Olga Bennett is a Moscow-born, Melbourne-based artist whose practice encompasses an array of mediums that are united by the artist’s keen enquiry into the idea of knowledge. From a starting point in photography, Bennett’s examination has resulted in the exploration of sculpture, screen printing and, most recently, text. Through a cross-disciplinary practice, the artist has tested the vulnerability of history and archives, and considered the slippages of print reproduction.
After commencing a Master of Fine Art in 2018 at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Bennett travelled to Belgium this year for a residency, which gently shifted her practice. Here Bennett discusses mining her family’s past, and the importance of writing and discourse to her art.
Varia Karipoff: In 2003 you graduated from Moscow State University with a background in humanities. What spurred you on to study fine art after emigrating to Australia? What were your creative interests when you were living in Russia?
Olga Bennett: Growing up in the 80s and 90s – during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and economic collapse in post-soviet Russia – pursuing art as a career simply did not occur to me. Art education in Russia was very traditional at the time: you had to sit a five-hour life drawing exam to get into an art course and I have never drawn or painted. Instead, my interests were in literature and history, I was very academic and identified primarily as a voracious reader. My only connection to art at the time was spending my mornings in the art museum located next door to my school in central Moscow. Whenever I was running late for my first class – and this was almost daily in the last year of high school – I would go to the museum instead and wait until it was time for the next class. I ended up falling into photography a few years later and considered enrolling at a film school in Moscow but didn’t get the chance. I decided to leave the country soon after. Once in Melbourne, I went to the Victorian College of the Arts to study photography, still not very familiar with contemporary art.
VK: From photography, your practice has expanded outward to take in text, screen printing and sculpture; what are the common threads in your areas of inquiry?
OB: I think the thread of inquiry remains the same, but as my knowledge and understanding changes, I am able to move along this thread; various mediums are tools and languages that come in handy at various moments. I work intuitively and trust that understanding will come later. I would mention the unconscious here if I knew a way to leave Freud and Lacan outside of the conversation. I seem to circle around the question of ‘how we know what we know’ and the role of images in the construction of our knowledge of past and ourselves, and history shared with others.
VK: You have worked with photograms, photography and printing; can you explain your preoccupation with the copy or the clone in your practice?
OB: It’s not so much the copy or clone that interests me, but the mechanically produced and reproduced image, and the expressive potential of mechanical marks, accidents and slippages that are a part of the process. But of course, working through the repetitions, returns and iterations is a strategy that invites and captures those accidents and slippages. It’s a way of reading into an image.
VK: To what point can you trace a shift away from object making to a more discursive practice? OB The shift is taking place as we speak, but the seed was planted during my Honours year at VCA when writing practice became significant for me. My incredible supervisor, Julie Irving, gave me the courage to write in English, which is my second language.
VK: At the same time as your practice seems to be in a state of flux and growth, your investigation into archival material has grown more personal. For instance, your exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Photography last year was focused on its archive of exhibition ephemera and the fragility of archives, and recently you started investigating family history. What discoveries or ideas drove this shift in perspective?
OB: I remember trying to make a work about my grandfather in my second year at VCA, but I didn’t know how to approach it at the time – my attempts were clunky. A year later, after a visit to Moscow and London where I saw an incredible retrospective of Malevich’s work at the Tate Modern, I had an idea for a performance work that would respond to the proliferation of religious sects in Russia, the national obsession with conspiracy theories and my deep interest in Russian early 20th-century art, but I wasn’t brave enough to realise it even within the art school walls. The desire to address personal themes was always present: the more abstract themes always had personal significance and implications. For example, my concern with the constructed nature of history and knowledge is easily traced to my experience of living through the dissolution of the Soviet ideological apparatus and the disorientation that has followed it.
VK: At the moment, you are taking a year out from your Master’s. What has been the benefit of giving your research ideas time to develop?
OB: There’s the luxury of spending time with the questions and letting the work develop without having to rush it. By the time I completed the first year, I had a feeling I had only started to open a hornet’s nest. I have been making and remaking some of the works and feeling that I am slowly getting closer to finding the form that feels right.
VK: During your residency this year at the graphics laboratory, Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium, you sourced X-ray images taken by museum professionals for conservation purposes. They formed a starting point for the works you made during the residency, combining screen printing and painting. X-ray has been used in art authentication for 100 years; it was also used to copy Western rock and roll records in the Soviet Union up until the late 1950s. What significance do X-rays hold for you?
OB: I had no idea about the records, that’s fascinating. My associations are a lot more prosaic: almost two years ago, I had a cycling accident and broke a bone in my shoulder. Medical use of X-rays to scope the damage of a body was on my mind when I came across the images taken of paintings in the conservation lab. As my research project focused on mental and physical vulnerability, X-rays provided a link between art history and personal experience, a body and a painting.
VK: This year, your work started to focus more on figuration, particularly women’s portraits which were mined from the institutional archives of technical images (or X-rays). How does the addition of text function within this series?
OB: My interest within the work has always been in capturing a moment of dissolution of a figurative image on its way to abstraction. My hope is that text invites a wider array of possible implications and meanings for the images without being prescriptive. The two modalities are in a dialogue – I am attempting to develop a language that is equal parts visual and textual to be able to express things I couldn’t previously, and to shorten the distance between me and the viewer and reader of the work.
VK: A central part of your Master’s investigation is uncovering history, particularly of your own family. What is the central theme of the story?
OB: I have been trying to understand the effect that a series of events in the 1950s had on the life of my grandfather and his family – my family. He had to keep a significant part of his life secret for a long time. He had to put people he loved, his daughters, in danger. I am trying to uncover what it was like for him, and also parts of myself that are shaped and obscured by that history.
VK: In the West, we tend to hear from dissident Russian thinkers or hear Western narratives on Russia. How do you think that shapes the perception of Russia in the West?
OB: I don’t really know as that is not what forms my perception of Russia. I do think that the history of political protest and participation is radically different from that in the West, and that is not often considered or understood.
VK: What is something that you have read recently that has deeply informed your practice?
OB: Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant, The Company She Keeps by Céline Condorelli, Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia, everything by Anne Carson.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.