Every new image allowed me to become more deeply immersed in my own feelings and yet it was as if I could also see myself from outside.
Roman Martynenko is an icon painter; Roman Mart is a photographer. One man, two names, and two very different forms of visual practice. As an icon painter he works within a long, stable tradition dating back to the Byzantine era whose styles and subjects are highly codified. Religious painting was a way to communicate spiritual ideals to those who could not read the bible texts for themselves. In the Roman Catholic tradition imagery became increasingly imaginative evolving with the wider art historical flow. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the form and subject of religious painting moved with greater circumspection, establishing a symbolic canon in which each icon forms part of a visual gospel.
In contrast, Roman Mart’s photographs explore the ambiguity of personal psychology, of things that remain far from certain. Whereas the icons draw on an external tradition, his photographs are mined from the deeper recesses of his unconscious, brought into the light as a series of metaphorical and emblematic visualisations. In their use of mise-en-scene, physicality and gesture they have something of the qualities of theatre, but also, more fundamentally of ritual. Not the ritual of rote, but the bringing into being through action. Making, inhabiting and expressing are essential to his process of creation, as much a part of the art as the finished image.
Yet this is not simply about two opposing visual practices, there are resonances too. The tropes of struggle, of communion, and of rebirth familiar in Christian theology echo through his photographs. However, the approach is that of working from first principles to discover for oneself rather than simply accepting ‘verities’ that are not merely codified but habituated. In his photographs he is working to tease apart notions of morality from those of dogma, of identity from those of normality. One man’s quest for a more nuanced way of being.
You are both a painter of Orthodox religious icons and a photographer. How did you begin as an artist?
I had wanted to be an artist since I was a child. When I was seventeen, I went to study icon painting at university. Later I became a pupil of the Russian icon painter Vyacheslav Tolmachev, who taught me church mural painting. It seemed my career was now predestined, and I became an icon painter. Icon painting is a deeply traditional practice with a strong canon in the Byzantine style – you must follow many rules.
But I also wanted the freedom of creative expression. Contemporary art is the reverse of such traditional forms: breaking the rules, crossing borders to express the feelings of the individual. It was through photography that I was able to enter this new world where I could express my own feelings and ideas rather than paint in a rigidly defined visual language. Of course, icon painting influences the way I think and feel, and therefore my photographs. But it is hard for me to recognise. It is a deep process that is not obvious to my mind.
Although I often find that I begin to compose an image ‘through the lens of icon painting’, it is not a conscious thing. Generally, when I work on photo-art projects, I try to abstract my traditional art style. In fact, for me it is not so important to pursue any particular style of image-making. The content itself and immersing myself in an idea, a feeling, a theme… that is what is important to me. When I make a photographic series, I look for whatever artistic approach allows me to ‘say’ what I have to say visually.
© Roman Mart untitled 2021 from the series ‘Hush’
Your photographic work is also divided into two distinct approaches: dioramas with ecological themes and performative psycho-dramas. Let’s start with the collage. How did this begin?
For me, making these dioramas is like meditation, an opportunity to immerse myself in the unconscious. It is one of my favourited ways of making art, one I keep coming back to.
The most recent series was made in the USA last spring. I was painting a chapel in a Greek monastery in Dunlap, California. The monastery is surrounded by a forest in which there are many wild animals. Next to the house where I was staying there was a disused barn, and it was here that all these dioramas were made. There were squirrels living there and the barn was full of acorns. The first time I went in I was surprised to find old wildlife magazines scattered around the place. It was as though the animals illustrated on the magazine pages had been abandoned. I wanted to bring them to life – to explore the stories that each creature suggested to me.
© Roman Mart untitled 2021 from the series ‘Hush’
How were these dioramas created?
The entire series was made in a small cupboard in the barn. Yet it was a way to escape the ordinary and enter a world of fantasy. Some animals seemed full of power, while others were downtrodden. Dinosaurs appeared both formidable and doomed… Being so close to the wild nature of the forest, I began to sense how defenceless and vulnerable the world has become. It was as if, subconsciously, I came to see how cold and cruel human beings can be as they take whatever they want from the earth. I wanted to say: “Just stop for a while. Let’s have some peace and quiet, please!”
I called this series ‘Hush’.
[Left] © Roman Mart ‘The Beginning’ 2017 from the series ‘Vonmi’ [harken]
[Right] © Roman Mart ‘The Reproach’ 2017 from the series ‘Vonmi’ [harken]
The next series I would like to talk about is called ‘Vonmi’. What does the title mean and who is the person in the photographs?
‘Vonmi’ is a Slavonic religious term meaning ‘harken’. The woman in the photographs is called Lucy. Lucy’s life is very difficult, physically and mentally. Many people find her strange. I have known Lucy for a long time and for a while I lived in her house. I see something of myself in her and for me talking with her is like a gateway to another dimension. She is always searching for happiness, for love, for God…
[Left] © Roman Mart ‘The Prayer’ 2017 from the series ‘Vonmi’ [harken]
[Centre] © Roman Mart ‘The Silence’ 2017 from the series ‘Vonmi’ [harken]
[Right] © Roman Mart ‘The Epilogue. Leaving the Body’ 2017 from the series ‘Vonmi’ [harken]
How did you go about capturing those feelings visually?
I wanted to focus on Lucy’s everyday activities. Watching her at work, listening to her stories, I tried to understand and capture her complex, contradictory inner world. The images are metaphors. She kneads the dough. This is how she shapes her life, just as we each shape our own lives and God shapes our humanity. In another image she clasps her hands as if in prayer. It is an absurd gesture and yet for me it is central to this series for I see my own feelings reflected in it. Later we see Lucy with a fish – a symbol of the divine. She holds a cleaver; she has come into conflict with the deity. The text, which echoes the lettering on an icon, is created from apple peelings – prosaic and perhaps even a little absurd. There are many other scenes, but in the end she finds herself in another dimension, looking down on us earthlings, her legs dangling, a little grin on her lips. Lucy is watching a world to which she can never return.
© Roman Mart untitled 2013 from the series ‘The Doll Project’
This exploration of the interior life is addressed more personally in the series ‘The Doll’. How did this begin?
This is one of my earliest photo series. My friend and I found a discarded mannequin on a dump. It has a dramatic look to it, attractive, almost alive! We took her with us on trips and to parties. We even gave her a name: Mashenka. Around that time I met a girl called Masha. She wore a lot of makeup all the time and in some ways she resembled a mannequin herself. She had a strange beauty that both attracted and repelled me. It made me think about the way society imposes gender roles, templates for how a woman and a man should look. I decided to shoot a photo series where Masha and the mannequin were photographed together, close up so that the boundary between each was blurred.
© Roman Mart untitled 2013 from the series ‘The Doll Project’
What questions did it raise and what did you learn through the process of making the work?
I began to think about human vulnerability, the social roles we perform, and the ‘gender masks’ we wear. Masha tried to hide her real face under a mask of heavy makeup, and I realised I too was hiding under masks. I became aware of just how heavily I was pressured by the external environment. I didn’t want to live up to someone else’s expectations anymore. Meeting Masha somehow freed me to express my emotions and be vulnerable.
Later, an androgynous male figure appears in the images. He brings another kind of ambiguity. This is not story about sexual preference, it’s about diversity and human individuality… and how, often, we seem to fall short of what we are told is ‘the norm’.
At the time I was struggling with different aspects of my personality – conformist, impulsive, idealistic, rebellious – which ultimately led me to question who I am. Through making photographs, I have been able to study myself more deeply. For me, the classical ideas of art faded into the background. I discovered a new dimension of creativity, one through which I could visualise my ideas.
Finally, I would like to talk about ‘A Stranger’, which is actually the first of your photographic series that I saw, when I was in Krasnodar. Who is the stranger?
The stranger is me. This project came at the peak of a personal crisis and helped me to face up to my fears, live through them and move on. It began immediately after my divorce. Suddenly, I was left alone with myself, with my depression, with my stress, with my vulnerability. I experienced a kind of split personality where I was both in the past and in the present, like two strangers… and they were in conflict with each other. The camera lens became an independent observer, with each frame of the project becoming a kind of a psychological signifier.
[Left] © Roman Mart ‘Defence’ 2013 from the series ‘A Stranger’
[Right] © Roman Mart ‘Sinfulness’ 2013 from the series ‘A Stranger’
In the images I appear to struggle with myself, or struggle helplessly against some outside pressure. In one image I plummet downwards as though to some kind of hell. I have lived within an Orthodox religious environment for twenty years and my feelings at this time – of fear and the absurdity of life – manifest in me as a kind of ‘sinfulness’. It was a kind of sickness in my heart and in my head. But now I am changing and making my mind clearer.
[Left] © Roman Mart ‘Isolation’ 2013 from the series ‘A Stranger’
[Upper Right] © Roman Mart ‘Dance’ 2013 from the series ‘A Stranger’
[Lower Right] © Roman Mart ‘Flower’ 2013 from the series ‘A Stranger’
The series moves on through a kind of shamanic dance, releasing pent-up tension. This leads to an arrangement of limbs like gears in a machine, interlocking and moving in a tense chain of life. The figure strains and stretches and finally opens out like a flower, while time moves on inexorably. Two figures stretch towards each other in hope of reconciliation and finally the figure shrinks to become like an embryo. My rebirth.
There is in your work a sense of a journey, a process. It is particularly strong in ‘A Stranger’ where each image seems to illustrate a clearly defined psychological stage or state of being. How does this process evolve?
These images represent a kind of drama in which I am both director and protagonist. I used to be afraid. I did not trust my inner voice, I tried to keep silent. But I have now learned to accept these inner signals and prompts. Through the process of making photographs I was able to better understand myself and reflect upon my free will. I was alone with myself, and I was looking for something new. It was like a trance. Every new image allowed me to become more deeply immersed in my own feelings and yet it was as if I could also see myself from outside.
Much of your work begins with a kind of binary opposition: the human world and nature; life and death; madness and insight; artificial and real; masculinity and femininity; sin and redemption; past and present; conflict and resolution. What conclusions do you make from such antagonistic considerations?
My works represent a struggle as opposites facing each other; a collision. This kind of provocation can shed light on subjects and issues that I’ve been afraid of for a long time – make them evident so that I can work through them and move on. In some cases the questions are answers in themselves. In addressing these opposites I am not trying to take one side or the other. I want to avoid categorical statements and unequivocal opinion.
What has making these photographs taught you?
I realise that I am less interested in traditional concepts of art, and I am much more concerned with psychological contexts. I am interested in the human conditions of vulnerability and marginality. In a way, I am seeking to understand the question ‘How should I live my life?’ I have always found it hard to talk about how I feel. My photographs are a kind of visual text, written with the lens of the camera. Re-reading my photo archive, I always discover something new about myself. You can never know where a project will end or how its meaning will change with time. I reach into my subconscious; my thoughts are transformed. I am moving on…
I am a human being; I am far from politics. I am deeply saddened by the events that are currently taking place. Any manifestation of violence is unacceptable to me. I rarely believe what is said, and I judge a person by his deeds. I see how peaceful people are dying and it is terrible.
Roman Mart (Roman Martynenko) was born in Nalchik in the North Caucasus region of Russia in 1980. He received a bachelor’s degree in icon painting in 2002 and a post-graduate degree in iconography, both from the Kuban State University of Krasnodar. From 2013 to 2019 he taught fine art and drawing at the same university. Meanwhile, from 2012 to 2016 he studied the art of photography under the renowned photographer–curators Elena Sukhoveeva and Viktor Khmel.
As an icon painter he has undertaken projects across south and central Russia since 2002. In 2021 he received a US O-1 Visa for Individuals with Extraordinary Ability to paint icons and murals in the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Life Giving Spring in California. As a photographer he has exhibited in festivals and galleries in the Krasnodar region and online, including a feature in the Amsterdam-based international photography site LensCulture. Roman Mart currently lives and works in the USA.
photo: Vladimir Kuhar
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.