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Zhenya Machneva: labour, ruins and temporality

Zhenya Machneva in her temporary workshop in GP&N Vallois gallery

Despite the absence of Russians at Venice this year, one artist from St Petersburg slipped through the net of cancel culture across Europe to show her most recent tapestries in Cecilia Alemani’s ‘The Milk of Dreams’ project at the heart of the Biennale.

Zhenya Machneva has just arrived in Paris after the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale where, as it turned out, she was the only Russian national to take part. Until recently she was based in Saint Petersburg (b. 1988) where she was born, and where she has made a name for her tapestry art, but after the Biennale she decided not to go back to Russia, instead travelling on to Paris. Settling into a temporary studio space in Paris’ 6th arrondissement on the second floor of the ‘GP&N Vallois Gallery’, she set up her tapestry loom nestled among the work of other artists. Moving to France had always been a long-term plan, but the tragic events earlier this year made it happen sooner than she had expected. 

These gallery walls were already familiar to her, since her two personal exhibitions, ‘Archived Objects’ and ‘Reminiscences’ had been shown there in 2018 and 2020 respectively, and a third one is now slated to open in autumn this year. Two of the works she displayed in Venice were made in conjunction with the gallery. It is not her only source of support, Machneva has a long-term connection with Cité de Arts in Paris where she is about to take up an artist residency for the second time. 

Tapestry weaving is a slow practice, and it is a conscious choice of medium for the artist. Machneva explains, “This method of working is organically in tune with my state of mind. I never get mentally tired of the process. It's something I really want to do. I have the feeling that I'm slowing down. The world moves at such breakneck speed nowadays, it is not my thing. This hurried pace is not always necessary. So, for me slow techniques are imperative, they are an alternative, a chance to pause, to decelerate”. As a child, Machneva liked slow, repetitive activities, doing things like making jigsaw puzzles or building children’s construction sets which she also collected. For her the regular rhythm of such activities reminded her of her grandfather who worked for decades at a telephone factory in Leningrad. 

Machneva says she can only express herself completely in her tapestries. All her sketches are done in black and white: “If I could solve all my problems in a sketch, in terms of colour and shape, I would lose interest. Then I could just simply do graphic work. When I see something, I always think about how it can be woven rather than drawn”. The artist sees the result only at the end of the process when she unrolls the entire tapestry from her loom. It’s always a very thrilling moment.

It is through her grandparents that she felt a close affinity to industry. In 2012, when her grandfather was in his mid 70s, Machneva finally convinced him to take her with him to the Red Dawn (Krasnaya Zarya) telephone factory. As a graduate of the Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design and a student at PRO ARTE School for Young Artists, she had never seen inside a real factory. Excited by the immense scale of the machinery and seeing the machines almost as ready-made objects she decided to focus on visual details she saw there, and this is how the “Archived Objects” series came about. It was this visit to a once famous Soviet factory, which had become a failed enterprise over time, which gave Machneva an intense personal experience of how the past slips away.

Then she made another trip to a Metals factory in the Urals as part of the Ural Industrial Biennale. Many of the factories and abandoned facilities Machneva saw were so derelict they looked like ruins. Time had been erased there. Fast forwarding to the present, however, the artist now finds it difficult even to talk about ruins. She questions whether the aestheticization of ruins will even be possible for her again. As an artist from St. Petersburg with its historical background, she is deeply saddened by the destruction and devastation of architectural and historical heritage in the Ukraine.

The contrast between the cult of labour and the suffering of factory workers has always been of interest to Machneva. “I think about where the line is drawn between the lives of people whose names we will never know and the labour for which they died. It seems to me that human sacrifice cannot be justified. I'm a person who tends to doubt a lot, but some things are unequivocal.” Labour is a big topic, throwing up wide ranging concerns, including that of female labour. When Machneva gave birth it resulted in the graphic series “Domestic Formalism”. The artist tried to escape from her daily routine and find something beautiful in her everyday activities. Works in acrylic, ink and technical pen on cardboard were accompanied by a looped video of her washing dishes. “The video is the most important part of this project. I am simply washing dishes when my child literally bursts into the process as a kind of interference. This is about a vicious circle of domestic stress. There exists a huge issue in Russia about free home help, your family can even criticise you for it. And about unhealthy attitudes towards women in general. At that time, I began to get closer to seeing myself from a feminist point of view”.

Crafts and especially textile art were considered for a long time as lower art forms and associated only with women. Machneva was, however, always very confident in her choice of medium and she constantly faced negative reactions. Many did not understand her decision. “I always asked myself why I could not choose tapestry as my medium. What’s wrong with it?" The pedagogical approach in Russian state academies still does not further progress in this regard. At the Stieglitz Academy, her lessons focused on the technical side and craftsmanship. “The conceptual content was not even on any agenda; it was beyond the grasp of the teaching staff. We had a very authoritarian department. It was all about mastery. There was no discussion, it didn't make sense to me. So, if you study in Russia, you can master skills at a very good level, but you don't learn to represent yourself, to defend your work and your ideas. That's why right after the academy I applied to the Pro Arte School”.

Three tapestries by Zhenya Machneva are currently displayed in the main project ‘The Milk of Dreams’ at the Venice Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani. One work comes from her series ‘Reminiscences’, the other two develop the same idea where ready-made objects evolve into characters.

The Venice Biennale.

The Milk of Dreams. 59th International Art Exhibition

Venice, Italy

April 23 – November 27, 2022

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