America?

Diana Markosian: That year, I remember better than most of my life, honestly, because it was just so monumental. I remember waking up that first night in Santa Barbara, and looking around the house. It was so large compared to our tiny studio apartment in Moscow where we’d had one bed for four people. Here, each room was bigger than the next. And I remember counting the clocks, like, why does he have so many clocks?! It was so clean. Those first impressions that I had when we first arrived, aged seven. And when you come from nothing, every little thing is bigger than the next. A balcony that wraps around the house. White walls. Carpet on the floor. It was another world. 

I think the growth that I’ve had to make in understanding this story is really accepting how bad it was. And, you know, when you think about relationships and when you think about your own decision making, it’s like, you don’t leave a good thing. So I just had to understand, it was that bad that my mum had to do something like this. It was that bad that she decided to take such a chance.

“I think there’s always the question of at what cost and how... I think these are all very privileged questions that are easier to ask when you’re looking at something back in time” – Diana Markosian

How did you begin the process of trying to understand your mum’s story? What was your entry point?

Diana Markosian: Mothers and daughters, there’s always a bit of a ... it’s not the most simple of relationships, unfortunately. And I think my mum and I always had a bit of a distance. I think we’re very similar and that it kind of gets in the way of us having a relationship where we appreciate each other. And I think, for me, it was at a point where I just wanted to understand my mum because I had spent so many years with my father, rediscovering who he was. And I wanted to look at the other side of it. What is going to be my entry point to having a relationship with her? It was this desire to finally change the pattern of where our relationship was. And so I started discovering this other side of my mum’s story. And the reality that I was confronting was very painful, both for me as a daughter and an artist. It was done so my brother and I could have a future.

What were the circumstances that informed your mum’s decision to leave Russia, do you think? 

Diana Markosian: The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Santa Barbara came on in 1992 and, at that point, my family fell to poverty pretty much overnight. Both my parents have PhDs but lost their work, currency was no longer really valid, and I think the political climate was so bad that there was no real light at the end of the tunnel. My parents’ marriage at that point was falling apart so, as my mum described, there was not much to hold on to, there was not much to rely on, there was not much to come home to. We had a home we couldn’t afford in Moscow – a tiny studio we couldn’t pay for. And, ultimately, there was this feeling that it was never going to get better. And I think that desperation is what forced my mum to find another way.

The man that she met through this agency, they got married and they stayed together? Was that a positive relationship?

Diana Markosian: It was a very positive relationship. And I remember him really well. He was dad for me, you know, he became my father. And he did more for me than I think my father could have done.

How did you begin the process of recreating this highly personal story as a work of art? And how did your mother feel about you exploring her life in this way?

Diana Markosian: I think there was a feeling that my family was just ready for this. I think my mum, in a way, felt a little bit hurt that I was building a relationship with my father, documenting our time together, ‘Mornings (With You)’. I think there’s just this pride in my mum that she sacrificed everything and I think she just felt that she deserved that acknowledgement too. I understand that my mum did everything for me and here I am, you know, giving space and room for my dad to have a voice – which would be fine in a more normal family than mine. But I think how our story has evolved was painful for my mum. So to have me focus in on her, really take her side, and really accept her... it was a lot. And it was a lot for me because I was the one that was kind of hurt by all of it, you know, losing a dad, losing our family, our culture, et cetera. So, I think she was happy that I found it in me to do that, if that makes sense.

Could you tell us a bit more about how you made the images?

Diana Markosian: I needed to be able to touch the past as best as I can. I really tried to go back in time. The initial thought was that this needs to be with actors, it was very immediate. We needed to cast the family and create a world where this feels very reminiscent of 1996. And how do we do that? It wasn’t going to be through a documentary form, although that is my background. Whereas every other project that I’ve done involves more or less the foundation of documentary, I think the foundation here was still very much about the truth, but how do we get as close to it as we can, two decades later? That was the challenge. And that challenge felt so exciting because once you kind of find the right concept, it’s all about just exploring it deeply in a way that feels collaborative. 

I feel like you can maybe access a kind of poetic truth of the story, by dramatising it. It may not be a kind of documentary truth, but it’s a kind of emotional truth?

Diana Markosian: I think we got closer to the truth than in any other project I’ve made, even my father’s project. And, as strange as that sounds, I really felt that I had everyone back and we just had a chance to relive something that finished so abruptly. We had a chance to really relive it and together, and that was such a beautiful gift that they gave me because I don’t think any of these actors fully understood what they enabled me to redo. In a way, they really just helped me have my family again.

And when you say it finished so abruptly, do you mean your life as you knew it in Russia? Or life with your stepdad?

Diana Markosian: Both. The way my stepfather left so abruptly felt painful for so long. And the way that my childhood in Russia ended was also abrupt. So it just felt like we had a chance to go back and redo it. And I got to do it on my terms, which was the most special bit of this because I think when you’re the youngest member of the family, things just happen to you. You’re not a decision-maker, you just follow, you’re like carry-on luggage, along for the ride. It really just felt like I had no input, no real voice. And of course, you think about it and it all makes sense. But it’s painful too, you know. You deal with the trauma as an adult.

“I was raised partially in America, where everything feels like it needs to be perfect. And the reality is it’s just a lot more layered and complicated than that” – Diana Markosian

You have no autonomy as a child. You can’t influence the outcome. Is that why you were drawn to re-writing this story with the help of Lynda Myles (one of the original scriptwriters on Santa Barbara)?

Diana Markosian: I worked with the original writer of Santa Barbara to create a script – and then started choosing the costumes, locations, and the sort of scenes we wanted to portray. I wanted to play as much with the soap opera as I could – so the book weaves together elements of the soap opera while creating this reality we had built with the actors.

How did you decide which parts of the story to represent as images? Were there enduring memories that stayed with you and which you wanted to recreate?

Diana Markosian: The text did not necessarily align with the images that we created. The images were just such an exploration of all of it. I wanted, as best as we could, just to feel very free to explore time and what it all meant for us; to use Santa Barbara as this open canvas of memories. I wanted to work as much as I could with my own family to create this project. An example of this was, we went to Palm Springs and stayed at the hotel that my stepfather had taken us to, and I brought certain prompts, like the California map that he would always use. We rented a motor home and certain things felt very specific to that moment. And then I gave them to Gene and just saw him become my stepfather. You know, it really felt like I didn't have to guide them very much. They understood their characters.

Thinking of the show Santa Barbara, and thinking of this photo project as something episodic, what do you see the conclusion of the story as being? What are the grand narratives, and the cliffhangers, and the ongoing threads?

Diana Markosian: Art has given me space to accept situations, it’s given me more empathy. As an artist, stories never really end, which is the most exciting part. I think, as a daughter, I’ve reached a place of peace with myself and this story. I have normalised something that feels so difficult and complicated.

When you’re raised in America, everything feels like it needs to be perfect. And the reality is it’s just a lot more layered and complicated than that. And you have this world of Instagram that presents one version of your life. I am really not interested in that. I want my work to be raw. It was painful to make, and I am very honest about that. 

Your mother feels to me like the heroine of the story. Is that how you perceive it as well?

Diana Markosian: Yeah, definitely. I definitely really wanted to take my mum’s side on this just because I think I could have taken my side. It was going to be either my mum’s version or my version of it because they felt like the two opposite ends of the spectrum – one person not knowing and the other person being the decision-maker. And I think taking my mum’s side felt like the right move because I got to explore her in a way that I never could’ve otherwise, and understand her side of it in a way that I never had.

And do you feel that you did find what you were looking for with her in terms of healing your relationship and, as you said, finding an entry point to having a loving relationship with her?

Diana Markosian: You know, it’s ongoing. But, I think for this story, we definitely found peace. I don’t question it. I think the results will probably come when my parents meet and when there’s more resolve in their relationship. And I think we’re heading there. 

When we initially started writing the script, I took it to my dad and that’s how he learned about what happened. So we had never really talked about this because I just felt really sad to be the one that was presenting this to my dad and always being the person who leads the conversations in the family. I just didn’t have it in me to tell my father that this was what happened to us. He knew that we came to America, he knew that we were in California. He didn’t know what else happened. It felt like we all had a chance together to try to remember what happened. And none of us really agreed about these details, so the script has all these annotations from all sides. It was just very poignant to me that this is it, this is memory – it all feels very layered and fragmented and not aligned. And that’s okay because that doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

So you went from being this member of the family with no voice or autonomy to finding yourself being the one having to deliver this news to your father and feeling responsible for his response to it.

Diana Markosian: The person who literally had no voice in this whole story, I became the person who broke the story. I really wanted to get behind what happened to all of us and unpack it, not run away from it. It’s been important to lead this journey, but also a painful road to pave for the rest of the family.

“This is memory – it all feels very layered and fragmented and not aligned. And that’s okay because that doesn’t mean it’s untrue” – Diana Markosian

Memory is so subjective and emotional, isn’t it? It feels like you, as the creator of this artwork, and your mum, as the protagonist of the real-life events, are both the ones really driving the plot forward. The men in the story are more passive, somehow.

Diana Markosian: I am starting to learn that women are just much bolder. My mother showed me what it meant to have a dream, and then follow it through. That’s been the biggest lesson she’s given me. To be bold. I watched her come to America, and rebuild her life with two children. She didn’t come to America to get married, she was here to make something of herself, and she showed me that. She was never a victim. And that’s also the sort of actress I wanted to find. Someone who could understand the courage and complexities of Svetlana.

Do you think she did get to live the dream that Santa Barbara promised?

Diana Markosian: I don’t know if she got to live the soap opera fantasy, but I do know that she’s living her dream today. At the end of the day, I think that’s what this has been about: learning to love my mum and accepting her exactly as she is.

Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara is showing at SFMOMA from July 3 until December 12 2021