Armour of Memory

Polina Osipova’s artwork is building an alternate universe of the fantastical
By Ella Joyce | Art | 4 June 2024

Pearl Mechanism, 2020

Born into a colonised ethnic minority in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Polina Osipova’s Chuvash heritage now underpins the core of her artistic practice. Drawing on the literature of Chuvash’s mythological, funerary, and ritual systems as a vessel for reincarnation, Osipova’s multidisciplinary practice constructs an alternate universe of the fantastical, while articulating fears still faced by her people today and the voices of a younger generation relinquishing inhibitions of the state. Building what she calls ‘wearable sculptures’ from traditional techniques passed down through generations of Chuvash mothers and daughters, Osipova reimagines customary embroidery and needlework teachings into beguiling creations. Pearl-adorned headwear is twisted and shaped into crown-like forms, ornate flowers fall from eyes like teardrops and imagery of older generations becomes new forms, rewriting her ancestors’ history.

My Babushka, 2023

Ella Joyce: How did growing up in the Chuvash Republic of Central Russia spark your interest in creating art?
Polina Osipova: I am very grateful for all the difficulties that I had, it was the soil for the growing flowers of art in me. Poverty and limited accessibility encouraged me as a child to use natural materials, or to reuse old clothes and things other people would consider rubbish. I don’t know how it was in Western countries, but it was com – mon for our parents to wash plastic bags from the shop to use them many times, I remember going into the bath and plastic bags were drying. One of my favourite memories is of digging up red clay with my girlfriends in the countryside by the lake, we would sculpt jewellery out of it, let it dry in the sun, and cover it with nail polish. Your brain is always in the process of making things out of almost nothing. I was always making things, trying to escape from reality.

EJ: A lot of your work incorporates traditional practices passed down through generations, where does your creative process usually begin?
PO: Usually there are two ways. If I have an idea in my head and I know what I am doing, or when I want to create something, I twist materials in my hands and arrange the fabric in different ways until my mind creates an image in these abstract forms. It’s like watching the clouds when they seem to take the shape of an animal or something. I don’t usually sketch, unless it’s for com – plex works such as pearl mechanisms, although I made my first ones without any sketches.

Pearl Mechanism, 2020


EJ: We see various recurring motifs in your work such as tears, blood, and pearls. What meaning do these hold for you?
PO: Since I don’t have any artistic systematic education, and I’ve only completed nine years of regular school, my artistic language often consists of simple symbols visually understandable to most people, yet with multiple levels of meaning – I put them together in one work like a mathematical equation. I also often overthink, and such a simple symbolic alphabet helps me to understand myself better.

EJ: Where do you seek inspiration from for your artwork?
PO: Of course, my visual taste and language have been shaped by Chuvash culture. I’m also inspired by cinema, especially the Armenian director and artist Sergei Parajanov, I can’t say that I am inspired by him in terms of imitation, but it is something that has influenced my perception of colour and the way I immerse the viewer in the mythology of my artistic space. I am also now obsessed with the theme of space, not as a story of the unattainable colonisation of space, but how the Chuvash perceive space as an extension of us. The irony is that the third cosmonaut in the Soviet Union and the fifth in the world was a Chuvash. Also, I am very inspired by the women around me, and in fact, by all the women I meet along the way.

“I am very grateful for all the difficulties that I had, it was the soil for the growing flowers of art in me.”

Smile of Memory, 2022


EJ: The idea of inviting people into a mythical world is interesting, what does that look like to you?
PO: Very personal but at the same time available for various interpretations. The world is filled with stories and creatures, and the way it unfolds depends on which portal the viewer enters my artistic world.

EJ: Leading on from your mention of Sergei Parajanov, are there any other ways film, literature or music intertwine themselves in your practice?
PO: What I can immediately recall is the literature on Chuvash mythological, funerary, and ritual systems, which I often base my ideas on. At some point, I stopped reading fiction, unfortunately. I also hardly listen to music, but certain things made an impact on me, such as [Sergei] Rachmaninoff – my favourite and most popular is Preludes in C-sharp minor. I feel that his music is based on some mathematical principles and is quite geometric for me, which is what I strive to achieve in my works but I haven’t been able to yet.

Makeup Manicure, 2023


EJ: Jewellery is reinterpreted in many different ways throughout your artworks, how did this become such a central part of your artistic identity?
PO: I call them ‘wearable sculptures’. It all started with masks, I liked the idea of being able to transform into different creatures, transforming my face into new forms. Then I started making bigger works, one of my favourites is Armour of Memory crafted from archival Soviet family photos framed with pearls. For me this work is not only an obvious metaphor of family as protection but also a heavy trauma that you’re wearing because these photos depict weddings, life, holidays, and funerals. Some of the photos are very heavy mentally, and this makes the armour itself heavier, not only in a physical sense. What I love about my practice is that my work exists in the real world as sculptures and exists in digital as photos and videos of me wearing these sculptures like a second skin, reincarnating as the hero of my artistic world. It makes me laugh that some people know me as ‘mushroom girl’ because my image in the fly hat has become more famous than me.

EJ: We see old photographs used a lot in your work on grills and wearable sculptures, what do you feel they bring to the narrative of your work?
PO: All works with photos are parts of the ongoing project, Between Memories. Some time ago I started to collect and digitise an archive of family photographs that my grandparents took and developed themselves. At the moment I have more than a thousand photos in my collection. Travelling through these memory archives I began to cover the objects around me with copies of the photographs, playing with them, cutting and transforming them in an attempt to make sense of these stories. The starting point of the project and the guiding map was the wearable armour sculpture. By covering the grills with photographs I wanted to show the fragile thread between the temporal and the timeless, you could say that it is metal armour for teeth. One year I will get old and my teeth will disintegrate into small particles and rot, but the photographs on the grills exist outside of this notion of time. It reminds me of the artefacts found in a Pharaoh’s tomb.

“What I love about my practice is that my work exists in the real world as sculptures and exists in digital as photos and videos of me wearing these sculptures like a second skin”

The Horse Mask, 2023


EJ: I particularly love the image of you dressed in red laid atop a white heart, can you tell us a little about that?
PO: I am lying on this heart quilt in the embryo pose, symbolising a new birth or rebirth. This picture is the first prototype of one of the new projects I am working on about dreaming as a transition between conscious and unconscious. That’s why I chose a quilt rather than fabric for the heart. I have always been afraid to fall asleep and I suffer from insomnia, you could say that this is a cap – ture of my abusive relationship with sleep.

EJ: You’ve also collaborated with brands such as Gucci, was fashion an area you always wanted to explore? Is there anyone you’d love to work with in the future?
PO: I consider fashion a part of my world and the artist’s image an inseparable part of their work too. Now I’ve started a friendship with Chanel and I’m doing a small project for Marc Jacobs, I just wake up in the morning and find emails from them! I think they’ve seen my work visually match their aesthetic and vision. My first moment of collaboration was when I was 21 years old and I got this sudden email from Gucci saying that they wanted to incorporate my work into their world. All of my collaborations start with my fond love for a brand whose products sit well in my world and my work. Hermès has given me so many lipsticks and cosmetics this year that I am so in love with so I created a piece especially for Heroine using their lipsticks, mascaras, and brushes [Makeup Manicure]. I would love to further work with brands and luxury second-hand resale platforms. I also have a new collaboration with Swarovski coming up, I am currently making a video with a kinetic sculpture of a moving mechanism and their jewellery. My main dream right now is to create window displays as my favourite film for the past ten years has been Mister Designer [by Oleg Teptsov, 1987] about a window dresser’s mysterious story.

Crystal Rose Tears, 2023


EJ: That’s really exciting. What role does social media play in your work?
PO: Social media used to give a very big platform to artists who live in more isolated communities and not in the West, but I think that’s changed now. For example, before a curator could find me by seeing my work in Instagram recommendations, but now if I put my face out there then the algorithm will prioritise it over my work – all the artists I’ve talked to have noticed this. When your work only lives for fifteen seconds on the internet, on the one hand, it encourages artists to create more beyond social media, but on the other hand, it reduces your visibility.

EJ: Did moving to the UK influence the way you create? What sparked the move?
PO: My move was very sudden, it was the only country where I already had friends and I once did an exhibition in London. The funny thing is that two weeks before my decision to move, I had just returned from a month’s holiday in London and was researching ways to get a talent visa, and then I came to the conclusion that it was almost impossible at that time. A month later, I got approval from the Art Council – now I live here! I have started to use recycled materials even more since moving, now almost all fabrics are from charity shops and I take apart old pearl jewellery to create my work. I don’t know if it’s UK-related or because I’m growing up, but I’ve become more critical of my work here too. However, I’m happy to be safe and know what tomorrow holds because it’s quite hard to concentrate on your work when there’s a disaster going on around you and you’re living in it.

The Armour of Memory, 2021


EJ: Looking back to when you first started creating art compared to now, how has your practice changed?
PO: I think that my approach has become deeper and more thorough, and moved from carefree to more responsible. On the one hand, this is a hindrance, because I am always dissatisfied with the result because of perfectionism. On the other hand, it gives me time and space to find new methods of working. I am thinking more and more often that I need to get an education, because of the structures in my mind, because I am self-taught, and because without education the way of immersion in the environment is much more difficult. In the near future, I’d like to do more residencies and collaborate with other artists with both similar and different visual languages.

The Safe Space, 2023

Feature originally published in Heroine 20.


Read Next