Conversation with Zhenya Machneva

Conversation with Zhenya Machneva — Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois

Shell, 2020
Cotton, linen and synthetics
177 x 310 cm

For this show you have created a whole new series of works inspired by the industrial soviet landscapes. First of all, can you explain the genesis of your affection for these desolate environments.

I like the aesthetics of these places. They have a kind of loneliness, of sadness that I love. I always visit these factories alone, like a ritual. And sometimes I feel like I am not really alone anymore, because the useless machines literally come to life in my head.

I take a lot of pictures when I am there by myself. Then, when I work on my drawings and my loom, I try to bring some life into these machines. People can find some zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs in the tapestries and for me it is also a sort of experiment with human nature.

Do you already see these faces and anthropomorphic shapes when you are visiting these abandoned places?

Of course, most of the time, when I visit these places I see something and I immediately know this is my subject. Sometimes, I check everything I have, my research materials and my sketches and then I decide what I am going to weave. Of course, the tapestries technique need a lot of time and I know I will not have enough time in my entire life to weave everything I want.

You are talking about the sadness and the loneliness of these places, and yet, your works are incredibly colorful…

I think this comes from the happiness I feel when I see something I like. I probably have to analyze myself (laughs). I collect colors all the time. Colors from everywhere, from trees, from nature, from the sky, every time. For example, for Totem, in real life this machine is not blue and pink but dark green and not really clean. But I like to associate the colors of nature into these machines in my work. In totem, it is inspired by the graduation of the sky for example.

Is this a way to keep traces from the past, a memory of your heritage?

All these machines and factories are the vestiges of a broken dream. But with my work I take a distance because I am not nostalgic at all, I do not talk about this as a wonderful period as you can imagine. My first meeting with these machines was in the factory where my grandfather has been working for 40 years and when I discovered it I thought “WOW. All these machines are already sculptures!”.

And for this project Reminiscences I tried to get out from history and to play with the meanings, with objects, to make people imagine something from themselves.

How old were you when you first visited this factory?

Oh, it’s not so far, I think it was 2011 or 2012 and after that I made my first series of realistic details of some machines.

And using these old machines, is it a way to dream about the future?

For me it’s a transformation of these objects to give them a new life.

Are you sensible to the obsolescence of things and environment issues?

It’s a difficult answer because you never know where you stand. I think I chose tapestry because it was a way to keep this alive, and maybe people can feel that and do more by themselves. Because machines are everywhere, for me it’s not bad of course because I’m not crazy about it, I don’t live as a social recluse, I didn’t build my house myself in the forest. But if we can keep doing things with our hands, some part of our lives could be more creative. Then you’re not just a consumer, you’re a creator too.

What brought you to the tapestry technique at the very beginning?

I fell in love with this technique at the Art Academy in Saint-Petersburg. I graduated at the textile department and we had a course about tapestries. I felt tapestries could speak like paintings, not only in a decorative way. Like a painter, I do all my tapestries by myself and it makes sense because it is an improvisation process. I never have a colorful sketch to rely on and I couldn’t explain to any assistant what to do because it is really instinctive.

My way of working is quite different from the classical way to make tapestries because historically there was several production steps. The first one was the artist who created the drawing and after it was reproduced by weavers. It was a decorative art made by different people. I saw a lot of tapestries and I know for example in Aubusson there are really special and monumental ones. I love looking at it but as an artist I prefer doing it by myself.

Of course, we can speak about tapestries after Picasso, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier but it’s quite different because it was design and decorative works for interiors as well.
My tapestries have another dimension.

Including tapestries into the artworld, is it a revenge of the separation between decorative art and “High Art”?

Somehow, I’m destroying the stereotypes saying tapestry belongs to Arts and Crafts, like ceramics for example. If you feel your media like I do, you have to keep going this way no matter what people think. I know I can express myself through tapestries, so I will keep this technique as long as I feel comfortable with it.

I can see a rebellious conscience on your work. You are talking about this soviet area, where everyone was supposed to be faster, better, and you are choosing the technique that is probably the most difficult in a way, very long in the process. Am I right?

Of course, it is the complete opposite not only with the soviet era because it was a long time ago but it is also a confrontation with our days. With new technologies everything is going fast, it’s easy to call someone anywhere you are, to produce a lot of similar things, you just have to press the button and you can have a lot of things.

I do not say technology is bad but I think people don’t have time for thinking sometimes. They are going too fast, and they probably don’t understand why they live in this world in the end. When I met the tapestry technique, I fell in love with its relation to time. It gives me precious moments to think about those things.

Are you saying that when you weave, you meditate?

Yes, to me it is a kind of meditation. Maybe because I can work without any sound around. And sometimes I realize after 2 or 3 hours of work that I’m in complete silence in the studio.
I’m thinking about life, about future projects and a lot of things in my mind.
But when it’s time to choose colors, I concentrate a lot more, this moment absolutely catches all my mind and I am captivated.

In this exhibition, you are bringing tapestry to another kind of work, a sculptural work, is it a new direction in your work?

For me it is a way to get further with tapestries. It is a very interesting experimental approach. It is unusual, but textile can have a third dimension and I think it is a good way to transform it to something new. For Reminiscences and the idea of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs, it was a natural step.

I collect different metal things, I have some parts of furniture and in the future, I would like to introduce these founded objects in my tapestries as well.

In parallel of the tapestries, you are showing a series of drawings. Are they preparatory sketches?

This is the first time I show tapestries and drawings together and I’m really happy about it. Drawings are very important in my process. First of all, I take pictures, and after, at home or in my studio, I start to draw. It’s a way to understand what I am going to do.

We didn’t talk about the big pieces of the show “Totem” and “Shell”. You created two pieces in different parts, that can be assembled differently and that is very new in your work.

Yes, this is the first time I use this way and it comes from my impression of the machines. It also makes a distance to the classical way of tapestry.

Why is it so important to stretch the pieces?

As I said, tapestry is my media and it is not about decorative work. Stretching and framing the pieces is a kind of claim, my way to say “Tapestry is an art form in its own right!”.
It’s really important for me to make really straight line and flat surfaces because the structures of the initial drawings are really clear. If you just hang it, it is not finished.
It is my way to show the work. I have been working for this 6 or 7 month and when finally, I stretch them and see them like this on the wall, I feel great.

Are you also fighting against some stereotypes through your work? I mean, by being a young woman, weaving industrial landscapes… One could glimpse feminism in your works. Would you say so?

One day I had a wonderful reaction by a woman who said to me “you know your work is really feminist!” but it’s not my main purpose.
I’m a woman and its normal to read some kind of feminism in my work but fighting this isn’t my first intention, I don’t clearly proclaim myself a feminist artist.

Would you say the same about politics? considering you themes and what happened in your own country in the last century…

We are all in a political system so it is of course impossible to live without politics. A part of my family was under repression and they were killed by the soviet system. So I don’t want to speak about politics. You know I do what I love to do. Moreover, I’m a really pacific person. I think I fight silently.

The present is better than the past?

I’m an optimistic and happy person, I don’t want to be nostalgic. I think we should concentrate on the present, and dream about the future.

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