Dina Varpahovsky, January 2018

Evy Jokhova is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice is rooted in the dialogue between social anthropology, architecture, philosophy and art. Working with sculpture, installation, drawing, film, performance and painting on a project-by-project basis, she investigates the invention of tradition, the creation of social systems and how social behaviour can be altered through architectural construction. Born in Switzerland to Russian parents, Evy has lived in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, Austria and Estonia. This exposure to diverse social and political structures in altering states of flux and stability and the complex relationships between the perceived, the imagined and the accepted norms inform her work. I have been following Evy’s projects for several years and went to see her in Vienna during her residency at the Belvedere Museum.

Courtesy of The Koppel Project

Photograph of Evy Jokhova at RBS 2017 in front of Sketch for failure of budgets II, 2017. Photo credit Anne Purkiss.

Dina Varpahovsky: When did you realise that you wanted to be an artist?


Evy Jokhova: I am not sure exactly, but I have been making things since I was very little. Every Christmas my parents would ask what I wanted for Christmas, and I would say, don’t worry, you don’t need to buy it. I’ll make it myself.


DV: Were you always making rather than looking?


EJ: Definitely always making. Apparently, when I was between 4 and 6 years of age, I used to write books with illustrations, drawing, putting things together, collaging, collecting everything. Even when I was in a pram, my hand would be hanging outside dragging everything in.

DV: You were interested in maths, but had to stop learning it because you were too good at it?

EJ: I was going to study maths at university. In my last two years at school I took maths and art, and it was always a 50/50 chance which one I would pursue. I realised that I would prefer to give my time to art, and at that point I decided to go to London to an art school.


DV: Art won. And you went to Central St Martins to study Fine Art.


EJ: Exactly, although I did a foundation first. My mother suggested something more ‘practical’, like graphic design, which required a Foundation course. One month into it I realised that I would never be a graphic designer, but I am very grateful that I did do the Foundation course, because it taught me so many disciplines. In a way, it reflects in the work I do now, because it is interdisciplinary. I deal with architecture, design, costume, performance, etc.


DV: What did you do after graduating from your BA?


EJ: I was really lucky to be able to continue making art straight away. I had one or two solo shows, I worked in a gallery part-time and I did two year-long residencies. The first one was at Muse in West London. I had a free studio for a year, which was fantastic, because it was not something I could have afforded otherwise. The year after that I did another year-long residency at Florence Trust. Here I had a subsidised studio and great support and mentors. I would have struggled after my BA without the support I received at these residencies.

"Even when I was in a pram, my hand would be hanging outside dragging everything in"

Evy Jokhova. Sisypha, 2017. Sculpture for performance. Installation shot courtesy of Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery.

DV: You studied for an MA in Fine Art at the Royal College of Art in 2011 and for an MA in Political Communication at Goldsmiths in 2013. During these, you completed two research-based projects. How did you become interested in research-based practice?

EJ: This happened at the Royal College. I went to RCA to change my practice. In many ways, the work that I did during and after the BA was like what I am doing now, but it was not quite as in depth and research-based. It drew a lot on life and anthropological studies and observation, but aesthetically it was much more pleasing, pretty, borderline decorative. People who understood it saw that it had darker undertones to it, but on instant observation it seemed too pleasing, too pretty, and I thought it just didn’t work for me.  The work was successful, but I felt that my message was being missed.  So, I wanted to radically change how I approached communicating my thoughts through visual art.


DV: Did you manage to achieve what you wanted?


EJ: It was hard. I was literally breaking everything apart. I went in with a practice that I could have continued and had commercial success with, but it was something I wanted to get rid of completely. I wanted to find a new language and consolidate my ideas. As a result, I didn’t make much physical work. I made a book, a film and started a series of large-scale drawings but the core work was the research project called Being.


I spent most of my two years at RCA writing the dissertation. The dissertation was enabled by my research supervisor, Jonathan Miles. Upon seeing my first draft he advised that he could see that it was going to be a very well written dissertation but that, in over twenty years of doing his job, he’s read it all. 

He told me to write what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write; that it doesn’t have to be an academic paper and if I wanted to write a story or a diary then I could find a way to make it work within the framework and do it. At that point, I realised how my research-practice could be and how I could incorporate text and observation to do something very academic but also artistic and personal at the same time.


So, I set about to make this work. The bulk of the text was written in narrative and prose-poetry. The idea of the dissertation Being was to analyse social housing as I knew it in post-Soviet Russia, in socialist Austria in the late 80s-mid 90s and in the UK post-war welfare state. I analysed architectural theory and objectives that architects and city-planners wanted to achieve versus what actually happened. The core framework, or the central point, was Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, of being in a community and relating to a community, and the more contemporary interpretations of that by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. That was the basis according to which I evaluated the architectural theory.


The dissertation was written as a narrative text, anthologies of stories and poetry with images, and the text was footnoted throughout. The footnotes explained some of the things that stories and the poetry were referring to. If you read the footnotes separately, one leading to another, you had the whole academic text. It is something I still revisit now. One day I would like to publish Being if it fits with my on-going work.

Above: Evy Jokhova.Wotruba Score Melody I and II, 2016. Ink and pigment on Japenese paper. 40 x 600cm. Below: Detail of Wotruba Score Melody I and II

DV: There is a thread that seems to be going through your practice, which is plan versus reality. Is it possible that it originates in your Soviet past with its Five-Year Plans? You remember how, when the government reported on the Plan, the results were always above expectations. Year after year we were told that everything was even better than the Plan, but we knew that the country was disintegrating.


EJ: Definitely. That soviet nature of planning was exactly as you described it, knowing what was happening versus what was reported.  A strong part of it is also my Austrian upbringing, where we also had a plan. I lived in Austria from the age of 5 but spent summers in Russia, and there has always been a comparison between the two countries. In Austria, the plan was usually carried-out and met as expected, and then in Russia there was a bit more chaos. I’m also quite like that personally. I like to plan, to set a very rigid structure, because then I know the base is laid and I can operate outside of it and start breaking it. Humans like to plan things but there are always things you cannot plan for. It feeds into the way I work, because I am always sending in plans for funding. Then I need to submit reports about whether everything went according to the plan, or even better than the plan. In my opinion, humans aren’t made to live within a structure, we always break the rules, but we also always insist on making rules.


DV: And with your site-specific installations, do you also find yourself deviating from the plan?


EJ: Always. No matter how well I plan things, even if I make a full-scale model, one can never experience it as when you are on site. The idea for the piece is usually decided in terms of shape, style and colour palette but the rest happens in the space. But I will always have a plan because it helps to have a starting point.

"The idea for the piece is usually decided in terms of shape, style and colour palette but the rest happens in the space."

DV: One of your ongoing projects, The Shape of Ritual, is exploring the relationship between sound, architecture and the body. As part of the project you have been transcribing three buildings in three different countries and of three different periods into music and sometimes further, into performance and film. Why are all the chosen buildings churches?


EJ: The overriding concept of the project is the fact that mathematics underpins both architecture and music. In classical Western understanding, when you learn music, you also learn about the Pythagorean principles because the ideal harmony, or harmonious piece of music is measured out using these mathematical principles. In a building that is visually harmonious there is a relationship between its architectural features, for example the way the pillars are spaced, and these ideal ratios go back to the same mathematical principles.


It was important for me to choose three types of architecture, classical, gothic and modern, and draw the comparison. The choice of sacred buildings was informed by the fact that churches were built to have music performed inside them and that a lot of care went into respecting these mathematically harmonious proportions in sacred buildings.


DV: I can see how you could trace the Pythagorean principles in a classical building, but when you look at the Wotruba Church… it is ‘pile’ of concrete blocks! Fritz Wotruba was a sculptor, wasn’t he? He was not guided by the classical architectural principles, so why did you choose the Wotruba Church?


EJ: Precisely because of that! It goes against all these conventions and norms and it doesn’t rely on any calculations. A lot of Wotruba’s sculptural work was architectonic sculpture; it was about a body, form, rhythm. Although nothing in his building is measured and calculated, there is a sense of proportion and rhythm that he tried to find intuitively, so I thought for my experiment it would be interesting to research something that is built intuitively and compare it to the two very measured and calculated sites.

DV: Was it a very challenging experience translating this building into music? You mention in your blog that it was impossible to translate the Wotruba church into one single score. You had to make three.


EJ: It was! We didn’t have any original architectural drawings that we could use because the process of making the building was very unusual. Wotruba first made a plaster model of what he wanted the building to look like. Then for nine years he worked in collaboration with young architect Fritz G. Mayr to make this sculptural model into a building that could stand and function. Their first step was to measure the model and every component within it. They made a series of architecturally drawn elevations of the model but this by no means meant that the building would actually stand. What they had to do then was to make a wooden model from the drawings to see if it would work structurally or not. All subsequent changes were made to the wooden model alone, but not to the drawings.


All the cement blocks comprising the church were poured on site. A few more alterations were made in-situ, but not to the wooden model or elevations. So, to make the score, we used some of the original drawings, elements of which were true to the building, and then had to remap the existing building and the wooden model to create a fresh set of drawings. We split the church into twenty-one parts and each part was drawn as an elevation, and then plotted one after the other in a very long sequence. They are all hand drawn, and are the most accurate drawings of the building.


Another difficulty was with grouping the elements. With the other buildings we could group the features, such as pillars, windows and mouldings, but with the Wotruba church we couldn’t group anything; it is all blocks. We had to come up with another way of grouping, so the blocks were grouped by their mass (weight,depth, height) and by their proximity to the body. There were six groups. The biggest were the ones with the most volume, of a darker colour and the closest to the body if you walked around the church on the ground level.

"In Vienna, there is a law that all unoccupied buildings that are about to be demolished or refurbished can be provided entirely rent-free to creative practitioners"

DV: Making this kind of work involves interaction with many people and institutions. How do you approach a museum? What do you find first, buildings or people?


EJ: I found the building first. I came across the Wotruba church by chance doing research for a different project. I grew up in Vienna and I had no idea about the Wotruba church. I was researching some Brutalist buildings in the UK, and the Wotruba church just popped randomly in a Google search, and I thought that it looked crazy. When I read about it and found out that it was built by a sculptor, I knew this was going to be my third building.  


A month later, when I was looking at residencies in Vienna, I came across a residency at Kunstverein das weisse haus, an institution run by artists and art curators. In Vienna, there is a law that all unoccupied buildings that are about to be demolished or refurbished can be provided entirely rent-free to creative practitioners. The concept of this art-collaborative institution is that they take on these disused sites, do all the administration and provide free studio spaces for local artists and residencies for international artists. The timing was just perfect because the next residency was coming up, and I applied to go there with the project about the Wotruba church. Luckily, I got it, and four months later I was travelling to Vienna. On my behalf, Kunstverein das weisse haus approached 21er Haus, where the Wotruba archives are located. I spent three months working with Gabriele Stöger-Spevak, head curator of the archive. Gabriele was really interested in the project and she wanted to include it in the future exhibitions. She also recommended a residency at the Belvedere Museum to continue the project a year later.

Evy Jokhova, Waltraud Brauner & Veronika Zott in front of the Wotruba Church © Belvedere, Wien (Vasilena Stoyanova)

Evy Jokhova. The Shape of Ritual [Wotruba], 2017. 21 Minute HD Video. Video Still.

"It started with a childhood obsession with collecting stones. I spent a lot of summers in the Baltics collecting pebbles on the beach."

DV: And you have now accomplished the project with amazing results. Can you tell me about your obsession with stones? Once, you fed me stones dipped in cheese fondue…

EJ: It started with a childhood obsession with collecting stones. I spent a lot of summers in the Baltics collecting pebbles on the beach. They were pretty. All kids collect stones, but I have never grown out of it. I haven’t counted my stones but I probably have hundreds. So much of what I do and the way I practice is not necessarily about saying things; a lot of the time it is either about asking questions or presenting observations, so that people can find their own answers. This is how I operate, because I grew up in between so many places. I was born in Switzerland, then moved back to Russia, then to Austria. I spent my summers in Russia and Estonia. I was surrounded by different languages, so there has been a lot of observation of very different things happening at the time when I was growing up and trying to understand the world.


This idea of observation is quite a big part of what I do. Over time I have been observing a lot of different uses of stone and how stone was one thing that was constant throughout most cultures. Whether it was a monumental building that represented a political aspect of life in Vienna, or in Communist Russia or elsewhere, or gravestones, or stone collections, or stones as geological specimens, presented in museums. There was this consistent focus on stone. I am also interested in the use of stone as a building material with architecture being a continuous theme in my work. I am more and more aware of the new synthetic materials being created. These materials are cheaper and quicker and easier to use, but they still maintain a certain relationship with stone, for example imitating marble surfaces. The new materials are mimicking the stone, because the culture and value of stone is so intrinsic to everything we do. We keep trying to find new ways of mimicking the stone instead of embracing plastic.


But much of the meaning is lost. If you go up the road in Highgate you will find some very interesting 1960s modernist constructions, concrete, some marble as well. One of those houses from the first floor up is beautiful, very stylish modernist, but the ground-floor foyer, the entrance, has a row of caryatids. Caryatids in ancient Greece held a very strong political meaning. During the Greco-Persian wars the Greeks punished the citizens of Karyæ for siding with Turkey. The men were killed and women and children enslaved.  As a sign of their enslavement, the women were made to wear full dress while working in the fields, in the heat. And a caryatid is this woman in full clothing holding up the buildings that the Greeks built all over to remind the people of Greece and other regions about what happened to Karyæ: ‘Don’t betray the Greeks unless you want to end up like this.’


If you travel around the Greek islands and the Turkish coast in the Mediterranean, you’ll find that so many people have little stacks of stones in the corners of their apartments or in the gardens. I always made it my business to ask everyone why they did it. I make them too, because they are pretty, but maybe the Greeks and the Turkish people have a different meaning for these? Most of the people would say, well this is just what we do. But no one knew exactly why. The one thing that everyone said was that it was a way of preserving a memory of a land they visited, because most of these stones were collected while travelling either in their country or in other places. It was their way of taking something with them because they liked it.  And I thought this was wonderful. 


DV: Talking about residential buildings, you spent two months as an artist in residence in the Bijlmermeer, or Bijlmer, an ill-famed estate in Amsterdam. It has bad reputation but you had a great time! Can you tell me about your experience?


EJ: It is a very interesting place on so many levels, but one of the fascinating things about it is that it still holds a stigma of being dangerous, and this is something that has been consciously construed by the press. When I lived there in March and April, an Uber driver, who emigrated from Indonesia about six years prior, said that, when he and his wife first arrived in Amsterdam, they were told not to go to the Bijlmer; that it is not safe there. Instead they rented a flat in the west, which was a lot more expensive and smaller. Whereas, the Bijlmer is a fantastic place! It has a very thriving community and is totally safe. Like anywhere else, things can and do happen... there is of course some crime, but that’s the same in most large cities, like London for example.

DV: We see the 1960-70s estates being demolished in the UK. What makes Bijlmer different? If it is different?


EJ: The Bijlmer was modelled on the Park Hill estate in Sheffield with the same idea of highways in the sky. It was built in the late 1960s for the middle classes. It was meant to be a new way of life and was intended for young families. By the time it was completed, the middle-class families decided they were not ready for this new way of living, they preferred a town house with a garden. So, they didn’t move in. Actually, some people did and they were called ‘the Bijlmer believers’. Many of them are still there, I met a few during the residency. Many people who would have been interested in a new way of life were single, but because the estate was developed predominantly for families, the flats were bigger and more expensive than a single person could afford.

Evy Jokhova. Sketch for passing through I, 2015. Oil, stone effect and acrylic polymer on linoleum. 40 x 27.5cm.

So, the Bijlmer stood empty for quite a few years. Then in 1975, Surinam, previously a Dutch colony, gained independence and many people from there started coming to Holland for work. At that point the Dutch had a quota of how many non-white people could live in certain areas, so the Surinamese population was placed in Bijlmer, which was a little further out and away from the city centre. Soon it became known as Holland’s only ghetto, and it was given a lot of a bad press. There were many problems with basic legislation, so it was not the architecture that was at fault but how the building was managed. If something went wrong, people had nowhere to report it. Bureaucracy got in the way of everything. The racist attitude towards the black population meant that the police didn’t bother with the Bijlmer. Few people from the outside cared.


Moreover, in the 1990s, air traffic was routed so that airplanes flew over the Bijlmer rather than south Amsterdam, which is closer to the airport but happens to be a much more affluent area. In 1992 an airplane fell into one of the buildings in the Bijlmer. The official death toll was 48 people, but the number of those killed was in the hundreds, as a lot of residents were not registered. This incident brought a lot of attention to the Bijlmer and started a phase of regeneration. A few of the original blocks were demolished. One other large building was set for demolition, but the Dutch authorities said if enough people were to buy flats in the building, it wouldn’t be demolished. Within a week all property in that building was bought, a lot of it by artists. That building still stands. So, about half of the Bijlmer still exists; some things were re-planned, many of the walkways between the houses were torn down; some buildings made a bit lower, and new ones built. Now the Bijlmer is undergoing a new phase of regeneration. It is by far the most culturally diverse place in Holland; there is great food and also initiatives for artists where they are given live-work spaces.


DV: You created two public performances under the title ‘How to live together?’ during your two-month residency at the Bijlmer.


EJ: Yes, Heaven and Hell and Paper, Scissors, Stone were devised using the existing architecture of the Bijlmer. Heaven and Hell was a participatory performance that restaged the meal from the old tale of heaven and hell on the concrete picnic tables forming part of the original Bijlmer monument design. Members of the public were served a vegetarian pasta dish, made by me, and were given 1 metre long cutlery. As in the story of heaven and hell the cutlery was too long for each person to feed themselves but how the participants eat and whether they chose to work together and feed one another was entirely up to them. The design of the ceramic dishes and tableware for the meal was made specifically for the performance at a local ceramic workshop.


For Paper, Scissors, Stone I had three local women doing seemingly mundane tasks on a large concrete platform next to a canal. They were dressed in clothing made from building materials that I bought at a local DIY store. The work references Bijlmer’s redevelopments that were led by a predominantly male architecture bureau. The three women take to regeneration, mimicking household chores: rolling out lengths of clay on a concrete platform, wrapping debris from an original Bijlmer building in the clay as if cocooning it in fabric, and resting on concrete benches. Each task was done for 7 minutes, after which the women rotated, so that each performer did each task once. I asked a local filmmaker, Sangiorgio Dallagee Blonk, to film the performances for me. This was the start of our collaboration in transitioning my research and performances in Bijlmer into a 3-channel video installation. Some of the footage was filmed with a drone.

"Members of the public were served a vegetarian pasta dish, made by me, and were given 1 metre long cutlery."

Evy Jokhova. Sketch for failure of budgets, 2017. Installation shots at Royal British Society of Sculptors. Photographs: Anne Purkiss

"the performances were not devised for the art world, but for local people"

DV: Well, we see estates torn down all over London, new apartment blocks built and sold to foreign investors… Do you find this new development interesting as an artist? What is your take on the change in the housing situation?


EJ: It is definitely something completely new and it is interesting. A lot of houses in 1950-70s were built as social housing because there was a need for housing. Granted, a few of these were not built well and had to be demolished because of structural issues. But now, many are demolished and rebuilt for financial reasons. Social housing doesn’t create revenue, whilst new shiny things do. It is very interesting to observe all these buildings built not to house but to generate money. It is awful and fascinating at the same time.


I have a project that I started when I was still at the Royal College.  I came across a book called Home Sweet Home. It was published by the London County Council (LCC) and contained every building that they built since the inception of LCC in 1889 until 1974, at which point they became Greater London Council. What I set to do was to re-photograph every building in the book. The original photos were taken when the buildings were finished before people moved in. I am systematically re-taking every photo from the exactly same vantage point as the original. I am about one-third of the way through. In many cases the buildings don’t exist anymore, so I search archives to find the exact coordinates of where the original photograph was taken from. But the interesting thing is that most buildings built up to the 1940s, pre-war buildings, are mostly still there. They are good, brick buildings. I guess maybe the communities who live there are still strong. As for the 1950s -60s buildings, some are there and some are not. The 1970s buildings are mostly gone. It tells you a lot about construction and history. Just through doing this project, one learns so much about building and about what is being built now. A lot of buildings in the parts of East London, in the photographs that I had re-taken, are now replaced by those anonymous glass buildings.


DV: If you are not quick enough with this project, you might have to re-photograph the buildings that you have already done!


EJ: I have already had to go back to one of the estates in Kidbrooke. I took a photograph there in 2011 and then I had to come back because that estate had been demolished. Maybe I’ll never finish the project!


DV: How do you evaluate success of your projects?


EJ: By the reaction of the people who come to see them, through conversations that I have about the work. Not always immediately, sometimes these conversations happen a year later. The project in Amsterdam was very interesting because the performances were not devised for the art world, but for local people; they just took place on the monument there. There were many local people who turned up because we were putting flyers and invitations through their post-boxes asking them to participate. A lot of people came to participate but many stayed afterwards and said that it raised awareness about a lot of issues but also about their local environment, the architecture. They found new ways of appreciating it. They found the project itself to be quite moving, although I am a complete outsider. Evaluation happens through the feedback that I get but also through my collaborators. As I mentioned, in Amsterdam I collaborated with a local filmmaker who filmed the performances, and together we made a three-channel video installation from it. He is born and bred in the Bijlmer. His mother was a first-generation immigrant from Surinam. His friends and his social network became involved in the project, so it is about getting people to access art and maybe ask questions and find out things for themselves, maybe through what I do or things that I might trigger.

Evy Jokhova. Sisypha, 2017. Photographic documentation of performance.

DV: What is next?


EJ: On one hand, I will be finishing The Shape of Ritual. Hopefully at the end of 2018/beginning of 2019, I’ll be going out to Rome to translate the third building and will have three singers singing. At the moment, all these translations are done manually but I am hoping to work with 3D scanners and a coder to automate the whole system of translation. That’s sort of in infancy. We are also trying to make some singing sculptures with a friend of mine, who is a coder and a composer, and the singing sculptures will be on SEG motion activated instruments. They will look like my sculptures but, depending on how the audience moves and behaves around them, they will make certain sounds. I am playing with the idea of how we perform in front of the sculptures, and monuments or objects, and whether playing certain sounds influences people’s behaviour.


DV: Would you ever translate residential buildings into music? I’d love to hear what they sound like.


EJ: Me too! When I find 3D scanners and a coder it will be automated and will make things much quicker. I could translate more buildings. We will hear them sing.

Evy Jokhova