Yelena Popova was born in the USSR, and now lives and works in Nottingham. She studied at Moscow Art Theatre School (MHAT) before graduating from MA Painting at the Royal College of Art in 2011. Yelena works across mediums, including painting, video and installation. Her work often reflects her upbringing in the Urals, and is also influenced by Russian Constructivism, trying to capture the continuous industrial development and the landscape of contemporary capitalism. Her projects aim to initiate discussions and engagement with audiences regarding the systematic relationship between objects found in cultures of industrialism and capitalism, which simultaneously produces a powerful contrast and a sense of equilibrium.
Yelena has exhibited widely in the UK and her work has been acquired into the Arts Council Collection, Government Art Collection, RCA Collection, Saatchi Collection, Zabludowicz Collection and LWL Museum, Münster. Her new exhibition ‘The Scholar Stones’ has recently opened at the Holden Gallery at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Where are you based and where do you work?
I’m based in Nottingham and my studio is at Primary.
Describe your working day
I arrive at my studio after school drop off at 09.00 and I work there until 15.00 – 5 days a week. The studio time is when I manage stuff: materials, canvases, pigments and objects. After my son goes to sleep at 20.00 I manage ideas, texts, emails, proposals, applications, social media, jpgs and illustrator files on my laptop. I also love reading Wikipedia and finding connections between concepts and histories. My painting practice is only part of what I do.
How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?
I graduated from MA in RCA in 2011 and I count this year as the time I started working consistently with a sense of purpose and direction. I was always making things and drawing, painting and dreaming up ideas as long as I remember. But it only became a profession after my MA.
Tell us about the relationship between the research that underpins your work and your studio practice.
For my recent ‘Scholar Stones Project’, I’ve travelled around and researched decommissioned nuclear sites around the UK. I collected soil and stones that represented the geological fingerprint of the locations I visited. I use soil as pigment for my Post-Petrochemical paintings series. The new work is about Magnox nuclear reactors (used in the first generation of nuclear power stations) and their contaminated graphite cores, which currently cannot be dismantled and still remain on-site. Based on the design of the reactor’s graphite core I’ve constructed a display structure to present my collection of stones taken from nuclear sites. I’ve also designed two tapestries representing propositional mausoleums for the Magnox reactors. ‘The Scholar Stones Project’ can be seen in the context of Nuclear Heritage, Industrial and Cold War History, Anthropocene, Geology and Ecology.
Can you tell us what led to the shift in your work from painting to more sculptural work?
Spending a month on residency at The Art House in Wakefield, the whole region is rich in sculpture. I spent some time at the Henry Moore research library and The Hepworth Wakefield gallery and I set myself a challenge to do a 3D piece. The Art House had a laser cutter in their workshop so I could learn and experiment cutting drawn forms. My tapestry work is all drawn in Illustrator software so with the laser cutter I can use the same vector drawing process to cut 3D shapes.
What is important to you in maintaining and motivating your practice?
My body really, if it works well – the rest is working. To stay in good health and a positive mind-frame is important for me. Also actively generating opportunities to show work is crucial.
Congratulations on receiving a Sculpture Production Award. What significance does the Award have for you.
The award pushed me to follow my proposal through the tricky research and development period to completion. I have many ideas and some ideas don’t grow legs, some never materialise, but then you propose an idea and get people to support it then you feel obliged to make it happen. There was a point on a steep learning curve when I felt like giving up, but I could not. Having Lucy as a sounding board really helped too. So I felt supported and pushed at the same time.
What have been your biggest achievements since establishing your practice?
Maintaining resilience? Actually, maybe having works in public collections: Arts Council, Government Art Collection, Nottingham Castle, RCA and making public works which are on permanent display.
What have been the biggest challenges to your practice?
Lack of support with childcare.
You currently have a solo show The Scholars Stone Project at the Holden Gallery in Manchester. For people that haven’t seen it, what will their experience be if they see it?
The Holden Gallery is part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Art School. It is a beautiful building. The gallery space is a spacious atrium with natural light and a wooden parquet floor. I have a series of paintings made with natural materials and iron rich soils that I’ve foraged on my research trips, two large tapestries and a display floor structure with plinths and a garden of rocks exhibited on it.
Can you tell us about how you have worked with the curator or producer to develop your exhibition.
I worked with Zoe Watson, Curator of the Holden Gallery. The show came from Zoe’s visit to my studio, I had a clear idea of the project at that point. It was very easy working with Zoe: we made decisions together gradually. I trusted her judgement and she trusted my intuition. Zoe was always super enthusiastic about the work and just made things happen. Zoe produced and pulled the publication together, she orchestrated the laser cutting of the floor structure and made links with university’s researchers and got them involved in the public events around the show. I also admired how Zoe managed her team of technicians and volunteers: they all were very positive and happy to be there. I felt safe and supported.
Where else can we see your work?
Two of my paintings are currently part of the Slow Painting group show curated by Martin Herbert for Hayward Touring program. The show is currently in Plymouth and will tour to Bath in April.
The Scholar Stones project will travel to Philipp von Rosen Gallery in Cologne in March, then hopefully to Division of Labour’s new space in Worcester in April. Some of the works from the show will appear at Art Brussels with L’étrangère in April.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a large tapestry commission. I was quite taken by the recent show of Diane’s Simpson’s work at Nottingham Contemporary and her talk. I will continue to explore the connection between drawing and 3D objects and learn about new materials.
Yelena was interviewed in February 2020, on the occasion of her being selected for the inaugural Pangaea Sculpture Production Award.