Martyrs & Matryoshkas was an exhibition of work by Russian-born, London-based artist Karina Akopyan. Featuring painting, photography, sculpture, installations and a selection of costume pieces, the series is a bold questioning of tradition, religion, ritual, iconography, sexuality and fetishism – in all their jarring coexistence yet inevitable convergence. Questioning the preservation of values and traditions, as either a beautiful necessity or, rather, a deceleration of progress, Akopyan posits this dilemma, with all its dichotomies, deceptions and implications, into the hands of the viewer.
The artist’s use of dark symbolism and sinister subject matter reveals similarities and contrasts between her strict Russian Orthodox heritage and the escapism of the London fetish scene, presenting us with a world of pain, euphoria, frustration, sexual fantasies, imagined memories, and secret aspirations. It is open to interpretation, evoking also the Jungian concept of the unconscious as a dynamic rebalancing of the rational psyche. In such a sense the oneiric symbols in Akopyan’s work form a mise-en-scène of the universal problems of birth, curiosity, grief, carnal temptation, sin, betrayal, pain, illness, search for enlightenment, purification and death.
"One of the themes that catalyzes my attraction to religion is concept of suffering or denial of things to yourself in order to reach humbleness. It’s a rather masochistic concept and this where it crosses with my interest in fetish.
“I would lie if I said I don’t like provoking emotions. Clear messages can be very boring. Why do you need to do all the work for the viewer? I think it’s much more fun to let people find their own interest or meaning in it. I like questioning ideas of normality; I like to think that every single one of us is completely different and unique. But my target is to open discussions and to get some feelings and emotions – hitting taboos often leads to that.” Karina Akopyan
By investigating the link between patriotism and nationalism, she highlights the dilemma between the good and the bad patriot, and questions how identities are affected by the multiple understandings of ‘homeland’. Although on the surface appearing to turn exclusively to her motherland Russia as the focal point, she rejects that this belies any inherent hatred. In reality, much of her primary inspiration is in fact borne out of her love of the country’s artistic, literary, cinematic traditions and masterpieces.
Russian history is full of incredible characters and stories. And while the last 100 years may be the most obvious in her work, it reaches much further back, all the way into Kievan Rus, its pagan past, its folk tales and its superstitions. Akopyan’s work is a dissection a Russian spirit and a Russian character – touching upon the many elements from throughout Russian history that create its modern character. It is through this lens that the contentious questioning of Tradition comes through so strongly in Martyrs & Matryoshkas.