Frame 61

Olga Schigal

Frame 61
Olga Schigal

Background/education: I grew up in a small village in Siberia during the last years of the Soviet Union and the Perestroika. It was a hard time for me and my family. After the Fall of the Berlin Wall all the Soviet institutions collapsed and we struggled to survive. I love Russia, but when Germany invited us because my mother is a 'Volga Deutsch' (a group of Germans who emigrated to Russia in the 18th century with Catherine the Great) we decided to move there. At that time I was 17 and for me it was an incredible adventure. The culture shock that I got from the big change of moving from Siberia to Hamburg pushed me to reflect about what connects me to these two cultures. Russia was my home, while Germany was new to me and so different, but still there was something familiar to me.

I have always been attracted to creative jobs, so I decided to spend one year as an apprentice with a stone sculptor, where I learned how to work with material. Meanwhile, I attended drawing and painting courses at the Goettingen University. It is then that I understood I needed to be surrounded by creativity. I sent my portfolio to Kunstakademie in Muenster and I was accepted into the class held by Katharina Frisch. I studied with her for 7 years focusing on sculpture and installations. When I finally got my degree in Fine Art, I decided to move somewhere else because I was feeling a lot of tension in being a Russian-German living in Germany. I needed to live in a different culture. In 2009 I settled in Milan and began my career as an artist. 

Wear/cuddle/sit on: I like the idea that art can be part of our everyday life. I like to 'transform' common objects to give them new meanings, but I also want to keep their original nature, including their functionality. For example, the 'Lucky Sweater', a sweater made of thousands of cloth bracelets, which are sold by African immigrants in the streets of Milan, is a symbolic representation of the pursuit of happiness but it works because it is a real sweater that can be worn.

Red Star symbol: Russian history is my main cultural reference. During Perestroika I was a teenager with no special interest in politics, but the ideology of that age deeply marked my perception of the world.

Still now, politics is not a direct component of my research, rather I am interested in how symbols that express political views become part of our identity, and how they end up to define our world. The Red Star is one of the strongest symbols of my childhood: it was everywhere, in the streets, on clothes, at school, even on the Christmas trees. The Soviet symbols don't mean anything to the world any more, but for me they are still full of the strength that I perceived during my childhood when I saw them as 'the toys of the adults'. In my art I try to give the symbols another life exploring the tension between irony and tragedy. I undergo my metamorphosis together with them to break free from the chain of their memories.

The viewer: When I develop a project, I do not necessarily want to communicate a concept to potential viewers, nor I expect a specific reaction. I try to give an autonomous identity to my works and let them establish a dialogue with the observer. For example, in the installation 'Beyond the cold lands' exhibited in 2011 at the Arnaldo Pomodoro Foundation in Milan, I created a spaced based on my memories. I reconstructed my personal space to show it outside of myself, to share it with others so that in the act of viewing it, the viewer is taken back to the memory and makes it their own. A form of empathy remains suspended between contradictory historical epochs, places lost and found, and antithetical cultures. That is how I try to communicate with a viewer.

Process/inspiration: I like to observe things from distance with no pre-defined point of view, like a child or a stranger for whom even trivial events are interesting and stimulating. Usually, the first sign of a new idea is an uncomfortable feeling. I immediately work it out to transform it into a 'physical shape'. Then I make scratches to test the strength of the idea. From here I continue as an architect: looking for the right material, color, and size. And then as a carpenter, I build what I planned. The process is not always the same. Sometimes new unexpected ideas come when I experiment on something different. I think that these kind of surprises are the best things that can happen to an artist; they are like birthday's gifts!

Studio/routine: Like any other worker, I go to my studio every day. If I am working on a specific project, I spend most of the time on it. Otherwise, I check what is going on in the world of art and look for new sources of inspiration. As a mother, I have to work around the schedule of my daughter, so I don't usually work in the evenings or the weekends. That time is for my family. For the last four years I have been sharing a small studio with a Ceramist in Bovisa, an ex-industrial area of Milan that is now rapidly growing. It is full of contrasts but with a lot of energy that is very favourable for artists. The studio is a semi-basement with no windows, just a big glass door, but there is a nice space outside with an interesting wall completely covered with green and brown mold. I often use it as the background to take pictures of my works. It takes a long time to bring work to the end, so my studio is often very chaotic during this process. Having a very small space, as soon as I finish a work, I clean up completely and then store it in a garage, “parked” and waiting to be exhibited.

Influences: My student-teacher relationship with Katharina Fritsch was complex and sometimes difficult. For me it was very intense, a kind of love-hate relationship and I often wanted to give up, but I learned so much from her. She was my first teacher and she strongly influenced my sensitivity and understanding of contemporary art. When discussing my projects, she never said much but one thing she always repeated was that I had to get my works straight to the point. These words remain clear in my mind. Many other artists influenced me, particularly those able to express the tension between tragedy and irony. One of the best examples is Pino Pascali. His work is playful, light, ironic and fresh. I also like to dive into the web where many artists, especially the young ones, open new horizons for me.

Titles: For me, the title is part of the creative process. In general, I do not use it to describe or simply identify a work but as an integral element. Most of my works are connected with symbols of a specific culture and I try to use the language of that culture for naming them. I am fluent in German, Russian, Italian and English and these are a huge source of inspiration. A language, more than any other thing, can create a sense of belonging that amplifies the power of a work.

Future/shows: I am just back from a sabbatical semester in New Zealand. I lived in Wellington, a beautiful city built in an almost wild landscape, from where I had the opportunity to look at my work from another perspective, far away from my normal routine. I have some ideas for performances with wearable art. For me, this is a new artistic field to explore. I don't have any planned exhibition right now, but I am thinking about public spaces and the audiences on the streets. 

Artist website

Publishing date of this interview 29/04/16