Zhenya Gershman Reveals… 4-Ways Art Can Bring Our Ancestors Alive

By Zhenya Gershman, artist & art historian, co-Founder of Project AWE

Michele Mattei Photography, painted by Zhenya Gershman
As a portrait painter I deal with an idea of capturing my model’s presence, with a painting becoming a type of a vehicle for immortality.  At some point the portrait replaces the sitter becoming a memory for the future.  But, what if the reversal is true?  Can we bring our past into the present?  We try to hold onto the people and times past with photo albums, home videos, and scrap books.  We know that our relatives live through us in our very DNA.   What if our DNA became visible, like an old photograph being developed in a dark room born to light?

I launched SKIN-4 a multi-media art project which tests the accepted boundary between past and present, living and dead, still and animate, ‘me’ and ‘us’.  This collaboration includes 4 artists, 4 mediums, and 4 dimensions.  To begin with my canvas was replaced by ‘skin’.  A talented actress and dancer Annabel Simma agreed to lend her body to be the painted surface, as a living skin. This was not the typical body painting.  I envisioned painting a realistic portrait from the previous generation on the skin of the surviving relative.  I chose the surface of the back as we often feel (whether real or imagined) a kind of invisible presence of our ancestors a type of guardian angel.  We asked Annabel to animate the painting by introducing movement a type of hypnotic dance.  The faces began to distort with the movement of the shoulder blades and spine, stretching and contorting, as a result appearing to wink, grimace, smile or respond to the viewer.
Michele Mattei Photography
Annabel could feel this process but at no time could she actually see the effect: “What made me feel completely, committed, excited and beyond myself, about this project was the fact that we could somehow bring to life my ancestors who are my huge inspiration.  The idea of being a full body canvas was both terrifying and extremely exhilarating to my heart.  I imagined that it would be an inner and outer body experience, and it was.  For some reason undressing in the room to be painted and watched by my three collaborators was not the terrifying part of the experience.  Having paint all over me and feeling the strokes of the brushes not knowing exactly what was being created on my body was not scary in the slightest way.  What was terrifying for me, in the most beautiful form of terror and awakening, was the unveiling of the beautiful paintings which were created on my body, and seeing the photographs and film come together. It was as if my most private experience had been exposed in total raw beauty.  It was extremely emotional and visceral for me to see how much the painting resembled the real images in real human form coming to life on my body.  I could barely breathe at first glance.  I had to take moments to view my nude body differently, covered with my ancestors becoming a sculpture and a piece of art.”

“I enjoyed SKIN-4, like one enjoys a poem, a melody, a sunset. It was unique and perfect in its own way.”
— Bryce Noel

We wanted to have a tangible record of this experiment.  The renowned photographer Michele Mattei lent us her eye and famous Hollywood art studio to make this happen.  Her photographs went far beyond simple documentation.  Sensitive, fragile, and edgy they revealed another dimension to the project.   Her lens allowed seeing the close up of every pore, the breathing and living quality of the skin.

“Freedom of expression with a focus that can touch those who carry the song and the visual memories of immigrant ancestry.”
— M A Greenstein

To bring this all together Oscar nominated filmmaker Carlos A. Hurtado created a short film “SKIN-4” that captures for the viewer this “living DNA”: “When Zhenya first told me about SKIN-4 and joining the team, I was immediately intrigued by the concept of bringing back one’s past in the form of art and being able to show the experience in different formats.   When I started filming the process, I realized quickly upon putting my eye onto the lens – that the details of each brush stoke onto her subject – had an emotional effect.  From there I wanted to capture the beauty of each movement by slowing down time through slow motion to convey an organic environment where something can grow.   I also incorporated the use of time lapse, but not in its traditional method.  The time lapse I used was raw in movement and its primary purpose was to create friction against the slow images, like two different rocks rubbing against each other to create fire.  Filming this project was a different experience for me by witnessing the subject and the art folded into one unified piece and being able to convey all of this in one location. What surprised me most was watching the human art body move – it literally gave life to the art by expanding and contracting.  I see SKIN-4 going global in the mist of sharing this unique experience of watching art not emulating life, but being part of it.”

Watch “SKIN-4”,  Directed by Carlos Hurtado: Click Here
Michele Mattei Photography
All images:  Michele Mattei Photography, painted by Zhenya Gershman, modeled by Annabel Simma

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