Igor George Alexander

Мы продолжаем знакомить вас с явлениями нынешнего ФотоФеста. Своими впечатлениями делится Игорь Александров – журналист и искусстовед, много лет изучающий феномен российской фотографии. Специально написанная для «Нашего Техаса» статья печатается в оригинале.

Some Thoughts About FotoFest

f0“Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of homeless people in Ukraine are not for the squeamish. They are hard to look at, hard to look away from and hard to forget,” wrote Ken Johnson in a review published last June in the New York Times. The review appraised the work of the Kharkov, Ukraine photographer on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Turn to the two pages in the FotoFest 2012 catalog and you will see three sepia-toned black-and-white images by Mihailov from 1991, street photography that is relatively calm and elegiac – and utterly unlike the images that have made his reputation in the art world.

In the March 12, 2012 issue of Paper City, Catherine Anspon wrote, “So this will be a FotoFest like no other.” Indeed, I had hoped it would be. As a child of emigrés from the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war, I had high hopes that this event would reveal to an American audience the extraordinary emotional and intellectual depth of a resurgent Russian artistic world. After seventy-five years of Marxist-inspired social experimentation, the USSR dissolved on Christmas Day, 1991. A new culture was possible. The artists and experimenters who had been under the ever-watchful eye of the KGB would be able to work in the open again.

So much for wishful thinking. As a survey of what is new and exciting and meaningful in the Russian photographic world, artistically and journalistically, this huge exhibition fails to provide examples. What the current FotoFest Biennial demonstrates is how much the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin today has become like the Soviet Union of his childhood.

Most of the work on display is by established photographers whose images have been shown over the past decade in major European galleries and museums, who have had books of their work published and who are now represented by the new, serious, professional galleries that have sprung up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is certainly good work. What is conspicuous is what has not been shown.

f1For instance, Soviet war photographers of the Second World War – the four names that first come to mind are Dmitri Baltermans, Ivan Khaldei, Arkady Shaikhet and Samary Gurary – represent one of the real peaks of 20th Century photography worldwide. In this FotoFest, there was no war in Afghanistan, there is no war in Chechnya or Armenia or Georgia. There is, certainly, one war photographer of note in the exhibitions, Yury Kozyrev. The images, however, are of the Libyan uprising in March of last year. Mihailov has already been mentioned. Sergei Bratkov, a protégé of Mihailov from Kharkov who is known internationally for his photographs of children (the series “Kids”) and his series of women in the Russian Federation military (“Army Girls”) is represented in the catalog by two constructed pieces utilizing photographs as an element in the overall works. The pieces are formally interesting but not at all representative of his oeuvre. The recent presidential elections have produced a torrent of photographs seen all over the Internet and in publications, but there is no whisper of the massive pre-election meetings and demonstrations in the exhibitions. The single image relating to criminal activity in the Biennial is a black-and-white photograph from 1981 of an attempted murder attack on a Moscow street. The photographer, Georgy Pinkhassov, currently is a member of the Magnum Photos group and a perhaps prominent enough to get to display what he wanted, rather than what the curators thought prudent.

f2Even the celebrated artistic collective AES+F (the letters are the initials of the four artists involved, Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes), are represented with a particularly subdued video installation. The group is perhaps the most celebrated, internationally known representative of contemporary Russian art. The Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007 was, by many accounts, the most impressive national entry in the entire event. James Harithas brought the AES+F component of the pavilion to Houston’s Station Museum in December of 2007. The works included a series of nearly life-size photographs of the corpses of homeless people taken a Moscow morgue, dressed for their participation in the project in expensive designer outfits. A second series of photographs showed fourteen conventionally photographed headshots of teenage girls. Seven were from well-off Moscow families and seven were inmates of a prison for juvenile offenders who were incarcerated there after being convicted of particularly brutal, motiveless killings. A third piece was one of the group’s signature slickly produced and shot videos, aping contemporary television commercial styles but dealing with much more serious content. These works, as Harithas observed, were “the best art being made today” because it combined contemporary strategies and techniques with the high moral seriousness of the best Russian literature of the 19th and 20th Centuries. AES+F was too big a presence to ignore in a show of the scale and scope of the current FotoFest. The video installation that is being shown, in the words of Olga Sviblova, who curated the Venice Biennale pavilions and the exhibition at the Station, described the piece: “The project “Forest King” (2001-2004) was shot in the Yekaterinsky Palace in the town of Pushkin, in Cairo and in New York’s Manhattan. Children and teenagers from model agencies, belonging to different ethnic, religious and social groups took part in this project. However, the way they dress, move and behave before the camera is almost identical and discloses the influence of globalization and universalized media, which forms their identity, forcing them to accept the rigid clichés of the culture of consumption and glamour. These children become the target of advertisement and at the same time heroes of it, who are used to promote new goods on the market.” Interesting, but not astonishing. These sorts of comparisons could be continued for many other photographers in the current FotoFest.

Art is not effective in changing the world. Change is much more likely to be effected by guns, germs and steel, in Jared Diamond’s memorable coinage. But art is extremely good at asking questions, especially questions that are not likely to have a direct answer. This FotoFest certainly raises questions about the direction Russia’s rulers are choosing. It is especially vexing to consider that a curator, Evgeny Berezner, who has a great knowledge and real interest in the subject, did the vetting of the materials. A major underwriter of the exhibitions is not the Ministry of Culture but a private individual, the Yeltsin and Putin crony and mysterious billionaire Roman Abramovich. Questions arise. Is Berezner a ruthless, cynical Andrei Zhdanov-style cultural commissar? Or is he, with his decades of experience in the Soviet era Ministry of Culture, more the canary in the coalmine?

Once again, the questions that have exercised Russian thinkers since at least the days of Chaadaev and Herzen arise for those concerned with Russia’s fate – Who is to blame? What is to be done? Whither goest thou?