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Uladzimir Parfianok
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valery lobko. photography from minsk grant kester. a western view nadzeja karotkina. new belarusian photography nadzeja karotkina. lucida momenta

a western view
by grant kester (
1991)



"photomanifesto: contemporary photography in the ussr". photographic exhibition in museum for contemporary arts, baltimore, usa, 1991


The Minsk artists foster a creative, diverse photographic dialogue that counters conformity. While operating outside of the mainstream of Soviet art and removed from its center in Moscow, they have created a flourishing cultural enclave.

 

"Spurred by the boredom of one-dimensional lives, thousands if not millions of people
found the means of individual expression in the camera."

Victor Misiano

 

One of the many cultural byproducts of the glasnost era, along with Russian army watches and "Gorby" t-shirts, has been the widespread importation of "unofficial" Soviet art to the United States. Artists who clustered in isolated groups in Moscow, Leningrad, and Minsk anxiously awaiting smuggled copies of Artforum now find themselves courted by stylish New York galleries. Their work, initially created for a small circle of fellow artists bonded together by the shared experience of material privation and state harassment, is now reproduced in lavish ads for Absolut vodka. The artists themselves often feel adrift, their sense of solidarity replaced by confusion and anxiety. They begin to experience unfamiliar sensations of jealousy and competition: Who stays behind and who gets to go to New York? Who gets an exhibition and who will be this yearns Komar and Melamid, or this year's Grisha Bruskin?

The work itself, detached and abstracted from its original context and audience, is transformed. Its meaning shifts to meet the ideological needs of the curator or critic of the moment. For some Western commentators Soviet art represents the triumph of the creative individual over the bureaucratic regularization of the Communist state, for others it provides an ironic foil for the growing state control of art in the United States. For some its deconstruction of political myths marks it as a variant of postmodern conceptual art, while others view it as a reaffirmation of modernist notions of authorship, expression, and authenticity.

The very proliferation and range of these interpretations suggest the extent to which this work eludes our understanding, and to which the actual conditions of its creation and original meaning are often secondary or irrelevant to its role in the art market. The influx of Soviet art promises a veritable gold mine of new and interesting material to be arranged, cataloged, framed, collected, authenticated, advertised, criticized, curated, archived, bought, sold, auctioned, and reproduced by the international fine art apparatus. Moscow curator Victor Misiano evokes this fantasy with his allusion to the thousands of repressed Russian photographic auteurs laboring in obscurity to effect the alchemical transmutation of ennui into creative self-expression. But how many of these potential Atgets make interesting art? And how do we judge what makes it interesting in the first place? By the evaluation standards of market-driven Western criticism?

How can we hope to reproduce the communal significance of that committed audience of friends and fellow artists for whom much of this work was originally made? The very act of bringing this material "to light" destroys something of its essence. The situation has something in common with the apocryphal story about the opening of an Egyptian tomb sealed for thousands of years: with the breaking of the tomb's seal and the inrush of fresh air, the mummified contents crumble into dust. Even as the critical, curatorial, and financial mechanisms of Western culture attempt to grasp unofficial Soviet art, it ceases to exist. At the same time, the very conditions of official proscription and cultural neglect that led to the formation of the close-knit communities of unofficial artists are being replaced by open support and encouragement. What kind of art do they make now? Will recognition from the West cease without the frisson of official disapproval?

The current explosion of interest in Soviet art caps an expansion that began with Komar and Melamid's 1976 exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. Along the way, the strongest impressions have often been made not by the art but by the artists themselves. We consume the body and lifestyle of the artist-as-outlaw in the form of photographic images in books and exhibition catalogs: grainy, black-and-white snapshots of bearded, brooding conceptualists meeting over vodka and tea beneath a bare light bulb, or. performing some esoteric art project in the suburbs of Leningrad. These images satisfy our vampiric lust for aesthetic purity in an art world that seems dominated by cynical opportunists. They indulge our nostalgia for a time when artists struggled and suffered not for financial reward but for spiritual survival.

The photographs in this book* share some of this fascination. In a number of these works, the human figure acts out a symbolic defiance against the personal and social prohibitions of the state. The top half of Vladimir Shakhlevich's grid Act with a Portrait (pages 90 -- 91) includes four head-and-shoulder images of a man performing the parable of the Chinese monkeys who could hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. The speak no evil segment, in which he holds a Communist party insignia in his mouth, suggests the scene in Gunter Grass's novel The Tin Drum when Oskar's father chokes on a Nazi party pin he is attempting to conceal from Russian soldiers. In the bottom row -- extreme close-ups of various folds, creases, and labia -- the body stands as a fleshy landscape, immune to the authoritarian regime of the state.

Shakhlevich's Act I -- IV (pages 92 -- 93) includes photographs of a dramatically posed nude figure in the middle of a desert. The prints have been worked over with toner so that the figure appears to be engulfed in flames or radiating some kind of aura. Here we see parallels with other Eastern and Central European artists, particularly Austrians Arnulf Rainer, Otto Muehl, and Herman Nitsch, who use their own bodies in performances designed in part to come to terms with Austria's fascist past. The rhetoric of the sacrificial ritual, the dramatization of personal and interior experience, the exploration of physical and social boundaries and themes are all ways for Soviet artists to reaffirm individual consciousness and to acknowledge the body as a site of resistance to an invasive bureaucratic apparatus that seeks to control every aspect of daily existence.

The dramatic rituals and symbolic acts which regularly appear in the work of unofficial photographers are often staged in natural or domestic settings -- deserts, forest glades, apartments - that provide an ideologically neutral ground. In a series of untitled photographs by Uladzimir P. Parfianok, the human body contorts itself to conform with the surrounding physical environment (page 69). In each image the pose of the partially clothed figure mimics the form of a nearby object in his apartment. In one image he executes an inclined sit-up, flexing his body to match the shape of a swing-arm lamp in the foreground; in another he lies on the floor with his jacket unzipped, next to an open gym bag. The photographs have been hand-colored, with erratic markered outlines of the man and selective coloring of other objects in the room.

The apartment is also the backdrop for Parfianok's Persona Non Grata series (pages 112 -- 113), which grew out of his encounters with young Soviets living in state-sponsored dormitories. Too old to live at home with their parents, yet unable to find regular work and afford their own apartments, they exist on the margins of Soviet society. Parfianok has produced semidocumentary images of these untouchables, as well as staging them in such satirical tableaux as a nude figure wearing a gas mask while reading a newspaper headlined "Soviet Culture". Shakhlevich also stages photographic events in apartments. His Happy Sunday (Ironically) (pages 94 -- 95) plays out a domestic scene in which an older man welcomes a visitor to his apartment only to have the visitor pull out a gun. This enigmatic sequence of photographs evokes the nightmarish climate of mutual distrust and suspicion in a heavily policed society. The pervasiveness of state surveillance is also suggested in Igor V. Savchenko's three-part image showing a dour man in an undershirt in left and right profile and frontal poses in his apartment (pages 70 -- 71). A handwritten caption at the bottom of the image reads "At the last judgement not identified," followed by an official stamp and number.

The reliance on various forms of narrative in unofficial Soviet photography suggests a dissatisfaction with the relatively indiscriminate nature of straight photography and a suspicion of its apparent self-evidence. This skepticism toward photographic veracity has been fueled by the fact that a denuded socialist documentary was virtually the only form of photography that received any official sanction prior to glasnost. Photographers such as Shakhlevich, Parfianok, and others want now to speak through photographs, not with them. Dramatized performances, writing on the print, and images in grids or sequences allow them to thicken the level of social reference around the photograph in order to produce meanings that are at once more articulate and infinitely more subtle than those available in the single "straight" image.

Additional narrative possibilities opened up by work in grids and sequences are evident in an untitled piece by Parfianok that explores the repercussions on Soviet society of the disaster at Chernobyl (pages 116 -- 117). This complex work combines nine separate images in three rows. The top row features two blurred, slightly out-of-focus images, a flower and a plant on the left and right, with an image of a sectioned fish on a plate in the center -- possibly a reference to the irradiation of plant and animal life and damage to the food chain. The blur and lack of focus produce a kind of blasted look in the prints, not unlike some of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's later works. The body figures again in the images in the middle and lower rows, which include close-ups of a man's eye, throat, and face, and toes, wrist, and feet respectively.

Sergey Kozhemyakin also employs sequencing quite effectively in his work, particularly in Presence (page 75) and **** (pages 102 -- 103). In **** four consecutive images of a heroic statue of Lenin grow progressively darker and more troubled. Here the ideological and monumental body of Lenin is frozen under gathering storm clouds, like Rodin's Balzac in Steichen's photograph. Curiously, in the darker prints the image of Lenin with his arm gesturing rhetorically toward the sky resembles the Statue of Liberty. Presence is a set of four al most identical snapshot images of a uniformed man, possibly on holiday, posing on a balcony. The man's head has been cropped out in each of the images. This compositional violence contrasts with the almost ethereal appearance of the backlit figure standing in a hazy fog with its back to a distant coastline.

Unofficial photographers' obvious disregard for the documentary function of photography is evident in their tendency to obsessively work the print surface in various ways. Almost every image in this book has been toned, bleached, drawn on, written on, scratched, or colored. Galina Moskaleva's use of garish toning is particularly effective in Elections (pages 72 -- 73), a series of four photographs taken at what appears to be an official Soviet election,, the ceremonial site of one-party democracy. The elaborate, almost funereal arrangement of flowerpots and imagery around the voting box is heightened by Moskaleva's use of lurid dark blue toner on the print. The attending election official appears appropriately cadaverous next to a meticulously gold-toned bust of Lenin. The scene becomes a literal shrine to (the death of) democracy.

The frequency with which Soviet photographers mark and work the surfaces of their prints may have something to do with their extremely limited access to photographic materials. With paper and chemicals scarce commodities, the idea of turning out an extended edition of a single image is impractical, so each print becomes an artifact. At the same time, the laboriously worked surfaces, the gestural, handwritten tides and stories, and the careful selective toning are all procedures that reflect a cathartic investment of self and subjectivity in the artwork.

Soviet photographers are particularly conscious of the roles photography has played in both preserving and distorting their own history. Only now are they beginning to fully recover the long-suppressed heritage of Soviet avant-garde photography from the 1920s. They are familiar with the malleability of historical truth in the hands of the state, particularly during the Stalin era, when purged political figures were literally painted out of official photographs. Nevertheless, they are also aware of the role photography has played in preserving the personal histories of Soviet citizens.

Several works in this book suggest the ambivalent, and often ironic, relationship unofficial photographers have with historical imagery. The photographers frequently use toning and scratching (of either the negative or the print) to evoke age or history. They are fascinated with images taken from family albums that seem to verify the past in some direct and indexical fashion. A number of them also use historical photographs in collages of various kinds. Savchenko alludes to the systematic distortion of history in an untitled work assembled from segments of an old group portrait (page 6). The image on the top shows the faces of the group, several of which have been bleached out. A thin red line snakes through the image, connecting only the bleached-out faces.

Both Moskaleva and Kozhemyakin have produced series of works utilizing images from family albums. Moskaleva photographed pages from an old family album showing pictures of soldiers and various family members (page 84). The images have been selectively toned and overprinted with a rough cutout of a human figure and a red star. Kozhemyakin's The Museum of Military Fame (pages 77 -- 78) uses old family album pictures of a group of soldiers gathered around a cannon in what appears to be a town square. In the first images the soldiers assume various formal poses around the gun, in the final image collapsing over and around it in a scene of mock carnage.

Photography, more than any other medium, reiterates the prototypical conditions of the Soviet unofficial artist. The isolation, the enforced self-sufficiency, the privation, and the lack of any kind of institutional support network -- until very recently -- are almost inconceivable to those of us accustomed to the relative plethora of photographic books, magazines, galleries, schools, funding agencies, and collectors in the West. While photography was often used by Soviet artists to document performances and installations that, by necessity, had to remain ephemeral and impermanent, it has gone virtually unrecognized as an art form in its own right. Thus, while painters and sculptors have begun to emerge into the Western limelight, much of the work in this book is being seen for the first time outside of the Soviet Union.

Surprisingly, for all its isolation, the work in this book shares many characteristics with current photographic practice in the West. The images in sequences and grids, the use of the artists body in various dramatic tableaux, the incorporation of autobiographical materials and handwriting on the print itself: all these strategies appear in the work of contemporary artists in the United States such as Cindy Sherman, John Baldesarri, and Jim Goldberg, among many others. It is unlikely that these formal correspondences stem from a widespread familiarity among Soviet photographers with contemporary Western art. Rather, Soviet artists seem almost preternaturally drawn to explore the very issues of subjectivity and ideology that have come to dominate current Western art under the rubric of postmodernism. These artists are united by a set of shared conceptual concerns: the problematic status of photographic truth, the relationship between the personal and the political or the individual and the state, and the cultural construction of identity.

The interest of artists such as Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger in issues of subjectivity and representation is rooted in a critique of the culture of the marketplace- advertising, movies, fashion, etc. It is a culture in which the individual merges into an anonymous stream of shoppers whose unconscious dreams and desires have been harnessed to the consumption of deodorants, shoes, and microwave ovens. In a similar way Soviet artists respond to the culture of politics. In the Soviet Union all possible Utopias are fulfilled in the posters and billboards of the Communist party, eternally progressive, dynamic, and forward-looking. The ideological operations that take place within both systems depend on the effacement of individuality, the redirection of desire and subjectivity, and the effortless manipulation of truth and representation. What has become increasingly clear in the post-cold war era is the extent to which both Western and Eastern political systems exert power over the individual on the quotidian level of daily existence and personal identity. As this work continues to move outside the Soviet Union, and away from its original audience, it will undoubtedly begin to reveal new meanings for Western viewers. Shakhlevich's fascination with the body and state control suggests .connections to Foucault's study of the carceral realm in Discipline and Punish. More generally, much of the work in this book could be productively analyzed within the framework of a poststructuralist critique of the polarities that characterize Western thought. From this perspective Soviet unofficial photography can be seen as effecting a series of strategic disruptions or inversions of the boundaries and oppositions that structure and define contemporary life in the East as well as the West: between public and private life, the body and the spirit, the individual and the state, and between the artist's own imagination and the banal cultures of consumerism and politics.

 

*This text was extracted from "Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the USSR" by Walker, Ursitti & McGinniss. (c) 1991. Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc. New York. ISBN 1-55670-199-3.

 

 

 

 

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publications
valery lobko. photography from minsk grant kester. a western view nadzeja karotkina. new belarusian photography nadzeja karotkina. lucida momenta

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