Terrill: Having been born and raised in Saint Petersburg, Russia and then later in adulthood moving to Bielefeld, Germany before coming to California in 2000, how have these geographical and cultural changes influenced your experience of the landscape?
Elena: Saint Petersburg is a city of classical architecture — straight lines and subtle, muted colours. It is at its best on sunny winter days, when everything is covered with white, fresh snow — so it is like an ink drawing, with just a few dark lines on a white sheet, and in June, in the time of “white nights”, tender, subtle colours of twilight imperceptibly changing into a new dawn. It is majestically beautiful, a triumph of art — and it is also very imperial, very un-free. An incredible, powerful victory of human spirit against an unwelcoming environment (the city was built on almost uninhabitable swamps, and way too close to the border for the country’s capital — as a symbol of confidence and defiance) — but this achievement required brutal, tyrannical force of monarchy to channel and direct human efforts, and claimed many lives. And however beautiful it is, however much I loved it as a girl, this underlying substrate of suffering and tyranny is always there. In a sense, it is the opposite of freedom. One can see it as a triumph of man over nature — and as we know, this is a self-defeating triumph.
But Art is also everywhere, in the city’s DNA — the city itself, its palaces, its architectural ensembles: unlike most historical cities of Europe, it has not “grown” naturally, it was envisioned and designed. Its museums. Its parks and gardens. The river banks enclosed in beautiful, mighty granite… Almost every view there had been drawn and painted by the time I was born, described in poems and novels, and so filled with intense, crystallised experiences of many artists. So it came naturally to me, from childhood, to see every view through these lenses…
Against this background of my childhood, California is all organic wildness and outburst of all colours of the rainbow, and especially all kinds of green — even if I know that it is a pretty “civilised” place overall. But compared to Saint Petersburg, it is almost like the contrast between nature and mind made visible. As you might have noticed, it took me a while to fully live into it, to allow the relief to the senses, the ease and grace of California to enter my life. And the first thing I came to love were, of course, its colours and its light (which is sometimes quite surreally beautiful) — and its early green, which is the central motive of this exhibition — was one of the strongest first experiences. I missed the fabric of Art, the beauty of architecture — but, as it turns out, I brought it with me: all this history enters my landscapes, in one way or another.