The title of Calvert 22’s exhibition of contemporary Russian photography, Close and Far, unlocks the exhibition’s concept as thought out by curator Kate Bush. She anchored her presentation of five contemporary artists in the context of early twentieth-century photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).
His picturesque images of pre-WWI Russia were – surprisingly – taken in colour. Thanks to prints provided by the Library of Congress, Washington (Prokudin-Gorsky himself was never able to create colour prints from his negatives), we discover some refreshing images of the land he roved from 1909 to 1915. The richly decorated Samarkand mosque with people in brightly coloured traditional clothing; the coast of modern-day Georgia, with its near-tropical climate; river views bathed in an incredible light captured by the still-hesitant colour process… The series brings to mind Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, which tells of the powerful Europe of 1900 that had not yet lived through the horrific blood bath of a World War.
It is having entered this mindset that visitors engage with the adjacent contemporary works. The exhibition booklet efficiently ties this narrative together:
“Where Prokudin-Gorsky witnessed first-hand the effects of Russian imperialism, today’s young artists are working in the aftermath of the collapse of both the Romanov and the Soviet empires, in the space of less than a century. How are they approaching the subject of identity and place in post-Soviet times?” (Kate Bush)
Alexander Gronsky’s Pastoral references the conventions of landscape picture. Imagine a village scene à la Pieter Bruegel in which the rural setting gives way to suburban Moscow’s high-rise residential buildings. The uneasiness of these tableaux lies in the contrast between individual lives and the anonymity of urban architecture. Gronsky’s works recall Massimo Vitali’s white beaches and the tone of Mitch Epstein’s American Power series.
The video Mad Mimes by Dimitri Venkov also focuses on Moscow’s suburbs, this enormous limbo area abandoned by urban planning and re-appropriated by people. The work presents itself as a documentary film about a “tribe” analysed by “experts”: a homeless community that receives roadside garbage as magic offerings, ignoring the concept of ownership. While for the artist, “the film serves as a metaphor for Russian art”, this work also pertains to many other subjects: environmental waste, capitalism, social norms and the acceptation of difference. These concerns echo with Russia’s communist history and with its current pervading poverty.
Max Sher’s work, Russian Palimpsest, offers a different take on the landscape tradition, mixing street photography and the frontality of the Bechers. He depicts empty streets, ghostly car parks and seemingly useless buildings. People are nowhere to be seen. The white skies and grey/beige colour palette intensify the sadness. Sher, by showing overlooked, ‘in-between’ spaces, tells us of abandonment and meaninglessness.
People – History
Olya Ivanova reintroduces the human in the picture. She presents full-length double portraits of people dressed up for Village Day. Observing them, closely posing like sparkly gems on the background of a rather muddy village square, brings a new level of understanding of contemporary Russia. A slideshow of black and white personal family archives reinforces Ivanova’s focus on a more social history.
More colour shots by Prokudin-Gorsky, made at the start of WWI (which coincided with the end of his photographic journey through Russia), are placed in dialogue with majestic war re-enactment scenes by Gronsky. While giving his works a ‘heroic painting’ feel by way of the large triptych format, Gronsky did not try to hide the public that gathered round the edges of the reconstructions. Thence these photographs are as much about wartime as about the process of re-enactment, offering us a deconstructed, postmodern narrative of History.
The final video adds a soft poetic touch to the show. By borrowing motifs from a heroic battle painting by Roubaud and a Soviet-era collective farm manual, Taus Makhacheva plunges into the history of Gamsutl, a breathtaking location in the Republic of Dagestan. The film attempts to patch up the forgotten history of this abandoned village by bringing together movement, dance and landscape. The work is ideally placed at the end of an exhibition that navigates the close and the far of a country with sense and manages to teach and touch its visitors.
Close and Far, Russian Photography Now | 18 June – 17 August 2014 | Calvert 22, 22 Calvert Avenue, London