Photo credit: Uldus Bakhtiozina

Text: Kate Max

February 27 2023


If we talk about Uldus Bakhtiozina in the language of facts and achievements, the following immediately comes to mind:

Uldus was named one of the 100 women changing the world for the better by the BBC.

She became first Russian speaker in a history of TED conference.

Vogue Italy named her the Best Young Fashion Photographer at PhotoVogue.

In March 2017 Uldus was a finalist in the Laguna Art Prize.

Uldus has had work exhibited in Russia, England, Germany, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy and the United States.

Uldus’s works are included in permanent collections at the Ruya Foundation of Contemporary Art in Iraq, Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg, Tretyakovskaya Gallery in Moscow.

She has also worked with the Royal Opera House and the Mariinsky Theatre and has created several films.

But if we discard the dry facts, then the most important thing remains: she is an amazing, strong, very talented person in all areas that she undertakes. And today in our interview we will talk about her interesting life and creative path.

There is an opinion that the world is changing now. This is a time of high speed and rapid development. The phrase from “Alice in Wonderland” comes to mind: “Here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that”. How do you feel about it? And is there something that you are afraid of not having time to realize in your life and in your art?

Sometimes such a thought flies through the head at a similar speed. Most often when you enter the world of social networks, where an activity, eventfulness and achievement are the main topics. This is how the illusion of universal activity is formed, but this is such a lie. It is important for me to create in principle, and the older I get, the more interesting the process and the quality, and quality things take a long time to create.

I do not think that I am still afraid of not having time to implement something. Yes, there is no such fear. I see life as very long and full of opportunities. Plus, it seems to me, achievement is measured not by a quantity, but by the weight and the scale. If these are large-scale achievements, then they are a priori not fast, but if you correctly set intermediate goals on the way to a big one, one life should definitely be enough. Though, even in a rush, you can really quickly paint white roses red, especially if you’re scared.

If you get rid of fear, then the rush already fades into the background and meticulousness comes with filtering the important from the unimportant.

Undoubtedly. To date, my biggest project, both in terms of success and in terms of the array of responsibility that I took on in the creation, is my debut feature film “Tzarevna Scaling”.

I think that the success of the film, namely: getting it at the Berlinale as the only feature film from Russia (which today seems even more crazy and unbelievable), screenings around the world from Shanghai to England and Brazil, more than a year on big screens across Russia, many public talks, regarding the film, including the film in various ratings and selections, all this is proportional to the responsibility and risks that I took upon myself in creation.

Failure is more difficult. Probably, as such, it does not exist and will not exist, because all those projects that I consider not to be completely successful were connected with other people’s human factors that I cannot influence. It can be someone else’s fears, ambitions or goals. Here it’s more about the team projects I’ve been involved in. A prime example is my work in the production of Aish and Abhaya, at the Royal Opera House in London. The viewer did not fully catch the final result. I created costumes for the entire performance, but there were still creative individuals in the team. Everyone is very talented, but at some point, the team crumbled into personal ambitions and the project from the synthesis of styles went into fragmentation in blocks, which led to confusion among the viewer.

Individually everything was highly appreciated, but as a general product it did not work. I remember that my argument in disputes was the audience, as the final consumer, for whom I just built a bridge between the media components of the project with a costume, but the choreographer canceled any manifestation of the narrative on the stage, for obvious reasons related to a personal brand. As a result, the project, instead of a cool collaboration, became more like the work of different media, not obviously related to each other. At the same time, the whole project cannot be called a “failure”, but the feeling that it could be cooler remains.

I have several such projects, as a rule, they are connected precisely with those cases when I am not the director of the project or I am not the final authority in making a decision. Because when I don’t have to beg anyone’s fears, everything goes super smoothly and successfully. This is my principle in everything: only forward, only hardcore! Only for the brave, only for the pure!

The memories that we carry through life often influence our creativity. Please share with our readers a story from your life that has had a great impact on you. Perhaps this is a story that you come back to for inspiration. Or a story about the difficulties that you overcame and that helped you become the person you are today.

Sometimes I get the feeling that my whole life is an incredible series of events that are divided into two parts: circumstances for resilience and endurance, and magical stories. Probably one of the significant circumstances or givens, I would call the story associated with my injuries, and it was in this life that I already learned to walk again three times. It definitely made me stronger and taught me discipline in terms of the body, made me a real Gym Freak. But the most interesting thing is that when I was bedridden for the first time, I began to draw very actively. I was 13 years old. The second time I found myself immobilized, I made a clear decision to leave my job as an art director and move on with a focus on art. Over the years, I can say that it also influenced my path as an artist.
In general, life circumstances influence my art a lot. My biggest inspiration is real life, realty drives me a lot, I find it unbelievably interesting and exciting, exploring it, wonder, every day is like a huge journey into that pure realism, which grows and become more and more special and authentically beautiful for me, while all alternative realities expanding.

You already have several films: "The Fisherman's Daughter» (Tzarevna Scaling), "The War of Birds and Animals''... There is an opinion that creativity is born from themes about which the artist cannot keep silent. What do your films talk about? What important themes are you trying to discuss with the audience? And is there something in them that you deliberately keep silent about?

I would rather say that my films are about exactly what I WANT to talk about. Especially the “The Fisherman’s Daughter» (Tzarevna Scaling). This film is multi-layered in its meanings and contains several ideas at once, in different areas. In a simple primary cut, this is a fairy tale, parsing Russian fairy folklore according to archetypes. In a more complex way, it is an excursion into the brightest layers of the history and culture of my country, with a personal challenge to find today’s visual identity of Russian culture through the eyes of a contemporary new-age artist. This film is a dedication to my father, because the characters themselves, on top of all these cultural and historical studies, live their own plots and an additional layer of meanings unfolds there. In general, this film is a good demonstration of the work of my brain, the matrix construction of the plot in parallel senses.

“The war of birds and animals” is an interesting project, as it set the task of drawing attention to the epic of a disappearing people, namely the Vod people. It so happened that the Votic folk tale has become very relevant today. Albeit through a metaphor, it demonstrates, on the one hand, a simple plot, and on the other hand, a very eternal one.

You have worked with several world-renowned theaters: the Mariinsky Theatre and the Royal Opera House. Could you tell us about this experience? How did you become a part of such large and significant projects? What was the most difficult for you, and what was the most enjoyable?

Working with these institutions has become one of the most interesting for me, since both projects are of great scale and significance. In both cases, I was approached specifically for my style, my vision and the request to transfer my language into the production through costume, make-up, overall style. I don’t know of any other work experience, to be honest. But I am aware that this is divine luck for artists when they are approached for creation specifically for their style and they can create freely. It is freedom that produces such incredible results.

At the same time, such projects where I am not a director give me the opportunity to sort of «grounding» myself (bring me down to earth in other words). Observe the other managerial matrices. Analyzing it and myself within help me, as a director, to look more broadly at the needs of the creative individuals subordinate to me. I kind of learn to come from all sides of the processes, discipline not to elevate myself to an absolute, to allow revisions, thereby developing and progressing as a director, as an artist and as a person.

Not so long ago you had your own theatrical experimental debut, where you were the author of the idea, theater director, costume designer. How was this project different from everything you've done before and what did it teach you?

The main difference was in the experiment, a new one. I constantly strive for experimentation, because I see growth and development in it. And if ten years ago I suppressed multimedia skills in myself, then for the last four years I have ceased to hide the versatility of myself as an artist. In the performance «Fur in the game”, in addition to the fact that I wanted to work in the moment, not with cinema, where there is the effect of a delayed choice, but with living flesh, originality, only now, only in this way and “there is no return from the future” (quote from the performance).

I also set the task of synthesis between contemporary art and folklore. So, in this work, the entire scenography was built on generative graphics (artist Artem Moroz), which filled the walls of the old mansion, and it was generated directly from the live performance of folk laments. The choreography was also built in an exceptional way. Together with choreographer Ksana Kovaleva, we invented a whole cycle of human life through the metaphor of movement, where even in the walk of a character there is everything from a pain to an euphoria. In general, from the point of view of a director, everything remained the same for me, I just worked with the moment of the present, with tastes, smells, everything that happens once.

You have twice been a speaker at the famous TED conference. In one of your speeches, you said that it is not easy to become heroes and you choose to work with those who do not give up, and who continue to look for a way to a better life, struggling with life circumstances. How do you select people for your team and actors for your projects? What else is the most important for you? And what kind of people would you never agree to work with?

I don’t think I choose people at the first point, they come to my life organically.

I think like attracts like. It gets worse over the years. My criteria for choosing people for the team and for the frame is getting tougher. I should not only be in love with a person, but also respect him. And I respect strength, charisma, integrity, and morality. In commercial projects, these factors play a lesser role, but when it comes to copyright projects, only so. I like to work with people, not to focus only on my image in the works. I started with self-portraits, like many female artists.

I also passed this stage, I didn’t throw it away, but in my development, I saw the need to give love to others and through others. I find this an important step in my transformation and growth, and I’m very glad that I didn’t get stuck in the stage of only myself in the frame.

Regarding the question of who I would never work with, here I cannot renounce anyone. I am an experimenter and a challenge maker, so there is no such criterion, only personal feelings from a person will give me a yes or no answer.

In the same speech you said that in the process of shooting all your models become silent movie actors. You photograph them at the moment when they fully believe that they can be someone else. What do you feel when the miracle of transformation happens? Tell us about your most memorable shoot, is there one?

The photo community is now divided into those who prefer classic photography: shooting on film, no digital processing and no augmented reality. Others use digital equipment, carefully process their photos and sometimes even create a completely new reality on them. Whose side are you on in this dispute? And what do you think is a distinctive feature of your creativity?

No sides. I personally shoot on analogue, but I do have a medium format digital camera which I use as well sometimes. But I think all of that is just tools. Quality, idea and style that’s more important.

My distinctive feature of my work is that it’s not only shock (as the main character of all contemporary artists), that makes people think and get back to my works after years and perceive it in the new meaning. People often write to me that my works (nowadays it’s mainly films) give them essential answers in their life’s paths. That’s what I find important.

Imagine for a moment that you have the opportunity to go back in time, when you didn't have such a great creative experience, when everything was just beginning for you. What would you say to yourself? What advice would you give yourself?

Don’t listen to some art experts saying that you should concentrate on one media only to build a clear impression of who you are as an artist. Give that all to people, don’t hide that you work with embroidery, sculpture, design, drawings, video, paintings, costume.

I’m very thankful nowadays to my gallery (Anna Nova Art Gallery) which supports all my experiments and believes in my new projects, such as jewelry, performance, films. That’s really great!


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