Critics’ Picks

Varvara Shavrova, The Opera, 2011, still from a color video, 21 minutes 22 seconds.

Varvara Shavrova, The Opera, 2011, still from a color video, 21 minutes 22 seconds.


Varvara Shavrova

Gallery of Photography Ireland
Meeting House Square Temple Bar
July 10, 2013–February 26, 2012

In her previous bodies of work, the Moscow-born and currently Beijing-, Dublin-, and London-based artist Varvara Shavrova explored the sometimes arbitrary nature of territorial divisions. In her installation Borders, 2007, she explored the cultural traditions in the hinterlands between Russia and China; in Untouched, 2008, she juxtaposed images from various social and architectural transformations in Northwest Ireland with scenes of similar activity in Beijing.

In her current solo show, she looks at a different aspect of continuum, division, and difference. At the heart of the exhibition is The Opera, 2011, a nearly twenty-one-minute video that portrays actors assuming their characters for the Peking Opera. When this form of opera emerged in the late eighteenth century, all the actors were male, and elaborate makeup and costumes effected transformations for female roles. By the 1870s, women subverted this tradition by assuming the male parts (the first female Peking Opera company was founded in Shanghai in 1894). The extreme nature of the artifice at play in the art of Peking Opera makes the themes revealed in this exhibition––transformation, ambiguity, social masks, the seductive nature of beauty, and the making and remaking of public and private personas––all the more potent.

As Shavrova follows two such makeovers, a sound track by Benoit Granier, which fuses traditional Chinese music with contemporary electronica, emphasizes the utter outlandishness of the process. The male actor’s nervousness is slowly transformed into confidence, as he is subsumed into his character through the ritual application of wigs and all. A series of photographs, “The Opera I-VII,” 2012, also tracks this process, which is revealed in reverse in a pair of time-lapse sequences, also titled The Opera, 2010.