Text: Jon Handelman Images: Céline Cruz
Upon entering the Russian Team Room Gallery, the visitor is first confronted by the Russian Tea Room mind map. Sinewy lines combine to form what could be the branches of a tree or the silhouette of petals of a rose. The three pillars of the mind map – time, light, and truth – are the three pillars of photography according to Liza Fetissova, the gallery’s frank and endearing founder and director, and serve as the mission and creative life force behind the Russian Tea Room Gallery.
It is not ironic then that time, light and truth are words that reflect both the space and its director. As it happens, time has played an interesting role in Fetissova’s life and art. Her first meet-cute with Paris may (or may not…) have occurred in a clandestine border-jumping weekend sojourn when she was only 19 and Russia was still the USSR. From day one she was taken with the beauty of the city.
Returning to Paris when she was 25, Fetissova admits that her end goal was to always bring Russian photography to Paris – contemporary Russian photography that depicted not the allegorical grandiose or commonly kitschy Russia of the past, but the Russia of the present, through the eyes of photographers.
Fetissova does not hold back from speaking about the truth. Born and raised in Russia, she notes that adapting to the formalities of French life was at first difficult. But it’s clear that her renegade spirit allowed her to break through the insular art world to create her own path to success.
«You do things to adapt», Fetissova says. «Sometimes you have to do things without asking questions, because if you asked questions all the time you wouldn’t always do things. If I calculated the risk I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing.»
The Russian Team Room Gallery was founded in 2007. While first exclusively dedicated to showing Russian photographers, over time the repertoire of artists expanded to include non-Russian photographers as well. As Fetissova stresses, the goal of the space is to explore all facets of photography, and not contain it in a one-dimensional white, lifeless box.
«That is why we have the mind map that explores photography. We are here in the space, trying to explore photography as it is and in all of its expressions. Very often, galleries have only one or two types of photography; I am trying to explore photography more like a museum or a cultural center. Light, time and truth are only three cornerstones of photography; I am trying to cover it all. It is strange, difficult and weird», says Fetissova.
Liza’s small but chic first gallery space in the 9th did not provide the space she required to achieve her vision. While she liked the neighborhood and the foot traffic it provided, she decided to find a space that would allow for greater creative freedom. The new space is indeed vast. In fact, compared to many of its counterparts found throughout the Marais, the Russian Tea Room Gallery is palatial. The first floor consists of a large, light filled exhibition space. In terms of a gallery, the space is not unique; nonetheless, it serves as the perfect backdrop for the vivid installations that are put upon its walls. Fetissova says that the size of this new space has allowed her to more completely explore her vision.
A small showroom space is found at the back of the gallery, which highlights the diverse work of the artists she represents. The walls of the space are covered with stark images, lush images, nude images, striking images… images that truly encompass the diversity of the photographic world.
The lower level is what truly sets the gallery apart. Walking into the space at first is like walking into someone’s living room: an intimate and eclectic mix of furniture, photographs and objets d’art. Vintage lace covers the wooden tables and photography books cram the shelves. Fetissova says that the space will be used for screenings, meetings and other events to bring together individuals from the world of photography.
It really is the perfect space for such an endeavor and shows up the the cold, cube like galleries down the street as relics of a past way to both show art and connect with the public. The chairs beckon to be sat in, and the space really resonates as a cultural center where you can go and not only admire the work but learn about it and its artists. And most importantly, the Russian Tea Room Gallery is a place where the worth of its patrons and guests isn’t necessarily decided by the size of their wallet.
Fetissova did not plan her career step by calculated step. Rather, her intuition, good taste, and hard work guided her success. «It’s a lot of work and of course I have a lot of things I would like to do but I don’t have the time or energy a lot of time to do it all. It’s not easy sometimes. I do what I do, and then it brings what it brings. I feel like an artist a little bit, you have the ups and the downs and the doubts all the time.»