First published: FORTH, January 25, 2016
The first thing you notice about the photographer Anastasiya Lazurenko is the contrast of her delicate, frail frame and sharp manner. I had dared to compliment her on the atmosphere of her home: “Home? What is it? This concept is as meaningless as ‘the good life’! Home is anywhere you fill with ‘your’ people …” This exchange occurred amidst a surreal scene in one of Anastasiya’s various abodes (she divides her time between India, Russia, Ukraine and the UK) – the artist hunched under a Hindu symbol of the universe, chain smoking, scribbling in her sketchbook, while a carnivalesque scene vibrated around her. The hangout overflowed with a plethora of characters – models, photographers, actors, street artists, and various free thinkers who resist categorisation – all of them swaying to the sounds of revving electric guitars and percussion. I drift away from her and make small talk with a painter who hopped a cross-country train to be here. A rabbit lunges from under the sofa, hardly appearing out of place in this vortex. Later Anastasiya answers my questions in her brash, sometimes tender manner, gracing me with a metaphor-rich stream of consciousness. Talking to her, you know it isn’t an act. ‘Pearly Gates’, Anastasiya’s six-year photo project of bold female portraiture, has brought international attention. But despite her blossoming profile (including appearances at the Other Art Fair in London and notices in various photographic journals) Anastasiya subverts any ‘big name’ implications and is consistently self-effacing in talking about her work.
You call yourself a ‘pornographer’ – what does it mean to you? Your imagery is devoid of the overtly explicit … it hardly feeds sophomoric drives. Do you use the term in ironic sense? Yes, definitely. The term should be taken with a degree of irony. The whole universe should be, since everything is a Leela – a creative play by the divine absolute. I am a soul pornographer. I bare a woman’s soul. Pornography is rife not only on the internet but also in everyday life – art, advertising. Sex is largely modeled on pornography. How has it influenced the relations between people? The relations with our own sexuality? How has it changed our ideas of intimacy and closeness? Does your partner watch porn? Does it influence your relationship? Do your friends watch porn? Do you watch porn? Why do you do that? These questions and the answers to them are very personal for every human being. Sex is everywhere. It’s a very huge market, the most expensive product. And porn is the easiest way to ease the tension. But what comes afterward? It’s an open question.
Do you see sex as a spiritual ritual? Sex essentially is an exchange of energies. People divide everything into ‘carnal’ and ‘spiritual’. But life itself is one big spiritual practice; every moment of it is. I am not talking about praying and chanting day in, day out. Nor do I advocate religion or confession. But I do believe in transcendency. And sex, as a divine confluence of male and female energies, can be used as a very powerful tool to achieve the state of completeness, to explore your innermost self; to learn what awareness and beatitude is and eventually to figure out what life is about. Certainly, if you are interested in such things. Not so many people are.
Oh, I would like to know… The search for the meaning of life is the same as the search for happiness. But happiness isn’t just excessive stimulation of body and mind. People who have great balance of mind, alertness and awareness do not require much in the way of ‘external stimulation’ – rich foods, alcohol, drugs or excessive sexual activities. Sex is a very complex type of practice. Actually the nature of sexual orgasm is the same type of vibration as uniting with the Divine. But it’s not easy to spit it all out in a few sentences.
Pornographic imagery rests on the armature of clichés. Your recent work is noticeably channeled through lesbian narrative. What triggered it? I can’t say how or when I started exploring lesbian themes in my work. Maybe when my partner shared a fantasy of ‘threesomes’ with me. Or maybe it started at the age of five, when I attended rhythmic gymnastics school and I was blown away by the otherworldly beauty and physical perfection of the girls around me. When? Why? I’m also interested to know. If we look at it firstly from a spiritual point of view, an individual needs to learn to love themselves. Then they need to learn to love someone of the same gender. Finally one of the opposite gender. These are the stages to the state of completeness and after this is achieved a person becomes fully transcendental and doesn’t need anyone. Some people stop at the second stage, which makes life easier – the relationship with the opposite gender inevitably has a conflict ingrained in it.
‘Pearly Gates’ is a poignant and raw trajectory of female sexuality spun from highly personal explorations. What is female sexuality for you? Openness to the new and the ability to be happy, independently happy. Independence is very sexy. Also wisdom, the ability to love … definitely not legs or hair. I love all body types, all shapes of ears, lips, eyes, color of skin.
What do you believe are the biggest demons for women in search of their womanhood and beauty? There is no need to search for it or define it – it’s already in you. Quiet your mind and you’ll be able to see it. Although it’s the most difficult thing – to reach the state of calmness. Sometimes it’s necessary to go through all the hell of our troubled minds to find that inner peace. Do not define your womanhood or beauty – just be yourself. Love, give, be who you are – that’s what womanhood is.
In your preface to Pearly Gates you criticize soulless commercialism and mass media standards of beauty. Yet the tenacity of your crusade against model-crazed world seems to be abating. Yes. Although we still think beauty is defined by the covers of glossy magazines, I no longer make any loud statements. I’ve been working on this project for six years and I see that berating superficiality has become a popular subject for the glossy magazines themselves. This battle with unrealistic standards has become a pop trend. A record where both sides are played on the same broken player, backwards and forwards. Many girls can spot individuality in others but are afraid to discover it in themselves. Instead they look for some kind of similarity with others. We gravitate to the familiar – such is our nature. Also girls remain very dependent on the opinion of men as to what is sexy and what isn’t. That’s why selfies and Instagram are so popular. They fulfill both the need for approval and ego masturbation.
A lot of photographers nowadays have shifted to ‘realism’, which has become a kind of game, a staged genre. As a philosophical concept, realism has a lot to do with a photographer themselves, not only a photograph or what’s in it. Creating a realistic photograph requires being like a pane of glass – clear-eyed, free from judgements or prejudices and pure. Do you believe your work is realistic in that sense? What do you believe makes an image realistic? Is it merely the display of imperfections? Realism is rubbish. Photographic art is born when it’s 50/50 of you and who or what you shoot. My work is transcendental, not realistic at all. I don’t claim that my photographic vision is ultimate knowledge of any sort. I know as much as you or anyone else does. My photography is transcendental knowledge and I can’t explain it with words – you either understand it or you don’t. That’s all.
Can you share your ‘Junkie in the Vatican’ dream? And how you saw it as an allegory of the world’s addiction to social and mass media? Working on ‘Pearly Gates’ was a long, intense, transcendental experience. Once I had a dream I was on the steps of the Vatican. I was a shaven-headed junkie, unable to enter the sanctum. I saw this vision as a metaphor of mass media addicts – people who lost their way to illumination and yet are one step away from it. However my muses and I are changing the world through our art, starting from ourselves. It’s our own liberation in the first place.
If you aim to pass a message via your pictures, what is it? What would you like to tell the viewers? Karma. Dharma. Moksha. Love and Light.
Ukrainian born in 1987, Anastasiya Lazurenko is a nomadic photographer who divides her time between India, Russia, Ukraine and the UK. Anastasiya’s work has appeared in British Journal of Photography, Calvert Journal, Dazed Digital, Apogee Journal, I-D, The Eye of Photography (L’Oeil de la Photographie), Aesthetica Magazine and other publications. ‘Pearly Gates’, a photo project spanning 6 years, is a concentrated representation of women that live around us. Using the strong energy of film technique, Anastasiya creates a signature documentary form, bringing into the daylight aesthetic that isn’t ‘sexy’ or ‘perfect’, as defined by conventional standards. Pearly Gates is a nominee of numerous competitions, including Le Photobookfest, Paris (2014), Barcelona International Photography Awards (2015), Athens Photo Festival (2015) and Rendez-Vous Image, France (2015). To see more of Anastasiya Lazurenko’s work please visit www.inaprilwetrust.com.
This article first published by FORTH.