25 year-old London based, Vasilisa Forbes is statuesque and striking but such reductionism centred on natural aesthetics would be a dire crime.
The Russian photographer, videographer and all round visionary creative brings works which sizzle with vibrancy, as glossy colours or obscure and abstract images agitate and instigate visceral reactions. Those almost carnal reactions lead to challenges of the mind as prolonged absorption of her work is a process akin to the talents of Rogue from X Men as osmosis takes place and you are immersed in her intense social polemical commentary as her understanding of popular culture is laid bare in all its glossy, glistening, glory.
So let’s start with your origins where are you from/how old/ and how did imagery become a love and a passion?
I came to London aged around 4/5 years old with my mother. She bought me up pretty much entirely in London. She had been attempting to leave behind all the crap that was Russia in 1991 – poverty, inflation, the rise of the oligarchy, capitalist reformations, bread lines, shortages of food and all provisions. A terrible time to be honest, something you would be amazed to see in the 90’s. My sister was a big influence, she had different interests and aspirations in the arts like, ballet, music, theatre, literature, and fine art. She passed on all that passion for the arts and fuelled the path I would take.
Your voice is strong in your images-describe yourself as a person what moves you, inspires you, angers you.
As a person I am quite mad and I’ve come to realise that more and more- I don’t ever really see reality for reality, my head is always in some other 4D -6D sense. I’ve been attending AA recently and therapy which has changed the way I see the world again – hearing a large variety of peoples’ stories and experiences, who are all so diverse and different from myself and each other has massively allowed me to feel empathy towards humanity on a new scale.
We know that your interests lie in more than just photography explain those loves a bit more from film/video to other aspects?
For me – photography and film are one and the same. I’ve always been involved in music I used to be in bands, played synth, made my own tracks and studied music originally. Film really became a way of putting all my favourite creative things and skills into one place. With film – there is the opportunity to add sound, motion, vfx, animation, even painting to tell the story – so it’s incredible the variety you can add to it. Photography is still so strong in its own right, but for me, the variety and complex mix of creative forces in film is more exciting.
There’s a strong sense of you bringing your Andy Warhol game to play as visual art, pop culture collides in your images-for you where is pop culture at now and how do you try and express that in your images?
He is a big influence on capitalist art, the art world and the entire world in general as it predominantly runs on this post 60’s notion of neo-liberal capitalism (which is of course under huge threat now as people have really had enough). Warhol managed to use, abuse, warp and make the best of the way art can be sold and perceived in a contemporary capitalist environment and he utilised that idea ingeniously.
And of course your brilliant work Waxchick feeds into that.
Well we are actively encouraged by the status quo to become highly separated and ‘individualised’ and spread the notion of ourselves as solo brand constructs who can ‘brand themselves’ and sell themselves as a character-a McDonalds style ‘pinup’ male or female for others to ‘buy into’ or ‘buy’ outright and that is what Waxchick is. She is a commentary on our need to be a false ‘pin-up’ and a brand, our own ‘idol’. In reality, we are not so individualistic – we work with trends, we feed off each other, we borrow from each other to create new ways of looking at things and we copy and borrow from each other.
And what about ideas of ‘power’ in Waxchick.
In ‘Waxchick’ the ‘self your body’ images are like a quasi-empowerment but at the same time are also an empowerment. You can use the idea of the selfie to empower or disempower yourself – the choice is what you the do with that image and what the image is. The idea that women can empower themselves through the opportunity to capture their own body – rather than relying on a male artist or photographer to do it for them, is also a narrative of empowerment.
What was the inspiration behind Waxchick actually?
I was inspired by Allen Jones work and initially it was a direct response to his work – a ‘shout back’ and re-claim of the female body as a female artist. It became about representation, and empowerment. It was also a question – and the survey I got back was mind-blowing for me. I learnt a lot about male and female perceptions towards female sexuality by doing it. I learnt a lot about myself too and why, as a tall, slightly masculine, self-assured female, I often felt anger towards me from both men and women alike and the results from the Waxchick survey really explained that.
Let’s talk more about Western culture and the obsession with selfies.
Well the individual which I used to presume came from a ‘bottom up’ kind of place – youth would encourage the idea and it became more popular but really it all stems from our highly individualistic capitalist economy and ideology. Of course – let’s not be too detrimental about selfies – they are fun and it’s a natural impulse because of the accessibility of cameras on phones– it’s natural to us. As artists and observers – we observe and we make mild commentary and that is partly what art is – observation, social commentary, analysis through various mediums.
In terms of popular culture what type of changes are we seeing?
We are starting to see a huge shift away from that post 60’s, rather 80’s obsession with self-glamour, self-empowerment, individual strength, wealth and the politics of envy. We are seeing the shift because things have come to a head where we have huge amounts of wealth moving around in top circles and huge amounts of influencers and influences but we are in the midst of a very dysfunctional political society-huge amounts of poverty and inequality are coming to the surface against the glare of the corporate world.
Wanted to really talk about your use of colour in your images too vibrant, bolshie colours again elaborate on your use of colour?
In works like Waxchick she is a McDonald’s style pin-up of herself. She has in a sense turned her own female presence into that of a pin-up character for the modern capitalist world: an over glossy, over colourful, over sexualised female ‘idol’ of an idealistic form. Colour creates mood explicitly and is symbolic. Where the red and yellow Waxchick is inspired by the colours of the ‘branded world’ itself, the colours also talk of sexually and presentation. Blue, Red, yellow – these all have a purpose. Red attracts the eye, so does blue, so does yellow – all for different reasons. I leave this open to the viewer to decide as there have been many very obvious and notable studies on colour and its impact on our reaction – but for example Red provokes thoughts of sex, danger, death, blood, lust, love, menstrual cycle, pain, heat.
And how do people react to the other colours you use?
The images particularly of Waxchick on yellow with the red cat suit tend to irritate women and provoke interest from men – which is interesting in terms of the approach to such an image. In women it inspires a sense of anger and disgust-the ‘plastic pin-up’ wax doll that she is, inspires in women viewers generally a sense of intimidation – and they do see the ‘sexism’ in it. It is also interesting how her ‘dominant stance’ which is presumed by viewers of the wax doll, (even when she is acting as furniture in ‘table’), gives women a sense of frustration not at the fact that it appears she is advertising her sexuality but the fact that she is sexual – implicitly, already, just by being blonde and just by being female and by her presence – that irritates female viewers.
What about solidarity among women?
It is really saying something dark about women’s internalised misogyny. In a survey carried out through my work so many interesting things were unearthed. Women were found not to detest Waxchick for the fact she sells her body or uses the body but for the fact she does so with such a sense of ‘power’ or ‘entitlement’ or ‘overt sexuality’ that they find offensive – women themselves do not want to see or do not like to see a dominant and sexual woman. For example, from the research following the release of the images on billboards, it came to be apparent that the more ‘dominant’ female images for example of the Cat suit clad Waxchick – were disliked mostly by female viewers for the fact that the character had a ‘proud sense of sexuality’.
That must have been a surprise to you?
This was shocking to me. They did not notice the implications of the ‘branded idol’ or the plastic-ness of the character. Women also felt the images of ‘self the body’ were empowering and more feminine, due to the nature of her wearing a dress (really, that simple!) It becomes apparent that a lot of sexism stems from women themselves in internalising their feelings of vulnerability and inferiority and using this against women who portray a sense of ‘dominance’ that challenges their ideas also of what women can and should be. The complex issue of female sexuality and their approach to it themselves appears to have a long way to go.
Many of your images focus on you as the subject-other photographer’s artists might focus on other subjects you are not afraid to be in front of the camera-why do you take the place as subject?
It’s the most immediate thing available to me! It’s far more immediate and spontaneous for me to do a shoot with myself than it is to try and convince a model, person or friend to do it with me-plus I like the ability to work alone or in small groups on something that is quite intense. You can’t really do something hugely intense if there are lots of people involved or watching. Also if I need something weird done, like jumping into icy water naked or pouring milkshake over my boobs then instead of spending 2 hours trying to convince an actor to do it, it’s easier for me to do it myself, because I’m the one that really cares about getting that creative moment.
Current discussions regarding the proliferation of pornography state we are becoming de-sensitised to sexual imagery-is this the obvious results of the internet age and social media age?
I don’t think its necessarily caused by social media but yes the internet has helped. Although to be honest if you were brave enough and wanted to see something sexual you could always go to certain bars, clubs, venues, Amsterdam way before the internet. So it’s probably less about that and more about us moving forward as a culture. A natural evolution of ideologies. We are more accepting and more open and accepting. It’s a good thing that nudity is not shamed or overly amplified – nudity needs to be seen in its true state – it’s our bodies it’s the most natural part of us – nudity needs a lot more value. If anything, social media has shamed nudity even more. NSFW and stuff like that, nipple rules and no ‘bum cracks’ make nudity taboo – nudity is not taboo.
We featured a photographer called Abigail Ekue who takes nudes of men and she discusses ‘the female gaze’-is the ‘female gaze’ becoming more prominent now?
It should be! It has always existed. Every photo a woman takes is her ‘female gaze’. It doesn’t just need apply to sexual or sexualised images. It’s just that society has repressed the observations of women as ‘un-important’ or ‘irrelevant’ for such a long time, amazing really that its only in the 20’s we could really start working normal jobs. So it’s just a slow process of normalising the fact that we have eyes too and do see men as sexual beings too and do see ourselves as sexual beings – and that our eyes are saying something as well and what they are saying also matters! if not to men, then it matters to us!
Your inspirations are so varied just briefly discuss the inspirations behind your other works like, Ode and Game of Chess?
Ode was a different stage in my life. This was about exploring a darker sense of spirituality and experimenting with techniques in terms of photography. Game of Chess started off as some experimental and quite ordinary self-portraits which I took pretty much by turning the camera to face my face whilst holding it – very basic, close up, messing with focus. Then, something terribly sad happened to me and instead of drinking or turning to something else, I opened those images up and for some reason decided the post coping process would be to edit those images into emotion. The images themselves became the emotion and the way I was feeling – the darkness, the longing, isolation, the stare. Those are the feelings being projected into space. So the density in those images is all the weight of the emotion of a loss.
Technically what challenges do you face in your efforts to create your work?
Editing is long and frustrating. Usually I am asked to make multiple changes to a music video or fashion shoot. The manager or art director will always want at least 2 changes, this then tends to add up to 4 more changes, then another 4. So some videos I can re-edit over 6-8 times, with a 4-hour session or longer each time – and this can get really painful. For movies I work with Sony A7s II, Black Magic Ursa, Sony Fs7, Canon C300, for photos, 5D.
Of course what subjects are inspiring you to create another stunning body of work?
Now it would be the subject of spiritual growth in a person, as well as human relationships with one another. It’s a very important time considering human relationships. We are starting to really feel the need for a more moral structure to society. People are begging for a society based more on morality – people care about climate change, domestic issues, bodies, gender equality, human equality, ending poverty and corruption – there is a demand for a moral economy and a moral governing system. So it is a really significant time to consider humanities relationship to each other and the earth. My most significant project now aside from my commercial video work is War On Diesel which is all about climate change and air pollution – and campaigning for cleaner air.