Valery and Natasha Cherkashin at O-Daiba

by Monty DiPietro

The black trucks arrive at dawn, fueled by a jingo spirit and topped off with an arsenal of loudspeakers. They rumble through Tokyo’s Minato Ward and buzz the embassy of the Russian Federation with an ear-splitting assault of nationalist anthems and screaming vitriol. Why this provocation? Why all the commotion? Because of Sakhalin, a quiet and lonely expanse of an island located in far eastern Russia, in the Sea of Okhotsk, just north of Hokkaido. Japanese right wingers want Sakhalin, and the want it bad. It is, they shout, a matter of national pride.

Russia is currently in possession of Sakhalin island, and has been since the end of the Second World War. For Russia also, the island’s status is a matter of national pride. Sakhalin has been bickered over by the two countries for centuries, and now a husband-and-wife team of conceptual artists from Moscow intend to put things in perspective and try and resolve the issue once and for all.

"From Russia With Love" is the title of Valery and Natasha Cherkashin’s new project, an attempt to foster bilateral reconciliation that will feature a happening at Tokyo’s new bayside district of O-Daiba. And while the pair is in no position to offer Japan the old ice-covered Russian rocks that are Sakhalin, they think they have a better idea – give Tokyo a present of some fresh and clean Russian rocks instead.

The pair added a fair bit of extra weight to their travel baggage when they came to Japan last month, in the form of a fair-sized pouch filled with Moscow gravel. And on the afternoon of October 17th, Val and Natasha will lovingly place the ballast in the waters of Tokyo Bay, such that a little new piece of terra firma will be born in Japan.

Valery Cherkashin, 51, is a thin, quiet man with a full and scraggly beard and an intense little fire glowing in his eyes. He grew up in the Ukraine, and speaks no English, although his beautiful Syrian-born wife Natasha, 41, is fluent. The pair are quick to point out that while they do not intend for "From Russia With Love" to turn into a political provocation, neither do they want the event to be dismissed as simply irreverent. "For us," says Natasha, "truth and satire belong together, so we really believe this is a good thing to do, but it also has an element of humor to it."

"We decided to place the rocks in the O-Daiba area because that is where Japan is expanding these days," they explain.

The Cherkashins have a long history of dadaesque performances and photography-based installations and art actions. Their "Underground Beauty Contest, Miss 38" (1994), held in the Moscow subway system’s Revolutionary Square station, saw the pair dress up then crown and present flowers to a statue they regarded as the most striking of the many female bronzes that line the walls of an underground commuter passageway. The same year, the pair built a multimedia Red Square installation in the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts. Their principle ongoing work is "The Four Empires," which started out as a Soviet-era analysis of the imperial empires of the USSR, Germany, the USA, and the UK, and has since expanded to include Japan and China. The work-in-progress seeks to explore the socialist influence on this century, mainly through the use of media (Pravda Newspaper fashioned into life-sized human cutouts), architecture (use of the "people’s" subway system and walk-in installations), and photomontage and photodocumantation.

Soon after performing "From Russia With Love," the Cherkashins will return to Russia to continue their work on "The Four Empires." Concurrently, working from their base in Moscow, the pair also plan to distribute instructional leaflets to their compatriots who are planning to travel.

If you are going to Japan, the leaflet advises, please bring those nice people some Russian rocks.


notes: "From Russia With Love," Sunday Oct 17, 1999 at 2:00PM, at the Fuji TV building’s nearby view-point, O-Daiba.
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