Skip Navigation


Sof'ya Shpurova 'Low Human Activity

Sof’ya Shpurova interviewed by Alastair MacKinven and Andrew Hunt

Alastair MacKinven: When we first met about three years ago, you showed me a book you had made. My memories of it are vague, but if I remember correctly, it was the size of an old phone book (you’ll have to Google what that is), and it had three columns of phrases/ words running down each page. Can you tell me about the book and how you used it to inform, influence and open-up your thinking to generate a visual language for your paintings?

Sof’ya Shpurova: The book was made as an extended version of a smaller publication called How to Fuck Yourself Up in a Week, with the same purpose, except it was orientated towards the creation of performative, real-life activities. I made it as a philosophical game, based on my belief that I have to act in an absurd manner, in order to make sense of an absurd world. This approach was supposed to lead to the overcoming of all existential pain; I interpret books as a hopeful, active thinker, in part as an instruction on how to get somewhere else and transform my life.

In the new version of the book, I chose randomly associated words to produce new paintings, words such as ‘oven’. It’s easier to apply these words in a non-literal sense, and the book contains around 100,000 possible events to describe or think about. So an activity will consist of a verb, a noun, an adjective, or an adverb that instructs me what to do and how to do it. For example ‘explain absence perpetually/map repetition actively/depress movement slowly.’

I used to think that this process was really valuable, because it took away my responsibility for the final work that was produced, but it is also simply a good way to learn about yourself and painting. It was also a breakthrough against the need to make sense, but increasingly I don’t need this method, because I can trick myself more actively.

AM: Do you still use the book, if not why not and has it been replaced by anything?

SS: I still sometimes use the book to spoil canvases, or in order to look for new things, but now it is just one strategy among others. In a sense, I have to choose what to believe in, both in the book and in each painting, because the act of painting offers so much more. I really have faith in the act of believing in the painting at the moment.

AM: I also remember another pre-painting practice of yours, when you stretched a new canvas, after painting it white, the first thing you would do is grab a brush and scrawl some text on it, statements or questions such as ‘WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?’ The writing was always angsty, and eventually it was always completely painted over. Can you tell me about this?

SS: It’s strange that, out of all the tormented things I wrote, you picked this phrase. I think everyone writes on their paintings when they are a little lost. Usually I write something funny or angry, like “I AM SOFKA WHAT ARE YOU/BELIEVE ME THIS IS A TRUE STORY/I AM HUMAN LEAVE ME ALONE I’M BUSY AT WAR DYING INSIDE MAY BE MAY BE NOT”. Mostly, they are embarrassing statements, which I don’t want to remember, but for some reason, I want to be embarrassed for a short while. There is something in the fact that, while I was at the Slade, people were always walking past my work, and I wanted them to read these texts; it provided a feeling of between simultaneously being proud embarrassed. I want people to face these proclamations. The act of writing anything on a perfect and somewhat intimidating canvas feels powerful and it’s important for me to undermine the whole painting as much as I can, so that both I and it are even. It’s a way to have a personal relationship with a painting, so while it’s being produced, I have something to call it, and a reference and a history of our interactions.

AM: You and your boyfriend Sam are often the main protagonists in your paintings. When you paint yourself, do you consider these self-portraits, likewise with Sam as a portrait?

SS: I guess I don’t consider these works to be portraits. When I paint Sam and myself, it’s mainly because I need human figures to perform passive acts, and it didn’t seem right to paint anyone else. I know myself best, and I like how my figure lives in the painting and ‘becomes’ the painting. Other figures feel as if they are collaged onto the work, which feels too constructed, and I want to avoid this. Also I don’t really want to pretend that I am working with predetermined narratives or that I’m a storyteller with a romantic vision of other people. For this reason, it would feel strange to use another person. Sam is so close to me that it feels as correct to paint him as it does to paint myself.

AM: There is a stylisation in the way you paint yourself, a stiffness of rendering, and you also enlarge your eyes. This reminds me of Russian icon painting. Do you have an interest in this genre? When you paint yourself are you turning yourself into an icon?

SS: I like introverted techniques. Appreciating Russian icon painting came to me when I had some time away from them and a certain distance associating these works with the church. The more I subsequently looked at them, the more I realised how strange these paintings are; they seem to lack influence, and this resonates with me, because they are really trying to be their own thing. Paradoxically, the artist’s influence is diminished, because there were so many rules about how to make Russian icon painting: you could almost say they are artworks made with no purpose to be art. I think I have a similar attitude to this process, but to suggest that I’m turning myself into an icon seems a bit too literal to me.

AM: Who is you favourite Russian poet?

SS: I like all of the ‘sad’ ones, like Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky, but I don’t really like to talk too much about poetry.

AM: Andy told me he wants to start painting again after a long break. How would you advise him with his re-engagement with painting, both in terms of technical information and mental strategies?

SS: If I was to starting to paint after a long break I would buy some really cheap material, so that I didn’t feel guilty about throwing expensive paint around. I’d simply paint as much as I could without thinking and attempt to follow whatever went on. I’d try different brushes, paints and approaches, in order to understand my tools. This might sound boring, but it makes a huge difference to have different kinds of blacks, whites, and very large and very small brushes, so you can try everything out, this is what makes you fall in love with painting – it’s very exciting to me. I think it’s important to be aware of all of the different attitudes you can apply, and there is no shame in stealing from other artists; every possibility can be considered. If you get stuck, it’s important to move on straight away, unless you really understand what the problem is. Andy, you can borrow my book if you want!

Andrew Hunt: Thanks, I might do that! Can you tell me how Alastair and others at The Slade influenced your work while you were a student there? For example, you mentioned Neil Jeffries (who also once taught me in Kingston, Neil has been teaching for over thirty-years) suggested you spend a month or longer on a painting, which led to a specific work you are still working on being made over a year later?

SS: Yes, I used to paint very fast in the second year at the Slade, and Neil suggested I try to work on a single painting for a month or two as an experiment. And that made me question what I was making a great deal. In fact, I don’t make fast paintings anymore, it completely changed my way of working.

Alastair and I had many long talks about painting, including how most people want your work to make sense and be easily explained, as well as ideas around abstraction and the power of trying hard. He helped me to understand myself a great deal. It was incredibly valuable for to me to hear Alastair talk, and technically he has many valuable idiosyncratic pieces of advice. For example, I remember he mentioned that if you mix an Old Holland oil paint category ‘C’ or ‘E’ with regular oil paint, it can produce some amazing colours. I now do this as a ritual, even though I’m unsure that it always works.

Andew Stahl was the tutor who brought me in to the painting department, and I am forever grateful for this, because he made me very confident, I used to be anxious and shy about my work, my paintings used to be tiny. I was so lucky to be free in everything that I did at the Slade. And it’s the same with the new ceramics; the whole process is so meaningful because every technical element became a self-taught life-changing discovery. Andrew is so kind he gave me so much confidence and faith in my painting, which I really needed.

AH: The painting mentioned in my last question contains part of a poem on back, Ballade du concours de Blois by François Villon, with the text ‘warmly welcomed, always turned away’ clearly visible. Apparently, this is your father’s favourite poem. Can you tell me about this work, which also suggests a sense of loss?

SS: This is the painting that I’ve worked on the longest, and it means a lot to me. There are many different paintings that exist underneath the surface, a pentimento that shows the struggles of the painting’s development. It has a damaged skin that I feel sympathy for and somehow this makes the painting alive and object-like. What’s interesting to me is that this activates something beyond a pure sensory level. My father read Ballade du concours de Blois to me when I was around fifteen, and I remember understanding and feeling the poem so deeply. I guess this is how many teenagers feel, except this prose stuck with me and I can still feel it. It describes something by stating something else, which is how I attempt to communicate.

AH: Your interest in Russian religious iconography connects to your personal family history, for example you use your collection of your mother’s postcards from her youth to make paintings with encrusted surfaces containing decayed icons. Can you tell me about this imagery?

SS: The reason why this iconography resonates is probably due to the fact that I’ve looked at these images so many times without wanting to. The fact that these pictures were so precious was annoying for me when I was growing up. My mother used to collect all kinds of postcards; there are piles of them in my room in Moscow. I took them because I like going through old things, imagining that I’m an archaeologist. These images have a double history because the postcards are old, while the images are even older. I like decaying objects, and with these icons it’s crazy to think of how many different people’s hands they have been through; how many prayers they have heard.

The most fascinating thing related to painting of course, is the element of time and what this temporal register does in each work. Time, in terms of rhythm and repetition creates such beautiful things, for example, seasonal time and plant growth, precious stones forming in the earth in geological time, death and rebirth, and so on. Similarly, painting is affected by time in so many ways, through its process of making and the history of the medium, as well as the era in which it was painted. It’s a very important tool. Old icon paintings have amazing surfaces for all of these reasons.

AH: Can you tell me about your interest in the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, who Andrei Tarkovsky made a film of in 1966?

SS: Andrei Rublev is considered to be an important artist and is even a saint in the Russian orthodox church. He and his students painted some indescribably beautiful icons. I find the idea of a painter becoming a saint quite peculiar. There is a mythology to Rublev, for example, nobody knows precisely where he is buried, only that his grave is somewhere in the grounds of the monastery where he lived, or which works are his and which are by his students. Most Russian icons are quite small and the images are very fragile, you can usually see through to the old wooden support. I consider these works to be destroyed images, rather than as simple icons.

AH: Do you like the idea of the slow time-based process of fake icon painting – which is made plaster on wood and takes up to five years to complete – and if this slow temporal process in painting is interesting for you in the digital age?

SS: I like all art that is based on hope, belief and real commitment, and in all honestly, I don’t think the digital age is such a big deal, digital technology is simply another tool. I guess it can act in contrast to the slow process of painting or can be in sync with fast gestural expressive painting, but I like to think that I am somewhere closer to the opposite end of digital technology.

AH: Why are you interested in alchemy and mysticism?

SS: Actually for the same reason that I like slow painting and Andrei Rublev. I guess alchemy in general relates to painting and ceramic production. If you think about it, you have these weird earthy ingredients such as powders and clay. You make things while they are wet and wait for them to dry, cook them in a kiln and then something else appears. It’s such a natural process and clay makes me feel right about my existence; it’s such an old human activity. Alchemy relates to the book I mentioned earlier, which sometimes tells me what to do; certain things don’t make sense at the start, and then something unexpected happens and this turns everything on its head.

AH: Can you tell me specifically about The clay-veined girl holds trem-bling skin (me as a retort) (2019), which for me is one of your most successful recent paintings?

SS: I was initially very unsure about this work because it was the last I made at the Slade and it worked so easily. I couldn’t understand how this happened – how certain imagery accumulated so quickly – but now I realise it was because I had made so many paintings intensively before, that it was the end of a natural process. And at that specific moment, I was thinking about the transformation of a creature I had created from clay, which I became very connected to. This character is sleeping but full of thought. So in the painting, I am holding an object that cuts through my skin. It contains a lot of personal symbolism.

AH: Can you tell me about the new work in your solo show at Holden Gallery, which is your first exhibition since leaving art school?

SS: The paintings are currently still being made, but right now there is a consistent theme of ‘hiding’, possibly because I’ve been so scared recently. I guess there has been a conflict in conceiving a project of this nature, a large solo exhibition where there is nowhere for me to hide.

AH: Why did you choose the title ‘Low Human Activity’?

SS: This is the phrase that I use to currently describe the paintings that I make. Hopefully it’s also quite a humorous statement. To me, it implies a painful awareness of being human and also an irreverent insult to the act of painting.

Alastair MacKinven is an artist based in London. He has had recent exhibitions at Reena Spaulings in New York and at Maureen Paley in London (the latter with Behrang Karimi). He was a tutor of Sof’ya Shpurova while she was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.

Andrew Hunt is a curator and writer based in London and Manchester, and is currently Professor of Fine Art and Curating at Manchester

< Exhibition details