Irina Razumovskaya: Pieces of Life

ABOUT Irina Razumovskaya

Irina Razumovskaya was born in 1990 in Leningrad, USSR.  Being entranced by art at the age of five, when she entered the Kustodiev Art School, her journey towards her art practice has not stopped ever since. Throughout her school and university years, Irina participated in Art History lecture programs in the Hermitage Museum, which served to strengthen her fascination with fine art, archaeology and ceramics. In 2015, Irina was admitted to the Royal College of Art in London for her MA in Ceramics and Glass, she graduated in 2017.
Her main form of artistic expression is ceramics and painting. Her art works have been a part of various international competitions, curated exhibitions, residencies and symposiums and have been exhibited across the world.

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Hi Irina! Where are you writing from? What are your plans today?

Hi! I am writing this interview on a plane, on my way to Hungary. I was invited to participate in the international ceramic symposium ‘celebration’. It’s held in the Kecskemet Ceramic centre to celebrate their 40 years. My plan is to land in Budapest, reach the ceramic centre, and hopefully meet some artists, as there are few people I know from previous residencies, I am super excited to meet them!

Your ceramic works are very unique, some of them are crafted to give a brittle effect. How did you develop this style?

This idea came to me unexpectedly. As you know, many immigrants turn to their cultural origins only when they live abroad long enough . The same thing happened to me. I was never too fond of Russian “cliché” cultural attributes – all these troikas, samovars and vodkas. They reminded me of all the bad things I did not like about my culture, therefore I haven’t ever tackled Russian themes in my work.
When I moved to the UK I started to notice that I missed Saint Petersburg’s views, nature, subtle grey colours and slightly dilapidated urban architecture. All of a sudden it started to represent the things that I adore in my country: literature, ballet, highly educated people, culture. In addition, it came to me that I wanted to make work that slightly reminds me of images of Saint Petersburg. As inspiration for the forms, I picked Soviet and post Soviet constructivist and Urbanist architecture. As a surface I wanted to give an impression of peeling layers – something that resembles birch trees, paint layers on abandoned walls. I wanted to create the slightly melancholic feeling I get when I see those stark, unadorned, fabricated architectural forms touched with time, animated and full of memories.
Regarding the craft aspect of my work, I create a core made of strong stoneware clay. It is normally laconic geometric form. Then I start to apply various layers of ceramic materials: glazes, slips, porcelains and more. All these materials start to melt and “peel” in the firing, creating an unexpected result. I would say I control the image of the work only by 60 per cent, as it never ends up being exactly as it looks in tests; therefore, every piece is unique. I like that the process I choose mimics the ageing of the piece: it’s a collaboration between my 100 per cent control over the shape, and lack of control over the surface.

“I come to my works through research, and always bear in mind their reflection on my own reality, my everyday life.”

Several of your collections are inspired by the ‘post-soviet times.’ Why have you decided to explore this subject? What impact has Russia’s recent history had on you personally and artistically?

The idea to reach for the Russia-related themes in my artwork came from some nostalgia I have… However, I do not prefer to work with exact message or too literally. I evade taking to any direct narrative in my work. I come to my works through research, and always bear in mind their reflection on my own reality, my everyday life. This way every artwork has a personal meaning for me, but I prefer it to be a more ambiguous experience for the viewer, leaving open the possibility of variability in the interpretation of the work. Therefore, in post-surface series I depict aspects of my country indirectly, not giving any clear message. However, for me personally my compositions have a slightly melancholic, sad, hospital-like aesthetic. The red and white colour scheme I chose to use can be understood in many ways: as part of Soviet time colour palette, sunset light, or the way hospitals are coloured. The crumbling of the texture, dilapidation and decay can be seen in many different ways, however, for me they indirectly depict the current state of my country. All the aspects of life in Russia that made me sad and doubtful while I lived there, other aspects were absolutely jolly and beautiful. I am giving my personal interpretation of my work, however, my work isn’t political in any way, I never liked political art. I believe that beautiful, subtle and emotional art pieces make better art than political art pieces. Never the less, I myself am quite involved and interested in Russian political life. I am actively opposed to Putin’s regime, was always supporting progressive opposition movements, went to protests, always supported gay and women’s rights.

What is the contemporary art scene like in Russia? Particularly in your field.

To be frank, I find contemporary ceramic scene in Russia quite depressing. Although we have a number of good artists, there is no scene. I assume the reason for that is because either there is no market or no initiative. But I would not be able to name you galleries, or curators, that would support ceramic artists the way they do elsewhere. I might myself abroad. I always wanted to just make ceramics, be an artist and support myself through my work, therefore Russia didn’t have much to offer me.
As I see it : artists sometimes exhibit, but there’s not much interest in ceramics other than artists and friends of the artist. The only way to support oneself is to teach, make commissions for interiors, and make tableware for restaurants. But I don’t feel like there is a way to sell ceramic art, or maybe I wasn’t lucky.

You describe clay as an ‘everlasting, poetic and eloquent material.’ How have you developed this affinity for clay?

I have been working with clay for the last 10 years, and a lot of my artist vocabulary has developed through various behaviours of clay, through mistakes that ended up being happy finds. It is always a dialogue that I have with the material, as I have a lot of respect for it.
Since a very young age, I have admired clay: I studied ancient languages, cultures, and archaeology, and it always astounded me when I have been coming across ancient ceramics, shards and bits. These works lasted for thousands of years, bearing the memory of the maker, the utilitarian or religious meaning it had back in the day, and surely, it kept its beauty. Clay has always united all the cultures for at least 10000 years and does it even today: kilograms of fired clay are around us in our homes, and everywhere we go.
As well as that, clay is a very versatile material. It can be so many things: household items, paintings, sculpture, tiles and technology. It is very poetic as well, it’s 40 per cent water, it dries in the air and cooks in the fire, it can give the impression of so many things, from subtle weather impressions to pop-art. And it is definitely eloquent, it has its own languages: clay’s visual vocabulary is infinite. It can crack, be perfectly polished, be glazed and luscious or very masculine and rough. That’s why this material became such a big passion in my life, it bears so many mysteries, it has infinite possibilities and ways to develop.

At what point did you know you wanted to be an artist? Was this a path you always wanted to take?

I will start with my family, as I am a very lucky person to have very supportive relatives who pushed me throughout my life towards pursuing an art career. Both my parents are scientists in mathematics and physics, however, as it always is with all the Russian intelligentia, they were and still are very keen on all forms of art. Therefore, since a very young age, about 3, my parents and grandmas were taking me to all sorts of children’s cultural activities:  to children’s classical music group, ballet classes, literature lessons, drawing classes and more.
At the age of 6 I enrolled in the Kustodiev State Art School, and since then I have never stopped working in the world of art. I must say I have never had free time in my childhood, as well as the evening art school, I went to the Classical Gymnasium. It is a type of school where children study by the pre-revolution programme, so I studied five languages, antique history, literature, ancient Greek and Latin. In addition, I attended the Hermitage Museum Art Lecture Programme where we had tours and talks about all forms of art presented in the museum. All those three things formed my interest in the archaeology and material culture of past times. I remember the feeling of being immersed in the ancient-Greek pottery objects in the Hermitage Museum, as I knew the historical context, could read the text, could guess the function as well as seeing the hand of the maker. I think that childhood fascination with ceramic objects of the past, which were very casual and evidently hand-made, lead me to my passion of ceramics.
Although, I was studying ceramics in the lectures and archaeology classes, I hadn’t done any fired clay until university.
In the children’s art school, we had sculpture classes, where we had to create clay animals and fruits. I remember the despair. In my head, I imagined a glorious and detailed sculpture of a horse or pig, like those ones I saw in the museums. I worked on it with a great passion and when the object was done, I discovered that instead of a wonderful masterpiece, it ended up being soiled piece of clay with four appendages and a head that was falling off.
It is safe to say my first experiments were not very successful.
By the time I was in the 9th grade, I doubted whether to become a mathematician or classical philologist. Although, I was involved with art since I could remember, I could not imagine it being my profession. That time my parents played a major role in my life, as they proposed I go to the State Academy of Art and Design. I was overjoyed, as if I discovered the love for something that was right here with me all my life.
Getting into the Academy seemed almost impossible, as one has to pass a very hard exam on academic drawing and painting. In order to do well, I had to go to drawing and painting classes every day after school and on weekends for three years. Even if I did not have any free time when I was a teenager, I was so absorbed in copying Michelangelo’s sketches, drawing portraits and learning anatomy that I didn’t mind.
In July 2008, I saw my name on the list of people accepted in the Academy.
Without any doubt, I chose to go to the Ceramic and Glass department.  In the Saint Petersburg State Academy of Art and Design it is a 6 year programme, where BA and MA are joined. Three days a week students are involved in academic drawing, and painting sculpture. The other two days are in ceramics and composition, and one day is dedicated to philosophy, history, and other humanitarian subjects.
The programme was similar to what RCA was 100 years ago: based on copying classic originals, learning every skill possible.
It enabled me to be, what I call, an honest artist. I am capable of drawing an equestrian battle scene, making an exact copy of 16th century majolica plate, throwing on the wheel and much more. After I graduated, I have never found myself limited by any incompetence or lack of skill.
The problem that I found in my third year was the fact that although I could do many things, I never produced a work that could be called my own, it was only copies or authorized copies.
Also living in Russia I could not see a career path that I wanted to take: I simply wanted to be a ceramic artist, sell my work, maybe teach, do residencies.
After doing a student exchange in Israel, I found a way to solve this: I started renting my own studio, producing work that I never showed to my teachers, applied with this work to international competitions and awards. In addition, I started going to multiple ceramic residencies, which enabled me to meet professionals in my field and learn new approaches to ceramics.
After graduating from the Academy in Russia I decided to do a second MA at the Royal College of Art, I wanted to learn the contemporary approach to ceramics, and be able to talk about it. I needed to have an education and to be able to hold a dialogue with tutors about my own work.
Now I am graduating from the Royal College of Art, I have to say it gave me more than I thought. The tutors (My tutors were James Rigler and Liz Aylieff) without being intrusive or harsh, in a very subtle way lead me to re-think my work, moving it to different level.

You were recently shortlisted for the 2017 Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize. Congratulations! Could you tell us a little bit about Young Masters and what this recognition means to you?

I can tell you about my other career steps that were crucial.
It is a very happy story. Long back, I spotted on internet gallery called Officine Saffi. I didn’t know very much about how the ceramic world works, but I loved their choice of artists, taste, exhibition displays. Back then, I thought to myself that it would be my dream to work with them one day, I thought it would happen in my 50s.
Five years passed and I was taking part in the International Ceramic Prize in Faenza, one of the oldest ceramic prizes in Europe. I received the Silver medal prize there, and was exhibiting with other prize-winners in the gallery Officine Saffi. One day I receive an email from the Gallery Officine Saffi asking to exhibit my work there in few months. I can’t even express how happy I was! At the end of the day, it lead to a very fruitful collaboration, and now I have signed a contract with them, they represent me.
I will have a solo show with them next year, and we will be exhibiting in Verona Art Fair and Collect in Saatchi.

You’ve been involved in many exhibitions. Which one has been your favourite and why?

My favourite were Ritual Voids in the gallery Officine Saffi in Milan, and the show I had in the Puls Gallery in Brussels.
Ritual Voids was my first big show in a gallery that I really like and respect, and it went well. Most of the works were sold, people seemed to like it, and the gallery staff were very friendly, professional, and treated artists with great respect, which is very important for a young artist in the beginning of the career. I would say it was literally a dream show.
Puls gallery I always really liked, it focuses on contemporary ceramics as well. I was dreaming to have a show there, and one day an email came and I was invited, just like that. It was a beautiful little space in a very trendy area in Brussels, the owner was great to work with, I have very good memories.

You’re finishing your master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London. What are your plans after you graduate?

This is a tough question at the moment. Right now, I am going for a month to the symposium, and I will have a solo show in Hungary on September 3rd. After that, I will be back in London, as I have to send my works to the Tresor art fair, participate in British ceramic Biennale, and London Design Fair. In October I am participating in the Future Lights ceramic Competition in Stoke-on-Trent, then going to Korea on the exchange with the UK Young Artists. After that, I will have to finally face the reality and find a studio and settle down. I don’t know where yet, it depends on visas, but hopefully I won’t need to go back to Russia. To be honest, I can’t wait to have a studio and stop being as nomadic as I am now.