|Leah Oates: Why did you become an artist, and what do you think the function of an artist is in society?
Sasha Bezzuvov: I became an artist probably for the same reason many people become artists. What other activity allows a grown-up to spend entire days walking around their house in underwear without the disgrace of being considered unemployed. As to the artist’s function in society—I see an artist as a small businessman, creating objects people collect for pleasure, for investment, or for reasons inscrutable. Sometimes these objects and the world they bring forth resonate within an art community and make people think and feel in unexpected ways.
Sasha Bezzubov, interviewed by Leah Oates
Leah Oates: Why did you become an artist, and what do you think the function of an artist is in society?
Sasha Bezzuvov: I became an artist probably for the same reason many people become artists. What other activity allows a grown-up to spend entire days walking around their house in underwear without the disgrace of being considered unemployed.
As to the artist’s function in society—I see an artist as a small businessman, creating objects people collect for pleasure, for investment, or for reasons inscrutable. Sometimes these objects and the world they bring forth resonate within an art community and make people think and feel in unexpected ways. Visual art rarely reaches a massive audience; when it does it is in ways grotesque and distorted, think Pollack or Warhol. So any attribution to art’s influence needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Art’s function in society is little more than insignificant.
On a personal level, as someone who makes photographs, I derive great pleasure and meaning from thinking about the world and trying to find ways to represent it. It engages my mind and body in ways little else can. That for me is sufficient.
LO: Your work focuses on disaster sites, where nature and also humans have affected their environment. How did you come to focus on these themes?
SB: I was watching the news, and there was a program about an aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. The program showed typical American suburbs, cookie-cutter gated communities that are shorthand for the dystopia of the American dream. The usual order, peace, and mundanity of the suburb were suddenly ruptured by a cataclysmic event. The natural disaster ruptures this world and its attendant architecture of pretense. For instance, I made a photograph of a seemingly solid door, but which in fact has a hollow core. The bottom portion of the panel was torn off by a hurricane to reveal the honey comb-like structure such doors are made of. To me it’s a symbol of the seemingly solid world we live in.
I started to conceive of this work in the late 1990s, before the idea of climate change, global warming, and the increase in climate-driven catastrophic events reached the general public. At the time I had a strong feeling that these events had become more frequent and more devastating. The images I saw on the news left me a bit frustrated and uninformed. I wanted to be there to see and understand what actually happens after a natural disaster. This gave birth to the idea of making photographs after such events with a large-format camera that would describe in great detail what happens to houses and roads and trees after a hurricane or a wildfire. The first place I photographed was Bhuj in India after an earthquake in 2001.The two series of photographs that resulted, Things Fall Apart (2001-2007) and Wildfire (2003-2007), were made with a sensibility that is part Romantic, part Environmentalist.
The Romantic artist sought ancient ruins, through which to contemplate the fragility of all things. Rome, a kind of open-air laboratory of ruins, was often the culmination of the Great Tour. The French traveler Chateaubriand wrote, “It is thus that we are warned at each step of our nothingness, man goes to meditate on the ruins of emptiness, he forgets that he himself is a ruin still more unsteady, and that he will fall before these remains do.” In my mind though, a more relevant ruin for someone alive today, is the sight of a natural disaster. These ruins not only invite us to contemplate the nature of impermanence, but will hopefully nudge us to face our own culpability.
Most scientific community now agrees that climate-driven “natural disasters”—wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes are largely due to forces that are caused by rapid climate change, which is in turn caused by us, pumping great amounts of fossil fuels into the atmosphere as we have done since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Because these changes are in essence human-driven, you and I are ultimately responsible for the destruction these natural disasters cause.
LO: How is it for you on a personal level to be in areas where there has been so much destroyed. Is there a reason you do not photograph the people who have been affected, and what do you think the destroyed landscape can tell us about humans’ relationship to the environment?
SB: It is incredibly transporting to be in these places. There is no greater experience of the Sublime than a cross section of a city or miles of a burned forest. It is difficult not to be in awe of the power that turns the solid matter of our civilization into a grotesque curio. Wandering through scenes where objects of great familiarity have been so radically transformed has always made me feel like I was one of the last inhabitants on earth, like the characters in the novel The Road. I somehow survived the Big One, though only temporarily, and am now witnessing our world’s last exhalation. A disaster ruptures the infrastructure, makes the roads impassable, electricity absent, food and shelter not easily available. It makes you realize how completely dependent we are.
When I started working on these projects, I did include people in the photographs. When I looked at the work later, I found that the people had a normalizing effect on the scene; their presence implied to me that things are returning to stability, what is broken will be repaired and so on. The use of the human figure as a marker of hope is a trope in photojournalism; it seems to say that we will overcome, and this is something that I have some doubts about. So, not photographing the people affected is a conscious decision. I wanted these photographs to further the feeling of demise, not qualify them with a sense of hope.
The decision to limit the scope of these photographs to “natural disasters” as opposed to say, destruction caused by war, was compelled by a desire for the work to be somewhat open-ended. War photographs have an impossibly reductive message—war is evil, some party is to blame, this must be stopped, etc. My ambition was to look at destruction almost as a thing without agency, without somehow forgetting that we are the agency. The title for the series, Things Fall Apart, taken from W. B. Yeats’ poem seems to imply a work of indifferent entropy.
LO: Do you travel a lot to places around the world to photograph? Please elaborate.
SB: I travel mostly because I can’t work at home. I’ve been a bit of a nomad most of my life, and I am most motivated to work when on a move, when time feels precious, when I am surrounded by things strange and new, when I am away from the usual business of life. It has been both a blessing and a curse, but I no longer try to fight it.
LO: You just had a baby who is now over a year old. How has having a child affected you and your work?
SB: Having a child made me very tired, and has probably shaved a good ten years off my life. Though I love him to bits, I still do not understand why humans reproduce. I keep hearing that it gets easier, but I have yet to experience this. I now have enormous admiration for artists and all others who continue to create after children. It is a great miracle.
LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
SB: Patti Smith for singing her heart out. Edouard Manet for painting the modern life and pissing off the Academy. Thomas Struth for showing the middle way. Also, J.M. Coetzee, Phillip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho to name just a few.
LO: What advice would you give to artists/photographers who are just starting out, and who want to get their work into shows or fairs?
SB: Ask yourself if your work really contributes anything of value to this world. If the answer is yes, it should give you enough conviction to knock on some doors and write some e-mails.