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HOW TO TURN RUBBISH INTO ART

The challenges of beauty and contemporary imaging, with collage artist Dana Sychugova.

COLLAGES DANA SYCHUGOVA

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How did you arrive at using collage as your artistic expression?

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of using found objects and imagery. I used to have a "Wreck this Journal" type of book – where you collect objects from the street, glue them into the book and then flip the book – it gives you ideas as to how to modify objects and turn rubbish into art. 

Originally I started experimenting with collage digitally, using Microsoft Paint. The process with that program took about a million years to edit and even longer to print out. Later on I opened the magic of Adobe CC and my life became significantly less stressful. 

After this major revelation I had another one when I found an old box full of 1950s “women’s” magazines in our shed. I had a good laugh reading an article about how to massage your husband’s feet and then thought, despite all this guff, I could still use some of those images for my collages.

What’s your artistic background?

Last year I graduated from Writtle University College with the First Class bachelor’s degree in Contemporary Art & Design, but frankly I got into the arts kind of by accident.  

When I arrived in England my knowledge of the language was poor, yet after studying Culturology (yes, it’s an actual word) at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev I didn’t want to go backwards and do A-levels, hence my options were narrowed to a course where I could fall back on visual imagery. But I’m grateful because it was the right place for me to be.

With collage you can draw from so many different sources for your materials - how do you go about establishing ‘your style’ when every image can be so different?

After some time I came to the point of accepting visual simplicity, and pushing more towards contextual complexity. I would like to think that’s partly what makes my work different. I love tragicomedy, not only within my work but as a genre, and I believe it’s another element that contributes to my work being recognisable.

What themes do you explore within your work?

I see my work as a translation of experiences – but if I had to categorise it would be gender, politics and relationships between generations. 

For me it was a development process rather than a choice. I started by experimenting with the medium. I did not have a clear idea about what it I was actually trying to convey. I was very confused about what makes a good artwork. The biggest struggle was probably to stop sugarcoating a subject into an art form, which is basically just copying, but finding a way to challenge it.

A couple of years ago one of my tutors literally drove me to tears with her critiques, which, looking back now, makes me feel grateful. It made me think harder and start developing my own language to communicate my ideas.

Some of your work seems to be darkly funny - do you feel humour can be a useful tool in talking about difficult subjects?

Absolutely. I honestly cannot imagine my life without laughing at difficult situations. It’s a way of coping, I suppose. And a way of replacing bad energy by turning it into something positive. Some things like mental health, beliefs or complicated family relationships are not meant to be laughed about, yet I see it as a way of exploring these issues and opening up a conversation.

"With social media I think every part of our lives looks more like an algorithm every day."

You describe your work as containing “striking and disturbing juxtapositions” - what drives you to create such strong imagery?

I find it really fascinating, the transition when a subject is turning into matter through a medium. A thought or idea that I would struggle to express with words, can turn out to be something even more specific than words: a single image that (hopefully) has no analogies in this world, and couldn’t have been expressed by anyone else in exactly the same way.

The medium of collage itself inspires me – it’s eclecticism, and the freedom from the rules in 2-dimensional images. Plus you can actually hold it in your hands, it’s pretty crazy to think that to myself sometimes.

I believe that for an artist it’s good to be dedicated to the medium. I’ve never quite understood artists who are trying to make ‘flat sculptures’ or ‘3-dimensional paintings’.

Speaking of being dedicated to the medium, it must take a lot of work to find the images used in your collages?

A lot of the images I use are from old 1960s – 1990s National Geographic issues, old postcards or other random magazines and newspapers. It can be anything that is not flooded with commercial perfectly edited shots of food, clothes or makeup.

It’s hard to describe with words, but contemporary imagery leaves no space for wonder. It is a question that comes with a perfectly prepared answer which you cannot doubt because it’s so obvious. A lot of my work is inspired by images where I could not figure out what exactly they were, and it gave me the opportunity to put them into a completely different context that wasn’t prescribed before.

When I started experimenting with analogue collage I was harshly criticised for my collages looking like another version of an advert, which made me realise that I worry too much about my artwork looking visually attractive and sellable, which also made me question how challenging my artwork actually is and whether I need to look for different sources of imagery. I don’t aim to produce art pieces to match somebody’s curtains or cushions.

So, do you feel a ‘visually attractive’ collage can distract from a more challenging message?

In my opinion it's a choice, you can’t have both. It’s debatable, but to me beauty excludes challenge. Also I think there is a very fine line when it comes to defining yourself as an artist. Nowadays anyone can call themselves an artist and they will be right. Louise Bourgeois was an artist, but a guy making sandwiches at Subway is called a ‘sandwich artist’. 

Because of such diversity I think artists are more conscious about building an audience, including people who are looking for pretty pictures, which kind of sounds like marketing. You market yourself within art and choose which direction to go and what sort of people will relate to what you’ve created in the end. I don’t like this idea, but with social media I think every part of our lives looks more like an algorithm every day.

With most of your material sourced from the past, does your work try to comment on the differences or similarities between then and now?

The fact that I can use old images to talk about common issues now demonstrates the similarity between yesterday and today. Every generation seems to think how different and inevitable their problems are, but these issues were still passed to them from parents. It’s like a pair of flares, the same trousers my mum had, just worn differently.

Do you feel the differences between cultures are greater, such as between the UK and Ukraine? 

The biggest difference I have experienced so far is a freedom of being the woman that I am. Feminism in Ukraine has a vague history. Beauty and femininity are still used as a currency system, determining how “worthy” a woman is. The worst is when women start using this against each other. 

To me this kind of toxic femininity is really not much to do with men. I think it’s poisoning and distractive for women, but luckily here I don’t feel like a minority. I appreciate when nothing pressures women into competing and am happy feeling adequate just being myself. It’s a relief.

Do you feel hopeful when observing the younger generation in Ukraine?

I do – occasionally, though. I feel hopeful because people who were born after 1991 and particularly after the 2000 have a much stronger sense of identity, and better resistance to post-soviet nonsense, that myself and others who are a bit older were fed in school, college, university or by their parents throughout their whole life. 

I say “occasionally” because I feel that developing an identity is a long process, and at the moment a lot of people seem to be replacing it with some kind of passive aggressive nationalism and trying to either deny history or distort it.

Another thing that’s been dragging on in Slavic countries for way too long is an inability to express and experience love. When it comes to love, my family is a bit Orwellian, there was not a single time someone would say “love”. I heard about sex from my parents more often than love… But, to be clear, you would not enjoy what I’ve heard. “No sex in the USSR”, but I think love is the real taboo, even today.

Love is replaced with all sorts: pity, pretending that love is not important, or keeping kids on their toes to the point that by the time they are 20 they’re either depressed, suicidal, anxious as hell or ending up with partners who repeat the same damaging patterns.

At the same time the older generation has tonnes of suppressed anger relating to their past, which is encouraged and manipulated by the media and projected on the inside of the society. I am not very consistent with my hopes.

Finally, what would you like viewers to gain from your work?

I am not sure whether this falls under gaining, but I would like the viewer to see what they see and just let some things go – similar to meditation. Look down, have a laugh or cry because, either way, after that your path will become clearer.