Identity: A Question of Language

Owing to Anna Jermolaewa’s distanced relationship to Russia, but also to Europe, she was invited to participate in the latest group exhibition Female views on Russia at the Barbara Gross gallery in Munich. This three-women show was part of the cinema festival Kino der Kunst in Munich. There, I had the chance to speak with her about her camerawork Self-Portrait with Dictator (2007) and Kremlin Doppelgänger (2008-09), which were exhibited next to the works by the Russian-based artists Gluklya and Taisiya Krugovykh.

Even though AJ is well known for her work with the camera, she does not consider herself as a new media artist. ‘I don’t think in media at all. I work with concepts and try to transform them into the most suitable medium.’ This approach is perceptible in her 21-min long video Kremlin Doppelgänger. Instead of presenting the gallery visitor with a perfectly stage-managed film work, AJ’s documental film conveys the spontaneously enlightening quality of what it feels like to encounter new people in everyday life.

Thomas Cook Website, Kremlin Place Advertising, screen shot, May 2015.Thomas Cook Website, Kremlin Place Advertising, screen shot, May 2015.

While she was on holiday at the Kremlin Palace Hotel in Antalya (Turkey, a common summer destination for Austrians) with her husband, a Rumanian vacancière told her of the extraordinary task Farit Michajovic performed at the hotel . The retired Russian high-profile engineer now works full-time as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachov – he is his only existing lookalike. AJ pointed out to me, ‘he resembles Gorbachov very much, but in reality, he tries to hide this. He always puts a hat on his head, since he is scared of being beaten up. Many people blame Gorbachov for the break up of the Soviet Union.’

Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.
Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.

The years after the opening of the hotel in Turkey in 2003, mostly German and Turkish people travelled to the replica of Москва’s centre in Turkey. This has changed during the last few years. The number of visitors from the Baltic countries has drastically increased. About 60-70% of the visitors are now from the Ukraine, Moldavia, Kazakhstan, and from the Russian capital Moscow itself.

AJ’s natural documentary shots of the architecture at the Kremlin Palace in Turkey are taken from an observer’s point of view up in the air and from a guest’s perspective of blue-reflecting au naturel liquids. She also incorporates pictures grasped at the Red Square in Moscow and at the historically charged area at the Kremlin, which construct a confrontation – a rethinking of – between originality and artificiality. As the title suggests, Kremlin Doppelgänger addresses the fact that a certain group of Russian-speakers are seeking an encounter with what they are already familiar. Instead of deciding to visit places they have not been to in Europe, they are excited by encountering Russian architecture outside of the borders of their nationally familiar zone.

While speakers of Slavic languages have the possibility to exchange their individually shaped thoughts on and impression of the Kremlin replica with others, minority groups are left to their individual reading of these monumental environments. A similar observation also manifests itself in AJ’s critical examination of her Russian origin and her adopted European nationhood. Kremlin Doppelgänger does not only unveil socio-political aspects of her subject, but also of Russia’s history; and simultaneously, her new media work provides a seemingly utopian prospective of one increasingly a-nationalised political future.

Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.
Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.

For the past twelve years, the Russian-born Michajovic has been regularly invited by the manager of the vocational reservoir, and serves as a prominent party VIP at events organised by Russian oligarchs; he is a particularly popular booking for birthday parties. ‘The guests of the hotel are always very excited to see him. They take photographs with him. He is kind of the national mascot,’ says AJ, laughing. Previously, Michajovic’s only took on this job as an easy nighttime assignment, since he also held a higher position as an engineer. But these days, all the sparsely hirsute pensioner has to do in order to make money, is to perform his looks: he has to shake hands with strangers and to showcase the red stain his wife paints onto his head on a daily basis.

Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.
Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.

AJ’s recordings of Gorbachov’s Doppelgänger embedded into modern and contemporary Russian gingerbread architecture, preserved on digital film, visualises once again the power of the total Russian State Apparatus. But her artistic approach cannot be primarily understood as representational, since Kremlin Doppelgänger contributes to the aggrandissement of the discourse how and why Russian speakers may identify themselves with both, the Eastern and with the Western world.

A similar a-nationalised future outlook was also presented at the 56th Venice Biennale All the World’s Futures (2015), curated by the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich Okwui Enwezor. The participating Venetian Palazzo Rocca Contarini Corfù provides a public space for the exhibition Telluria, which is based on the so far untranslated version of Vladimir Sorokin’s dystopian novel Telluria. The works of the Russian painter Genia Chef strengthen the objective of the letter-based narrative by covering parts of the Pallazzo’s walls with a mélange of stressful and calming colours. At the opening of the exhibition many affluent Russians and some German civil workers gathered to celebrate harmoniously together (at least for a little time).

Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.
Anna Jemolaewa, Kremlin Doppelgänger, Screen shot, 2008-09.

Anna Jermolaewa has also shown her work at the Venice Biennale in 1999. She was born in Russia and is now based in Vienna. In 1989, at the age of nineteen, she left her country with no intention of coming back. She wanted to emigrate to West Berlin or to the US, but reality brought her first to Poland and later to Vienna, where she studied at the prestigious Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Art). This transitive journey brought her artistic work to several places in Bulgaria, Poland, Finland, Israel, Germany, Austria, and to England. Her latest one person show Kiss, Motherhood, Untitled is on view at the Function Room in London.


Originally published on Russian Art & Culture, Juni 2 2015.

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