I am really excited to share with you the work of Debbie Young and Katerina Sidorova, two rising artists who are studying at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. I had the wonderful opportunity to see their work exhibited in I Didn’t Ask For It at OT301 last week in Amsterdam. I was later able to interview them in their studios in The Hague. Read on to find out what inspires these artists to create, their thoughts on group exhibits and Dutch contemporary art, and more!
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I first meet Debbie and Katerina at OT301, the multi-media art organization located near Vondelpark. I am not immediately sure who they are, as the exhibit space is a mass of artistic types draped in woolen coats and decked out in colorful lipstick. Any of these uniquely-dressed people sipping wine and chatting could be the artists. I end up meeting the curator, Lorena, who introduces me to the them. Debbie is wearing the same red lipstick she wears in her video installation piece. I am surprised that I did not immediately recognize her from this work. It might be because her brown hair, straightened in the video, is thick and curly in person. When she speaks, a bright Scottish accent comes out. She and her friend Katerina stand at about the same height- several inches shorter than my 5’8″- but they could not be more different. Katerina has a blunt blonde bob and speaks with a slight Russian accent. They are both curious about how my friend and I ended up here. I gather that OT301 is not a spot frequented by Americans.
I chat with the two artists briefly, and learn a little bit more about their work, which is being displayed in the same, small, vibrant space. We agree to meet the next day in The Hague to chat about their work and to take a tour of their studios. In the meantime, I explore the fascinating artwork displayed by these two artists and let them mingle with the excited crowd.
I Didn’t Ask For It explores the intricacies of human nature through two specific case studies. The first is Deborah Young’s, which examines the relationship between characters in the media and their obsessive fandoms.
The most prominent element of her work is a video installation projected onto a blank, white wall. Here are several stills from this work:
In this video, Young creates a character that is obsessed with Justin Bieber. She performs a youtube tutorial in which she describes how to make Justin Bieber her boyfriend, through a variety of steps that include makeup, confidence, and flirting “techniques.” It is wildly comedic at times, such as when Young steps off her chair to illustrate the importance of flexibility in wooing Justin. Yet it is also alarming to see this character’s dissolution into utter insanity.
A bedspread, shown below, with Justin’s likeness and the likeness of Young’s character, is absurd and yet also unnerving.
Stores do sell Bieber bedspreads (I actually looked and you can buy one here). Yet depicting herself next to Justin on this spread underlines the strangeness of this practice. It demonstrates the lengths that obsession can go in a humorous, light-hearted tone.
The third part of Young’s installation is the following altarpiece:
In this work, sketches of Bieber are framed and surrounded by creepy, deformed, three-dimensional figures. My first instinct is that these little figures are meant to represent the fans who have lost their own identities in their obsession with Bieber.
In the same space, Katerina’s work is displayed. There is only a few feet of space between the two. Katerina’s installation piece is inspired by the the journey of the hero in mythology, and how people buy into mythology as a means of grappling with their own mortality. Envision the previous images, in the same space as the following:
At first, I am not entirely sure what Sidorova’s work was meant to represent, but I recognize symbols of strength and power. The pitchforks stretch from the floor to the ceiling, but are constructed from many separate pieces of wood tied together. The emphasis on construction is clear. The white sheet also undergoes a transformation throughout the trajectory of the work. In the corner, where the light is dim, it is grubby and muddy. The grime disappears closer to the center of the room. The swatch of sheet draped over the pitchforks is completely clean. I look forward to talking with Sidorova to gain more insight into the meaning of this multifaceted work.
The next day I meet Debbie and Katerina at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague. They show me their studios and I am instantly jealous that I don’t go to art school. Everywhere we go we pass friends they say hello to, and art I want to steal. Only in art school do you find a guitar, ten empty cookie boxes, and a human body made of plaster all in the same room. I put my bag on the ground and cloud of white dust splashed across it. They apologize simultaneously, but I say it gives my bag “character.”
Chloe: So guys, tell me about your early experiences with art and how you knew you wanted to be artists!
Debbie: I’ve always been good naturally, it was one of the first things that I really enjoyed doing, and it was mostly drawing cartoons and just drawing all the time. And actually I ended up going to study psychology first because, in Scotland, there is a very realistic way of thinking… [it is] self-deprecating, sort of pretentious, to be seen as an artist, or to see yourself as an artist. Then when I was 21 I decided I wanted to move away from Glasgow [and be an artist]. I just moved to the Hague really on a whim because I got in here.
Katerina: I was growing up under the guidance of my Grandma. She was an engineer but she always wanted to be an artist. She would introduce me to the world of drawing, painting, and just some modeling from clay. It kind of embedded in my brain the fact that you can become an artist but not in Russia. I started to catch up on drawing first by myself, then in my at teens I was really into street art. I was just running around with brushes in my hometown painting- what was it back then? Words and naked ladies I think haha. Trying to be a rebel. Then I started to take it actually serious and I thought that it can be a full time occupation. It is rather recent the realization that I can do this, this is what I am going to do with my life.
Chloe: I want to hear about the work that you two showed at OT301 and what you were trying to convey to viewers. Debbie, tell me about yours.
Debbie: It all started with the idea of the persona, and the hero aspect, the idolizing of a human being. I thought was a really strange concept because we are all humans. But we forget that these are people too just because they have a large skillset and the will to accomplish the goals we all want [to achieve.] So then I was thinking, what’s the contemporary hero? The contemporary hero seems to be celebrities because people aspire to project themselves onto celebrities. They also judge them quite harshly. They rise and fall quite hard. So I was interested in that concept of the E News world, the Kardashians who are superficial, shallow, the mindset of the whole thing. It’s an illusion, the whole world. Even the people who have a lot of skills and make it to the top are turned into this character and therefore are mythologized into this godlike presence. I was really interested in the fandom as well, with Justin Bieber especially, who is the contemporary idol of all the teenage girls. I was thinking he was the best example currently of how to illustrate these crazy fan groups, and how disconcerting this is in a way.
Chloe: How did that influence the fact that you chose to do a video, and that you had the bed sheet? The altar? How did you choose those specific mediums?
Debbie: Video is really fast and you can edit [yourself into] it. This can be superficial, yourself creating this character that is just this YouTube celebrity- which is a new type of celebrity. It’s so accessible and anyone can do it, so people seek to put on this character [to stand out]. That is a really interesting aspect as well. I just did loads of research on YouTube on people who have become famous on YouTube for the makeup tutorials and all these different types of characters. The bed sheet was a teen fan-girl thing but I wanted to make it a renaissance painting with a godlike Justin.
Chloe: Well I like that you put your image onto the bed sheet as well. I thought that was interesting. Can you say more about that?
Debbie: Yeah, well I did that to go with the video mainly because that is the creation of the character. [The character] is almost psychopathic by the end of it and you see a gradual demise of her sanity. So I thought that it would be a funny addition to the video to have the bedsheets. And also just I’ve always been into portraiture and I thought it would be witty.
Chloe: It definitely added even more humor to an already self-consciously funny work. I really enjoyed it! Now Katarina, can you tell me about the work you displayed at OT301?
Katerina: I work with narratives and for this I decided to make it year-long. Each of the works presented would be a step in a story .The whole bigger project is about “The Feat,” and the reflection on the logics of mythology. So the structure [includes] the hero being born, realizing that there was some sin performed in his early life/birth, the necessity to make up for this sin with the Feat, the preparation for The Feat by the family, the wandering, and The Feat itself. Then, the consequences of [The Feat]. So in OT301 I concentrated on the wandering, on when the hero is just becoming this active figure. I was trying to show this first step: leaving the place to try and fight for something, not knowing why, having some weapons that are rather limited and not so much skill or experience yet. But having the drive to do something, and [the hero] doesn’t know what yet. This logic I’m applying to a very simple human thing: how do we deal with the knowledge of our mortality? For me it is about creating this logical construction of narratives, whether it is religion or science or art per say or mythology in the case with this work.
Chloe: So how did you apply this concept of myth as a means of dealing with human mortality, to the materials you used and the form that you created?
Katerina: What I’m trying to do is transform materials that I used in the first steps throughout the whole project. So it all started when the hero realized he’s mortal and that death is really disgusting, with chamber pots made of clay next to a dirty bed of a dead person. The cloth from that bed was washed, ironed, and prepared, sewn together into that big peace of fabric that you saw [at OT301]. The big spades or pitchforks that were holding it used to be legs of a bedframe. So [the materials are] transforming throughout the whole project and they will be reused again in a different form. So the whole journey of the hero is becoming more a journey of materials.
Chloe: That’s such an interesting idea to use the same materials throughout the different acts in the myth. What is the next step in the journey?
Katerina: In the beginning I made quite a strict structure for myself, but it was made in order to break free later on, which is what is happening. So the next thing on the list is, of course, that the hero performs The Feat. He performs the labor. This for me will be the erection of a church or a chapel-like structure. I don’t know yet how it’s going to look. I don’t know if it’s going to stay or fall and what’s going to happen with that.
Chloe: Well I look forward to seeing the next step in hero’s journey, and how you use the same materials to represent that! Now guys, why OT301? What drew you two to the space?
Debbie: We actually got the opportunity through a girl we know, Lorena. She did an open call and Katarina is the one who noticed it, and she asked me [to apply with her].
Katerina: We just had a school show that was quite an exhausting experience, but I had the strong urge to keep on going on our own. As an art student it is very easy to get carried away within this education, and you attempt to forget that this is not your real world. You are in a very safe greenhouse bubble. It is necessary to make first steps outside school already because, if you don’t take initiative, nobody will. When I heard about the opportunity to exhibit at OT301 I didn’t think twice. I figured I’ll just apply, I’ll put Debbie’s name on it, we will figure it out later.
Debbie: So we decided to collaborate because we always sort of end up having quite similar thoughts.
Chloe: How do you guys think the element of having someone else’s work in the same space, influences the way your work is perceived?
Deborah: I think it definitely makes a big difference. We got a lot of comments last night about how it was really surprising that our work was so different, but it seemed to work. We both used sound, so we had to swap [alternate using sound]. Even when Katarina’s sound went over my muted video, it worked. Her music went with it even though it was completely different.
Katerina: Yeah, I think for viewers it worked quite successfully, and that’s what I experienced as well. The main difference between our works is the approach, I guess. In this project I attempt to make things over-serious, over-dramatic, rather dry, and she went for the humorous side. Showing them together exaggerated our original intentions. I think the works were screaming more than if they were just by themselves, and I quite like that.
Chloe: I definitely felt similarly. When my friend and I first saw the Justin Bieber altar we thought it was part of your exhibit Katarina! The white color and the melting shapes… the works really interacted in such an interesting way.
Debbie: They did! We were like, “this is really crazy!”
Chloe: So exciting when things come together like that. What else is exciting you guys right now about the art world in general?
Debbie: Well, it’s really open. You can do anything. You can do installation, which I really like to do. I like the playfulness in today’s art. But mostly I am inspired by old art and other things that aren’t in the art world per say like film and seeing something beautiful in the street.
Chloe: I saw the influence of the old art. The way you portrayed Bieber reminded me of the “Heroic Nude” in history paintings.
Debbie: It was definitely deliberately an academic painting because I wanted it to seem like someone, like a fan, took a lot of time to paint him.
Chloe: Definitely. And Katarina, what’s exciting for you?
Katerina: I think this part is the exciting part for me. [I like] the idea of being able to put up a show yourself and to invite the crowd you want to address your works to. That artist initiative is something that really keeps me going because I know I have the drive to make things happen. Sometimes just making artworks is not enough. Its more about creating somewhat of a platform for discussion around it and putting people who are sincerely interested in your work around you, rather than people who appreciate your work on a purely shallow level.
Chloe: And it must also be exciting for you guys to be experiencing contemporary Dutch art when both of you come from different places. Have you noticed anything specific that stands out about the Dutch contemporary art scene? Are there vibrant Scottish and Russian contemporary art scenes?
Katerina: There is a Russian contemporary art scene, still dealing much with Post-Soviet heritage, which I don’t like. But it’s still emerging now so that’s interesting to look at. With the Dutch art scene I do have more problems. Because these artists have been spoiled with funds for a while, they have gotten little lazy and I never appreciated laziness in thought or in deed. But there are quite some talented people around as well.
Debbie: I don’t think I would make the same art at all if I was in Scotland. It would probably be very Scottish.Scotland has got quite a good art scene. There’s also this tendency to use painting a lot which has rubbed off on me quite a lot. It’s always kind of colorful, always got a lot of humor, kind of more playful than textual. There’s a lot to do with the body and subtleties, whereas in the Netherlands it’s more conceptual. It’s more, maybe minimal? For instance, I was always really disappointed when I first came to the Netherlands because I couldn’t really associate with the art and I was always feeling like it was a bit empty. But there’s certain artists I really like in the Netherlands. Materials are really important [here] in a really tangible way. Art is also quite expressive.
Chloe: Do you think you guys will continue making art here after your graduate?
Debbie: Katarina and I are actually going to go back to Glasgow when we graduate. We’re going to start an artist-run space and show our own work and invite people we’ve met who we really respect art-wise to come and show there as well.
Katerina: We have a quite similar working attitude. We like to work, yeah, simple as that. Debbie’s from Glasgow and she knows the art scene there and she knows there is now energy in the air that is quite receptive for young artists with initiative. We share very similar thoughts on what a true artist is and what that person is ready to do for his work. We want to start our own little space and see how it goes from there!
Chloe: Wow that sounds like a really exciting prospect. I can’t wait to hear about how that goes! I just have one last question for you two. If you could show your work at any gallery or institution in the world, where would it be?
Debbie: Obviously the MoMA in the New York.
Chloe: Oh my God can I curate that exhibit?
Debbie: That’s the dream haha! I do also really love the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It’s such an amazing building, it’s such a cool space. In Hamburg there’s also some really cool places. In Glasgow I would like to exhibit in the Tramway.
Katerina: I have a dream to show my work in my hometown. We just have a contemporary art museum that opened a couple of months ago. It looks horrible. But I dream of the day when it would be quite a vivid institution and I would like to show work there. Apart from that, I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter, just as long as it can reach some people who could respond to it, I’m happy.
After saying goodbye to Debbie and Katarina, I begin the journey back to Amsterdam, images of Justin Bieber and pitchforks swirling in my mind. It is so exciting to see the artists of tomorrow in the beginning phases of their careers. I am sure you will be seeing more from Deborah Young and Katarina Sidorova very soon. Keep an eye out for these talented artists!
Until next time-
xoxo, Chloe ❤