Olga Chagaoutdinova | Storm Ache
Olga Chagaoutdinova was born in the northern Russian town of Khabarovsk, which is about seven hundred kilometres from Vladivostok. She was twenty years old when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika; the sweeping “restructuring” of her country setting her adrift, as she puts it, leaving her “unable to see what to do, or where to go.”
As a member of the first generation of post-communists, Chagaoutdinova quickly set about to give her life new definition. “I called myself a dinosaur,” she told me recently. “I had no future, and so, like many of my generation, I began to search for possible new lives.”
To that end, she married, had a child, and soon established a rather sophisticated advertising and publishing company in eastern Russia (“I was very poor, I was very rich, the pendulum always swinging to extremes, ninety degrees one way and then ninety degrees the other way”). After earning a degree in Russian language and world literature, in 1993, and a certificate for graduate work in “culturology” (she continues to doubt that there actually is such a word), in 1995, at the Republican Institute for Humanities at the State University, St. Petersburg, she came to Canada in 2000, finding her way first to Vancouver and the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. There, her work drew the attention of one of her teachers, photographer Roy Arden, whose supportive role in the shaping of her early career she continues happily to acknowledge. She then journeyed to Montreal, where, in 2005, she earned her MFA in photography from Concordia University.
My first acquaintance with Chagaoutdinova’s art came not through her work as a still photographer, but at a viewing, a few months ago, at Galerie Trois Points in Montreal, of two of her videos, Storm-ache and Stone-ache. Both are galvanizingly theatrical, disturbing, and unforgettable works, one being the opposite of the other. Storm-ache (the “wet” video) shows the artist sitting in a rather insubstantial little dress on a sea wall (in Cuba), her back to the onrushing, wind-lashed waves that inevitably come crashing over her. Because the rhythm of the great breakers is irregular, Chagaoutdinova cannot adequately prepare herself for the next watery onslaught, which, when it hits, seems awesomely destructive, leaving her shaken, soaked, limp, and exhausted. The other video, Stone-ache (the “dry” video), shows the artist, in the same woefully ethereal and non-protective dress, repeatedly falling or rolling down what appears to be an enormous and fearsomely abrasive pile of gravel (somewhere in the Gatineau hills) – only to reappear again (thanks to quick, cruel editing) at the top, clearly condemned – like a feminist anti-Sisyphus – forever to roll down again.
I found it almost impossible, watching Storm-ache, not to think about the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s twenty-eight famous Theses on the Philosophy of History. This thesis, the most familiar one, is concerned with Benjamin’s meditation on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and how the angel appears about to be swept along by a storm “blowing in from Paradise,” a storm that will propel him “into the future to which his back is turned. . . . This storm,” Benjamin continues, “is what we call progress.”
For the storm-ravished Chagaoutdinova, the new wave, the next wave (call it the breaking over her head of capitalism and its discontents), is just as oppressive as the ones that have come before.
-Gary Michael Dault