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Interview: Yelena Popova

22 November 13 interview: Wayne Burrows
photos: Debbie Davies

After growing up in a Soviet Cold War town that wasn’t featured on any maps, Yelena Popova now puts Nottingham firmly onto the international art map, having recently shown work in Berlin, Los Angeles, New York and at the Saatchi Gallery. We caught up with the woman described as “one of the most exciting painters currently working in Britain” in her studio at Primary in the heart of NG7…

You grew up in the Urals in the former Soviet Union. What was it that brought you to Nottingham?
The reason is simple. I met my British husband when he was working in Moscow and I moved to England to be with him. We lived in Hampshire at first but after a few years Stuart got a job at NTU and that brought us to Nottingham.

Your hometown in the Urals has a very interesting history, which you talk about in your video work, The Unnamed.
The place where I grew up was a closed town, part of a secret network of places built around the Soviet Union during the Cold War to maintain nuclear energy and defence. It took me a long time to come to terms with how strange this fact of my biography was because I had grown up there and it all seemed normal. But my husband was fascinated by it and he helped me to see it another way and think it might be an interesting subject. Also, when I was based at the Oldknows Studios, there was a project a group of us did about real and imagined memories of the Cold War. That brought to the surface a lot of personal stories and experiences that have been important for my work ever since.

The video is called The Unnamed, did the town have a name?
It had a number and a postcode, but officially it didn’t exist. It wasn’t on any ordinary maps. Even today it is still a closed town, but the secrecy is obviously not so important anymore. It was part of a network of towns that were built for workers in defence and energy, so one town would be a laboratory town, where research and development was done, another would be dedicated to manufacturing nuclear components. The idea was to create a chain of towns where the different parts of the process were carried out in different places, so it would be harder to locate and attack the infrastructure that was servicing the Soviet defence shield.

Before 2010 you were making performance work alongside painting, a lot of it referencing the Cold War, like the Martian Gardener or Ninja Mickey Mouse projects. Now you seem to have moved over entirely to painting.
Performance was interesting for me because it allowed discussion and immediate contact with an audience, I now think about how I can bring that into my paintings. I did my MA in painting at the Royal College of Art, and that showed me how painting could be much more fluid than I’d thought before. I realised that it was possible to do all the things that had interested me about performance in my paintings.

Is this why your paintings are often arranged in a carefully staged way when you show them?
I always want to put the viewer in a position where they are involved in seeing and reading the work, not just looking at it and moving along to the next thing. We’re used to a very high speed of looking these days, so the paintings I’ve made recently are interested in complicating that and making you look at them from lots of different angles and positions. They change, so parts of the image can fade or surface when you move. You have to be there with the work, slow down and look more carefully than usual.

Your paintings often refer to things like abstract painting from the early days of the Soviet Union, but also to traditions of English portraiture.
Those are all influences and I try to create a space out of ideas that gives the paintings an identity and purpose, so those relationships between different kinds of painting traditions are things I think about when I’m working. It builds connections between one painting and another and helps me to make a coherent body of work.

In The Unnamed and Particulate Matter, you made links between Cold War Russia, industrial development in China and mining towns in the East Midlands.
When I’m making video there has to be an interesting story, something to help concentrate all the different ideas I want to bring in. With Particulate Matter, I went to Beijing to do a residency and decided not to worry about making work there, but to explore and film instead. I wasn’t going to spend the month in a studio painting, as that would have been a wasted opportunity, so I went out and about in the streets making notes on the new developments that were everywhere.

You found some work by a local amateur painter named Bill (Grandad) Hill?
We went to the Cattle Market and bought a couple of paintings of pit-heads. Then we turned a corner and saw another fifteen paintings, all by the same person, and they had labels with writing on the back, so we bought all of those paintings too. The writing turned out to be the painter’s comments and memories about the things in the paintings, and we were able to find an old address on one of the labels. Through that we found the painter’s son and discovered the artist was still alive. It became a real quest to find him and talk to him, and it happened that he had been a miner and had a problem with his breathing because of dust from mining, so it all began to fit together. It was such a beautiful chain of events that led to Particulate Matter. We had an exhibition of his paintings at Trade Gallery too, and he came to the opening, which was wonderful.

Perhaps it needed an outsider to see the potential in the story of The Unnamed – and another to see the possibilities in those paintings by Grandad Hill?
I think there’s some truth in that. Once you point out the story, it is interesting for people, but the hard part is finding and recognising those stories that are worth telling. They don’t come along every day, and you can’t force them to become a piece of work. It all has to come together very naturally.

In the Saatchi exhibition, you were shown among Russian artists…
The Saatchi exhibition was interesting because it didn’t focus on artists who are the most successful or best-known artists in Russia, but brought together artists with connections to Russia who were living elsewhere, or were in Russia but not part of the Moscow gallery scene. I met many artists I didn’t know about through that show. But nationality isn’t an issue for me. I’ve been in the UK for ten years and I’m probably nearly as much British as Russian now.

You’ve been part of the scene in Nottingham through several stages in its recent evolution.
Nottingham has been a major influence. In Hampshire I had a small space in the garden, but when we arrived here Oldknows was still active as artists’ studios, and it wasn’t just about finding a space to work, it was getting to know people. I met Geoff Litherland and Simon Raven there and we developed group shows and performances together. Oldknows was freezing in winter but I worked there full-time for a whole year then used the Hand & Heart gallery, a space above a pub, for my first solo exhibition in 2008. Before, I had tended to marinate in my own juice and wasn’t very productive because I didn’t have that network of people I could share ideas with. Now I have my studio at Primary so I’m lucky that there’s still a community of artists around me – and my studio is now warm in winter, so things are even better.

Your situation has changed drastically in 2013, having become a mother, and you’ve been ridiculously busy lately. What are your plans for the next few years?
Well, my son, Max, comes with me to the studio, so for now I’ve been able to carry on working while looking after him. But the last two years have been so pressurised, in the amount of new exhibitions I’ve been making, that I do need to step down from that. It’s exciting, but it isn’t sustainable in the longer term to keep working non-stop at that level of intensity. I always try to work on a project, a group of works, rather than one painting at a time, and you can only find an idea that will create a strong body of work like that once or maybe twice each year. As long as I have those ideas, I will continue to make new paintings.

Yelena Popova’s paintings are on display at Antenna, Beck Street, every weekday in association with Syson Gallery. The exhibition continues until Friday 13 December.

Yelena Popova website

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