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Feeling the Echoes from Ukraine with Irina Rozovsky, Vlad Smolkin, and Elena Volkova

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Almost anything you can say about Russia’s war in Ukraine is an understatement. It’s a war of choice and aggression, an apathetic attempt for a dictator to strangle a much smaller country, a young democracy whose recent success, politically and economically, has proven to be a threat to Russia’s autocratic rule. This war is gruesome, immoral, and cruel—both to the Ukrainian people, civilians targeted every day, and to the Russian soldiers who are dying for a cause many of them do not believe in.

The Ukraine conflict is a lesson in what happens when the ruler of any country is too powerful, with access to a nuclear arsenal, surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, and a master of a failing economy. In many ways, this war is too tragic and absurd to even comprehend in modern times, yet we are here, each day watching footage of bombed-out cities that were prosperous and peaceful just a few months ago and of the dead, maimed, and injured. 

In the meantime, those who care about this conflict are faced with few options. We want to help and to support a free and democratic Ukraine, and we don’t want to provoke a nuclear war. What can we do? We can give money to vetted groups supplying medical aid, food, and arms. And we can also send our support in energy, conversations, and by continuing to pay attention to a situation that is in different ways being distorted by disinformation, propaganda, and strangulation of communication. 

Baltimore is home to a large Ukrainian immigrant population and our art community is made richer by the presence of a number of Ukrainian artists. Two friends of BmoreArt and immigrants from Ukraine, photographer and educator Elena Volkova and Critical Path Method (CPM) gallery director Vlad Smolkin, have been impacted by the current war, and their regular contact with friends and family in war zones offers some solace but mostly a constant feeling of helplessness and anger. 

On February 28, Smolkin sent an emotional email out to the entire CPM gallery mailing list. “I feel especially moved to express how I feel on what is happening in the country where many generations of my family have lived and died, and where people I love are currently sitting on the precipice,” he wrote. “It feels important to reiterate that this is not a civil war, or a disagreement within one country—this is one country violently invading another free and democratic country.” Smolkin’s email inspired numerous responses from his gallery patrons and colleagues, prompting him to think more about what he, an American citizen, can actually do, given this country’s guarantees of free speech, freedom to assemble, and freedom to protest. 

In the gallery, CPM is currently showing Traditions Highway, an exhibition of contemporary photography by Irina Rozovsky, a Russian-born artist with family ties to Ukraine. On view through April 8, the show includes 16 photographs made from 2015 to 2021 with a group of collected vernacular landscape paintings, and a text piece created by Rozovsky in 2021 while driving on Route 15, a Georgia state road known as Traditions Highway. The exhibition visualizes photography’s power in emphasizing the metaphorical qualities of everyday events. The artist’s own experience as a Russian immigrant in the USA created an opportunity for this cathartic, wide-ranging, and intimate conversation with Volkova and Smolkin. 

This conversation took place via Zoom on March 9, 2022, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Installation view at CPM
I remember first seeing the Redwood trees in California and learning that if one tree hundreds of miles north is thirsty or struggling, trees from down south will send it water through this deep underground network of roots. Their roots are interconnected in ways we can’t see.
Irina Rozovsky

Elena Volkova: I appreciate this moment of being together and having this conversation, even if it may seem irrelevant in the big scheme of things. For me, this questioning of oneself is constant and painful right now—questioning of what we should do, and what is relevant. 

Vlad Smolkin: I actually think that it is really relevant what we’re doing. Even though we’re not in Ukraine and we’re here and our circumstances are certainly different, but at least in my conversations with people there, the things that we’re doing are relevant to them. Part of it is because people are contributing money and resources. Those donations are super important, but I think having solidarity is equally important, and that’s a part of what we’re trying to talk about here.

Irina Rozovsky: I remember first seeing the Redwood trees in California and learning that if one tree hundreds of miles north is thirsty or struggling, trees from down south will send it water through this deep underground network of roots. Their roots are interconnected in ways we can’t see. They might be in different states, immensely far apart, but they can all hear each other, and depend on each other.

And then this week, I was driving and listening to an audio recording a Russian protestor made on her phone, in secret, while she was detained and interrogated in the police station in Moscow. The police were cussing at her, insulting, threatening, mentally abusing her in the most brutal, inhumane ways. I was just driving and I could feel it in my body, as if they were talking to me. I passed a gas station and just then the price on the board shot up before my eyes. And for a moment, it was like the Redwoods. We are all so far apart, but we’re actually feeling the reverberations of it all in real time. I think we’re interconnected and actually closer than we think. This is not just reflected in gas prices, obviously, but just felt like an echo of it. It’s like I feel this woman’s pain in the police station but I don’t know how to send her help.

EV: This is something that my husband and I discuss; he is also Ukrainian. We both immigrated in ‘94, so it has been 28 years. But this conflict hurts like your limb is being cut off. There’s this incredible connection, which is maybe why I’m self-conscious about saying it because, as a human being, I want to be plugged into every conflict and feel it and try to change something. But this moment touches us personally, especially through the generational trauma that all three of us share. The trauma of being Jewish and living with the history of oppression in our DNA, and also of being Ukrainian. My mom remembers stories of her grandparents, who died in the late 1920s from hunger in Ukraine, after their farmland was taken by the Soviets. It takes three generations to heal trauma, but it keeps happening. Now there is a new generation that is going to restart this trauma. What we are feeling right now is exactly that, it’s physical, experienced by our bodies.

I had a chat with my neighbor, a Latina, who was asking me about refugees in Ukraine and whether they will be accepted here. I just couldn’t help but think about the thousands of Latinx people who are waiting to get an immigration visa to the US, who have escaped terrible traumatic conditions and lost family members. As a human being, I’m reflecting on the privilege of European descent. In many parts of the world, people don’t think about race the way we think about it in America. But I am conscious of that because this war is a threat to global democracy, from a Eurocentric perspective. 

VS: I’ve had conversations like that and it gets complicated really quickly, especially for me, because I have my roots in Ukraine and this conflict hits so close to home. I absolutely see how there is more media focus on Ukraine than many of the other conflicts around the world in recent history—and there are problems with how we measure and value different kinds of people’s lives around the world. These are really important conversations to have.

For me, this really boils down to a threat by Russia to use nuclear weapons, which adds a level of existential danger that I have not experienced in my lifetime. The conflict is currently being played out in Ukraine but it clearly affects the whole world. We could be nuclear bombed here in DC/Baltimore based on how things are playing out in Ukraine, and in this way it feels like a unique and especially dangerous threat—at least that’s my perception. It doesn’t negate all of the problems of the world, but this is a really global problem happening right now. It just happens to be in Ukraine and we in this conversation happen to be tied to that history.

IR: I heard Ukrainians say at the start of the war—we were just living our lives, working, doing normal things, and we could not have imagined this. And here, we definitely can’t imagine it because it’s still so distant, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Things could change overnight.

 

Cara Ober: Irina and Vlad, when did you immigrate to the United States, and where specifically did you immigrate from?

IR: My mother’s grandparents were Jews from Ukraine and in 1917 the revolution killed off the older people, heads of families, and the surviving kids had to pack up and move to Moscow. So the generations since were born in Moscow, but being Jewish meant you could never be accepted as a Russian even if you were born there. In 1988, my parents and I emigrated to Boston. My parents have always had a disdain for the USSR that I was always apart from, never truly, fully understood. Unfortunately, it took these hideous events for it all to click for me.

VS: I was four years old. We came from Kyiv to Baltimore in ‘89 in the same kind of immigration, but I think it’s also important to say that when we left, there wasn’t this big distinction between Kyiv and Moscow. I had uncles in Moscow and they would travel back and forth. It wasn’t a hard divide. This line between the countries has gotten gradually stronger since Putin has been in power and since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.

EV: I grew up in Kyiv, a big, metropolitan city with vibrant culture and rich history, wide streets, and grand post-war architecture. Life was quite complex after the fall of the Soviet Union for many people: a weak economy and lack of opportunities. In 1994, I was 18 when I came to Baltimore with my parents and my dad’s side of the family. My aunts have lived in Baltimore since the ‘70s and ‘80s, and they helped us through the immigration process. 

CO: The three of you are artists and photographers, and sometimes you’re making work that is considered “fine art,” and other times it’s photojournalistic or even protest-based. I’m curious about that, because whenever there’s a crisis, the arts are the first thing for people to get rid of. And art is not as important as medicine and food and humanitarian aid and weapons and sending money, but it can have a real impact. This is a practice we’ve all given our lives to.

IR: For me, it’s all intertwined. I can’t separate things, like it or not, and feel like a channel for what is happening, inside and outside, a kind of antenna. It’s so important to create a record and interpretation. Art is its own record. In the moment of crisis, it’s not going to shield you from bullets, but in processing, digesting, understanding, it’s a lifeline, a survival tactic.

 

Especially in a crisis, artmaking becomes a tool for resistance, whether it is resistance to personal circumstances, or to a political situation, or a global pandemic, or, in this case, a war, we are able to channel our collective energy through a creative act.
Elena Volkova

CO: In your work, Irina, currently up at CPM, you’re documenting your lived experiences, but there certainly are some political undertones, and interpretation of values and experiences.

VS: When it comes to art, everything is political, right? I think being an artist is a profound political act, but a photographer is especially, because you’re overtly addressing the idea of seeing and sight, recording the world. And then there’s a conversation about whether that is fiction or nonfiction or documentary and how all of that is conflated into this one kind of experience of the image. In this exhibition of photographs from Georgia (US), there’s not much that’s overtly Georgia about them. It’s Irina, who is in Georgia—that’s where she is living and channeling her experience through the photographic process. I think “feel” is the word I would use more than any other with Irina, that the photographs are an expression of her feeling about being in a place.

There are overtly political questions about what it means for her to be in the American South—to be transplanted there and taking photographs. And then specifically with this show, which is called Traditions Highway, it’s shining a light on the question of what traditions we are inheriting and how the past affects the present. The Highway (Route 15) itself is connecting Athens and Sparta, which of course makes me think about the birth of democracy and how it translates from its origins in Greece to America. And now the way we’re talking about democracy being threatened in this profound way with the war.

EV: For me, when I’m in a crisis, my creative practice really intensifies—probably because I feel most alive, most human, behind the camera. Especially in a crisis, artmaking becomes a tool for resistance, whether it is resistance to personal circumstances, or to a political situation, or a global pandemic, or, in this case, a war, we are able to channel our collective energy (or sadness) through a creative act. And that is political.  

IR: A photograph won’t prevent war or save people but it’s no coincidence that the language around a camera is so aggressive—shoot, aim, capture. Photography is a kind of weapon, and I hope it’s a weapon of good. In times like these, artists can’t be passive, or it feels irrelevant. I don’t mean go make public art, be an activist, make propaganda—but don’t turn away from what’s happening; react to it. I agree, the choice to make art when you see the world is burning is somehow inherently political. 

What’s really fascinating is how artists cope and operate in repressive regimes: USSR and now Russia, Cuba, China, Afghanistan. So many places. Do you make things blatant and direct, at the risk of punishment, and go out with a bang, like Pussy Riot? Do you embed and encode your critique so it’s subtle and doesn’t rock the boat? Do you sell out, cave to the government, and start making propaganda? Do fear and pressure knock art-making out of you all together, turning you into a passive zombie? 

My all-time hero, Vladimir Vysotsky, was a singer in the USSR. This rare genius that was adored by both the people and the government officials because he spoke to everyone. To the government he showed how powerful they were, but to the regular people he encoded protest and irony in his songs. And the government couldn’t pick up on that because on the surface, it sounded like, “Yes, we are powerful and we will conquer.” But regular people could see behind that message, and listen to someone singing about the cage they were all confined to. And this is something in the States that we don’t quite understand. We take a message at face value.

I didn’t imagine that, in my lifetime, these questions would be brought up in this urgent way. In Russia, how do you express yourself without being jailed? What will art be like? Ukrainians are fighting for their right to live, Russians for their right to think freely. 

 

Installation view at CPM
What we are especially equipped to do is feel what other people are feeling across time and space. That's what we've conditioned ourselves to do. That's what our work does. That's what art does in general.
Vlad Smolkin

VS: I think that while people and governments use strategies that come out of art towards political ends, it is not possible for art itself to be a form of oppression. Art is the thing you’re talking about with Vysotsky, where there is an overlay of subliminal streams of meaning that cut through oppression. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently with all of the fundraisers, selling art to raise money for Ukraine. People who are able should donate money to these great organizations helping in Ukraine because it’s the right thing to do. My opinion is that it is not necessary or most effective for art to be used as a kind of motivation.

CO: Says the gallery director!

VS: What we’re doing right now is talking about a behind-the-scenes, honest view of what exactly we’re doing as artists and how it functions in the world. And we are doing it in a way that people don’t often get to experience who aren’t artists. That’s the thing that’s effective in a richer way. Mila Kunis just raised $30 million for Ukraine because she’s a celebrity and she’s doing exactly the most effective thing for her. Is that the same as us selling our art for this same cause? Do you know what I mean? I think what we should do is connect. I think what we are especially equipped to do is feel what other people are feeling across time and space. That’s what we’ve conditioned ourselves to do. That’s what our work does. That’s what art does in general. And it specifically lends itself to that kind of communication, which is valuable.

CO: I agree with you that art and uncomfortable, honest conversations are about creating a direct form of communication. I think a lot about what is the most compelling way to communicate an idea. We’ve all spent many years of our lives experimenting with modes of communication—in art school, in our professional lives. It’s not a coincidence that all three of you recently have used your photographic skills to document protests happening in the United States. Vlad and Irina, from your Instagram, I’ve seen that you’ve both attended protests of this war and taken photos. Preserving the story is what artists do, especially photographers, but also considering how do we share the story with those who need to see it?

EV: I think we need to be careful how our images and actions come across to those who are directly impacted by war. I am in contact right now with several of my childhood friends in Kyiv, and I’m reflecting about the impact and communication in this very hot moment. For me, going to a Ukraine war protest in the USA is not hugely impactful. I sent a photo from one of the protests to my friend in Ukraine and it really offended him. He said, “Oh my God, that’s a great photo. We are being bombed right now, by the way, how is that going to help us?” Some Ukrainians were offended by creative anti-war performances as well. And I know that our feelings of support didn’t come across to him as they were intended. Honestly, I don’t know how to navigate that space while I’m trying to support a friend going through something so horrific.

My photos were from a protest in DC, but I understand that, for somebody who is experiencing fear for their life, it could feel almost offensive to this particular individual. But I don’t know how to help the rest of the Ukrainian people, and maybe this is just what gets me through the day? Considering what is the most impactful thing we can do makes me feel a little less terrible.

CO: Elena, what did you say to your friend after this? 

EV: I apologized and acknowledged that there’s nothing I can do to save his life. I said I’m sorry, I was just trying to support you and it came out clunky.

VS: I’ve gotten different responses from people in Kyiv about that idea. They are going through so many stages of grief and horror and anger and everything else that I can’t even imagine. I have heard from people there how important it is to get the truth of what’s happening out to the world as much as possible. When I sent some images from rallies here to people in Kyiv, I wanted them to know that people across the world care about them.

At the DC rally recently, I took a video of the White House with the Ukrainian anthem playing and shared it as a symbol that people aren’t silent here in America. I think that, in and of itself, is doing something. I feel totally powerless, just like all of us do, but people in Ukraine have communicated that getting information out, whether it’s through images or social media, is somehow helpful. It’s the only thing I can think of other than sending money. I wrote that gallery email partially to express a kind of powerlessness, but also solidarity and a real connection with that place. It’s an impossible place to exist that we can all relate to, but I think the expression of that powerlessness is effective in some way—at least in my case, a lot of people have donated money and that’s not gonna hurt anybody.

IR: I think that’s beautifully stated, Vlad. It is a conundrum that goes back to the French Revolution, where mobs got together and protested and fought back and overthrew the regime. I do understand the futility—we’re all here dressed in blue and yellow and it’s a lot of people. It’s not a celebration, but it has the energy of a group, and this feels especially important because we haven’t been around each other for so long because of COVID. So it’s reminiscent of some sort of festival, and everyone feels this tingling togetherness.
Of course this doesn’t do anything immediate for the people under attack, but at the same time, you can’t just do nothing. Silence is violence. I’m not saying there should be a decree on social media that you can’t post inane photos of your cappuccino anymore, but it just feels like you have got to do something. You have to bring attention, even if it’s showing up at a protest or posting something or saying something or passing on the news. You can’t ignore it. Seeing all the people in Europe getting together to protest in London, in Berlin—that must mean something.

 

VS: And in Athens (Greece), a friend just sent me images of an enormous pro-Ukraine protest there, affirming that this is what we are fighting for right now.

CO: It feels like that’s what everybody’s thinking, from our government to those across the world. There’s a sense that there are things we can all do, but also limits around what they’re willing to do. And we all question: is this the right choice or the wrong choice? 

EV: In the case of war, we just don’t know. Nobody can do anything substantial right now, but we all could do little things for each other, and to support Ukraine. And these “invisible” acts go a long way. Lately, my friends have been making meals for me, and I’m so grateful that my family is less burdened by cooking, because I am able to create space for sadness, but also to focus my efforts on something constructive. We need the space and time to process these events, even though we feel helpless and unable to change anything. We are focusing on raising money and humanitarian aid, and that keeps us from spiraling down into a depression. 

VS: Emotionally, I agree with you. I feel like I can’t do anything. But intellectually, there is a rational side of my brain that thinks that while it feels like we’re just having a group therapy session, having an honest conversation in this way does somehow change our reality. For example, when I wrote that gallery email about my feelings about the war, which I would typically never do, I found out, two steps removed, the email was shared with an ambassador who might be able to make a real difference. I got a lot of emails back from people I didn’t even know, who were energized to take some kind of action. I think ideas and energy can travel quickly and it’s okay if we don’t fully grasp what our words will accomplish. If anything, it’s helpful to believe that that is true.

IR: I think that’s what is driving me too. That kind of positivity or optimism, perhaps it’s tainted with toxic positivity, like all the logos on T-shirts that say, “You Can Do It” and “You Got This.” But I also think that’s why the Ukrainians have been able to keep up for so long. Zelensky is telling them, “We can do this.” I think this kind of positivity is driving their survival. It just shows how necessary a sense of hope is for humans.

I just watched the absolute last broadcast of the last remaining independent radio station Echo of Moscow, and as they were doing the show they didn’t know if it was going on air or not. And then it turned out that they weren’t on the air, but they recorded it on YouTube. And the host, Ekaterina Schulman, said, “Speak while you still can, until they don’t let you speak.” We are spoiled by the fact that free speech is in our foundation, so we go back and forth: Do we say it? How does it sound? What will people think of me? The choices we have are about vanity but in Russia, they are about danger and risk, life or death.

VS: That is exactly why I’m posting the things that I post is because in Moscow right now, the police are stopping civilians, taking their cell phones and scrolling their social media to see if they’ve posted anything against the war. And if they have, that’s three years in prison, that’s literally what’s happening right now. That is why we should be using our social media to express what needs to be expressed. The risk that they’re taking in Russia and in Ukraine right now to share these messages is a lot greater than what we’re doing. I feel like we owe it to them on some level to ride that wave.

IR: I have a really close friend here who came recently from Mykolayiv, the town that’s under attack right now, and her father’s in the city getting attacked. And she’s Ukrainian and it’s not in her power to be public and she’s in grief because she might not see her father again because he might not survive. Her friends are under attack. She’s constantly trying to help her friends get to Belgium, and she’s putting her energy towards helping her people survive, but she cannot be public about being at protests. Even if you’re not there, you can be all about helping people survive and that’s where I find myself. I don’t have immediate people who are involved, but I feel like I need to put my energy towards helping.

 

EV: While I don’t think what we are doing is going to change Putin’s mind, I agree with Vlad. I don’t think my creative work will be the same after this. On some level, a change is happening in every one of us and I want to step back and value it for what it is. I don’t think I can put it in words yet, but our lived experiences, and the nuances of someone’s lived experiences, rendered in a visual language, are valuable. I agree wholeheartedly that ethics and aesthetics are intertwined, and everything you make, even if you paint flowers, is political AND personal. It’s both of those things. So, depending on how you define those terms, art is always political. Even if you refuse to engage in politics in your work, that’s a political act, a resistance. 

CO: I think it’s also interesting to consider the impact of being a photographer and using it as a tool for questioning and exploration, as opposed to just capturing an image, which feels colonial. Elena and I went to grad school together at MICA, and she also went there for undergrad and got this travel award when she graduated. She could pick anywhere in the world and she picked this Russian island where a prison had been. Right?

EV: Yeah. It was Solovetsky Island in Russia, a famous place, an archipelago where GULAG prison was housed for decades. 

CO: And so you traveled there to create photographs; you lived there for a couple of weeks?

EV: About a month.

CO: I’m curious if you have looked at that work at all and what you see in it now. What did you find there? What did your camera show you in the images that you ended up bringing back with you?

EV: Reflecting on that work, I remember this quiet sense of existence, a sense of simple being: not a strong manifestation of anything, but just behind the scenes, and a fascination with how beautiful the everyday and the mundane can be. And Irina, that’s like your work. It’s a meditation on what it means to be a human, which can be quite poetic.

VS: You can say art is a language that transcends the boundaries that are drawn by the world, whether that’s nationalistic or ideological or racial, any kind of boundaries. And so this idea of the beauty of the mundane is something that art is specifically tuned into describing better than other forms of communication.

IR: Photography is always dealing with this misunderstanding that “the camera can show you something,” but I think that the camera can’t show you anything. It’s what you want to see, what you’re willing to look at. We have a need to see beauty, a desire or a desperation to see beauty.

But also, the camera is just a tool for a person to reach for what they’re looking for but never truly grasping it. For me, this illusion is the interesting thing about photography, like a fishing net. “I’m hungry and I need to catch something to eat,” but it’s a surprise what comes back in that net.

EV: I agree. By using photography, you’re paying attention to something as you try to capture it. It could be extremely abstract and between the lines, or it could be very concrete. You can decide where you stand on those images, but every time you capture something that communicates between the lines, it’s so beautiful. Photography is really the tool for it. Because it captures reality, but in extremely poetic and open forms.

VS: I see the camera as a tool that allows a person to manifest their reality. I’m looking at these photos, and I think the world doesn’t really look like that. It’s a visual expression of your consciousness.

 

The camera is just a tool for a person to reach for what they're looking for but never truly grasping it. For me, this illusion is the interesting thing about photography, like a fishing net. 'I'm hungry and I need to catch something to eat,' but it’s a surprise what comes back in that net.
Irina Rozovsky

CO: Good photography is absolutely a reflection of the artist. I love the surprises that come out of the camera. And it’s such a gift that, after so many years and master’s degrees and teaching and all of the proficiency in your medium, it can still surprise you. 

And I am not from Ukraine, I am not from Russia; my relatives and ancestors are not involved in this conflict, but I still feel so profoundly upset. I like what Elena said about giving yourself time to feel sad, and that’s actually valuable. I am also thinking about the fact that all of us have these skills, ideas, aesthetics, and platforms, and if images do have the power to shape hearts and minds, and words do, and conversations do… I’m curious if you all are open to seeing where that goes. Do you have a sense that your work is going to be different from here on out? 

EV: I’m not religious and I don’t necessarily have that North Star that guides my everyday existence, but I feel like it has become more necessary to bring a sense of humanism more explicitly into my creative practice. And I don’t know what that means yet.

CO: You all are in touch with people who are in Kyiv or in other Ukrainian cities, so you have the ability and opportunity to ask them questions about what they want and what they see. I heard on the news today that Putin made this statement because the Russian people are very upset about their loved ones being sent to a war that they don’t even want. His statement was very pedestrian, that everyone should be proud of what these young men are accomplishing. It seems he is not operating from a place of strength, especially as the Russian state cracks down on social media and protests.

VS: I posted a video recently from my last trip to Kyiv in 2018 of two young women singing a beautiful traditional Ukrainian song on the street. At first, I wanted to write something like, “Is this the thing we’re bombing? Are these the Nazis that Putin is saving us from?” But then I realized that the image actually speaks more clearly for itself. It’s a beautiful song on a beautiful sunny day—a much more powerful message without that language of fear and anger that we’re swimming in.

Elena mentioned she’s not religious, but art is a guiding light that I operate under, whether it’s with my gallery or my relationships. We have to stretch and do things that are uncomfortable and difficult, like this conversation. I don’t think any of us want to cry on camera for each other, but I think that is also how we know it’s important. Hopefully this type of energy, created by people all over the world, can snowball into something that could eventually topple an evil dictator. That’s all of our goals, right? That’s what we all want. I think we should be frank about that. That’s the kind of wave that we’re hopefully on, and I choose to believe that.

CO: There’s something powerful about stating your intentions. Toppling evil dictators, number one, top of the list. Why not?

IR: It’s really good to not just suffer, but to envision what you want to happen. My husband’s a big proponent of manifesting and it feels like a thing to do, against all odds. It helps with the anxiety to say, “hell, this is what I want” and to picture it happening.

CO: And continue to have those conversations about it happening or envisioning what that might look like. I want to circle back into the show that, Vlad, you’re living with, and Irina, that you created. Is the work in Traditions Highway a form of envisioning the South as a place that is equitable, a place where everybody gets to vote, where everybody gets to live their lives and not be threatened for who they are and who their ancestors are?

IR: I don’t know if I make work from that point of view. It’s more of an embrace of how I think it is, more of an acceptance and a note to self. Once you notice how things are, maybe there’s a sense of change that could occur, but I’m not an activist in my work, despite what I preach. It’s more a way to measure a temperature.
I never want people to suffer but I do fear change, change for the worse. Also there’s a comfort in stasis and preservation. I think these opposing tugs are in the show. The fantastical aspect is in the way the photographs relate to the paintings, but the text brings you back to reality, and the combination of all the pieces make it current, a light slap rather than just a sweet fantasy.

VS: For me, this show and your work force you to exist in the complexity of life. The art world oftentimes wants the artist to clearly assert what they think is good or bad or right or wrong in a political way, but the reality is that depending on the perspective, you can be both right and wrong simultaneously, and an artwork becomes a site for that impossibility. You are in the South, that’s where the photographs were taken. You are exactly where you are and feel how you feel. And maybe your text piece is referencing the kind of literal materiality of the everyday. Even though the photographs are depicting people and places, they leave space for the viewer to project their values and experiences—and actually Teri’s review elegantly talks about that, which is a very complicated thing.

EV: What I love about Irina’s exhibit is a sense of rhythm that I find grounded in the moment. Besides the images, the poem is my favorite piece because it sets a tone that is both poetic and concrete to the viewer’s experience. I love the sense of openness in the photographs because they invite me to imagine what is not said or depicted in them. 

 

CO: The context of Baltimore around these Southern depictions of this highway, where the cities are named for the seat of democracy, and we see all the names on the road, doesn’t need to be overtly political. I see that work as subtly celebrating humanity, delving into what it means to be human, what it means to exist in this place in time, what are the sights, the sounds, the smells, of this experience? And, more importantly, who are the people who are experiencing this period of time? And how to best give people their humanity.

IR: IR: I had that revelation, driving on the highway—and I’m not a text artist, but all these signs that are appealing to you, the individual, as you’re sitting in your car, in your little bubble, and it’s like the voice of God. “Come pray, come buy this gas.” The advertisements and billboards are talking to you, but who is that voice? In this country, that voice is usually commerce. It’s capitalism calling out to you. And you are a little puppet and someone’s tugging on your strings. It seems very much like what’s happening in Eastern Europe is the same thing. People are just puppets of this regime. But the nugget is the individual experience that’s singular but shared and universal.

VS: Really things boil down to choice. Do you, as a person, have a choice to say something, to do something, to not say something, to not do something, to be safe? Do you have a choice to live your life in the way that you want to?

IR: Safety? And choice. Yes. That’s what freedom is.

VS: To me, Irina, your work is such a beautiful expression of that freedom, of having that choice. I think that’s what’s so important about it. You’re expressing literally what we stand to lose in this war, in Ukraine and here too, if we lose democracy. That’s the most valuable thing that we have.

IR: It’s really a good-versus-evil scenario.

VS: There’s something so special about people that aren’t directly connected to Ukraine caring. A family friend is working in Zambia and he sent us a picture of him with all these people he works with, all holding Ukrainian flags, and it was just so great. So maybe there’s something that readers can do to express themselves and how they feel about what’s happening. I have gotten maybe 200 emails from people writing about how they feel and wanting to help—it’s an enormous amount of energy that maybe could be somehow channeled. Does that make sense?

CO: I think you’re talking about making a collaborative art piece. And it’s important to figure out: What is the format? Where does it go? What does it do? How does it function in the world? Maybe what you’ve already done has served its function. The fact that you got 200 impassioned emails, and then you can say donate here, give money, click on this thing.

VS: I sent them a link and many of them donated money, but really what’s special is each individual’s unique, emotional response and a chance for some kind of expression. Maybe there’s a positive way for people in Baltimore to have an outlet to express themselves. And then that can trickle out into the world in some way. Just like the photo I got from Zambia—they didn’t have to take that picture. It didn’t have to get sent to me.

EV: The outpour of support has been quite humbling, complete strangers donating hundreds of dollars to a cause is something that I have never seen before. The money we collect is sent straight to our friends and family members who are either fighting in territorial defense or are displaced. How to provide the most impactful support, that is on my mind right now. Also, how to help the future Ukrainian refugees in the US. A therapeutic art project could be quite powerful—maybe that’s where we collaborate. 

IR: Besides sending money, maybe there’s some sort of support where people from the west could write to those trapped in Ukraine. I just remember how thrilled people in the USSR were when any little note made it over from someone on the other side, from the west. It was a sensation like, oh my God, I exist. We exist. What if people share their phone numbers on WhatsApp with people from the west and they get text messages of support or messages that say, I’m here thinking about you?

VS: It’s powerful when people that aren’t connected to Ukraine build those connections, so it’s not just entertainment news.

CO: I would love to see and support artists who are based in Ukraine. Would those people want to have audiences here see their work or documentation? Or perhaps basic survival trumps all of that.

VS: It’s something to consider but we have to tread lightly. It’s complicated. I keep thinking about Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and what it means to photograph atrocities… Well, there’s potential for a major kind of project, dealing with artists and Ukraine and photographers. But if anything, it should be a book or an exhibition or both. Cara, thank you so much for this. It just shows your immense empathy as a person.

CO: It’s so important. I just wish it were more, honestly, and I don’t know if we arrived at anything but I’m glad we had a chance to talk about a subject that’s so important to so many people.

IR: I’m not sure what we contributed, but conversations like this should be happening all the time. I think they should cancel all university classes and just have conversations like this. It could bring about a massive shift in our status quo.

 

Artist Bios: 

Vlad Smolkin was born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1984 and immigrated to Baltimore with his family at age four. After almost a decade as a gallery director in NYC at the Peter Blum Gallery, Smolkin is the owner and director of Baltimore-based gallery Critical Path Method (CPM) located in a Bolton Hill Brownstone, an exhibition space and incubator for ideas featuring an international roster of artists and projects with an emphasis on Baltimore. Smolkin is a visual artist and musician with a MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University (2012) and a BFA in Painting from Boston University (2006).

Irina Rozovsky (born Russia, 1981) makes photographs of people and places, transforming external landscapes into interior states. She has published three monographs: In Plain Air (MACK 2021), Island in my Mind (Verlag Kettler 2015), and One to Nothing (Kehrer Verglag 2011). Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and others. Irina lives in Athens, Georgia where she and her husband Mark Steinmetz run the photography space The Humid. She currently teaches in Hartford University’s MFA photography program.

Elena Volkova is a Ukrainian-born interdisciplinary artist, educator, and curator, based in Baltimore, MD. Volkova’s creative work is focused on bringing attention to the overlooked, liminality, and the poetry of domestic spaces. Volkova has been a fellow at Hamiltonian Artists, and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. Elena received several grants in support of her creative practice, including Corcoran Women’s Committee Grant, which made possible Volkova’s latest community arts project, Anacostia Portraits. Volkova teaches photography at Stevenson University.

 

Images courtesy the artist and CPM Gallery, Baltimore

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