Sheidlina was born on the internet and has been reincarnated as a surrealist NFT

By A. Moret 

Since her first post on Instagram in 2012, the interdisciplinary and multi-media artist Ellen Sheidlin (or Sheidlina, as she is known by her millions of followers) has invited us to bear witness to a world governed by a fearless imagination and insatiable curiosity. The Russian artist uses her body as the subject of her mesmerizing photographic and video works and has since begun exploring the rigors of oil painting. While the algorithms of the social media platforms upon which she entered the art world have undergone innumerable changes, her commitment to her craft has remained constant. 

The artist has affectionately adopted Salvador Dali and René Magritte as her parents, thereby connecting her physical body to the body of evidence that her “parents” created decades earlier. Sheidlina’s inaugural NFT titled “Magritte’s Breaths” pays homage to her deep-rooted connection to the tradition and philosophical tenets of Surrealism. Just as the Surrealists effortlessly lived within a sublime world of their own making while tracing reality with hints of magic, Sheidlina has been able to transform her own physicality to assume the role of the persona in her work. In “Magritte’s Breaths,” she becomes one with the ethereal clouds that feel reminiscent of Magritte’s “The False Mirror,” dying her a shade of white with hints of blue, and applying white eyeliner which accentuates the subversion of her gaze. Her shoulders are cloaked with delicate feathers and a white dove peers out from her mouth examining the ethereal surroundings. The dove is ready to take flight and spread its wings the moment the artist is ready to exhale. 

Ellen Sheidlin spent some time with SuperRare on the occasion of her debut NFT “Magritte’s Breaths.” Here’s what she had to say.

A. Moret: The foundation of your work is based on the suspension of belief, more specifically, the merging of a dreamy reality with virtuality. How do you maintain a sense of identity whilst creating in this nebulous space? 

Ellen Sheidlin: Sheidlina is the name of my virtual gallery, the name of my character that was born on the Internet, and it is the name with which I sign all of my work. This means that I could be either Sheidlina or Ellen Sheidlin.  

AM: Social media has played an integral role in your development as an artist as it has given you the opportunity to experiment and develop photographic, video, and painterly techniques for a captive audience. When did your journey in the digital arts begin? 

ES: I was 15 years old and I just got my first computer. My mom gave me a drawing tablet. The first link that I opened for drawing and making art was Photoshop. Winter holidays are a pretty boring time so I got on VK and posted my sketches in an album that I called “Start track.” My drawing style was very much fantasy-inspired.

AM: What kind of content were you developing on Vkontakte (also referred to as VK)? 

ES: I experimented with my make-up and I exposed my body. My style was very provocative. I dressed up in many layers, like an onion, and dyed my hair in different colors. This was the time of the Sheidlina embryo on VK.  

AM: In this “embryonic” state, what kind of reaction did your posts elicit? 

ES: People used to dress up like me for Halloween. They used to try to live my life. People used to come up to me at Mcdonald’s and ask me to sign a check. People at airports even asked me to sign their passports. The times when I was very popular on VK shaped my love for fearless imagery and art photography; with open ideas and a naked soul, [my work] came to life on Instagram. 

AM: An artist’s environment inexorably shapes their practice. What aspects of Russian culture do you value most? 

ES: Fairy tales taught me to see beyond the outer layer of wrapping paper, and the Russian Academy of Arts taught me the rule of the golden ratio. However, on the spiritual side of people, their emotions are different. Art always brings that warm and fuzzy feeling. That is the main thing for Russian art and culture and that is what I carry with me. 

AM: Your first Instagram post dated September 12, 2012, is a candid selfie that utilizes natural light and shows evidence of minimal editing. This post is our introduction to you and the universe that you have since created on social media over the last decade. How has your approach since that first post changed, if it all? 

ES: My first picture is just as natural for me as my last picture. They have minimal editing, I only use light and the right angle, the rest of the props I create with my own hands. So, with me, nothing really has changed. But Instagram changed. A lot. This one and only platform that I used to love is gone. I grew a lot since 2014 by creating unique content. Now posting quality content is not enough. You have to become a superstar right away, no one will grant you the time to grow. I had that time. The algorithms didn’t help me, but they also didn’t get in my way of searching for inspiration by hiding people and their content. For me, Instagram is a story of Rapuntsel that took her fate in her hands and used her own hair to descend from the tower and started to take pictures with giraffes, alien masks and the whole kingdom started following her. 

AM: Change feels like an inevitable facet of any technological platform, and whilst you have observed its change since your first post, what are your thoughts about its future and your role as a creator? 

ES: I adore my creative way from 2012 to 2021. We started our path in art photography with my husband in 2011 by saying “let’s make our pictures more interesting, you do love to fantasize.” We love to carefully shape every detail of the picture together and we don’t shy away from each other. This is what makes our knees weak when we make our ideas come alive… But honestly, I don’t see a future for new users on this platform, or for myself for that matter. 

AM: At the time of this interview, your Instagram account sheidlina has 4.5 million followers. The feed is meticulously curated with conceptual photography and videography that features you as the subject. In many ways, you have taken the traditional selfie that was popularized on Instagram and elevated it into a series of self-portraits that reference memes in popular culture and pay homage to iconic styles in Art History.

ES: I feel as if I am an actress trying on different roles and different lives. For my painting, I am always looking for a model, I never paint myself. But for photography, I am always using my body, because this is what I always have with me… I am not ashamed to paint it, it unifies all genders.

AM: While digital art offers unlimited avenues through which to explore, the platforms that host that work are always changing. Do you have a sense that the digital landscape is ephemeral? 

ES: After I’m gone, Sheidlina will disappear together with me. I already mentally wrote a will to my grandchildren to show up online once every 5 months at 23:23 to keep my account alive. So, if someone asks them for their source of inspiration, they could show it together with the likes and comments from the past. New, up-and-coming artists will serve it, and archaeologists will rob my graveyard. They will take what they found and put it in museums. 

AM: What inspires your approach with the oeuvre that you call “magical realism?” 

ES: To forget the meaning of things, change summer for the winter, decompose your body, and put it back together backwards. Magical realism is when you believe that it’s all a dream. Each idea is a challenge, but it stimulates me and gives me energy. 

AM: The style of your photographic and video work presents surreal scenes and as the subject, you are interacting with a unique, colorful and textured environment. Do you feel that you assume a new persona in each work? Do you feel freedom in exploring your identity?

ES: New picture – a new identity. I am renewed with every second. I don’t really choose a look to suit me but I really like the metaphor of memories. I can open my Instagram and tell you everything about my life based on it.

AM: What challenges do you encounter as being the creator and subject of your pieces?

ES: I take some time to think about my work when I create something. I ask myself: can I create this out of things that I can buy in Home Depot? Can I use tape for it? Or can I find people to make this for me and bring it to me in a week? I do really work fast and I believe that the simplest things are also the brightest.

AM: Over the past few years, you began exploring painting. Do you have a preferred medium, i.e. oil, acrylic, mixed media? Do you feel that your paintings share similar themes to your photo and video works? 

ES: Magical reality is photography and performance arts, it is really easy to confuse them with dreams. Be careful in your judgment, because it is truly a magical reality. And it found its home on the Internet. And my dreams, the ones that come alive, I have to create them with oil paintings. I only use oil, for now. 

AM: Following in the tradition of Surrealism, your style embraces an interdisciplinary approach in both technique and philosophy. You have described your work as “a dreamy reality with virtuality, dream paintings, reality-photography, virtuality-video.” 

ES: Every question is connected with an invisible thread. I already answered them fully as this virus of surrealism infected my brain. The rest will come to life with fantasy. But this is what I can add to it: 

Come along now 
Come along with me 
Come along now 
Come along and you’ll see 
What it’s like to be free

Titiyo – “Come Along”

AM: What doors do you feel NFTs can open in your practice? 

ES: First I found out about NFTs in February of 2021 and my first emotion was “Finally, digital art will be accepted as physical art;” “I was born on the Internet and NFT is integrated into my DNA;” or, “Division into three: dream, magical realism and elements of reality now all make sense together because the virtual world cannot exist in reality.” But I want to start with my photography work, because this is my beginning, and from there I can go anywhere.

AM: It feels rather apropos that your debut NFT pays homage to the Surrealists that informed your practice over the past decade. 

ES: I called Salvador Dali (my style and performance) and Rene Magritte (painting and sky) my creative parents. I prepared a photograph that is my digital avatar, the symbol of my surreal-virtualism, where the idea is free and it doesn’t live in my body, it isn’t imprisoned in it. 

Author profile
A. Moret

A. Moret is an international arts contributor and curator.   Her curiosity about the intersection of art and technology inspired the founding of Installation Magazine nearly a decade ago.  As the Artistic Director and Editor-in-Chief she oversees all editorial, conducts interviews with artists around the world and develops enriching partnerships that make art a source of conversation and not intimidation. She is based in Los  Angeles, CA.

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