Each of us brings their own unique knowledge and experience, their feeling.
The term ‘experimental art’ can be contentious. Much of that has to do with the elastic way in which it is stretched over a disparate miscellany of meanings with very different intentionalities. For some, the term describes an approach to art that imitates scientific method, testing a theory in practice under the equivalent of laboratory conditions. More recently it has been associated with the work of artists who use scientific apparatus or seek to visualise scientific theory. For others it is synonymous with the avant-garde and its evangelising mission to lead the artworld in a new direction. For others still, it is simply the haphazard of trial and error.
For the artistic partnership of Elena Sukhoveeva and Victor Hmel, experimentation is at the heart of their creative process. But their artmaking does not set out to mimic the laboratory, neither does it seek to proselytise, and it is anything but haphazard. Rather, it arises from a direct and personal engagement with materials, light, and ideas, visualised through a kind of displacement: a slippage in time, a resurfacing, an impression, an imperfect reflection… Each series they make is different from what has gone before. Each brings a fresh way of seeing, of engaging a form, an affect, an insight. Yet, what I find draws me in is not so much the work’s undoubted innovation but its intrinsic authenticity. The sense one has that these images grow directly from the artists’ on-going creative conversation. Agile, open-minded, feeling as much as thinking their way forward towards a fusion of the sensual and the conceptual, the material and the abstract.
It is perhaps that open-mindedness that has led them to establish a school of photographic arts in the city of Krasnodar where they live. A school based not on instilling their own artistic practices in others, but in nurturing the creative individuality of each student to discover through personal experimentation their own authentic self.
What first drew each of you to make photographs?
Elena: I came to photography at a rather late age – I was thirty-six years old. And here I must say that pure photography did not interest me very much. However, I was no longer satisfied with pure painting. I needed to break through into something else and photography became an interdisciplinary means to resolve my artistic ideas.
Victor: I first became acquainted with photography at school – with the fantastic birth of images in a bath of developer. Today, for me, it is a way of speaking out on subjects that are important to me. I like the game of meaning formation in photography.
How did your creative partnership begin?
Elena: We met twenty-seven years ago. We were each successful in our own sphere – Victor in commercial photography, me in book design. But we both dreamed of changing our lives. Of finding a new language in art, experimenting in everything. Together, we took a leap into the unknown – we left our families, discarded our possessions, started from scratch, carried away with a new photography where all the previous laws were absent.
What is your process for joint creation?
Victor: We have different ways of working, sometimes Elena leads a project, at other times I do. For me, a project is conceived through the process of working, for Elena everything comes together at once in her imagination. Because what we do is experimental we discuss our ideas a lot and argue often.
Elena: Each of us brings their own unique knowledge and experience, their feeling. Yes, we argue a lot at first, as we get used to a new project. But then it’s like we take flight together! We are engaged in active experimentation. The technology is less important than how the image turns out and we mix media as required: photography, graphics, installation, performance, video…
How did your series ‘The Children’ begin?
Elena: It was my idea. I am very interested in psychology and philosophy. I think that we experience our most intense psychological traumas in childhood, which often remain unresolved as adults. But how to visualise this? I love counterpoint, the interplay of the unconnected. I decided that we would invite people over forty years of age for whom the inner child still lived and ask them to return to their childhood with the aid of clothes and toys associated with that time.
Who are the people in the images and how did you work with them?
Victor: Well, we started with ourselves – Elena and me. Then we invited our friends and acquaintances – the ones in whom we saw the child still lived inside. Even my mother took part, so our ‘children’ ranged from forty right up to eighty years old.
Elena: When each participant arrived at the studio, the clothing and toys from the Soviet era were all laid out like a little museum. The atmosphere was very special, intimate. The participant selected the items for their photograph, stripped to the waist and we attached the clothes to their body with double-sided tape. Then, with their chosen toy in their hands, we began a conversation about their childhood that lasted for around ninety minutes. The camera was on a tripod and triggered remotely by cable release, so the participants soon forgot about its presence. It was actually like a session with a psychologist, only crazier. In time there was a moment of tension as the participant recalled a painful memory and we pressed the shutter. It was a kind of performance, captured at its denouement.
In ‘Somatype’ you photographed the figurative indentation made by bodies in soft clay. What were you exploring in this work?
Elena: At that time, I was very interested in the philosophies of gender and the idea was ripe to create a ‘female’ language of the unconscious using expressive imprints of the body – somatype roughly translates as ‘body print’. We wanted this language to bring together three things: earth (in the form of clay), the body, and the unconscious – three categories that, in philosophy, are often assigned to women. That said, both women and men were involved in the project.
Language is a human construct, and the meaning of words is often entangled with symbolic concepts, some of which are quite dead. So, our aim was to create meaning in a new living way, not through symbols but through capturing unconscious gestures made in response to a number of general themes: love, self, aggression, sex, freedom…
Why did we shoot this way? We are always interested in the process of the project itself. In it we discover new truths for ourselves. It’s not just a final image – it’s an adventure in which you come to learn something about life. The theme for the first gesture was love, and what was fascinating was that seventy per cent of the participants adopted the foetal position. It turns out that for many people love is associated with the prenatal state, when you are completely protected by your mother – you are in paradise.
Who were the people who participated in this project?
Elena: There were different kinds of people who heard about what we were doing and offered to take part. Many found it an incredible experience and for some it was cathartic. People cried. It was as if something heavy had fallen from their soul.
The project drew the attention of philosophers and psychologists. We had a lot of meetings and conversations about what we were doing – they thought it was a kind of research discovery. The gesture for love was prenatal, yet freedom often looked quite violent and the gestures for sex and aggression were practically indistinguishable… The concept revealed unexpected sides of the personality that the philosophers and psychologists found very interesting.
How did you manage the physical process of making this work? I can imagine that it would be very difficult to get the person in and out of the clay while leaving a clean impression.
Victor: We built a box in the studio, two meters by two meters, forty centimetres deep. We filled it with blue clay, which we ourselves brought from the foothills near the village of Kura-Tsetse, keeping it covered to ensure that it remained moist.
We placed two boards across the top of the box to bear the weight of the participant as they lowered themselves onto the surface of the clay. We invited the participant to adopt whatever position they wished in response to one of the themes: love, self, aggression, sex, freedom… Once they were in position, we applied a little pressure on the body to create an imprint in the clay. The challenge was then to get them out of the box within disturbing the imprint. We put the boards back across the box and very carefully we helped the participant to lift their body from the clay.
Elena: While the person was showering, we were photographing the impression they had left in the box of clay. Victor suspended the camera from the ceiling or looked down from a stepladder while I arranged the lighting below. Experimenting with the lighting we found that we could create the illusion that the figure was convex and not concave, that it had form and volume. Over the course of two years, around one hundred different people participated in this project, together creating a kind of primordial language pressed into the wet clay.
[Left] © Elena Sukhoveeva & Victor Hmel ‘House’ 2007 from the series ‘Golden Autumn’
[Right] © Elena Sukhoveeva & Victor Hmel ‘Gate’ 2007 from the series ‘Golden Autumn’
The next series I would like to discuss takes us into the landscape. How did ‘Golden Autumn’ begin?
Elena: The concept for ‘Golden Autumn’ came to me spontaneously. We were on the train going home from Moscow. Travelling from the metropolis to the outskirts I began to reflect on our life at this moment in our country. After perestroika, Russia was in decline and yet at the same time everyone wanted some kind of holiday, carnival. There were casinos everywhere, shopping malls – but they were simply dilapidated old Soviet buildings resurfaced with shiny Turkish tiles. A glossy veneer covering a dusty reality. I remembered a village – a place where workers in the local oil industry had once lived – now abandoned by all but the wind. An image came to me in an instant. A dead village sheathed in golden foil.
Victor: We went to the mountains in December – a time when the trees were bare, but the snows had not yet arrived – and started fixing foil to the dilapidated buildings… Or trying to… We didn’t succeed and it took a year of researching to solve the problem and complete the project.
Dmitriy Pilikin, in writing about this work, has linked it to what he suggests is a distinctly Russian trait: melancholy.
Elena: Yes, I think it is a very Russian trait, but one that has changed its sensibility. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries melancholy was something poetic, today it is pathological. And that was the idea we wanted to suggest, through the title, in this project.
In the final series I would like to discuss, you return to the body but, as with ‘Somatype’, the body at one remove, remediated. How did ‘Silent Beast’ begin?
Victor: I had become fascinated by the possibilities of visual plasticity and wanted to push the permissiveness of the visual text to its limits. How can the human body be reimagined? Can beauty be found in ugliness? To sense dignity in nakedness. This was not to be an illustration of the body but, following the ideas of painters such as Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, to reach into its inner essence. The images are made using a flexible reflective material – a kind of soft mirror – that suggests a similar reimagining of the body to that achieved by those artists.
[Left, Centre + Right] © Elena Sukhoveeva & Victor Hmel untitled 2009 from the series ‘Silent Beast’
Why is this series called ‘Silent Beast’? Who or what is the beast?
While we were working on the project, a philosopher in St. Petersburg called Valery Savchuk advised that I turn to literature to find a title for what we were doing in this project. I found the answer in a small anthology of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke: “A beast, silent and calm, looks up and then straight through us” [from ‘The Eighth Elegy’, 1922]. Reading this poem, I instantly understood the concept that drives this project. The beast is the soul.
[Left] Elena Sukhoveeva & Victor Hmel with Sergey Lutsenko (student) 2011 ©
[Right] Students at the School of Photographic Arts 2014 ©
Tell me about the school you founded.
Elena: The School of Photographic Arts started about fifteen years ago at a time when there were no specialised photographic art schools in Krasnodar. We created our own program based on our experiences as artists. Victor taught composition; I taught creative project development. We didn’t have any funding support and paid for everything ourselves.
Victor: Despite the complexity of our educational program, students sought us out – mostly people between the ages of twenty and forty.
Elena: Gradually, we began to understand what we were building. Our ethos. We saw that in many schools, students all made similar work. In our school we wanted to preserve and build on their individual identities. It required a lot of one-to-one working. A little later, a festival called PhotoVisa opened in Krasnodar, which provided a platform to launch the international careers of many of our students. Then, about eight years ago, I became seriously ill and we had to move the school online. But this has not significantly changed the quality or method of our education or the subsequent success of students.
What are you currently working on?
Elena: The ‘Archive of Contemporary Art of Krasnodar’. This not a personal art project but an attempt to preserve local art history without refracting it through the lens of the present or a dominant ideology. It consists of video interviews with artists, photographers, and curators who worked here in Krasnodar during the period from the late 1990s through to 2022. It was an unusually fertile time when many local artists were recognised on the international scene. We want capture and preserve something of what was happening here at that time.
What have you learned about yourselves in the process of making photographs together?
Elena: We have found ourselves. It seems to me that our lives are each divided into two parts: before we met and after we met. Together, we have discovered ourselves as artists, as researchers, as educators. We stopped fearing experimentation and granted ourselves the freedom to do whatever we wanted to… in art, in life.
Victor: And, despite the fact that we have paid for it dearly, we have not the slightest regret about how it all worked out.
Victor Hmel was born in Kaliningrad in 1948. In 1971 he took courses in camera technique at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), later graduating in physics education from Kuban State University in 1973. He taught photographic design in the Department of Design at the Krasnodar State University of Culture and Arts from 1996 to 2014.
Elena Sukhoveeva was born in Krasnodar in 1961. In 1980 she graduated in interior design from the Krasnodar Art School, receiving a bachelor’s degree in photographic design from the Krasnodar Art and Industrial Academy in 2004. She worked as a book designer from 1991 to 2013.
In 2007 they launched the School of Photographic Arts in Krasnodar.
Together, Elena Sukhoveeva and Victor Hmel have presented six solo exhibitions and taken part in more than thirty group and festival shows across Russia and in Germany, Greece, and the Republic of Korea. Their works are held in a number of public and private collections including the Moscow House of Photography and the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. In 2007 they were awarded first prize in photography by the Saint Petersburg Union of Artists. They live and work in Krasnodar.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.