Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police

In regard to her solo exhibition ‘Bottleneck’ at West Den Haag, I talked with artist Katerina Sidorova. This conversation was recorded during the preparation of her exhibition in the beginning of March, just a few weeks after the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Coming Sunday we will speak again publically during Onze Ambassade Festival at West. The past months have shed a new light to the project, which is based around the forced clash of the police force against protesters at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in May 2012.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
Katerina Sidorova @ West

For the Bottleneck project you found a narrative in the political situation in Russia long before the current crisis?

Yes, my work has become more and more political over the last four years.

How come?

First of all, I did study political science. It was my first education, at University of Yaroslavl, where I grew up. When I started the course I was 17 years old, hoping for change through reform. This study showed me how geopolitics work. What are the mechanisms behind diplomacy, conflicts, etc. At the same time, it became clear that Putin would be reelected again and laws were slowly changed for this to happen. But unless you were an activist, the general population couldn’t really see the picture. Which is ironic for me studying this topic. At that time, I still believed to live in a democracy, even though probably it was delusional.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
Slot I, 2020 © Jhoeko

What was your initial reason to study politics? Were you already in a sort of activist mode at an early age or not at all?

My family always pushed for me to be to take as much education as possible. And I was a very serious kid to begin with. Political Science seemed like something slightly more practical than art. At that time, a bachelor level of art was basically easel drawing in a Russian realistic, representative style. It wasn’t very interesting to me, and I didn’t understand the concept of contemporary art at the time. As part of my study in politics, I visited The Hague for an exchange and that’s when everything kind of clicked. I found something like art again and it was great. And at that point I thought: Okay, I want to stay away from politics for a while and discover something new.

I missed the beginning of the protests in Moscow in 2012, because at that time I was just about to leave Russia. My focus wasn’t there. I did an exchange in The Hague, came back to Russia, quit Political Science, worked for a year to save up for applications to art schools in EU, got into KABK. A year after graduation I went to Scotland. And after some tme, when I was doing my masters at the Glasgow School of Art in 2018, politics caught up with me again. New massive protests in Russia returned. And with the consequential arrests and court cases, it was just not possible for me to ignore these events.

In Glasgow, I was for the very first time confronted with me being Russian. In the Netherlands it didn’t matter much. You could be from anywhere. But during my master, we were all a bit older. And the whole dynamic became slightly more political. At the same time things inside Russia were starting to change faster. My teachers were noticing cultural Russian elements in my work. I was searching for my artistic language and much of it was inspired by what I saw as a child. I was staging scenes from history or mythology, which I still do. A lot of it came from stories I’ve been told as a kid. Philosophy and politics are running deeply through Russian culture. If you look at films or books, and listen closer to music, it’s a slightly broken culture. If you carry centuries of pain with you, different wars, centuries of either opposing your political leader and starting a revolution, or waiting and waiting for decades. It is a weird mentality of suffering and accepting. Until we cannot tolerate it any more.

With the protests in 2018, I was safely in Glasgow. And here in Western Europe the focus was very much on the economy. The first sanctions started. But the focus was not so much on people, and what it is like to live in a state that is becoming more and more repressive.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
© Katerina Sidorova

Is that also one of the reasons why you use narratives as a starting point for your projects?

Stories are a big part of how I work. And if you know me more personally, I’m all anecdotes. I have a story for everything. I am that person with late night kitchen conversations. Therefore also when approaching political topics, a narrative is an easier entry point for me.

I also like to create historical perspective parallels to what is happening. Coming from this political background into the arts is also coming from the current political scene to a more deep and cultural way of looking at things. It’s never just this one art work. It’s always like a resume, a big network of things. That includes visual elements. A lot of my work is aesthetic, and maybe is done in search of my own visual pleasure. But it’s also history, it’s emotion, it is politics, it’s a lot of the times philosophy or mythology. It is never just one layer.

And that’s also what I try to present to the viewer. You can get as much information as you want. If you want to stop at a visual level and like the colors, and go home. Great!. If you want to see that this is referring to an exact historical event, or a myth, you can stop there. If you want to go deeper, and understand what does it mean to today’s society? And what am I actually referencing? You can also go there.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
Bottleneck 1-4 , 2022 © Jhoeko

How do you choose your media?

Hard to say. I’m going from stories to images in my head. I always make very colorful doodles. And then I start to think on how can these doodles become alive in space? And what material do they have to be? So often, I’m thinking of installations right away.

At first I just painted with acrylics, and maybe did some ceramics. But then it’s just very satisfying to work with a new material, see how it reacts to what you do. And it’s also fascinating when you work collectively with other people on bigger projects. How it can become bigger, and more powerful, playing with scale with impact, with also the hidden meaning of materials. Maybe that is also why my projects are often accompanied by texts. Sometimes these texts becomes a publication on its own.

The Bottleneck project started with the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. The crowd, the space, and the response of the police. I made silkscreen prints of protesting crowds at Bolotnaya square, with the faces of individual protesters, still making the image readable as a mass of people, yet anonymous.. The collective body in architecture was a big thing for me. Then I realized I’m looking at imagery that was photographed and distributed very quickly. I I wanted to use the same technique of almost, you know, instant collage making, so I made rough cuts through the silkscreen print, rearranged it into shapes resembling the shape that a crowd makes when they are occupying the streets and stuck it together with isolation tape.

And the form of this crowd is called ‘the bottleneck’, formed by the police force blocking entrances? Or is it decided by the form of the square?

Bottleneck is a military tactic of surrounding the troops at a location where a large body of people moving from a wider space to a more narrow passage is forming a traffic jam. This technique is often used by riot police forces when shutting down protests and this is exactly what happened at Bolotnaya on May 6 2012. It’s a combination. Often, it’s just the crowd itself, as they do spread out and occupy the street. For me, looking at the aerial shots, it was fascinating to see how many people came out to protest the election results, which were considered to be fraud.

The shape of Bolotnaya Square is also used the sandpit installation in the exhibition. It is based on a childhood game called ‘The game of knives’. During it’s summer or late spring, after the rain you find a piece of moist land. When the soil is hard enough, you can draw on it very well. Somebody brings in a knife, usually flip knife, to draw a circle, divided by the amount of participants.

By throwing the knife into the soil you can add new land to your territory, until you conquer all of the land. It really left an impression on me. Especially on how aggressive it was. But this is geopolitics explained. That if you have the means you can just take land, and it will be yours. And it will be accepted because it’s brute force and some strategic planning. The playing field will be in the shape of Bolotnaya Square. A couple of children in a backyard or 100,000 people, it has the same kind of logic. It’s just that the scale of circumstances and the pain is different.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
The Pillory, 2020 © Jhoeko

Now the invasion in Ukraine pops in. How does that effect you and your project?

Russian invasion to Ukraine is an event of incomprehensible horror that I carry with me through everything I do, since this war began. Having researched the possibilities for peace and democracy failing before the eyes of Russian citizens in 2012 and progressive establishment of autocracy over the last 10 years, I do however find it crucial to shed some light here, in Europe on how did we end up here. Here, meaning in a situation of open military invasion to a sovereign territory, with all the political opposition imprisoned or murdered, freedom of speech effectively abolished and mass protests, let alone individual protests physically impossible. And while ‘Bottleneck’ is not about the war, it is about civil resistance, it was started long before the war began, still I find it such an important piece of work to show here (at West) and now.

That is also your way to take back control?

On a psychological level of for sure. For sure. In past installations I have been the puppeteer in my staged scenes. I can focus or highlight a certain topic. And once you enter an exhibition space, you’re almost at my power as a viewer. But I don’t know if I think the same way anymore, I can take responsibility for what happens in my studio, but the reality now is changing so fast, that creating the feeling of control is no longer possible. I can do as much as I can in my private life as a person to help other people. But globally, we all feel powerless.

Katerina Sidorova – The Crowd, The Square and The Police
The Game of Knives (detail), 2022 © Jhoeko

Katerina Sidorova – Bottleneck is on show until October 2, 2022 at West Den Haag in the former American Embassy, Lange Voorhout 102 in The Hague.

Coming Sunday during Onze Ambassade Festival:
‘Performance by Katerina Sidorova.
Followed by ‘Beyond the Bottleneck – 10 years after’’
A panel discussion aimed to mediate between the borders of artistic, social and political understandings of protest and its consequences. With: Frits Dijcks (artist and editor Jegens & Tevens), Beatrice Campell (assistant professor at Leiden University) and Katerina, moderated by Yannik Güldner.

The Game of Knives is the accompanying publication, that connects the historic with the contemporary influence the events on Bolotnaya Square had to contemporary Russia. The publication is available at West during the exhibition.