LENS ON: Berkin & Mika

Wonderland meet Berkin & Mika, the couple and collaborators making the most fun and fabulous photo art you’ll see this summer.



Berkin & Mika are the 25 year old artists living in London whose Trivial Freedom photo series we just can’t stop looking at. The pair are originally from Kazakhstan, but due to what they call the country’s “non-existent art scene” they both decided to leave it all behind for the big smoke. With a string of accolades under their collective belt (Mika is an LSE graduate who completed a programme in Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design this year, whilst Berkin (first name Bakhtiyar) graduated from Camberwell College of Arts with BA in Fine Arts Photography and is currently doing a photography MA at LCCE), it’s no wonder that this duo make such a creative powerhouse.

Trivial Freedom is their latest body of work, flirting with bright colours making for highly stylised and playful images. This is fun photography at its finest! But don’t disregard it as frivolous – the project is actually rooted in the consideration of consumer culture. The photos draw attention to typical advertising formulas and marketing ploys through elaborate sets – reminiscent of full on installations – and a surrealist, pop art-y signature style. The detail is incredible, the sets tend to have a lurid dream-like quality to them, despite often featuring mundane objects as in “Basket of Corn”.

“Basket of Corn”

“Basket of Corn”

It (almost) goes without saying that Mika – the subject of a large proportion of the photos – is absolutely gorgeous. Her flawless make up in all of these images, which has clearly been as carefully crafted as the set surrounding her, is giving us serious admiration/envy feels. She makes for a fantastic photographic subject. That’s not to say that Mika is just ‘the model’, the project is truly collaborative, with both parties having an equal say in concept, set design and over all creative direction.

We decided that we had to hear from the artists themselves, to find out all that we could about them, the dreamy Trivial Freedom series and their plans for the future.

You’re a collaborative photography duo, but I was wondering whether or not you are also a couple (as Instagram would suggest!)? Tell us a bit about your relationship and how working together came about.

Yes, we are a couple. We started dating without ever realising that we would be working together. Our creative partnership occurred naturally, as our personalities are very compatible. Each of us possesses different set of skills, which we combine to form a perfect union. We are very lucky to work together as we create very intimate, kind and supportive atmosphere. We listen to each other and try to have fun with the work too.

We have been working together for the past 2 years. Our collaboration started from our mutual passion for art. By sharing ideas and past experiences we established that we have very similar aesthetics. Our collaboration started very gradually and organically. At first, we created several images together. Being very pleased with the results and the work dynamic, we decided to create a series together. Our collaboration represents the ongoing dialogue between the two of us. We like to reflect on our past in order to create work that echoes with our own perception of reality. Our collaboration reflects our relationship with each other and with the world. Working as a duo feels more natural and productive to us. Moreover, it is nice to share this fantastic experience with a likeminded person. We divide work equally and respect each other tremendously.

How did you get into photography and who or what are your greatest influences?

Bakhtiyar decided to pursue his dream by doing BA in Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts. At the moment he is finishing his MA in Photography at LCC. Mika’s path was quite different.

She graduated from London School of Economics and Political Science with BSc in Economics. Mika is very happy that she selected a very academic programme as her BA, as it gave her ability to develop essential logical and critical-thinking skills. In her opinion, art is very similar to science. She likes to take very precise mathematical approach to our work. After graduating from LSE Mika went on and studied at Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design. Both of us focus on different aspects of photography. Bakhtiyar is responsible for the technical side, whereas Mika is responsible for conceiving ideas and set design.

Our main interest in photography and cinematography is set design. That is why our greatest influences are Thomas Demand, Jeff Wall and David LaChapelle. We are also influenced by movies prior to CGI-era. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey never become outdated since all of the sets and props are manmade. Whereas CGI-heavy movies start to look ridiculous after it hits a 10 year mark.

Describe Trivial Freedom in one sentence.

Trivial Freedom is a series of large format film photographs that represents the effects of advertising, modern entrepreneurial spirit and consumerism culture on our society and it’s morals.

So the project is totally rooted in consumerism… Can you elaborate on this a little bit, and talk to us about the inspiration behind Trivial Freedom?

Consumers are bombarded by adverts and subliminal messages.They are buying goods to replicate “the dream life” that was imprinted into their subconscious mind. People believe that buying things would make them happy. And if you are already happy you need to buy more to be happier. This is by far one of the most influential breakthroughs of consumer science.

We decided to create a series dedicated to modern consumerism. We built sets that satirise people’s relationships with consumer goods. In our photographs we want to explore consumer’s unconscious, irrationality and perpetually changing desires.

The Trivial Freedom series was inspired by Edward Bernays’ application of propaganda techniques to marketing. He used Freud’s ideas about Self and applied it to form opinion-shaping methods. These methods were used by many western corporations and governments. These concepts are still valid in relation to modern consumerism. Modern businesses manipulate people into thinking that buying increases their self worth. Essentially, Adidas tracksuit tells you that “impossible is nothing”, whereas Nike shoes command you to “just do it”. You put on L’oreal lipstick “because you’re worth it” and by opening a Coca-Cola can you “open happiness”. Our main inspiration was the fact that in the heart of consumerism culture lies crude ideas of self-validation and self-promotion. In our work we want to explore consumerism as a natural phenomena.

We are also very inspired by advertisements, informercials and TV shopping. For example, our piece “Basket of Corn” was inspired by advertisement of cereals. Those advertisements usually feature countryside, green grass, blue sky. It leaves viewer with an impression of wholesomeness. It is presented as something healthy and organic, However, in fact those products are packed with GMO’s and refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. For our photograph, we decided to replicate those commercials but make everything out of plastic. Plastic grass, plastic flowers… plastic everything. This is our plastic version of the “Dream Life” that is so heavily advertised by the businesses.

Your “pop art-y” photographic style is very surrealist. What is it that you hope viewers will take away from the Trivial Freedom series?

We hope that viewers will understand the humour and the satire in our images. That it would make them think and maybe reevaluate their own consumption patterns. In our art we are not only criticising consumerism but also trying to understand it and maybe accept it. As in the heart of consumerism lies very human desire to own things in order to belong to a group and at the same time differentiate as individuals.

We use irony as a way to attract viewers’ attention and motivate viewer to think. We hope that viewers will look beyond beautiful and aestheticised images and that they will look for the meaning.

You tend to use colourful, elaborate and highly stylised sets. What does the artist process look like for the two of you?

We start our process by conceiving an idea or mood that we want to replicate in our photographs. Our main interest is building sets. We view our art as installations and we use photography to document it. After that we start looking for objects that we are going to use in our sets. The objects that we use in set building are often unwanted, abandoned and very cheap. Transforming these unwanted objects into something that conveys greater meaning and serves new purpose is a philosophical process for both of us. This process is similar to recycling as it gives objects new life, which goes in line with the theme of Trivial Freedom series.

Next step in our process is documenting the sets that we build. We find photography is the best tool to do so, as [the] photograph does not put constraints on us – it can be printed different sizes on different surfaces, it can be show on a monitors. There are endless possibilities.

We also prefer to do everything ourselves. We print, scan, develop photographs by ourselves, as well as doing our own makeup and hair styling.

Although our style is very surreal, we don’t want to distort the way our sets looked like by using excessive Photoshop. We use minimum editing only for colour correction.

Mika, are you always the subject? Or do you ever turn the lens upon Bakhtiyar yourself?

Bakhtiyar is very camera shy. We do have a series of our personal photographs that we are planning to release in future. Those photographs are very different from our current work. It is more like a diary, that we want to issue in support to our existing work.

I myself enjoy being the subject, as I feel very comfortable because the person who is taking the photographs is the person who I love and trust. The whole process is very fun for me as I can play dress-up and channel different alter egos.

What does your essential photography kit consist of?

For our main work we only use large format film camera, as we don’t see any other alternative when it comes to quality and colour. We also enjoy the thoughtfulness that comes with the process of using a film camera. We can’t see results immediately and we don’t have infinite shots, thus we have to make sure that everything is perfect.

Of all of your work, do either of you have a particular favourite image?

Mika’s favourite image is “Simulacra”. This photograph is essentially a satire to a modern day entrepreneurial spirit. Ever growing e-commerce leads our society to a place where nothing is sacred or holy. We decided to explore this topic by looking into perception of religious imaginary in inanimate objects. This phenomenon is also called simulacra, which means “similarity”.

Humans are hardwired to recognise faces, and researchers say that this means many people may instinctually identify the contours and features of faces on virtually anything.

The age-old phenomenon has been a beneficial to the internet age. Publicity surrounding sightings of religious figures and other surprising images in ordinary objects has spawned a market for such items on online auctions like eBay. One famous instance was a grilled cheese sandwich that resembled the Virgin Mary’s face. This bizarre case attracted a lot of media attention. The sandwich even travelled across America and was subsequently sold for $28,000 on eBay to an internet casino. We decided to replicate this case in one of our photographs. It is interesting to see how efficient businesses are at capitalising on virtually anything.

Bakhtiyar’s favourite image is “Medusa”. The internet brought another dimension to our generation, a dimension where there is a large gap between the “real version” and the “virtual version” of ourselves. Photography in that context helps to widen that gap. Photography is selective and therefore can be used to promote self vanity. As a society, we are consumed by a world of selfies, hashtags and social networks. Nowadays, image not only represents beauty but also a person’s entire self-worth. We believe that modern day importance of an image roots deeply in our obsession with social exhibitionism. In our work we want to explore how our society with volatile ideologies became more vain with the creation in the age of consumption. We are very interested in the link between self-identity, modern-day narcissism and consumption culture.

We associate modern day vanity with the myth of Medusa. Medusa, a once-beautiful woman, was transformed into a beast due to her vanity. Still beautiful in the face, Medusa had living venomous snakes instead of hair. She became so terrible that gazing directly into her eyes would turn onlookers to stone. This myth can be interpreted in many ways. One interpretation is that vanity can be destructive. Especially nowadays, when women are encouraged to consume more and more make-up products and beauty services in order to look more attractive. Women and men alter themselves because of the images that they see in magazines, movies and etc. The images that are imprinted into their minds by beauty industry in order to sell more products. This myth depicts danger that beauty holds for the one who falls for it. Either way Medusa is a symbol of a very human propensity for superficial.

Beyond adding to the Trivial Freedom series, what are your plans for the future?

We are currently experimenting with the moving image. This autumn we are planning to release a short film dedicated to womanhood. We are going to have several exhibitions both in UK and in Europe.

LEFT “Simulacra”

CENTRE “Medusa”

RIGHT “Vanity Case

LEFT “Simulacra” CENTRE “Medusa” RIGHT “Vanity Case“

LEFT “Grabber”

RIGHT “Cornflakes”

LEFT “Grabber” RIGHT “Cornflakes”

LEFT “Phantom Limb”

CENTRE “Cash Register”

RIGHT “Trapped”

LEFT “Phantom Limb” CENTRE “Cash Register” RIGHT “Trapped”

To see more of Berkin & Mika’s work check out www.bberkin.com

Kathleen Johnston
LENS ON: Berkin & Mika

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