Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov: Snake Changing Skin
On ViewFragment Gallery
April 7–May 21, 2023
From a young age, Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov surrounded himself with insects. Fascinated by their strangeness, the artist was drawn to qualities that would spur aversion in most people: the insects were unpopular outsiders he could identify with. Growing up queer in Russia, Fedotov-Fedorov was repeatedly emotionally and physically harassed by his peers. As the artist related to me, this adversity caused him to disassociate from his body entirely, and he came to think of himself more as a creature than a human being.
Fedotov-Fedorov’s current solo exhibition in New York, now on view at Fragment Gallery’s newly relocated space, speaks to the artist’s continued fascination with ambiguous forms of life, while also marking a move away from the conceptual strategies he is best known for. A series of paintings that form the most compelling portion of the exhibition pull the artist’s practice into a decidedly surrealist mode. Executed in acrylic on canvas with primarily pink and grey hues, the paintings present group portraits of seemingly monstrous figures in abstract dystopian settings. A family portrait with an animal wearing a girl’s mask and a wig (2022), for example, depicts a group of five figures, ranging in size, standing centered in an environment reminiscent of vegetation. The figures vaguely resemble animals—some of their ears are positioned atop of their smudged heads, rather than on the sides. Their faces are distorted, carrying the carnivalesque quality of a feverish dream.
The smallest figure, who is apparently wearing a wig and a mask of a little girl, is no less unsettling than the rest. I cannot help but read this figure as the artist’s self-portrait, trying to pass as human. There is something about this imagery that recalls Francis Bacon, a feeling of being suffocated and swallowed up by one’s environment. Interestingly, Bacon did not differentiate between human and animal flesh, famously saying: “If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising I wasn’t there instead of the animal.” Devoted to figurative painting in a time when it was considered unfashionable, Bacon created visceral depictions of suffering flesh in the aftermath of a war in which people had been slaughtered like beasts. Yet there was also a kind of eroticism to this fleshiness, blurring the boundary between desire and death.
In the exhibition’s wall texts, Fedotov-Fedorov recalls various intimate encounters with insects, pointing to the fact that these new works remain very much informed by his early experiences. At only twelve months old, the artist clasped a wasp into his fist, overcome by the simultaneous pain and pleasure of the stinging sensation. A little later in life, he began surrounding himself with ants, letting them live in the house during summers, and saving them in jars with soil in the winters. For two years, he provoked an ant to bite him every day, convinced that it might trigger a transition into the insect realm. Playing underneath his godmother’s house in the countryside, the artist closely observed a spider catching and killing a grasshopper. In another memory, the artist recalls seeing a parasitic larvae break out of a grasshopper’s body after devouring it from within. Fedotov-Fedorov describes these events as “a grotesque ballet of life and death unfolding in front of my eyes.”
I first encountered Fedotov-Fedorov’s work in 2021, when I was on the jury for the AES+F Artist Residency at ISCP. Looking over his portfolio, I instantly felt the queerness of the work. His videos and performance documentations depicted humans engaging with and taking on the roles of animals, including moths, bats, octopi, and snakes. Moving through space fluidly, these creatures resisted gender classification, and the artist, always masked, often starred as the main character. Though Fedotov-Fedorov did not discuss his work in relation to queer identity, he mentioned in his cover letter that he had recently come out as gay. Based in Moscow at the time, Fedotov-Fedorov’s work illustrated the coded registers artists in Russia have to utilize to explore queer identity without being censored.
The current exhibition at Fragment Gallery takes its title from the only video included in the show, Snake Changing its Skin (2021–23), pointing back to the artist’s past while also hinting obliquely, perhaps, at changes in his practice. Fedotov-Fedorov tells me that he turned away from conceptual and performance work in favor of painting when Russia’s war on Ukraine began in February 2022. Having moved to New York only a few months prior, after being awarded the aforementioned ISCP residency, he struggled with the conflicting and complex experience of existing as a Russian dissident in the West. The conceptual strategies that he would usually turn to failed him in this moment—he felt they lacked the immediacy of his anger.
There is one painting that particularly stays with me. Hugging animal party (2023), a ghostlike image in grey and brown tones, depicts a cluster of fantastical, animal-like figures floating in a featureless void. This apparition called to mind Hedgehog in the Fog, a Soviet animated film from 1975, in which a hedgehog anxiously wanders through a foggy forest in search of his best friend, a bear. The larger philosophical message that this cult classic carries is one of existentialism, pointing to the feeling of being lost in one’s own existence. It is here that Fedotov-Fedorov’s experience of disassociation, both from his own body and his home country, most poignantly manifests itself, more so than in any conceptual project. This is a direction worth pursuing, and I hope Fedotov-Fedorov will not shy away from the insights offered by his turn to painting.