Whitehot Magazine

Images for a New Age: An Interview with Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song

8 1/2 Anti-Social Masks for Instagram: An Exhibition by Kuzma Vosktrikov and Ajuan Song

Orange Art Projects: 208 East 73rd Street, New York

June 25 - July 1, 2019


Kuzma Vostrikov, from New York, and Ajuan Song, originally from China, work together to produce striking photographic images that are both surreal and art historically informed. Their imagery is oriented to a degree toward Asian culture; most of the models used in their art are Asian. At the same time, their vision consists of idiosyncrasies that are based on realistic photographic detail but do not conform to conventional art photography. The photos portray situations that do not exist in real life, yet draw from a reality just beyond our recognition. 

Perhaps, if the world were a bit larger, a bit more taken with visual possibility, we could acknowledge the artists' efforts as indicative of something not so distantly removed from everyday activities. Still, this is art and not documentary photography. The questions that follow are meant to provide WhiteHot's readership with insights into Vostrikov and Song's esthetic and method. Their most important recent project, regularly referred to in their interview answers, is called “Absolutely Augmented Reality,” a series of one hundred photos, which takes as its subject the intersection of fine art, technology, and the notion of authorship in a sequence of richly saturated, theatrical, and symbolic images that use costume, character, and allegory. In a group sense, creative exploration and melancholic intrigue are emphasized. 

Jonathan GoodmanPlease briefly describe your early circumstances: your birthplace and education in Russia and China, respectively; your early experience in New York; how you met and came to work together.

Kuzma VostrikovI was born in New York. Metaphorically. 

Ajuan SongKuzma was raised in a free and artistic environment by his artists' parents. I was born into a traditional family in southern China. My parents had very strict rules on what I could and could not do. Consequently, I was very rebellion when I was a child. At five years old, I persuaded my sister to run away from home with me. 

Accidentally, in hindsight, intentionally, I came to New York in 2014. It is a city in which everybody is trying to be someone and do something. I felt so much like New York was my home. This is because all my ideas and fantasies can be explored. 

Kuzma and I met at that period. I invited him to one of my projects, and afterwards he asked me to collaborate on other projects. Since then, we started our long-term collaboration. It was a miracle. 

Goodman: How do you collaborate on the work you do? Do you talk about specific details? How do you arrange the photo shoot?

First a character or a story comes to mind. Or some kind of symbol. Sometimes that combines with something momentary, something visual. Like a flash of light. 

When we started collaborating we improvised, not knowing what would happen while we were shooting. Nor did we know what image we would end up with. After that we started wanting to go to the other extreme: imagine the final image and then “photograph” it.

For the Absolutely Augmented Reality project (AAR), I made 150 sketches. Details happened to show up in them that seemed to be temporary. Because a pencil depicts a specific angle or perspective, and there’s a thousand ways to view the subject. But it turned out that it was easy for the image we imagined to get stuck and stay in the drawing in one particular angle. It's a little strange, since it is as if you had submerge the drawing in developer and the drawing had come to life there. 

Usually there’s a long distance between the idea and the photograph. Ajuan and I decided ahead of time that we wanted to do one hundred photos for the AAR project. Maybe that was Ajuan’s idea. She always loves to roll up her sleeves and get to work. And I love lying on the sofa.

A shooting arrangement is really the art of not spoiling the idea, rifling through the inventory and decorative garbage to find the immaterial being of the image.

Your images are regularly of Asian models, but the visual implications of your art are usually Surrealist. Is this a merger or a deliberate contrast? Please comment.

Lautréamont, the idol and father of all surrealists, was interpreted as a maniac and a pervert. Publishers refused to publish him. The other side believed that this talented young man was just playing with  genre contexts in literature. One way or another, Lautréamont defined his era for half a century.

If you are free of the epoch’s restrictions, then, by  expressing your outlook, you can be considered a genius. 

There are two reasons we're not surrealists. In AAR we aren’t examining the subconscious complexes of our sexuality. We aren’t taking cues from anyone and we’re not recommending any kind of instant revolutions or topplings of the system. But we are interested in finding an existential space interesting for study, one protected from the claims of technologies and all the fuss that attends it.

The West, with its model of competition, in which everyone except the very best is doomed to perish, is waiting for something similar to happen to Asia. At the same time, Asia, tired of its cultural isolation, is expecting beads and baubles from the West. Indeed, Asia wants to swap them for its own tired soul.

An acquaintance of mine from Tokyo writes proudly that she thinks in English, dreams in English, and reads American poetry. Imagine you’re Jean-Jacques Rousseau and you write a letter to your friend in Beijing: “Hi Mao, I’ve started thinking in Chinese.”

In that situation we ought to follow The Pillow Book.

Please briefly describe the technical details of making your image. You use a camera to record your picture, but then employ the computer to alter it. Can you comment on this unusual manner of working?

We do not have any altering from the computer, so all the images are real and the process is "as is" However, maybe there is an unusual part, in which we set up all the scenes in front of the camera based on sketches, and plans and calculations. Everything you see in the picture is real.

We shot all the images on film cameras, and then we scanned all the negatives in high resolution. There is no digital manipulation. The computer here is to extend visibility and form merely; for instance, we can share the images on the Web.

In conversation, you have described the images you produce as a sequence. But there is no imagistic regularity from one picture to the next. How would you argue that these very different images are related?

If you approach an explanation of AAR from different angles, breaking it down into its component parts, you should get a sense of wholeness. The one hundred photographs are a collection of scenes that we observe from the window of a moving train. Our singular manner of execution, and noticeably static characters, end up troubling  the documentary genre a little. 

Isolated but similar subjects in our art include the following: friendship, doubt, solitude, consumption, playing, contemplation, worry, experimentation, closeness. 

The subject of the research is unified, and also the images and attributes flowing from picture to picture.

The distances between pictures creates a rhythm where the melody becomes a single whole.

Of equal importance, the AAR project contains about 5000 negatives. For each of the one hundred concepts, a series of photographs can be selected, enough for one exhibition. Which is to say we can do a hundred exhibits now. Or even a film made from all the photographs, lasting roughly five minutes.

Often, the imagery feels glossy, to the point of being commercially biased. Is this feeling an acknowledgment of our current cultural circumstances? Are you drawing from traditions that are more business-oriented than inspired by art? Please comment.

We are creating a museum out of our pictures. Sometimes we end up with sketches, sometimes with sharp declarations. We want you to come to us for relaxation. It would be a special sort of relaxation. Almost an emergency room, to be honest. If you’re tired of plastic, in-store discounts, noisy parties, news programs, and construction debris, you can come see us.

For us, museum quality does not mean the type of trim or the high price of the building. We want to work with the content outside the frame, the language, the style. We want to make a statement that is both precise and undefined, and leave the symbol in it.

We don’t want to explode, cut off, castrate, graft on, eat nails or break jaws.

Our goal is to create a new language in photographs that is transformed out of painting, reminiscent of it and at the same time expanding it. A language that brings an element of artistic dialogue into the photograph,and that underlines the symbolic component of the details and their interaction.

A photo like that can resemble a book. Remember Borges’ Book of Sand? You open it and it’s new every time.

You close up the aperture and you get slightly clearer images. All it does is to make the image focused, but it’s a variety of brushwork. It is a different size of brush. 

Commercial photography exists to sell slices of purses and pants, or models’ muzzles. We aren’t selling dresses and boots. We don’t have any boutiques.

Who are some of the artists who have influenced you?

Wilhelm Shenrok. Andrey Platonov and The Foundation Pit book.

Tonino Guerra and Fellini--a childhood of heat, southern climes and the sea. Andrei Tarkovsky, the weeping Stalker.

The confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Osip Mandelstam. Anna Karenina. Sei Shōnagon. Andy Warhol and his factory.

Miles Davis, Michel de Montaigne, the Comte de Lautréamont, Strawberry Fields and Blowup.

Right now, you don't have a gallery in New York. How do you feel about the current possibilities for showing in New York's art world?

We’ve only just landed in New York. There are a lot of new things all around. We’ve finished three big projects recently.

New York’s galleries are like a big bookstore. You can’t open and evaluate all the books.

Putting on an exhibit in New York is easier than anywhere else. Audiences take an interest, nightlife is lively, nobody goes to bed.

But galleries are only one part of the art world.

There are also museums, foundations, critics, collectors, publishers, and so on.

We are creating an expression, a value, our own artistic method, and an archive, collection, including of other artists. Essentially we're creating our own art institute or museum at this point. 

New York is a fantastic place for dialogue. We’d be happy to talk with galleries.

Do you see your artistic production as occurring comfortably within New York art practice? Or do you see yourself as outsiders? 

Your home is where your photo camera is.

When Joyce was still just writing Ulysses, the newspapers announced it. When we were shooting AAR, no reporters or television cameras showed up, but we installed them ourselves. (It feels as if we’re close to the core.)  

It’s luxurious working here. Here it’s easy to put together a team, find people interested in doing something, resolve different artistic things. Of course there is both a human factor and a production factor, gravity, in the end.

Probably somewhere on Mars would be more peaceful, more humane, maybe. It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk wants to fly there and tells all his stories about spaceships. That’s an artist act too. 

Do you feel your work will change as time goes on? If so, how will the imagery change?

Naturally, it’s inevitable that interests evolve. The most important thing is to maintain the necessary level of curiosity. Disillusionment kills the search. I think we can all look forward to a lot of interesting material for interpretation. We’re in a very turbulent zone where many people get emotional. America has thought up a societal model where people love to compete. 

Let’s go back to the question about the future. Probably visual tools will change. We won’t be eternally taking pictures with film--I mean, people don’t fly to space on horses. There is the problem of virtual reality. Now robots are trying to compete with authors. They basically seem to be able to sketch out whatever they want. 

Literally, just last week we were saying that there’s no need for an author.Even commerce becomes frightening because the same danger threatens all of us dinosaurs.

Surprisingly, robots increase the value of a person. We will be one of the last generations able to create. We will die out, but our art, the work of our colleagues, will hang in the world’s best museums, concluding the history of humanitarian society. 

What are your plans for the future? Do you want a presence in Europe and Asia?

On June 25th we’ll have an introduction exhibition in New York called “8½ Anti-Social Masks for Instagram” with a series of portraits from AAR. The event takes place at 208 East 73rd Street in New York City, presented by Orange Art Projects. 

We’re planning another pair of exhibitions dedicated to that project next year. We have also begun work on publishing an AAR photobook. That is a very interesting project, because a book can be perceived as a small museum. And we are working on a documentary about the AAR project which will come out by the end of the year. For the future, we already have two photography projects planned. One smaller one is scheduled for this year.

We love both Europe and Asia, of course, and we’d be happy to collaborate.

Can you comment briefly on the internationalization of art -- your collaboration is an active example of it. Is a worldwide esthetic, lacking in cultural particularity derived from practices that are geographically distant, a problem or a strength? 

Cultural processes and practices are always in search of something new, something spicy. Western culture is fascinated with Asia. And Asia can give a lot  to Western society in terms of philosophy. There’s a reason people are so curious, why they travel to Tibet, why we have Western interpretations of spiritual practices, allusions, musical borrowings. The power, wisdom, and profundity of Asian traditions stirs the emotions in Europe and America.

New discoveries are possible not in the averaging-out of esthetics, but in the contrast of details that inspire us to express new things. In this regard, let’s consider AAR to be Asian. Here Ajuan taught me lyricism, serenity, and hidden energy.

Look at her own photography series, Tear of Nature, and you’ll understand a lot. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


view all articles from this author