“where the sun slices the space in two parts” — ksenia burnasheva, photographerBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Ksenia Burnasheva, the photographer, ran to us through the wintry 5pm darkness outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. When she got close enough, she reached out for a hug as if we weren’t total strangers, and we truly weren’t, after that.
Then we went to an “old man pub” that she recommended for being hidden away. We won’t name it so it can remain just as it is; packed to the rafters with three generations of regulars. The drinks weren’t too cheap, and there was hardly a seat in the place, especially for newcomers like us. But it was a Wednesday, it was winter and it was London!
Big old beautiful London, where Christmas can arrive a month early, and gosh we don’t mind one bit. How can you mind when you’re in a pub full of Wednesday drinkers, the jolliest of the lot; always filling up your glass like Thursday morning will never come. Thriving through a drunk kind of mindfulness, thinking only of this warm minute. Christmas could have begun in September for all we cared; it was Wednesday, our cheeks were warm, the windows were frosty, the lager was frosty and we were piled into a pub with our new photographer friend Ksenia.
There was a fire burning so we sat close by as it snap-crackle-popped away, like a good fire should; like the kind we’ve seen on Netflix that last one perfect hour without a single cut.
Next to the fire, we talked about photography and other interesting things like black holes, snow, Russia, Instagram, couture sex toys and slices of light. At one point a book fell off the mantelpiece, as shocked as we were by the variety of this conversation. It was as if in the course of listening it had sided with absurdity, and in defiance of its own coherent plotline, decided to top itself by self-immolation. Ksenia saved the book and placed it back on the mantelpiece, where it remained for the rest of the evening. We imagine it preferred enjoying the fire with us than fuelling it, after all.
“Black holes are fascinating,” says Ksenia. And we agree.
The best black hole we’ve ever seen was in a photograph Ksenia took of one, for her final year project during her Master’s. Ksenia studied Fine Art Photography at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. Its alumni include famous fashion designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, none of whom made a black hole like Ksenia did. It took two months for Ksenia to build her black hole out of foam, light enough to be suspended in the air with fishing wire. In Ksenia’s photograph of the black hole you can’t see the fishing wire, so the black hole appears to have been trapped in space and time, in the street.
“I had a very playful approach to staging a photograph in front of the lens,” says Ksenia.
Ksenia talks about those dark days a while back, when people questioned whether photography was truly art. “I think now that question is out of the way,” she laughs. Her photograph of the black hole is not making a claim in that old debate but instead questioning the relationship between photography and reality.
She wrote a story about it, and we asked if she’d retell it so we can relay it here, for you.
Ksenia’s story goes: “I saw a black hole, and no one believes me. But I’ve got this photograph because I had a camera with me as I was walking home at night when it appeared. I snapped one image and that’s all that remains. And no one believes me even though I do have an actual photograph showing it. Still, no one thinks it’s real.”
We thought it was a great story; the kind where the made-up bits are like literary onesies that keep the truth all cosy, rested and warm. And since we’d seen the photograph we knew how very true Ksenia could make her not-real black hole feel.
“I miss snow,” says Ksenia, suddenly. “I don’t have enough photographs of snow, in general.”
Today, while we’re writing about meeting Ksenia, it is snowing in Ufa, Russia. Ksenia grew up in Ufa, an industrial city with a population of over one million. She left when she was seventeen to do an art foundation at the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts. We ask her what she thought of England when she moved here; “Shocking,” she says. She returns to Russia once or twice a year to visit her family and friends.
“Lately I’ve been talking to a few people and they’ve been saying Russia’s quite unexplored,” she says. “For me, obviously I grew up there. I know exactly how it feels and it’s like, what do you mean? Don’t you know?”
Ksenia has shot a few images of Russia for her project called Singles; a collection of photographs taken between the UK and Russia over two years. “I shot it on a medium format camera; a really heavy old camera that you wouldn’t just be able to carry around,” she says. “Every now and again I would go out with it, just grab it and go out and see things to photograph. I put the photographs together, eventually, because I saw a certain repetitive style in them; they’re very melancholic and empty, because there are no people.”
The noise in the pub was slowly ascending, like hot water filling a bathtub. We ordered another round of drinks and Ksenia told us about her artist’s residency at the Grange Hotel, where she is now a commercial photographer. She also tells us about working in a gallery. They have a new show on Friday, she says. The artist is coming from New York. “The prints arrived the other day and we stayed up till eleven in the evening,” she says. “It feels like they’re so precious; everyone was wearing white gloves while holding them.”
We ask Ksenia about a collaboration she did with Adele Brydges, an artist and designer of “couture sensual tools”.
“That was one of the weirdest calls I’ve ever gotten!” she exclaims. Ksenia was in Ikea when she received the call from Adele. Adele told her she had seen Ksenia’s work and wanted her to photograph her line of products. Ksenia said, “Yeah that sounds amazing!” But the reception was bad. When Ksenia received the email with the product shots she was surprised.
“They are amazing when you hold them,” she says. “Adele left them in my house for about a month. There was a specific idea behind it: we used natural light.
“I had a lot of ideas. And at the same time I was insecure about how to approach it, so I was kind of hiding the fact that I was insecure about how to photograph a dildo,” she laughs.
“I quite like them, those photographs. And they’re actually sculptures on their own.”
“You could put one up here,” — she mimics holding one next to the books, threatening to tip again, on the mantelpiece — “and you’d never know!”
The conversation moves to Ufa’s art scene.
“Well it’s a bit hard for me to say because I’ve been here for the last nine years and I’m only home for twenty days a year,” she says. “It feels very classical; the traditional Greek school, where you’d have to learn how to draw before you go into other art forms. I think in Moscow, St. Petersburg, the art scene is very different.
“I don’t know what’s really happening nowadays,” she says “I wish I was up to date. I’m so divided in between all those worlds, so I can’t keep up.”
We ask why she picked up a camera in Russia.
“I guess like anyone who just decides to create in the mundane, because every day is—” she laughs, “I don’t want to sound depressing.”
She pauses to have a drink and think. Then she says, “I think it’s also to do with the weather in the winter. This window of three hours during the day when it’s sunny and bright. It gets quite dark, you turn on your computer and you’ve got this unlimited gallery and access to all the latest photography. Slowly and surely you pick up your camera and realise you can do something; you want to do something.
“I think that’s very motivational, because that comes from within, not trends,” she adds. “Or trying to, I don’t know, get into an arts crowd. You either do stuff or you don’t.”
We thought about trends and then we thought about Instagram, which is where we first saw Ksenia’s photographs. And when Ksenia asked how we found her work we said “Instagram”, and she laughed.
She says, “I rejected Instagram for so long because I think a lot of my friends from the MA degree would be like, ‘this is not really for us. We can’t be so playful; we have to have a website; we have to be strict.’
“But then all of the sudden I realised this square format is so intriguing; I thought it was a challenge to constantly think: square, square, square.”
In squares, Ksenia photographs friends, shapes, plants, the outdoors, buildings, herself, art, the sky. She uses Instagram as an exercise in playfulness; there are no rules.
Ksenia takes playfulness seriously; she talks about not letting yourself get boxed in, creatively, and the use of humour in her work. She says one of her favourite artists is Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor and environmentalist. If she had the opportunity to exhibit anywhere it would be New York; “I think New York is very up to date with everything,” she says. “The trends, the ideas seem to be what everyone wants and needs, because art does reflect the public state of mind.”
We ask her what inspires her, and she says, “I think the key word would be observation. Just observing what’s happening and pointing a few things out. You might think you’ve forgot them, but then they’ll come back to you, at some point.
“And there’s travelling, and physically moving through the city.”
Ksenia works six days a week. When she wakes early on a Sunday, she’ll go for a walk. She might bring her camera, or she’ll take shots on her phone.
“I think it’s just looking at things and watching things. And following the light,” she says. “Even the tiny little bit between cracks, where the sun slices the space in two parts.”
When we have to catch our train, Ksenia gives us another hug and remembers, aloud, the moment before we were friends; running to us outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. She says we’ll meet again, maybe in big old beautiful London; where you can walk into a hidden-away pub, packed to the rafters, and leave a little warmer than you were before.
Originally published in The City Talking: London, issue 02.