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In Conversation with Yelena Popova

Yelena Popova, Russian multi-media artist, recounts her fascination with nuclear history and shares how she's brought this passion into many forms from paint to sculpture to community engagement.

Blue. Seventeen (2017), Yelena Popova, Painting Installation, Osnova Gallery, Moscow


To hear the audio version of the interview click here.


Marjorie Martay–

I’m delighted to be talking to Yelena Popova today, whose work spans many mediums including painting, video, sculpture, performance and tapestries. Her painting style recalls the graphics and aesthetics of Russian constructivism and minimalism video work investigates themes of balance, ecology, power relations, themes of progress, industrial and nuclear history, and perceived difference between east and west. Born in the Urals of Russia, you studied set design and construction at the Moscow Art and Theater school. Between 2009 and 2011 you received and MA of painting from the Royal College of Art, London, your work is in some major art collections, including the New Hall art collection which is where I met you during Women: We Create England 2019. I was so delighted that Harriet Loffler, the curator of the New Hall collection, introduced me to you and suggested you be part of the programming then. It was such a delight, and I thought you were terrific Yelena and it was such a great event.

Yelena Popova–

My pleasure to meet you all, and talking about all the work, you were such a warm audience. Thank You.

Marjorie Martay–

Well, I’m sort of curious, what piece is in the New Hall Collection of yours?

Yelena Popova–

I’ve got a post petrochemical painting, and its actually I think it’s the first painting from the whole series. I started to do this kind of work in while I was in residency in Cambridge. I spent the whole year at Girton College, which is up the road, and I started to work with soil and wabash. So the painting that the New Hall collection has is made with wabash, so it’s basically ash from all the Girton college fire places in fellows room, which I collected, reused, and recycled. The whole series is called Post Petrochemical Paintings because I decided not to use the products of the petrochemical industry. Most of the contemporary paints and all the turpentines and all the chemicals, they’re all made with oil related product, crude oil. So I thought it would be interesting to go back to the medieval recipes. And I discovered that’s soil and wabash– it's very basic pigments basically and I started to work with them.



Soil painting, Yelena Popova

Marjorie Martay–

That’s fascinating. And you also continued to do that as your work progressed, which was quite amazing.

Yelena Popova–

Yes, that was 2016 when the series started, and I just grabbed any material which I found around me on the walks and in the fireplaces. But since then I developed a whole project which is called the Stone Project and I traveled around different locations in the UK. All the locations have a connection to a nuclear history. So I collected soil and stones around decommissioned power plants and produced paintings to reflect those locations. The new paintings, interestingly, I’ve learned so much while doing them. I’ve learned about nuclear heritage, I’ve learned about how the decommissioning process happens, what are the first reactors, how they’re structured, what’s happening to them, and also the structure (geologically) of UK works as an island. Where different beaches have different stones, different soil has a different color from different regions. It’s such a fascinating inquiry for me, this journey, the adventure. It was a real adventure.

Blue. Seventeen (2017), Yelena Popova, Painting Installation, Osnova Gallery, Moscow

Marjorie Martay–

It sounds like it has been. I’m sort of curious, how did you take a traditional Asian scholar-like rock concept or stone concept for contemplation as a catalyst for this project. How did that whole thing come about?


Yelena Popova–

It came quite naturally. We went for a Christmas walk on the beach in Suffolk with a family on Boxing Day and I found this wonderful stone, my first rock. It had some decorations, lots of holes, and it was quite a nice stone to hold in the palm. I noticed that the beach we were on was not far from a nuclear power station. Also, strangely enough, we saw a dead body of a seal. Which might not have been connected to the nuclear power station, it was just a dead seal on the beach. But somehow it was a catalyst for thinking further. So the seal body was really quite a trigger to “oh, what’s happening? What is around us? How do we relate to the place?”

Marjorie Martay–

We’ll go back to this, but I wanted to actually ask you, how are you doing with the coronavirus now?

Yelena Popova–

To be honest, my life didn’t change at all, yet. We isolate at home with my family, with my husband and my son. I still go to the studio which is not far, I can drive there or I can do my exercise. Pretty much what I used to do all my life, it’s the studio and home, and occasionally, maybe once a month, I’ll have a public event, or a meeting or going to a gallery, probably 80% the same. Studio, home, studio, home– lots of working. The only thing which changed is maybe not having a busy diary, or not having anything in the diary actually! Also I don't have any current projects, because I’ve just completed this large project. It's a good time for me to reflect, but also its a very good time for me to plan. However, its a very hard time to plan, isn’t it?!

Marjorie Martay–

Totally, well it’s very difficult for all of us, especially for artists... to plan where your next exhibition is going to be or even the galleries that you planned may now be closed and need to have many of the exhibitions including yours on the internet.

Yelena Popova–

Yes, The Holden Gallery show in Manchester is closed completely.

Tapestry, Yelena Popova


Marjorie Martay–

Yes, but I’m sure in the future there are going to be many other things for you!

Yelena Popova–

Yes I hope, fingers crossed. As long as we are all healthy and alive.

Marjorie Martay–

Yes, we definitely have to keep that as paramount in how we go forward. I’m very curious Yelena, how did this whole thing, your fascination with nuclear history and man-made materials like the plutonium, happen, what even made you decide to go down this path?

Yelena Popova–

I was born in this small closed town without a name which was part of the USSR nuclear atomic shield. So the town where I was born produced the first nuclear atomic bomb in 1948. So I was born in the town and I grew up, and my parents still live there. I’m really curious about the production of it, electro-physics and how the community functions. Obviously the Cold War is finished, and I can’t even begin to understand. I still remember that moment when production of nuclear weapons went into decline and how the town kind of changed its trajectory. I have personal stakes in the art.

"This Certifies That (2018)," Yelena Popova, solo show, Osnova, Moscow


Marjorie Martay–

Well, I think when we create from something that is personal, it gives us that much more impact in terms of what the connection is between what we’re creating and what out lives have been...and how that can transfer in a way that's very powerful.

Yelena Popova–

That’s true, yes, I feel more compassionate, and I feel I can’t judge. Even now looking at nuclear history, because I’m from the same boat. The Cold War was a terrible thing but we’ve been doing all the same things and the mistakes we are repeating over and over and over in America, in Soviet Union in England. So there is no judgement, there is only trying to understand and preserve the history.


Installation view, Yelena Popova

Marjorie Martay–

Yes, very much so. Can you talk about your piece “Tablets”?


Yelena Popova–

That was quite an interesting project, and quite unusual for my typical stream of work. I spent a month under residency in Wakefield, which is a small post industrial town in Yorkshire near Leeds, and the town has a wonderful industrial history. It used to have the largest sporting goods factory in the United Kingdom, Slazenger. They had a massive factory producing all the sorting goods from rackets to tennis balls– everything. Opposite the residency was a prison. I looked at the prison history and I found out that Klaus Hooks, who was a brilliant physicists and nuclear spy spent 9 years in that prison. So I looked at nuclear history, but also the sporting goods selects and the community. When I was walking through town I thought, I’m on residency here, and I can just get on with my work and go back with a body of paintings. But I thought I need to do something for the community, and offer them a story so they can engage with it.
I made them a colorful floor game. It’s like a sport game, but it’s a table top game, floor game or lawn game. It’s a balancing sculpture. There are elements which are carved from the fake foam and people can just come and balance them and build this wonderful sculpture. It’s like a sculpture building tool or kit. People really enjoyed that, and it was so great to see children, teenagers, toddlers, and everyone in the community get involved. But the story around it, the elements actually were carved from the structure of an atom of plutonium. So here we are... we have this brilliant physicist who was a nuclear spy and took part in the Manhattan Project and spent 9 years in this town in prison. While he was in prison he was still working for the United Kingdom doing atomic research. We have plutonium, which is a product of that industry, and waste. I wanted to start that conversation especially with younger people. How do you tell them about the Cold War? How do you tell them about plutonium? How do tell them about all the things they have to look after in the future?

Marjorie Martay–

It’s such an amazing story, Yelena...based on where you came from, how that impacted what you did, now this residency, and then everything took off from there. Incredible, just incredible!

Blue. Seventeen (2017), Yelena Popova, Painting Installation, Osnova Gallery, Moscow


Yelena Popova–

The work was quite a joy to connect the dots. I really find that making the story and connecting these dots and making this unexpected connection to the place, to the local context, to that group of people, is really quite fascinating. I think that’s what residencies do, isn’t it? You can really find something unusual and fresh to connect to people and make new leaps in your practice based on what you find when you travel.

Marjorie Martay–

Yes, you created something that the town could actually interact with– create, take apart, put together, move it around and do all these things. I think that aspect is wonderful as well.

Installation view, Yelena Popova


Yelena Popova–

The swimming pool, I have to tell you about the swimming pool. A few months later, they commissioned the public event in the swimming pool, because we discovered during the exhibition that the foam is brilliant, and it could float in the water.


Installation view, Yelena Popova

Marjorie Martay–

Oh! Going swimming with the art, this sound terrific!

Yelena Popova–

We had two events in the swimming pool for the community. Children loved it, so it was an open event but you had to book it. It was overbooked quite quickly. Then I wrote a script for the narrator. We had a narrator, coach, person who told the story and gave them the tasks to do. Then we played and swam. There was a synchronized swimming team involved. It was really quite experimental and free, but people loved it. That was another kind of gift to the community which happened.


Tapestry and installation, Yelena Popova


Marjorie Martay–

That’s wonderful, wow! One of the things that you created was this Lise Meitner chair. I’m not sure, did you do it around that time or afterward?


Yelena Popova–

Yes it was, I started to look at the history and all the scientists who were involved in this development of nuclear fission and fusion. I started to read a history of physics and discovery, and noted that it was a female scientist who was the first person to split the atom. It’s quite an interesting history and I thought it should be celebrated and talked about that a woman was responsible for that discovery. But then Lise Meitner said no to the Manhattan Project...she didn’t want to make bombs. So it was quite interesting, the whole project was called "Your Name is Prometheus” because Prometheus usually is the hero who brings progress, light, power, energy and scientific discoveries. I thought if it was a woman instead of a man that made the whole history of nuclear development, the if a woman had also made decisions around nuclear power those decisions would have been very different.


"This Certifies That (2018)," Yelena Popova, solo show, Osnova, Moscow


Marjorie Martay–

Yeah, that’s for sure! Let’s talk a little about your abstract painting style. It’s very transparent, there are sort of ethereal images that tend to recede within the raw fabric of the linen. Can you talk a little bit about your technique, Yelena, and how you accomplish that?

Yelena Popova–

I started at Royal College in the painting department, so I had an MA in painting. Even though while I was studying, I really wanted my work to be really political and urgent. But, the installations, sculptures, and my research have been doing that work for me. But in painting, I was also quite keen to have something quite unusual in the look. I think in art it’s really hard to make the painting that looks completely different from traditional materials. So I looked at the recipes and started to mix my own paint and learn about painting from the material point of view. What is the paint actually made from, how does it work, what is the canvas, what kind of canvas gives different looks? That was my material investigation... but also I looked into the movements, the composition, the free flowing forms, coming from the modernism and Russian constructivism. So I was born in this town which was a direct child of a modern era. I continue to develop that language.

Marjorie Martay–

I find your paintings so beautiful, you look at them and you just stand away and they’re very subtle. I think it’s that interesting transparency— and some of them are even somewhat ghostly.

Yelena Popova–

That's the medium I developed that allowed me to achieve that transparency– it’s a really thin body of paint. The paint usually dries and becomes like a body on the canvas, and I think it’s a term in restoration, a kind of condensation– it’s cracked looking. I decided to make a painting with very, very thin almost invisible body– digital almost. It's inspired from digital images which don’t have any body. Even if they’re printed, even if they’re very real, they still have this materiality. I was trying to use the materiality of the painting, of the image, and see what happens. Some paintings are very ghostly. The evaporating painting series you’re referring to, they do look like they’re evaporating in front of your eyes.

Marjorie Martay–

It's interesting, not only do you do these really wonderful ethereal paintings, but the way you install the paintings is so important to you– the size, height, shape, how its hung, how it holds its space, and the interplay between large paintings and small. It’s a little like your eyes dance around the paintings and in fact some of the paintings that you’ve done, they’re precariously arranged, and you talk about your thought, your process, when you arranged the painting for the installation. Can you explain a little of that? What goes into it when you’re putting together and exhibition and how you see it all coming together?

Installation view, Yelena Popova


Yelena Popova–

Yes, the installation element is quite important. When I started in The Royal College I decided there is a difference between making a space and connecting to a view through the space and the single objects so I really felt that it would be quite interesting to make paintings to command the space or alter the space. It’s quite an old idea really, you could think back to El Lissitzky's “Cabinet of Abstraction” and other things among them. But then I discovered that even if you tilt the painting a little bit, it becomes more like an object, so it doesn’t really pretend that it’s really a valued object. But then when you have a group of those objects, and they command the space, something else happens. So I tried to really play with the space and work with this idea of power lines or how the movement through could be arranged with the different sized paintings. It was fun– it's something coming from my background in set design, but the connection to the viewer, the connection to the space as a stage or a performative stage for painting. So in a way paintings perform movement, or dance– you can think about it as a kind of dance on the wall.

Installation view, Yelena Popova


Marjorie Martay–

Well I think it was very evident in the show you did called “Balance in Probabilities,” at the Satchi Gallery in 2011, I really found that as very striking in what you were trying to think about during that installation.

Yelena Popova–

That was quite amazing, yes I really enjoyed that show. The space was so big and bright, and it was quite a joy to see them all dancing together.

Marjorie Martay–

Especially that particular installation, I think your paintings almost need to be danced around; the paintings become almost sculptural in a way. You know? You’re juxtaposing shapes against shapes and how they balance together, and you create a sculpture like situation. Anyway that’s how I responded to it.

Yelena Popova–

Yes, and it’s even become more interesting with my previous statement, when you take the image completely, materiality into zero, like you push materiality to zero, yet it becomes sculptural. Isn’t that interesting?

Soil painting, Yelena Popova

Marjorie Martay–

Yes absolutely. And then, I loved the fact that you were able to do something at your hometown, at Nottingham Contemporary, 2016. What were you trying to accomplish with your exhibit?

Yelena Popova–

Yes it was really about the materiality, and the value of images, goods, the production of images. So I had two large galleries in Nottingham Contemporary. One gallery had the evaporating paintings, the painting installation and some really subtle invisible work, and these circles in an installation with the circles and ovals. It was the whole gallery of painting...but maybe it was sculptural in the way that it was very much about the installation. In the second gallery, I had a computer generated performance, so I worked with a programmer and I developed a script. I worked with a composer, Rebecca Leish, to do the sound for the project. There was basically a computer generating images and all the images were euro bank notes. In 2016, just as we installed the show, Brexit happened. So it had become quite real work in terms of a connection to Brexit.

Also it was quite hypnotic to see those bank notes, the circle stars rotating and the sound track generated itself in layers. It was like the river, you can never enter the same river. It was flowing, the piece which generated it is now carried on. But I’ve done some quite interesting research on connection between bank notes and economy and forgery, so it was based on that research. The story is actually quite interesting. Should I tell you the story?

Marjorie Martay–

Sure!


"This Certifies That (2018)," Yelena Popova, solo show,  Osnova, Moscow


Yelena Popova–

It’s a story of a polish photographer, who was an inventor and engineer and he was also a revolutionary, in terms of connection to Russian revolution in the late 19th century. He was living in London, and he was quite famous in the photographic world. He invented the first coated type paper, so from the glass he invented that coated paper. But he was also a very skillful and such an artisan that he was able to print boatloads, and spin his craft into political actions too. He wasn’t just printing money to leave and enjoy it, he was printing money to support Russian revolution. He was sending it back to Russia and he was quite famous for that. Now you can even find his fake bank notes on the market. So it’s quite an interesting story and I’ve based my work on that political action over production of images.

Marjorie Martay–

Interesting, did you find collaborating with other music and other artists to make this piece happen a very good thing for you?

Yelena Popova–

It was really good, but I felt that sometimes you don’t have full control because you don’t have full knowledge. I found that it was frustrating that I can't do things myself which I have imagined so I have to bring other people in.

Marjorie Martay–

Yes. Let’s go back to the scholar stones project, which is your most recent work. You spent the last year visiting decommissioned nuclear power plants. You decided to actually create two beautiful tapestries, in plans for the mausoleum. Can you talk about how did that come about? What was your process with that? Talk about the composition of the tapestry.

Yelena Popova–

Yes, I started the project because there was a little bit of budget and I thought to make a tapestry would be a really good idea. Also the Holden Gallery is a university gallery and when the gallery was first opened, it was in a beautiful Victorian building and on the back wall of the gallery they used to have a huge tapestry by Edward-Burn Jones, "Adoration of Magi." It’s a huge wonderful tapestry. I thought it would be nice to reference that moment when the wall had a tapestry on it. So we tried, I couldn’t do this huge one so we did two tapestries and I looked at the design of reactors. I’ve learned a lot as I mentioned about reactors and how they’re built and the tessellation of the graphite core. I found it quite beautiful in terms of engineering. It’s a beautiful tessellation and houses all the graphite bricks fit together. Also that graphite core is the main decommissioning problem because it couldn’t be taken apart for a hundred years. All the decommissioning plants are staying in the places with that contaminated graphite core in the reactors kind of waiting for it to cool down and lose some of the radio activity.

It connects to that idea of the stone for contemplation. The pile of graphite bricks become my stone for contemplation. I looked at Victorian mausoleums and tombs, how they are represented in architectural drawings. You have half of a plan and elevation on top of it. So I took that as a composition. There is this graphite core image and then on top is proposed mausoleum. I looked at all the traditional Aztec mausoleums because hey have the test of time. This is the kind of architecture thats been tested by time. Interestingly enough, I’m sure the type of architecture is the same as the Russian mausoleum on the red square where Lenin's body is still stored. So I took that as a position for the encapsulation, for the graphite reactors.

Marjorie Martay–

Well I have to tell you, I thought they were so beautiful. How did you actually create it? I mean did you come up with drawings then bring it to someone who actually made the tapestry for you?

Yelena Popova–

Yes, it’s a digital process– a digital jacquard. I developed files on Illustrator, and it takes me quite a long time because you first get the idea then you develop all the colors and patterns around it. I like them to be quite busy and I guess that's what you think is beautiful, it really catches the eye.

Marjorie Martay–

It’s so impactful.



Yelena Popova–

And it’s so important to start that conversation so you have to have something absolutely eye catching, like a stop, so people will be interested to find out more about it then you can introduce the story of what it is. That’s the only way for the story to survive, to have long lasting effect. That’s the problem with nuclear heritage, we have to let the other generation know about it, the other generation has to be informed that this stuff is there

Marjorie Martay–

Well I also thought the tapestry very much shows your connection to Russian constructivism, because you can really see it in terms of the design of it, the coloration, the format, the strength of the lines, I was really blown away by it.

Yelena Popova–

Oh yes I’m singing the constructivist song, for sure. I’m being true to my surname.

Marjorie Martay–

It’s pretty incredible.

Yelena Popova–

Thank you.


Drying Time (2014), Yelena Popova, installation detail, Paradise Row, London


Marjorie Martay–

Let’s go back to the paintings that were part of the show. As I mentioned, these ghostly kind of paintings that you created. What were you trying to do there? I mean we’re sort of reminded of some of the radioactivity, that haunts us now even after decades, and the fact that you took collective soil from the nuclear sites, is that what you did?

Yelena Popova–

Yes, yes, well not exactly from under the reactor, but in proximity, a couple of miles from the location. I was really trying to capture the beauty of the soil, the location, I think the paintings really quite tapped it, it is abut the connection and all this love for the land. It’s taking the land and exposing it in its beauty. So there’s elements that the iron rich soil, which might or might not carry any radioactive contamination, but just looking at it and the way I painted it, its in layers, so its layers and layers of touch, which is quite tactile, and I really tried to bring that invisible industry into something tangible about it. So the stones and the soil is something you can really touch. It’s got mass, volume and weight.

Marjorie Martay–

It’s quite impactful.

Yelena Popova–

Thank you.

Marjorie Martay–

Well you also will be able to see the show, hopefully when it opens in Cologne at the Philipp Von Rosen Gallery, landscapes of power. I think its a continuation of this same theme? You might have added a few more additions to this installation. I think you came up with another tapestry if I'm not mistaken?

Yelena Popova–

Yes, it’s literally a touring moment. The show was moved to Kern for a new audience with some more recent paintings, so I continued helping the body of work. And I think paintings, they only get better the more you do it, so if you want to get better. It was a moment when I was really into making the images. I’m very fond of a few paintings which traveled to Kern. hopefully the show will be still seen. It will hopefully travel to Brussels, if it ever happens this year, so we have a presentation with L’étrangère Gallery, and Art Brussels later on.

Marjorie Martay–

That’s wonderful. Well I would like to say, Yelena, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you today.

Yelena Popova–

Thank you so much.

Marjorie Martay–

Well your work is so powerful in many mediums, as I mentioned earlier I love your tapestries, I think they are phenomenal. You definitely need to continue doing more of those.

Yelena Popova–

Oh yes yes! I’m just sending a new pair for the production. Looking forward to the production and finalizing that. But it’s about fusion, so it’s for the fusion project. It will be the same kind of physics, engineering, nuclear, and hopefully as exciting as my previous work.

Marjorie Martay–

I thought your ethereal transparent paintings were fabulous; you want to go up and touch them. They put you into another place. In a way they’re calming in one sense and provocative in another. The ghostly paintings force you to remember the radioactivity and all of those feelings are a very interesting combination. And then I loved your sculpture... I wish I could have one of those pieces that I could swim with, that would be terrific!

Townlets (May 2018), Fion Gunn, Installation detail, The Art House Wakefield

Yelena Popova–

You could put some Russian plutonium in your swimming pool.


"Her Name is Prometheus (2018)," Yelena Popova, Public event/performance in the swimming pool, Wakefield, Comissioned by The Arthouse


Marjorie Martay–

Well, you’re absolutely right. Anyway I hope I will be able to see you on my next trip to London. I just want you to remain safe and thank you so much again.

Yelena Popova–

My pleasure, thank you!


To see more of Yelena Popova's work, please visit: http://www.yelenapopova.co.uk/


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