Several Ways to Please Valya: The Room of Vickie and Zhenya

Tsaplya Olga Egorova

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From the East: Week #1 Several Ways to Please Valya: The Room of Vickie and Zhenya
Tsaplya Olga Egorova

12 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeating till Tuesday, February 22, 12pm EST

Vickie and Zhenya are identical twins in the process of transitioning. They live in the small city of Norilsk in the far north of Russia. Their entire life is condensed into the space of their small room.

The film is constructed as a methodological manual for the creation and arrangement of a living space, and the placement of various objects there. The room of Vickie and Zhenya is examined as an ideal example of the intimate private space capable of authentically reflecting its hostess.

The film is based on a video-letter that Vickie and Zhenya sent to their friend Valya. Vickie and Zhenya got to know Valya at the clinic where they underwent their sex reassignment. Since then, Valya has been their constant—though invisible—witness of their life. They report to Valya on all the changes they go through in the process of their transfiguration into Beautiful Ladies.

The film is presented alongside a text response by Corina L. Apostol.

Several Ways to Please Valya is the first installment of From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat) as the ninth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

From the East runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 10 through February 20, 2022, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned response published in text form.

Already Altered and Ideal: Trans Lives and Fantasies in 1990s Russia
By Corina L. Apostol

On April 29, 1993, President Boris Yeltsin signed a bill that eliminated the “anti-sodomy law,” thereby legalizing consensual sex between adult men. This reversal paved the way for both men and women to be more openly queer without fear of intense state repression.[1] Further, in 1997, transgender Russians were allowed to charge their legal identity on documents. In major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a more progressive climate saw less conservative social values than in rural areas, queer communities began to openly define their own rules and spaces. It is during this unique window of time that the first Russian drag queens also appeared in the 1990s clubs in the aforementioned cities. But this was not to last as, since Putin’s rise to power in 2000, Russia has become increasingly more dangerous for LGBTQ+ citizens to live as who they are.[2]

Queer self-representation in both culture and media plays an immense role in the struggle for justice, and even more so in deeply conservative countries, where these experiences are crudely represented or repressed altogether. This is certainly true for Russia, where the struggle for visibility has been key to the queer community for decades, and where sharing experiences and finding understanding has made the community both a political force and an invigorating home where the concept of physical space was crucial.

During the turbulent 1990s, Olga Egorova (Tsaplya) explored these themes in films and performances that articulated frontiers between the private world of individuals and communities, and the public, social-political structure, making the conflicts between the two visible. Her film Several Ways to Please Valya: The Room of Vika and Zhenya[3] (2001) revolves around such a space: the private room of trans women and identical twins named Vika and Zhenya. At a critical moment in the history of LGBTQ+ rights in Russia, Tsaplya utilized this approach to support trans identities and communities. However, this was not her first piece to engage with issues of queer representation.

Prior to this film, Tsaplya operated a shop in the famed squat-turned-art center Pushkinskaya 10,[4] in the heart of St. Petersburg—The Shop of Travelling Things. Restrictions on art exhibitions, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, required artists to find both alternative spaces and ways of expressing themselves. For the Shop, Tsaplya adopted the persona of a Russian school teacher, developing a methodological approach to engage with her audiences through discussions, performance, and film. Importantly, as part of this approach, she developed a unique system of playful analysis combining fashion (recycling discarded clothes and giving them identity documents related to their history), body techniques, emotional training, and strategies of behavior. In this work, Tsaplya encouraged processes of self-organization, exploring how different minorities and marginalized communities conceptualized themselves in a restrictive society.

It is within this setting that Tsaplya met Valentina (Valya), a trans woman living in St. Petersburg, who had undergone gender affirmation surgery in Moscow. Valya would share with Tsaplya her life story as well as her lived reality, which involved not only her thoughts but also her community of trans women. On one occasion, Valya brought a video-letter sent by the trans twins Vika and Zhenya to Tsaplya’s Shop to include in the collection of “travelling things.” Tsaplya was so compelled by the video-letter, that she decided to make a film focusing on the twins and their world. Surpassing a mere personal diary in the private space of the two women, the film Tsaplya made reveals how they themselves create their own language of queer fantasies and intimacy, longing to be loved, appreciated, and seen.

In the film, Vika and Zhenya, candidly and playfully, open up and tell their story, taking the viewer inside their room-fantasy world, charting a path from “the imperfect present to the perfect future,” as Tsaplya observes while playing the classic school teacher in a black dress and white collar. The effect is completed with a pointing stick and a chart of the room, where the protagonists find they have everything they need to live in the room, despite its simplicity. The film shows us a rich picture of the lives and aspirations of the twins, who have queered their personal room into a space for self-love and magic, where the personal is also political.

“Already altered and ideal,” as Tsaplya observes, the women take turns in filming each other in elegant and sensual dress and make-up reminiscent of their idols. They lip-sync to both Western and Russian classical hits, deftly creating an ideal and playful scenography using colored backgrounds, and props such as masks, flowers, dolls, and portrait frames. Recycling clothes and their identities is central both to Tsaplya’s and to Vika and Zhenya’s artistic worlds. For these women, clothing can express the experiences of a particular person, and can enable new ways of opening up to public space.

From the beginning, Tsaplya draws notice that the twins’ room is based on the “mirror principle,” where a mirror is an aid to the presentation of their true selves in a society that wishes to reject them. Vika and Zhenya not only mirror themselves as they wish to be seen by the world, but also by their friend Valya, who sends them gifts and writes to them. Valya herself only appears in a photograph in the room, smiling and happy, while Vika remarks that she looks “cool” and “as beautiful as one can be.” They appear in the film as music-video performers, moving with proper form and elegance. The mirror, then, is a psychological aid reinforcing their self-image, helping them to look beautiful but also to feel beautiful.

Vika and Zhenya want to be seen, to reveal the reality and fantasy they have created, to represent their experiences and connect with their queer friend in a context which, despite the freedoms of the 1990s in Russia, was still quite tough. “Look at us, look at your beloved little girls, Vika and Zhenya, we hope after this we’ll be even dearer to you, my sweetie, we hope you will keep our image with you!” exclaim the two women as they hold each other close in one segment of the film.

As part of their continual process of becoming, the women combine both Russian and Western references, honoring their idols while at the same time positioning themselves as new icons of the “perfect future,” discarding those identities of an “imperfect past” (Tsaplya’s emphasis). In the film, the camera pans over a table displaying an arrangement of photographs and posters portraying the women’s idols. These range from the Soviet-Russian musical icon Alla Pugachova, famed French actress and singer Catherine Deneuve, Sofia Rotaru, a Soviet-Ukrainian pop singer of Moldavian origin, and queer American-German actress Marlene Dietrich to name a few.

Their self-presentation, together with Tsaplya’s editing and narration, goes a long way to undo some of the damaging preconceptions brought about by simplified portrayals of trans people in Russia. Vika and Zhenya are not throwaway characters in the film, they are the protagonists taking control and pleasure in the way they portray themselves as they wish to be perceived and understood. Each outfit change generates a new dimension in their look, experimenting with new styles for their image, while in the film they smoothly flow into several new images that bring to life their creative ideas. They are smart about using mainstream music and elements of drag culture[5] to reveal their aspirations, and as a vehicle for promoting their own innovative ideas about their world. Tsaplya’s careful and engaging analysis of the twins’ closest milieu throughout the film shifts the conventional representation of trans women at the time, showing how Vika and Zhenya constructed a context where they live in harmony with, and delight in, their trans identities.

In a section of the room dedicated to Spirituality and Travel, as Tsaplya frames it, we are shown an even more complex portrait of her protagonists. The twins speak about their relationship with religion, pointing to a sign that Valya sent them that reads “Jesus loves you,” a book on Saint Xenia (the patron Saint of St. Petersburg), and a facsimile of a portrait of the Madonna Litta[6] by Leonardo Da Vinci. Despite religious persecution, the twins still strongly identify as Russian, naming the Orthodox Religion as “ours.” This section also includes a photograph of the iconic Neo-Gothic Swallow’s Nest (Lastochkino Gnezdo) Castle in Yalta overlooking the Black Sea—an idealized setting where the women can further project their fantasies for the future.

As a queer person myself living in Eastern Europe (with personal and cultural ties to Russia), I haven’t seen many people like me represented in the local art and culture. In this context, queerness and Eastern Europeanness (and Russianness) are still seen as mutually exclusive because of these countries’ regressive politics and deeply held “traditional” social values.

The culmination of this personal excursion into Vika and Zhenya’s room is what the artist refers to as their “music videos” that “endow the space with ideal features, as the music fills the entire room.” In the closing of the film, we are left with the presence of Tsaplya who summarizes the characteristics of the protagonists and their milieu. She remarks on their “passionate desire for transformation,” the “ideal features of the room,” and the importance of the presence of Valya who “can set the room on a path of self-improvement.”

This emphasizes how Vika and Zhenya found models for how they wish to be seen by the world, models for how to live, and a language to describe their feelings and subjectivities. We do not know of the denouement of these women’s fates as the film captures a moment of intense transformation that remains open: Have they decided to live their lives openly and proudly in today’s Russia? Or have they emigrated to a more welcoming home?

Whatever the answer, viewing this film today, almost a quarter of a century since it was first made and shown in St. Petersburg, the issue it raises about trans lives entering public discourse and becoming political remains topical, even to the Western context. The struggle for social and political recognition, and the fight for equal rights are still confronted with backlash and repressive policies against this community in most parts of the world.

Though she was never able to contact Vika and Zhenya again, and has lost touch with Valya over the years, Tsaplya decided to share this film anyway, because even as trans stories are becoming more mainstream in certain physical spaces and virtual ones, there are few public examples of trans people leading ordinary lives and flourishing, and even less of trans people taking control over how they are represented.

—Tallinn, Estonia, December 2021

The author would like to thank: Olga (Tsaplya) Egorova, Allison Harbin, Dmitry Vilensky, Alexander Kondakov, and Kristaps Ancāns.

[1] The publication of the new law a month after the bill was signed, meant that gay men in prison at the time were to be released immediately. However, due to the chaotic prison system in Russia, the government did not know who or where these hundreds, or thousands, of prisoners were. Further, the law still stated that “sexual relations between men committed with the use of physical force, threats, or with a legal minor, or by exploiting a dependent position or helpless state of the victim shall be punishable by up to seven years in prison,” language which preserved the anti-gay bias of the Stalin-era law. Ugolovnyi kodeks RSFSR (Moscow: Iuridicheskaia Literatura, 1987), pg. 77.

[2] For instance, the 2013 law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors” illustrates the critical importance of queer representation in Russia in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andrew Roth, “European court strikes down Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law,” Washington Post, June 20, 2017, accessed online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/european-court-strikes-down-russias-gay-propaganda-law/2017/06/20/64615500-55ba-11e7-840b-512026319da7_story.html?itid=lk_inline_manual_12

[3] Russian first names have different forms, a formal one and numerous diminutive ones or nick-names. The diminutive names will end with the feminine “-а” or “-я” regardless of gender. These forms of address are usually used in friendly and intimate communication. In the film, the protagonists prefer to use the diminutive form “Vika” instead of “Viktor” and “Zhenya” instead of “Yevgeniy.”

[4] Pushkinskaya 10 was established in 1989 by artists who took over a former Soviet communal apartment building or “kommunalka.” Over thirty years later, Pushkinskaya 10 continues to operate as a base for the cultural community of St Petersburg, providing studio spaces and galleries where artists present their work and organize lectures, workshops, performances, and poetry readings. More information on their website: https://p-10.ru (in Russian)

[5] The earliest official mention of drag queen activities in Eastern Europe can be found in the Soviet Union at the beginning of the twentieth century. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the old penal code was abolished and therefore too the criminal liability of what was then referred to as “sodomy between adults.”

[6] The Madonna Litta is a late fifteenth-century painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Corina L. Apostol is a curator at the Tallinn Art Hall and the curator of the Estonian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. She curated the Shelter Festival: Cosmopolitics, Comradeship, and the Commons, at the Space for Free Arts in Helsinki (2019). She was the Mellon Fellow at Creative Time, where she co-edited Making Another World Possible: 10 Creative Time Summits, 10 Global Issues, 100 Art Projects, and co-curated the Creative Time Summit On Archipelagoes and Other Imaginaries (2018) in Miami. Corina obtained her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, where she was also the Dodge Curatorial Fellow at the Zimmerli Art Museum. She is co-founder of ArtLeaks, and editor-in-chief of the ArtLeaks Gazette. She has been longlisted for the Kandinsky Prize (2016) and the Sergey Kuryokhin Prize (2020), and is the winner of the apexart 2022-2023 exhibition proposals competition (NYC).

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Video Art, Russia, Queer Art & Theory, Transgender, Post-socialism
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Tsaplya Olga Egorova (b.1968) is an artist, filmmaker, mentor at The School of Engaged Art, and co-founder of the collective Chto Delat (2003 in St. Petersburg). Her activities include art projects, sound art, lecture performances, and radio plays, as well as directing theater performances and films.

She was a founder of the legendary feminist group Factory of Found Clothes, and participated in many performances and exhibitions under this name (till 2012). She lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her recent exhibitions (as a part of Chto delat) include Maternar, Muac, Museo Universitario De Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico; Communicating Vessels, Collection 1881-2021, Episode 7: Can History Be Rewound?, The Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid; Assuming Distance: Speculations, Fakes, and Predictions in the Age of the Coronacene, Garage Museum, Moscow (2021); Becoming a Collective Body, MAXXI, Rome;Unflattening, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea (2020); An Opera for Animals, Para Site, Hong Kong (2019); Former West: Documents, Constellations, Prospects, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2013; 10th Gwangju Biennale, 2012; and many others.


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