A collaboration exploring identity and performance
Show Me How To Feel is a project by artist duo Hart Lëshkina in partnership with WePresent. The project sees them cast and then direct child actors through a series of constructed scenarios and dialogues. The result is a collection of stills that, in a surreal way, embodies the tension between identity and performance, experience and expectation, and youth and adulthood. Writer Aly Comingore speaks to the photographers about how they created the series, and what in their own lives sparked the idea behind it.
Show Me How to Feel was born when artist duo Erik Hart and Tati Lëshkina were researching for a short film. “We became interested in this cross-section between cinema and photography, and young actors assuming roles and enacting experiences that are fresh and unknown, that they haven't experienced in their life because their own identities are still actively forming and shifting at that age,” recalls Tati. “We wanted to explore that space where the distinction between character and actor becomes blurred.”
“The title of the work: Show Me How to Feel is multilayered. It’s meant as a reference to the audience, to us as the artists as well as the actors. The actors getting direction on how to interpret certain situations, and questioning and searching around for how to feel, or empathize, or emote a certain scene, because it's not fully realized for them yet,” says Erik. “At that age you're trying things just to see how they feel, and experiencing things without prejudgment, because you don’t have a lot of experience yet.”
The 12 subjects that appear in Show Me How To Feel are all real child actors. “Some are on Disney shows and some are just getting started,” says Erik. “Ultimately we chose kids who had a grasp on the idea and and wanted to explore the potential range of where they could go, and I think a lot of them surprised themselves.” As such, the images in Show Me How To Feel capture a wide range of emotionality. In some shots, the subjects’ eyes well with tears; in others they hold each other in tender embrace. There are small, tense arguments, and big, physical fights. Most often the actors appear lost in their scenes; but sometimes they stare wide-eyed at the camera as if they’re searching for someone out of frame to tell them what to do next.
Though they grew up worlds apart, Tati and Erik forged eerily similar creative paths. Tati, who spent much of her young life in Moscow, grew up attending dance, music, and art courses. When she turned 11, a friend of her parents took her Tati under their wing. “After school I would go over to her apartment, we would talk, she would introduce me to different art movements, artists’ work, give me books to read, we would watch films together. I would draw, sculpt, take pictures, make things, we would go to galleries. I think that provided me with a very nurturing environment for learning and experimentation.”
Erik, who grew up in Los Angeles, remembers a youth not unlike his partner’s. “I was drawing, collaging, and painting early on, then I got into skateboarding around 12 and discovered photography as a tool for creation through it,” he says. He credits an old LA punk photographer named Jim for helping him explore the medium early on, then a high school photo teacher for nurturing his experimentation and introducing him to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin during the lunches he spent in the darkroom.
Mirroring the output of Nan Goldin or Robert Mapplethorpe, Hart Lëshkina’s work has an unnerving pull to it. Their images – of quiet spaces and bruised flesh and elegant-but-awkward bodies – beg the viewer to build a world, to create a before and after for their subjects and perspectives. Show Me How To Feel, captures that sense of in betweenness to startling effect. Inspired by, and employing elements of a film production.
Construction of identity and the ambiguity between the real and the performed is a theme that runs throughout their portfolio. “It’s integral in everything we do,” says Erik, adding that so much of the uneasiness in their work comes together through the exhaustive editing process. “I think we're continuously challenging ourselves with the dialogue between images,” he says. “It's important to us that the narrative is broken, not linear, so when you’re looking at it you don't really have an awareness of what precedes or proceeds each shot. It’s important to us that what the viewer is confronted with is not fully resolved, that we leave space for them to project on to the image.”
In the end, it’s that dialogue – between the viewer and the work, like the actor and the script – that fuels Hart Lëshkina’s creative vision. “I think we both got interested in photography for similar reasons,” says Tati. “The camera was a tool and entry point for creation, it allowed us to make images and reflect upon them, to show alternative perspectives and frame our reality. That was something that resonated immediately with both of us – this idea that there is a whole experience which runs parallel to the image, preceding it, accompanying it and following it.”
Prints from the projects are on sale HERE until September 16th with all profits from the fundraiser being donated to organizations which provide arts programs and classes for youth in underserved communities.
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