The phenomena of Simonova

In writing about the new YouTube phenomena that is Kseniya Simonova there have been a couple of common threads: “it couldn’t have happened here”, and “but is it art?”
Of course it couldn’t happen here: eight minutes of prime time television with a young (albeit televisually attractive) woman throwing sand about to an edited sound track ranging from bombs to pop music, telling a story through moving pictures about the most harrowing times of her nations’ modern history in which one in five of the population died. Ant & Dec would be struck dumb, and the blessed Cowell would have had her off within nano-seconds.
If you haven’t seen her – do: I think the preliminary round performance is more compelling than the one for the final so that’s the link here – but they’re all on YouTube.

It is easy to believe, for once, the hyperbole: that this performance brought the entire Ukrainian nation to tears. So as a first reflection on the ‘couldn’t happen here debate’: what story telling of a contemporary national event would you select to move the whole British nation? Dunkirk? Diana’s funeral? The London Bombings? No, there’s nothing that would unite us in a nationwide shudder of recognition and shared pain.
And would we allow a 24 year old artist to mediate this shared experience? I doubt it, but ten of millions have tried it on YouTube even though their understanding of the story – and its personal resonance – must in most cases be very slight.
So what of the art. Well, let’s start with Guardian writer James Donaghy’s much blogged quote:

…it’s clear that Simonova has achieved her goal as an artist. If we take it that art’s purpose is to illuminate the world in a new way, provoke a reaction, somehow alter the consciousness of the viewer then her work is a huge success.

He may not have meant to be, but that seems a little grudging – alright as far as it goes. Just consider, first the technique.
I know nothing about sand drawing except that multicoloured postcardy stuff you sometimes see at the seaside. But this is live drawing – making a line and seeing where it goes as Victor Pasmore once described his technique to me. But the material is pretty crude and control must be an immense problem.
This is not a still life sketch though – nor is it quite animation. My nearest parallel is the work of South African artist William Kentridge who has produced extraordinary animated films based on stop-frame filming of works where he draws, then erases, the pictures. This shows the action in motion (although with Kentridge you never see his hand at work, unlike Simonova where the doing is part of the performance) and the rubbed out lines leave ghostly marks as the story progresses.


Simonova takes this idea a step further because the process is the art – as well as the picture. She’ll sketch – say a flight of birds – and moments later they’ll form part of a portrait. This isn’t a single picture, but a constantly moving drama that is visualised in front of us. The ghostly image of the light box (projected on a big screen for the audience who thus have a view of her as performance artist and she even uses simple prompts to set the tone of a piece) mutates as she progresses the story in startling and shocking ways. The end is usually a hand written caption.
And, the whole is choreographed to a sound track that has been thought about in advance and edited so that Simonova’s ‘drawing’ follows the audio story. It is carefully synchronised so one must assume a great deal of rehearsal is involved in order to repeat the outcome.
So it’s art, performance and video all rolled into one. It exists first for the audience – though without the big tv screen it would be a very private experience, and then for us watching both the artist and the audience. I’m not aware that Simonova has made any ‘gallery’ versions of her work, so what we get, we get courtesy of a popular Ukrainian tv show and YouTube.
This to my mind is what is extra-ordinary. Something very discrete, almost incapable of replication and sharing, is transformed by other media into something startling that can be shared by millions.
Where does she go now? What happens to the art? I’ve no idea. But I pray she stays a long way away from Simon Cowell and his Philistine crew.

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