Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov, a Stranger in a Strange World

Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov. Mermaid, 2022. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

In his mid-thirties, this New York based artist of Russian origin has walked a difficult path, from addressing his personal traumas in indirect ways to openly discussing a queer agenda in a powerful body of multimedia work which is currently on view at the city’s Fragment gallery.

In the early years of his career, Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov (b. 1988) worked with what he would call bio-art, using the language of nature to lament man’s proverbial inhumanity to man. His early installations included live ants, dried cow-parsnip plants and a goldfish in a fish-bowl full of mosquito larvae. For many years, he tried to speak about his own personal traumas in oblique ways using extreme caution. “This was a form of escapism. I tried to hide behind the coating of nature, speaking about myself in biological terms, delivering my message through ants and mould”. As a child, his isolation from others sparked a genuine interest in biology which led him to study genetics. “I felt acute disassociation with my own body and with other people, counting myself among animals rather than humans”, he recalls of his childhood. “I had no friends and played only with animals; my best friends were ants”. At school, he was abused by other children because of his homosexuality. His arm was broken three times, and once he was taken to a hospital with concussion. It took him a change of a country and the discovery of a medium to reveal his real self in his art. He began to create sculptural masks and use them in his video and performances, often wearing them himself and posing as a mysterious gender free being. In these works the artist shows the body as something surreal and distorted, questioning the borders between human and non-human, male and female.

In 2020 Fedotov-Fedorov moved to New York. “I went to exhibitions around the city and saw a lot of paintings, this must have had an influence”, he says. At first this environment did not affect his own artistic practice and he remained focused on video and installations. On 24 February of 2022 Fedotov-Fedorov was in New York and shocked by the news footage of Russian troops entering Ukraine. “I tried to think about making conceptual artworks, installations and videos, yet all my thoughts drifted towards fighting and death. It was impossible to work on anything, I found myself paralyzed for months.” The artist cancelled his solo exhibition at Moscow Museum of Modern Art, scheduled for May 2022, for him it was inappropriate to open a show in the midst of such tragedy.

In March, during a three-month sojourn at the ISCP artist residency in New York City began, sponsored by the artist collective AES+F, Fedotov-Fedorov felt the pressure to do something, even though there were no formal obligations as part of the residency. He would see other artists around him continuing to work and he had to host an open studio. In the end, he found himself unable to create art about current tragic events. It was just too raw and distant from his earlier artistic practice. He started to work in graphics and from that gradually found himself painting, in an “almost meditative practice” which helped him to separate himself from what he heard and saw in the media. At the residency there was a big store of art materials, available to the artists free of charge, and there he found rolls of cotton fabric, which he used in his painting. He started work on a new series of paintings which are now on view in his solo show ‘Snake Changing Skin’ at the Fragment Gallery. Their imagery is extremely disturbing. The canvasses are filled with monstrous, half-human genderless creatures with faces full of anguish. The artist himself calls his aesthetics ‘queer horror’, but for him these creatures are not threatening, they are traumatized. “In essence, these are all self-portraits”, he says. While his choice of the medium was influenced by awful news coming from his homeland, the subject matter of these paintings was inspired by memories of his troubled childhood and family who did not support him as well as by more recent events in his life. For many months in New York, Fedotov-Fedorov was verbally abused by a former art dealer who continually made homophobic comments and jokes about him. That unexpected and painful experience worked as a trigger for these works.

His upcoming show, which will include paintings, videos, masks, and a live performance, will take place in the Fragment gallery, whose owners also moved to New York from Russia. Recent events forced the artist to re-actualize his ethnicity, which has never been important to him before. The trend of cancellation of Russian culture has also affected his career. His solo exhibition in Germany was canceled in 2022 because of his Russian origin, something the artist understood. Later that same year, a Russian gallery planned to bring his works to an international art fair yet had to withdraw from it. “Recently, I was called more than once a ‘queer Russian artist’, which is probably an accurate description,” he says. “But my ethnicity was never an important part of my identity for me. I have reflected a lot on whether I was human or not, a boy or a girl, queer or straight. It never came down to my nationality.” It seems there are always parts of one’s identity that society finds unacceptable, no matter how hard you try.

Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov. Snake Changing Skin

Fragment Gallery

New York, USA

7 April – 21 May, 2023

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