INTERVIEW WITH DINA VARPAHOVSKY
Megan Preston Elliott, April 2017
Born in Russia, Dina Varpahovsky grew up in a small town, a 5-hour train ride from Saint Petersburg. Her contact with art was limited, but Dina found herself collecting images of paintings in magazines, or on stamps, from a young age. Her work is deeply influenced by social media; it probes under the idyllic surface of these networks and questions perpetuated beauty ideals. It forces us to ask ourselves how young girls growing up today might be affected by their experiences of the adult world through social networks, magazines and TV.
Megan Elliott: You grew up in Russia and later studied in London, at Central Saint Martins and City & Guilds of London Art School. Can you tell me more about what brought you to London?
Dina Varpahovsky: My parents never saw art as an occupation. I was strongly advised to get a degree in something that could get me job, so I ended up studying economics instead! Whilst studying, the Soviet Union broke up and the market economy started changing; the political situation was very uncertain. Eventually, I ended up working for Credit Suisse in Moscow. After another crisis, the company downsized and transferred me to the London office. So, I ended up in London in a very good situation, earning comfortably. By that time, I was 30 years old and felt that my job in banking was all consuming – you work very long hours, with no weekends and practically live in the office.
You needed to love the job, but I started waking up in the morning not looking forward to my day. I had to ask myself whether I wanted to carry on like that, or find something that I was passionate about. It took a long time, but I eventually left banking and started my art education. I did both my Foundation and BA at Central Saint Martins part-time, as I had just had my first child. I have also recently completed my MA at City & Guilds of London Art School. So, I had a very, very long period of studying (7 years just to obtain my BA). It was a good decision, even though the job prospects are very different to banking. Now, I look forward to my day because I’m going to be doing something that I enjoy.
ME: You had some shows before you started studying and during your studies. How did those come about?
DV: Most of them were open competitions that I applied to and the others were organised with a group of friends from the Saint Martins BA. When we graduated, we formed a loose ‘collective’. We talk to each other regularly and apply to group exhibitions, developing proposals together. It’s like a safety net of friends; they’ll always pull you out of whichever situation you are in and bring you back. Funnily enough, we’re an all-girls group. We have done many shows together and it’s all very generous and fluid – if you have a bit of time to write a proposal, you’ll probably take it on with a couple of people and the others just come in when the exhibition takes place, or sometimes even just ship their work over and we’ll install it for them.
ME: It’s a good support system then.
DV: It’s excellent. Sometimes a few of us will do a more focused show and nobody gets upset by that. We’re a lot stronger this way. We have been accepted for quite interesting projects. There was the guest project a Yinka Shonibare’s space, where we created the Psychotropic House exhibition. It can be quite strange for graduates when you leave the school because you think, well…what next? Often you don’t get accepted or chosen for shows and I remember saying to someone, ‘Oh this is so hard, my work must be bad, I never get selected for anything’, and that person said, ‘Well, make your own waves. You want a show, show!’. Make it happen. It’s good advice, and fun too!
ME: That’s a great attitude and way to approach your career. In your artist statement on your website you talk about how your childhood has influenced your work. How do you think this materialises in your paintings and influences your practice?
DV: I must say that I’ve probably moved a little bit away from my childhood since I first made that statement. I think a lot of artists start by digging in our memories and searching for something within us that drives us to make work. Initially, I was perhaps a little too focused on that and the danger is that you might slide into a slightly nostalgic area. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I had an interesting conversation with Graham Crowley during a mentoring session, a year after finishing my BA, when I felt like I was really stuck. He looked at my work and said that I had to get out of the nostalgia of looking at my past. Once you’ve painted everything in your memory, you’re going to run out! He told me to open my eyes and look around me and let the contemporary life inform and inspire me; then, whatever is inside will come into it in the way that you react to the world around you. I thought that was great advice and it helped me to stop looking in one direction. The work that I’m doing now is very much influenced by the world that we live in. However, as you can see, it has a lot to do with young girls – so, maybe there is something about comparing the way girls grow up now and the way that I grew up – finding similarities and differences.
"Often you don’t get accepted or chosen for shows and I remember saying to someone, ‘Oh this is so hard, my work must be bad, I never get selected for anything’, and that person said, ‘Well, make your own waves. You want a show, show!’. Make it happen. It’s good advice, and fun too!"
My Real Hunger is For Likes, 2017
Oil on canvas
60 x 50 cm
© Image courtesy of Dina Varpahovsky
Dina Varpahovsky, Untitled, 2017. Etching and watercolour collage on paper. 15 x 25 cm © Image courtesy of Dina Varpahovsky
over the years and I
started to think more
about how I looked...It’s
difficult to get rid of
once it’s in your mind,
it’s like a poison, you
begin to look at your
life through the judging
eye of someone else.”
ME: So it’s not that you’ve completely got rid of this – it’s still there in your comparisons, rather than being the focus?
DV: Yes. Obviously I was a little girl at some point and still remember what it was like growing up. The world is quite different now and I’m very curious about how this new technology, social media, this new way of communicating, shapes young girls’ lives. What would it result in?
ME: I’m very interested in that myself – how social media disturbs lived experiences. I haven’t grown up with it since I was a child, but it came about, and became very popular, when I was about 13 or 14.
DV: How did you manage this? When did you join social media?
ME: I must have been about 14 and I completely dove into it.
DV: Did you take selfies and all that?
ME: Yeah, it was the thing to be doing - everyone was doing it around me and I got swept up into it. Only now am I starting to think about how that has affected me. As you said though, children now are growing up using social media as early as 7/8 years old. It’s interesting think about because it is so new and the consequences are still quite unknown.
DV: How do you think it does affect you?
ME: I feel that it, perhaps subconsciously, eats into my lived experiences. For example, you might be on holiday, out and about, and you could come across a beautiful scene, but something in your head is telling you, ‘this would make a great picture for Instagram’. You might even feel confident on a particular day and a thought creeps in about sharing that on social media. This thought process has become ingrained, from the past 10 years of using social media, but I’m not always aware of it.
DV: I imagine it would make you feel really down, on a day when you’re not feeling confident, or don’t have something nice to wear. I noticed, even myself, that when I was a lot younger I used to go on holiday and just enjoy the holiday, because it’s a holiday! It happened very rarely, in my youth, that I could go on holiday, so when I got a banking job that was the most exciting thing ever because I could finally go. Something changed over the years and I started to think more about how I looked. It became hard work to constantly worry about these things. It’s difficult to get rid of once it’s in your mind, it’s like a poison, you begin to look at your life through the judging eye of someone else. I’ve been doing some research into mental disorders and, I think, 28% of women aged 16-24 suffer from common mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. The level has risen significantly since the last survey, which they conduct every 7 years. A lot of people are saying that this is the first cohort of young women coming of age in the time of social media. So, it’s potentially quite a dangerous thing.
Dina Varpahovsky, Twenty Seven Likes, 2016. Oil on canvas. 21 x 29 cm
© Image courtesy of Dina Varpahovsky
ME: It’s perhaps even more dangerous than traditional media, but it’s still early days. The initial research is very interesting and there’s so much to consider still.
DV: It is interesting. As well as looking at social media, I look at a ‘quality’ array of publications. I was thinking about what sort of magazines you would read if you were a little girl growing up today. There are a lot of TV characters or princesses, or Barbie – those sorts of things. None of them look like people. So, from a very early age, you may think that’s the ideal of beauty and you could grow up and look in the mirror and think that you are nothing like that! From an early age now, even 10 or 11 years old, girls are talking about dieting. If then you find some consolation in the fact that other people around you look normal, that might now be taken away by social media because then you might think, no, they might look normal but they have better lives. So, you feel a complete loser on absolutely every level because you don’t look like Barbie, or a Disney princess, you don’t look like mummy’s princess, you don’t look like your best friend on Snapchat, or people in a fashion magazine. I think it can be extremely tough.
When I was growing up, there was no advertising – it didn’t exist in the Soviet Union because it was not a market based economy. There was no competing products or companies. I think we were quite innocent about these things. There was never a pressure to look a certain way. But, still, I remember seeing a western magazine one day with an advert for face cream and the woman’s face was flawless. I had never seen anything like that before! I was about 13 and I looked at my own face and I had pimples and I thought, ‘what an ugly face I have’. It was so tragic, but it would not have crossed my mind at the time that it was a Photoshopped face on an advert. The shock was so great, I was thinking, if only I could buy that cream!
So Much Fun to Watch, 2017
Oil on canvas
100 x 140 cm
© Image courtesy of Dina Varpahovsky
ME: Shows how advertising works! So, when you start making paintings, do you often start with collages from these magazines?
DV: No, I would say I usually start with images I find on social media, or on the internet, that somehow inspire something in me. Often, it’s images that parents post of their young girls, and sometimes celebrities. Then I change the image, so that it goes from an innocent family photo to something else. What attracted me was the posing, the smile that the child has – a lot of the time it’s already very sassy, she knows how to do the pose and look at the camera. I often crop them, change the colours and transform the image. I like photos where 2 girls are together – on the surface young girls can look ‘pink, pretty and fluffy’, but there is a lot of competition and there can be brutal power struggles and relationships. Adult and child relationships, particularly mother and daughter, also inspire me - I think that this is probably more related to the way I grew up. I grew up with my mother and grandmother in a very female household, two single women of two generations.
ME: After you’ve edited these images, what’s the next step? Do you use it to make a drawing?
DV: I make lots of drawings and I love drawing because I get to know the image, the subject matter and the person. Also, somehow, it breaks away from the desire to have a likeness and get into a more interpretive way of looking at an image, or depicting a person. I’m still not quite sure that I’m there yet. When it goes into paint, it’s quite a difficult balance and I find it hard to paint a person in an interesting way.
ME: I see what you mean. Sometimes if you were to paint directly from an image it almost becomes like a copy of the image, rather than saying something else.
DV: Exactly. You are moving away from a direct connection to the image. It’s always so important to remember that it is paint – it’s not something directly related to the image that you’re working from. It must do something else, add something to the image, otherwise there’s no point. Collages also open the thinking process. They help to sort out what you’re trying to get at – when you arrange things in a certain way, you always ask, why did I put these things together? What do they mean next to each other? Sometimes you might be lucky to discover something interesting straight away. But, sometimes a work stays like this and doesn’t necessarily translate into painting.
ME: I’m also intrigued by the way you title your work. For example, Twenty Seven Likes. Where did that come from?
DV: That related to a series of works that were based on images found on Facebook. I wanted to link the images to the source and to the internet. Quite a lot of those images of girls posing in bikinis look very strange on the internet, available to a wide audience. Depending on who is doing the looking, they can take a very menacing, almost malicious, uncomfortable meaning. I wanted to have that angle in my work and thought I could do it through a title. Everyone would then immediately realise that it refers to something that’s posted somewhere, because it’s got ‘likes’.
ME: It reminded me about the need for outside validation of things. The idea that something is validated by being posted and liked.
DV: I think that’s quite interesting. The titles refer to the original image and how many likes they had at the time when I found the image. There were some nice photos that only had 4 likes and some ‘okay’ photos that had 70 likes. But, they did not refer to my paintings. What I could do now is post those online and see how many people would like those, would be quite funny actually – an update!
“on the surface young
girls can look ‘pink,
pretty and fluffy’,
but there is a lot
of competition and
there can be brutal
ME: I’d be interested to know. You also add text into some of the collages that you make. Where do you find these quotes, such as, ‘I’ll keep having work done until I’m happy’?
DV: I do not make them up, unfortunately. They all come from women’s magazines, mostly Closer. When they are next to images of young girls or women, they take on a different meaning. When I was making these collages, I was thinking of a weird girly diary of a young girl growing up looking at magazines, reality TV shows and social media. What would she take from these sources, if she was seeking guidance or advice? What would she take from the adult world around her? When you grow up, you look at people older than you for inspiration. So, I made this diary based on drawings from images of girls I found on Facebook, adding elements from magazines. Then, I added these headlines that I found. I noticed that quite a lot are focused on how a ‘new body’ can make you happy. A lot of them send a message that you’re happy if you look ‘good’. But, that look is not something a person has, it’s something they aspire to. Cute little nose, big lips, big eyes, boobs. Very standard. Once you achieve that, it will make you ‘happy’ – your relationship is going to be good etc. Obviously, all you need to do to achieve this is cut a little bit here or there. From there, I discovered all the issues with cosmetic surgery. The more they say, ‘I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy’, the more I think that no one is happy. These women are terribly disturbed and unhappy. How do you navigate that? How do you grow up happy under such pressure?
ME: I find your collages to be quite disturbing actually – the way that the text is written reminds me of early advertising, with ‘pin-up’ girls. Of course, this makes me think about the role of a woman and being ‘sexy’ and fits in well with what you’re looking at and trying to get at.
DV: Yes, I set some rules for myself when starting this diary. Pink had to be the dominant colour in them. With the text, I guess I was just trying to make it look nice and I imagined how I would have written it when I was little and I wanted all my books to be beautiful and perfect.
Emotional Support Clutch, 2017
Oil on canvas
29 x 21 cm
Sometimes, I had to tear out a whole page and rewrite it because I didn’t like it– a little bit of perfectionism. This weirdly corresponds with the way that these women are trying to perfect themselves. It’s almost too laboured. When making a work, you need to feel that something is happening, that all the elements are coming together. I rejected a lot of pieces because something didn’t fit, I can’t always explain why.
ME: How do you decide then, which of these to take into a painting? What makes you want to paint it, as opposed to leaving it in that form?
DV: I think that when you work with an image or series of images for long time, there’s always a favourite – perhaps one that intrigues you, sticks with you, challenges you. I do a lot of planning in my head. Sometimes I can’t be in the studio because I have a family and kids, but the work doesn’t stop. In my head, I’m painting over and over. When I come into the studio, I often have a good idea of what I want to do with it. It doesn’t work all the time. It’s quite a long process, going back and forth to find something that works in the end. It’s instinctive, the way I choose the image.
Left: I’m Finally Happy in My Own Skin, 2016
Right: I’ll Keep Having Work Done Until I’m
(from Princess Diaries series)
Pencil and collage on paper
© Image courtesy of Dina Varpahovsky
“Looking at what is
running under the
surface is important
for anyone working with
social media – you are
trying to get through
a lot of filters, lots of
to see what’s going
ME: I can see a reference to film in your paintings, the cropped ones, especially, remind me of film stills – as if they are moments ‘in between’. You wonder what is underneath and what is going to happen next.
DV: I keep returning to crops and I’m planning to make more of those. It’s a great way of looking at things. I like films where there is a presence of menace. You feel it, but you’re not quite sure because everything seems ordinary, like David Lynch’s films.
ME: Are there any specific David Lynch films that inspire you?
DV: Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, obviously. It’s the way he changes a situation that’s perfectly normal and ordinary, using a little detail, to give access to something that is running underneath the surface. Looking at what is running under the surface is important for anyone working with social media – you are trying to get through a lot of filters, lots of staged presentation to see what’s going on underneath. What is going on under that veneer of happiness, success or beauty? We are deeply suspicious about what is underneath and I think that’s what Lynch’s films do.
ME: Can you talk to me about what you’re working on now?
DV: I’ve just finished four new big paintings, and I have been reworking some old paintings too. Whilst looking at the magazines, I became interested in cosmetic surgery and started experimenting with suturing, fabric and needlework. From that, I came up with the idea of making dolls out of canvas, with surgery performed on them. I sew them out of canvas, stuff them and then paint them. I have also been working in watercolours a lot lately. When making work, I think about how important it is for me to create a dialogue with the audience. I like to offer different ways in and keep it open to interpretation, to deny the viewer an easy explanation of what is going on.