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Interview: The Smallest Gallery in Soho's Guest Curator Olga Tarasova talks about 'out/side/in' by artist Svetlana Ochkovskaya

In the stillness of lockdown we cannot help but consider the metaphysics of self and ‘things’. In its quiet vacuum, some find an isolated peace and apply themselves more deftly. Others, better known for their earthliness, find themselves – uncharacteristically – disassociating completely. These are the moments in between moments, in which the suspension of time, uncovers the malleability of meaning.

A former window display, The Smallest Gallery in Soho continues to use the simple but potent reconfiguration of its architecture to disturb the myopia of everyday life.

Traditionally, a window display permits fantasy only to be unilaterally spectated. But with TSGIS’ implantation of artwork (and their deliberate ontology) the phenomenon is no longer boundried. To some magic(k)al effect, the windowed, in/visible membrane between viewer and artwork interiorises the outside inwards, while projecting its inside outwards.

In their ongoing collaboration as curator and artist, Olga Tarasova and Svetlana Ochkovskaya bring their acute awareness of reality-dimensions; ego and subjectivity; and fragility when confronted with spatial, visual and experiential interventions.

Mythic representations of her uniquely detached world view, artist Ochkovskaya creates disorientating costumes and creatures who step outside of the real, while also inhabiting it. These figures appear distinctly uncanny; are neither real or imaginary, and altogether as recognisable as they are unrecognisable. Tarasova’s curation draws deeply on phenomenology, (the philosophy of experience and ‘happening’) recognising that Ochkovskaya’s creatures are neither egoic or even conceptual, and represent a state of experiencing the world pre-materially and without identity (‘corpus’).

Throughout the pandemic, some are fortunate to have considered more deeply the constructed nature of self. But for many, this feeling is likely to be purged and tamed by an assault-by-media. Whether we find comfort or discomfort in the uncanny, Ochkovskaya’s creature boasts a freedom from recognition we seldom experience, when we are subjugated to a sense of egoic, and identity based reality.

Anastasia Niedinger: How did you and The Smallest Gallery in Soho come together to display out/side/in?

Olga Tarasova:
I met Philip Levine and Andreia Costa, the managers and curators of The Smallest Gallery in Soho, in February 2020, at the show ‘For/In Itself’ which I curated for Chalton Gallery (now the UK Mexican Arts Society). We appeared to have mutual interests in perception and use of space; similar views on the role of art; alike eyes for artistic practices. Liking what they had seen me do in the past, they wanted me to come on board as a guest curator.

At the same time, the artist Svetlana Ochkovskaya and I also happen to be “hatched from the same egg”. We have worked together on more than 3 projects so far (she was also part of ‘For/In Itself’), so we became more of an ‘art family’ rather than just colleagues.

The Smallest Gallery in Soho deploys a very personal approach to its projects – the curators take time to build trustworthy and honest relationships with the artists before showcasing their works, so they have their own ‘art family’. Because of this candid approach and generosity to offer me to enter their ‘art family’, I felt secure to ‘merge’ our ‘art families’ for this display.

Naturally, since it’s our first experience of collaborating, a great deal of ‘coming together’ was based on entangling a personal bond.

Anastasia: Can you talk a bit about Svetlana’s work and its correspondence with you and TSGIS’ values?

Ochkovskaya’s practice breaks down the everyday experience of the space and creates a disorientated environment in order to move away from our usual atomised perception of the world, to reach the pre-objective, pre-linguistic domain. This is played out through her installations which are inhabited with an inhuman creature that comes to life in her performances.

Similarly, my research practice is concerned with idiographic experiences of ‘familiar’ objects, spaces, which constitute our day-to-day life. Although they might seem to have an ‘ordinary’, ‘routine’ essences; in fact, they contain some sort of invisible elements that are unavailable for our grasp but nonetheless make our experiences unique. Any change to the ‘familiar’ object or space will consequently affect our perception of the whole environment. These invisible elements are part of a pre-objective, pre-linguistic realm; which is arguably unachievable by my practice since it is theory-based and therefore inevitably entangled with language itself. Whereas Ochkovskaya’s practice abandons the language of theories and advances the [in]visible realm which I am so eager to touch upon, what makes our works greatly complement each other.

The interrelation between the world and the body is another motive that is inherent to our practices and this theme has found correspondence in the ethos of The Smallest Gallery in Soho. The gallery’s displays are in the constant intertwining with the site specificities, such as distant perception of the artworks (due to the natural barrier of the window); the context of the area; diverse people that pass-by or form the neighbourhood community. Ochkovskaya’s series ‘Searching for a Place to Belong’, one of which is displayed in ‘out|side|in’, are also about relating oneself to the world – being perceived, objectified and address objectifications. Ochkovskaya’s creature merges with the environment by ‘exscribing’ through its physical body into phenomenological ‘Corpus’. Whereas, the gallery’s intertwining is the extension of the limits and boundaries of the gallery space into the urban realm; its ‘exscription’ towards the audience (as in making them stop and think/get inspiration) and the neighbourhood (meaning that the gallery changes the area with every new display).

Anastasia: Can you tell us a bit about your prior training (Architecture & Urban Design) and current training (Art Theory & Philosophy), and how they’ve influenced your curatorial work?

Since early childhood, I have been drawn to design, art and art history – complementary to a regular school, I studied in an art school in the evenings and undertook art history courses in the Russian Museum and the Hermitage (St. Petersburg), so my practice merged art & design from the early days.

I chose architecture as a pathway because it comprises creativity on different scales and fields. My BA in St. Petersburg was a patchwork of disciplines and provided a solid base of knowledge and skills not only in Architecture but also in materials, structures, philosophy, history, drawing, etc. Seeking to expand my visions and to explore a more conceptual approach to design, went to Glasgow School of Art for my DipArch (MA).

The expansion towards Art Theory & Philosophy was an outcome of my architectural thesis project titled ‘Guernica Atmospheres’. Aiming to translate Picasso’s painting into a building, I experimented with creating wax models in Chillida’s manner, read Zumthor, Benjamin, Bachelard. This opened a theoretical domain that I wanted to explore more in-depth. Studying side-by-side with artists at GSA has also made a huge impact on career expansion – I had a chance to observe artists’ work processes, discuss works with them, catch a glimpse of different perceptions of the world. This precious ‘first hand’ experience of art (meaning that I can directly talk to artists and learn from them) drew me to work with emerging artists.

My interdisciplinary background has developed a research theme which I am now pursuing in PhD. Using phenomenology as my methodology, I am trying to understand the essence of spatial experiences. While the research question roots quite straightforward in Architecture, its theoretical speculations arise from Art Theory & Philosophy training, when I first encountered Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Following his lead, I imagine spaces and environments as some sort of fleshy organisms, which are in the content reversibility between the body and the world. This reversibility enables a departure from the binaries of the body and the world towards an opening where dwell experiences. This opening is pre-objective, pre-linguistic; it is unavailable for our vision but nonetheless affects us. I am eager to grasp it with my theoretical research, but precisely because of its linguistic nature (meaning that I use words to explain what this opening is about), I cannot fully present the essence of this opening. In contrast, artists have access to this pre-linguistic realm; so, my work as a ‘curator’ is an attempt to reach the [in]visible domain through collaborations with the artists.

Anastasia: Your work takes a keen interest in the interconnection between spatial and artistic practices, and perception in relation to phenomenology. Can you tell us in your own words, what is unique about TSGIS’ phenomenology, and what it’s been like working with this space in comparison to other sites?

Previously, I have worked on the scales of a spacious gallery (curating on-site shows) and an urban environment (curating Public Art interventions). On-site exhibitions used the gallery space as a tool to create narratives of the shows, it was more of a supportive environment to the artworks. In contrast, the off-site projects had a two-sided interrelationship with art, meaning that the urban space does not only support the artworks, but the pieces have to be considered in relation to the urban fabric and community. It was not only about the artwork corresponding to the urban space (and vice versa) in terms of the narratives, but it also had to comply with noise regulations; locals (once I worked on an art programme in a semi-underground parking in a housing estate and I had to take into consideration the needs of the residents to access their cars); building regulations; etc.

Collaborating with The Smallest Gallery in Soho was very unique in this sense, because, in a way, it merged my previous experiences of working with spaces. On the one hand, the gallery space is a supportive environment to the artwork and does help to create a narrative. On the other hand, because of its particularities (art can be perceived only from the outside; the window barrier, etc.), it requires consideration of the urban fabric. The gallery lives in and for the urban context, its phenomenological essence lies within the street and the people who pass it, live nearby, use it. Thus, the displays interrelate in three dimensions – interiority of the gallery space; the exterior of the street and the intertwining of the two.

Anastasia: Our paradigm is anchored to, and fixated by an assaulting ecosystem of signs and symbols, simulacra, and self-perpetuating media. Given their phenomenological potency to exscribe us from meaning, is there an important, or dare I say existential role of surreal works and experiences to alleviate us from a media-based reality?

I tend to separate surrealism and phenomenology because the former intends to activate the unconscious, whereas the latter deals with consciousness.

In phenomenological terms, I see simulacra as a condition for [a]reality – a suspended, fainted, deferred reality; a spacing of deflected location of the body. [A]reality has is a possibility for withdrawal of physical or phenomenological signification, it is a we-world where the body takes place as other. Perhaps this ‘taking place’ is even place itself, which contains the bodily traces. It is some sort of proximity which is a spacing, hiatus between the bodies but at the same time a touch in between them; it is the point where the world meets the local – one becomes another. Here, we are traces exposed together, touched and spaces.

Because Ochkovskaya’s practice precisely deals with consciousness, idiographic experience, I would rather connect it with the [a]real than Surrealism. She ‘suspends’ reality in the sense that she defers our perception of the ‘familiar’ with her interventions. As her creatures come to life, they are the traces of the ‘we-world’, they take place as other – as the world.

Anastasia: More and more, patrons of virtual experiences and artworks have claimed to feel a pre-materiality and purity of experience (or ‘corpus’ as philosopher Nancy terms this). From your perspective, how do virtual environments and by extension digital artworks intersect with the phenomenology of the body and self?

Bearing in mind Kantian utilisation of the notion of ‘purity’, I am quite cautious of this term in general, as it carries within itself a certain level of exclusion and inequality. In contrast, Nancy’s term ‘Corpus’ does not deal with ‘purity’, but rather with the ‘intercorporeal’ – a presumptive realm of the tangible and visible, which extends beyond the things that we see and touch at present. Through this extension, we abolish significations and therefore reach the ‘pureless’ realm.

For me, the digital/virtual as a medium reaffirms that our world is the world of the ‘technical’, a world where the system, nature, cosmos is exposed to the ‘technical’. Every part of this world is connected with the technical apparatus, but what it makes is our bodies. Our bodies are brought to the world and linked to the system, creating ‘amassed’ zones. Through the creation of bodies, the ‘technical’ has the ‘sense’ or ‘trace’ of experience. This experience is never going to be ‘pure’ – similar to Deleuze’s and Guttari’s haptic space; experience, as a spacing, is a ‘container’ of perceptions and experiences of the world, which is unique to every body. Thus, I believe that the experience of the digital/virtual environments will take one to experience their own ‘Corpus’ as the ‘intercorporeal’.

Anastasia: This is the second display at SGIS dealing with the erasure (‘excription’) of race, gender, human signifiers. The act of which presupposes transhumanism and its ideals. Do you think the social climate has anything to do with this?

The Smallest Gallery in Soho exists for the people who live, work, pass-by the neighbourhood. Soho has a very diverse community of a wide range of identifications and naturally, the displays of the gallery respond to the social mix and agenda of the area.
Additionally, Art itself is a very powerful tool to address social climate and make a change and Ochkovskaya’s install in particular delivers a very clear message and hope for the ‘we-world’.

Svetlana Ochkovskaya: 'out|side|in'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
July – September 2021

Svetlana Ochkovskaya | | Instagram | Twitter

'out|side|in' was curated by Smallest Gallery in Soho Guest Curator Olga Tarasova

About the Smallest Gallery in Soho Curators, Philip Levine and Andreia Costa:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.
Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.

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