At 22, Asya Zaslavskaya is often the youngest artist at an exhibition or an art residence. She doesn’t want that, however, to detract from her work. “I think it’s all a bit ageist, isn’t it?,” she says. “I’m opposed to the whole ‘young artists under 35’ standard; a lot of people only start their artistic careers at that age.” But if most artists only get to really dedicate themselves to their work after their 20s, then Zaslavskaya is the exception. She started early, first trying her hand at Moscow’s legendary architecture studio for children, DEZ #5. At 11, Zaslavskaya created a sculpture, “The Vacationer,” which towered at almost two metres and served as a humorous response to the subject of that year’s exhibition, What To Be?
“Studying at DEZ #5 freed me from any fear of materials,” says Zaslavskaya, who can easily tell a crosscut saw from a fretsaw — and work them both. She went on to study conservation, which gave her yet more insight into working with media ranging from stone to tempera. “I can’t seem to settle for just one thing,” laughs the artist. “I think it’s both fun and sad: of course I’d like to have a signature style, like some artists I know do — but I am sort of all over the place.”
Indeed, Zaslavskaya’s body of work is incredibly diverse: she works with mixed media such as painting, installation, sculpture, and performance, and uses materials from steel and beads to any other object she finds.
But although Zaslavskaya has mastered different techniques, there are some fundamental subjects — and objects — that she keeps coming back to. One of them is a mirror. “There are some subjects that move me but I can’t quite grasp them, and there are some materials that also intrigue me but I’m not sure why,” Zaslavskaya reflects on her process. “And then, sometimes, a subject meets a material, and then an artwork is born. I think the first piece that came about this way was Hesychasm.”
The work, whose title refers to an Orthodox tradition of contemplative prayer, took form when the artist’s friend gave her an old riza, a protective cover for an Orthodox Christian icon, thinking that the artist might like to conserve it. Instead, Zaslavskaya found a different use for the object, putting a mirror where the icon would usually stand. “I think a mirror tells you that you are here now, that you are present. And it always engages the viewer and draws them into the artwork. I also read somewhere that Baudrillard called Andy Warhol a mirror-man, because many people wanted to meet him not to learn something about him but to learn something about themselves. I like that idea.”
Another big subject in Zaslavskaya’s body of work is the Caucasus, a region she fell in love with while attending the two-week art symposium “Alanika” in Vladikavkaz in 2016.
Ethnically Russian and raised in Moscow, it is a topic she has had to handle with some care. “Of course, I realise that I am from a different culture, but one could say that it is precisely what I am trying to make sense of,” Zaslavskaya says. She feels grateful for the blessing and guidance of Zaurbek Tsugaev, one of the Caucasus’ leading artists, who invited Zaslavskaya to participate in the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art this autumn.
Zaslavskaya’s major Caucasian work is her performance 6/8. The work is based on a wedding tradition shared by Ossetians and Chechens, which sees the bride silently stand in the corner for up to 10 hours during her own wedding, as a sign of respect to the groom’s family. Aside from being physically exhausting (brides cannot eat, drink, or use the bathroom during the ceremony, and often wear heavy dresses and high heels), the ritual is also often emotionally difficult. Usually, the bride will know few people at the ceremony, and cannot speak to friends or family.
Zaslavskaya performed her own version of the ritual, standing for six hours. “It’s like being on pause and watching the world going on around you,” she shares. “And all you have is your memories, your thoughts; people around you are chatting but you can’t speak; they can talk at you, but you can’t reply. You really feel that your life is being divided into what was before this and what will come after.” The artist was helped by the locals, who provided her with a traditional dress and were happy to explain and discuss the ritual. She recalls someone asking her, “But how could you even begin to understand what a bride is feeling at this moment? She is happy!” Zaslavskaya herself began to feel dizzy by her sixth hour of the ritual. “But it was an amazing experience—even though I wasn’t married by the end of it… Or you could say that I am married to contemporary art now. You know, it is something brides do for the person they love and want to spend their whole life with, and I did that too.”
Zaslavskaya says she is looking for subjects that are relevant for everyone, explaining, “It’s not about Us v. Them, it’s about us all.”
“It’s hard to explain why this region that I have no ties to finds its way into my work,” she says. “I think it’s also like a mirror: I’m trying to learn something about myself as well as about this culture.”