Sergey Sapozhnikov on His Grandma, Graffiti, and Rostov-on-Don

Travels of the Russian artist: from Malta to Dagestan

Left: Sergey Sapozhnikov holds a camera for the first time. The photo was taken by Sergey's grandmother, Evgenia Vasilievna Pavlenko. Rostov-on-Don, 1995
Right: Evgenia Vasilievna Pavlenko, Sergei Sapozhnikov's grandmother. The photo was taken by himself. Rostov-on-Don, 1995

Everything started in 1994, when, at the age of ten, I got into music. I used to buy cassettes and listened to rap, which was super popular at the time. It had to do with the advance of Western culture in Russia: “Kinder Surprise,” chewing gums, and “Snickers.” By 1997, I had already started roller skating—the trend eventually reached Rostov-on-Don. We started studying roller skaters and skaters, and grew interested in breakdancing. The film Bullet was showing at that time and that’s where I saw graffiti for the first time—something that later also attracted my attention. 

My grandmother liked photography and was always busy shooting and documenting something: family, trips, and holidays. She was the first person who taught me to hold a camera and it was thanks to her that I realized we needed to photograph ourselves roller-skating and breakdancing and to shoot graffiti, which would not survive otherwise. When I became interested in art-related activities, there were actually no activities associated with it in my hometown, although some communities did exist—for example, “Art or Death” Society (Товарищество «Искусство или смерть»), although its members pretty quickly moved to Moscow.

When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I also travelled to the capital and got in touch with graffiti artists, one of whom came to visit us in Rostov, and so moving out of the city seemed a natural step in my further development. At the age of twenty one, I was already partially living in Moscow, thinking it was extremely cool: I was delighted with its large scale, with the metro… At the age of twenty four or twenty five I entered the Institute of Contemporary Art. We had a very interesting class: Zhenya Antufiev, Sasha Povzner, Taus Makhacheva . . . Perhaps I was lucky, although my choice of that university was mainly determined by the desire to get to know everyone. The Institute itself did not have any influence on me: I never shared its values, aesthetics, and visual language. 

At that point, the strong influence of Western culture in which I had been raised started manifesting itself. People in Moscow really like writing and telling something, reflecting and conceptualizing—this is generally very true of Moscow. But as for me, I was used to listening to Western music, which provides a different understanding of aesthetics in art. I realized that I was more interested in the world and communication with international artists. By the way, I am still strongly connected with music, I also have a large collection of vinyl.

There are three important things I've learned thanks to my experience in photography,  breakdance, and graffiti. First, you need to catch a beautiful moment—this has to do with sport. Secondly, find an angle in which this moment looks spectacular. Third, shoot it by making it look better than it really is. These three principles, plus my fascination with Western cultural trends, played a major role in my studies of contemporary art.

My exhibition activity did not start right away, since I was doing contemporary photography that many failed to understand. In the former USSR, there were several photographers associated with contemporary art: Igor Mukhin, Sergey Bratkov, Arsen Savadov, Boris Mikhailov, and others. My career actually started in 2008 in Moscow, when I was working as Valery Koshlyakov’s assistant. He used to say that I needed to do art in the West. But I was a very young man from a poor family, so I had no opportunity to leave—I was earning my living myself. Thanks to Koshlyakov, I met Vladimir Levashov, who confirmed that it would be difficult for me to build a career in Moscow and said that as soon as Western curators paid attention to me, everything would be fine. In 2010, at the initiative of Teresa Mavica, I met curators of a large exhibition Modernikon organized by the V-A-C Foundation—Irene Calderoni, who was in charge of participants’ selection, and Francesco Bonami, who had the final word in approving their candidatures. It was a joint project with Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Having seen a few photographs of mine there, Irene immediately started negotiations regarding their purchase for the collection of this Turin fund.

Photos from the Khalabuda series by Sergey Sapozhnikov, 2008

My first good museum exhibition, Total Picture, was also held in Italy, at Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, and it was also curated by Francesco Bonami. I am incredibly grateful both to him and Irene, they believed in me. It should be noted that in general I had few solo exhibitions in Russia. I made one in 2010—it was called Retreat and took place in the Paperworks gallery in Moscow. The next was set up only five years later in XL gallery. As a result, my first serious, well-thought exhibition was made in Russia only in 2016—The Drama Machine—curated by Irene Calderoni. Moreover, it was consciously created to be held in Rostov-on-Don. In my opinion, the main thing is to make a high-quality exhibition and it is not so important where it is held—in Moscow or elsewhere. 

By that time, I had already moved back to Rostov. How did it occur? From 2011 to 2013, I spent a lot of time in Europe. I got used to going to biennales, attending all kinds of museums and galleries, and visiting cool exhibitions. Of course, I was studying all Western classical art, Italian churches, paintings, sculptures—I felt delighted by the entire Italian culture. In 2013, when the rent of my Moscow apartment was already due, I decided to go to Malta to study English. This trip completely changed my idea of ​​how I wanted to live. It was incredibly beautiful there, just like paradise. There wasn’t the bustle of Moscow, but I also couldn't find any art life there as such. There was one museum, no galleries, but churches, murals, and the stunning Caravaggio in the Central Cathedral instead. I attended classic acoustic concerts at the church held every Friday.

On returning to Moscow and living there for two or three months, I packed my things and went back to Rostov. I realized that all the most interesting things in my life were not happening in Moscow, and living in Rostov-on-Don was pretty comfortable for me. I accepted my identity. We are often at odds with ourselves, we are ashamed of something, we fail to like things, we look for some flaws and try to seem better. Rostov is my hometown, where I grew up and I know everything, where I understand the course of things. For others it may be totally boring, but it gives me endless food for creativity. I shot all my projects here, including the book City, which I made together with Vladimir Levashov. I don't have to leave the city at all, since I will always have something to do here, and it is very important for me. 

Photos from the City series by Sergei Sapozhnikov

Not long ago, I returned from a trip to Dagestan. Ekaterina Privezentseva, whom I met while preparing an exhibition in Milan, invited me to take part in a local art residency. Then we worked together for a long time and developed a complete trust for each other. When Katya called and invited me to Dagestan, I never had a minute of doubt—I knew I had to go there. On this trip, I was partly inspired by photographers Ron Jude and Axel Hütte. I have lots of their books, and if one day I am able to shoot the way they do, it will be incredible. Speaking about the series on Dagestan, I was guided by the classics and was trying to figure out how to avoid copying anyone—without quoting directly, so as not to seem a follower, and at the same time—to enter into a dialogue with them. I believe it should be done like this.

It took us about ten hours of travelling in the mountains, we were shooting non-stop, tried local food, and were crazy about homemade national dishes. I think one should avoid tourist places, because through them you can never learn anything about the local culture and people. By the way, this is partly why I live in Rostov. Rostov is the real Russia and Moscow is a little fake. It is very important to think realistically. When Katya and I were talking about Dagestan, our initial goal was to draw attention to the region, to make people interested in it and to motivate them to go there. For example, in provincial cities architectural monuments can still be found, but many do not even know about it: in Dagestan we saw the House of Soviets designed by Ivan Zholtovsky and the Rostov Drama Theater named after Gorky, which by the way, was created by architects V. A. Shchuko and V. G. Gelfreich, known for their Lenin State Library project in Moscow. 

This trip was real research through which we aimed to understand what was already present there and with what we could start working. The history of Dagestan, its culture, architecture, national cuisine, arts and crafts, carpets—all this, of course, deserves special attention. In general, small settlements have a special rhythm of life that cannot be found either in Moscow or Rostov. Contemporary photography explores this particular feature, it helps to visually understand ​​how things look, how they have been preserved so far, and what has happened to them. As I have already said, it is important to think through the history of photography, to engage in dialogue with photobooks and other projects, to move in line with what has been reached by artists of the past, so that your work does not become isolated or follow some ambiguous purposes. This is what I am going to continue doing, helping to form interest in the region through photography.

Visage Hall, a North Caucasian perfumery chain, was a sponsor of the art residence in Dagestan.

Smart Art presents the works of Sergey Sapozhnikov.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

Sergey Sapozhnikov
Artist, photographer, curator. He was born in 1984 in Rostov-on-Don and graduated from the Department of Psychology of the Southern Federal University, later he studied at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Lives and works in Rostov-on-Don.