I. Dear Paris. An email interview with Evita Vasiljeva

At the beginning of 2020, we started to work on the book Your Time Is My Time, which aims to analyse contemporary art practices among artists from the Baltic countries in the context of shifting global networks and art production. Most of these artists are used to dividing their daily life and work between several cities in distant geographical areas.

In the current situation, with the disruption to everyday habits, and facing uncertainty about future travel and projects, we asked artists to give us an insight into their routines and challenges during the pandemic, which is accompanied and accelerated by a deepening ecological crisis. While we are interested in aspects connected with nomadic life, such as precariousness, migration, presence, a sense of belonging and place, we are also curious about the relationship between the geographical space and the mental space in which artists operate and feel at home, at a time when their work is often virtual and online.

The book eventually aims to capture the turning point in the perception of geographical and social proximity, and the shift towards finding more sustainable artistic methods and practices in response to the challenges from global turbulence.

Your Time Is My Time is expected to be published in 2021.

Compiled and interviewed by Merilin Talumaa and Annika Toots.

Participating artists include: Katja Novitskova, Laura Põld, Ingel Vaikla, Maria Kapajeva, Evita Vasiljeva, Daiga Grantina, Viktor Timofeev, Pakui Hardware, Agne Juodvalkytė, Emilija Škarnulytė, Lina Lapelytė, Young Girl Reading Group.

If the sky is grey, I am wearing blue
Paris, April, 2020

Evita Vasiljeva (1985) is a visual artist from Riga in Latvia. She is currently based in Paris, France, where she was invited to take part in a residency programme at the Fondation Fiminco.

You moved to Paris in January this year to start a nearly year-long residency at the newly opened Fondation Fiminco. The residency was postponed, although you had already moved to Paris to take part in the programme. Can you describe the current situation with the residency?

Due to several unforeseen technical and global issues, the artists on the Fiminco residency were not able to move into the building. At the time of answering this question (mid-April), I don’t really know when we will be able to move in*. In a month or two? We don’t know. Meanwhile, I have been living with two other artists on the residency (the Afghan artist Kubra Khademi and the French artist Jeanne Berbinau Aubry) in a small Airbnb. The place is pleasant, and so are the girls. It’s not bad at all. My parents in Latvia suggested I return to Latvia just before the COVID lockdown, but I decided to stay in Paris. I am trying to be patient, and am waiting for when we will move into the residency building. It will be easier and faster now that I am already in Paris.

What kind of disruption has the current pandemic brought to your work and your personal life? How have you dealt with the social and economic costs, postponing or cancelling planned projects and events?

This is not the first time I have had to wait a long period of time for something, for a residency, a show or a project. Sometimes there are gaps in my art practice, when I ‘keep my head down’, try not to spend money, and save it for later when it will be really useful for future shows. For example, I have kept my head down for the last two winters. One winter I went to Riga, and last winter I went to Spain to minimise my expenses. So I am used to moments when nothing much is happening, and I can focus on forms of ‘input’, instead of ‘output’. The art world has always been unstable, in my opinion. Offers of shows come and go. I’ve learned to be flexible, and always ready to change or adapt.

Can you describe how you currently perceive Paris, and what you find interesting in the cityscape these days at the height of spring?

Some days, when I go out for groceries or go for a run, I’m surprised I’m in Paris. At home I listen to English radio, read books and articles in English, and speak with my flatmates in English. I even hear my neighbours outside my window speaking English. It feels strange to be in Paris in these circumstances. Am I missing the spring? I didn’t see it coming. I made my own little garden in the kitchen. I try not to think of what I don’t have or what I haven’t seen.

If the sky is blue, I am reading a book
Paris, April, 2020

How do you keep fit, both physically and psychologically, in the current lockdown?

I keep to a daily routine I’ve created. I wake up at the same time every morning, get dressed, have my morning coffee, and plan my day. Every day I arrange my daily activities according to the sunlight in the kitchen. Before the sun comes round, I spend some time on my laptop, working on writing, practising French, or learning speed typing. During the sun-hours in the kitchen, I sunbathe, read and write. After that, I have to move. I go shopping for groceries or practise yoga. After that, I need to do something creative, depending on the mood. After 19:00, French lockdown rules allow us to exercise outside. Then I go for a one-hour run with my Afghan flatmate. Then we cook, watch Homeland, and talk about Islam. I try to balance the hours between mental work and physical work, and do not forget to have some fun to stay mentally healthy. To be honest, I never knew I could be so organised.

Your work and your working process are very physical, and materiality plays a central role. For example, concrete, a seductive and playful material you often use in your work, is heavy in mass, and also ecologically damaging. Do you see any need to change the materials you have been working with? Have you wondered about alternative materials and working methods?

I have been thinking a lot about this, especially since my last show in Kaunas, at the Post gallery, where I built the massive sculpture ‘if it is told correctly, it will center on me’ (2019). Mass, gravity, presence, and all the elements that sculpture represents and attracts me with, have recently been on my mind. It has made me think what is important for me to keep, and how I can take some of these ingredients and bring in a new form or medium.

It’s not entirely true that physical materiality plays central role in my work. It has been my method of working for the last few years, and the style that people know me for; but I also make many small works, even out of paper, and large-scale wall posters, and collages, and I also play with language. I am driven by the experience of art, something unexpected that challenges us to see or think of something different. I feel naturally drawn to casting sculptures, because I see them as ‘solidified thoughts’, something without a shape gets frozen in the moment. Sculpture as a medium helps me to go further beyond mind control. I think like a sculptor. However, I could apply this mindset to other media. My friends say I would even be good at IT, because I like to build, create structures, and connect things.

Ideally, I would like to work more on individual commissions, where I can spend time and materials on something lasting and produced to stay in that particular space. I am aware that concrete is not very ecological, and I keep that in mind. I am considering how to use more ready-mades. But then the question of ecology can be taken to extremes. Look how much epoxy is used in art. Even plaster is toxic, oil paint needs white-spirit, and producing ceramics uses up an enormous amount of energy. Everything can be questioned, but I don’t want to. I believe it is important to be aware of global issues and use old materials. At the same time, there has to be room to try, play, fail, and learn to improve. I have tried to replace concrete with compressed grey paper mixtures, but it looked really bad. In my last work, I cast soap. I love this material, but then again … I can’t sell it, because it’s too unstable and deforms. I love those organic and decaying features though, but it damages my own economic system.

You have lived in various cities for 11 years, such as Amsterdam, Riga, Paris and Helsinki. You have also participated in many residency programmes. Working in different cultural contexts and geographical regions has been a natural part of your artistic practice, which, at the same time, has made you definitely more easily adaptable in different social and cultural contexts. Do you think you would be able to give this up, and change your way of life and working methods? How would you describe your (ideal) future living and working situation and conditions?

I am beginning to get tired of moving around, and want to establish a base. But where? I think about that a lot. What would be the ideal place where I would like to stay for the next ten years? What is important to me? What could I adapt, and what could I give up? I make notes on all the cities I live in, and try to find a pattern, which places have more advantages than disadvantages for me personally. What do I need, for myself as a person, and for my work? There is no ideal place. Being in flux is my favourite place to be. Can I give it up? I think it depends on a scale of how much to give up and what. Give up travelling? Completely? Is travelling or moving art an ecological/global problem? Or do I only exhibit and work within a certain radius? Is it okay if I travel somewhere, use local materials, and work on location? These questions are very closely connected to each other, and are very complex. My preferred condition is to make on-site works, go somewhere, analyse the local context, and respond to it as an artist. I like to respect every place, and make something ‘unique’ for it.

If I stay too long in one place, I feel as if my mind has become stuck from a lack of circulation or new perspectives. My ideal situation not to get stuck would be to live in two countries, six months in each, to have a summer and a winter studio.

Making spring in the kitchen. Parisian parks are locked down.
Paris, April, 2020

The current epidemic accelerated processes that were already taking place in society, such as virtual communication, social alienation, constant economic survival mode for small businesses and freelancers, etc. What aspects you perceive as an artist that the pandemic has brought out more deeply in your own work?

My first reaction was a minor panic, because lots of money will move away from art. It was already hard to survive in this field, and now it will be even harder. The situation led me to think of being more responsible for what I do. The art market will be even smaller. That’s fine by me, because I was never dependent on it. So the field will be an even smaller concern of mine. I have a feeling that I slowly want to make more ‘touching’ and ‘personal’ work, more on a sensory level. I feel I want to be more generous, with others and with myself.

Do you believe in a possible fundamental change in the art world and its institutions? Do you consider this to be important? If you could form an ideal and sustainable art scene/art institution model, what would be the most important aspects for you personally?

I have never thought of improving or changing the existing system, because I find it very ‘fixed’. It’s a game with rules, where curators, artists and investors have their roles, more or less. I don’t think I believe in unified systems. What works for one doesn’t work for another. All institutions and their problems are quite different, depending on their aim, location, policies, economy, ambitions and responsibilities. The only thing I have been thinking about in the last few years is how to break free from this cycle, and the dependency on funding systems or private money.

My dream (the ideal system for myself) is to buy a property as a collective with several artists. I want to know that we are fully responsible for maintaining and improving it without any fear of political agendas or real-estate agents or the local authorities. With a bunch of people with a shared interest in sustainability, we would renovate and improve the property, and ensure we have cheap living and working spaces for ourselves first of all, but also enough space to make a café and a gallery, to form a community around it, and develop business plans to be independent financially.

After all these years living and moving between different countries and residencies, I have learned (or become addicted to) the construct of residencies as a place where people meet and work. Simply spending time in a group of strangers with common interests, or having a debate with unexpected arguments, changes something in the mind. It has something to do with movement, whether you are going somewhere, or someone comes to you, or the movement happens in the mind by encountering someone else. There is always something challenging and unexpected about it. I’m addicted to the sensation where I don’t know events will turn out, but I know something will happen. I want to be part of a collective, a community, residency or cult, where these encounters can take place.

* Evita Vasiljeva will start her residency at the Fondation Fiminco in mid-May, 2020.

All the images are taken from Evita Vasiljeva’s personal archive, Paris, April, 2020.