Sprovieri Gallery, London
9 February–5 April 2012
by ANNE BLOOD
When traversing the vast spectrum of subjects found in Mikhailov’s photography, it is difficult to find the single theoretical line of enquiry that draws them together. The artist negotiates with ample dexterity a range of questions related to both photography as a medium and the wider politics of representation faced by any visual artist with a balance between critique and humour. Although at first glance, the photographs may seem sweetly naïve or amateur, they contain a complex conceptual framework that unravels with closer inspection.
When beginning to unfold the multiple layers contained within Mikhailov’s photography, it is tempting to adopt a post-structuralist critique of representation that demonstrates that visual art is an inextricable part of the social process of domination and control. To consider the photographs in this way is not simply to interpret their appropriation by those in power for political or propagandistic purposes, but instead to see the works as active or even performative pieces whose negotiation of systems of power is continued or even activated by the viewer, which involves a process of differentiation, exclusion, incorporation and rule.
Mikhailov is obviously aware of the importance of reception in the construction of meaning in a work of art, which can be seen simply in the number of different ways he has displayed his work over the years; sometimes enlarged or superimposed onto another image, placed in a book or used as a still in a film. In the current exhibition, for example, only a selection of photographs from larger series are on display, and the images are grouped together into triptychs, an art historical mode which itself has an engrained hierarchy of two pendant images supporting the central third. Furthermore in the group of three images Death of a parliamentary deputy from the series Look at me I look at the Water (1999) Mikhailov presents different points of interpretation for the viewer through the use of two different extended captions which each recount the series of events leading to the death of a parliamentary deputy. Though these facts cannot be seen in the images themselves, their conclusions shape our understanding of the photographs.
What is most intriguing when following a post-structuralist reading through Mikhailov’s work is the importance of change. While change is expressed most directly in Mikhailov’s work in his engagement with the renegotiation of socio-economic structures between Communism and Capitalism in the former Soviet state of Ukraine, change is also important from the point of the viewer. The title of a recent collection of essays and interviews with the artist by David Teboul, I’ve Been Here Once Before (2011), offers a succinct explanation of the importance of “change” with regards to reception. Mikhailov’s photographs are active not simply through the initial encounter but gain depth through return, functioning less as a fixed document but as a fluctuating memory.
When thinking about Mikhailov’s work in relation to structures of power, it is impossible to ignore the subject of the post-Soviet condition, an aspect that runs through most of the artist’s photographic series. However simply praising Mikhailov for taking pseudo-documentary photographs which reveal the “truth” of the experience of post-Soviet society by an artist who has lived through the change is to cut short the further construction of meaning created by the viewer. Sometimes the more interesting question is not, what does Mikhailov reveal to us, but why do we, as a “Western” audience, as someone who has not experience the fall of Communism, find these photographs, which fluctuate between kitsch and revulsion, so appealing. In Case History (1997–98) – a selection of which is on view at Sprovieri – Mikhailov photographs the homeless of Kharkov – or bomzhes – whom he pays to pose in various states of undress. It is both an attempt to document the effects of capitalism on Ukraine, which has created a small group of enormously wealthy citizens, while plunging the rest into poverty, and to carry out a conceptual project re-negotiating the rules of artistic production under capitalism.
In Case History the interplay between dominance and subordination is vividly depicted by the photographer and encountered by the viewer. When looking at the photographs, the viewer first questions the morality of Mikhailov’s actions, the possible exploitation. Mikhailov never denies the awkwardness of his position when taking these photographs, for he is himself attempting to traverse the unfamiliar rules of a capitalist system. Photographing from the position of a former-Comrade, Mikhailov sometimes even includes himself in the photographs, visually questioning where can he position himself. Within the gallery space, confronted with these photographs, the viewer must also decided where to position themselves within the physical installation and with the bomzhes.
In the three photographs from Case History on view at Sprovieri, scenes reminiscent of Adam and Eve or the Deposition appear. Mikhailov’s use of this imagery is both calculated and critical. Mikhailov is well aware that the this use of Christian imagery will elicit a certain response from an art audience, arguably well versed in these signs – ie the weakness of man in the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the sacrifice of Jesus and the promise of redemption. By using this imagery and the specific emotional responses they elicit, the ruins caused by Western imposed capitalism are rendered more tragic. The Ukrainian man posing as the Christ is not a sacrifice simply for mankind but for capitalism. The Christian imagery is not just provocation, meant to shock and intrigue in its a direct confrontation. It pulls the audience in with recognizable signs to pose a critical accusation and raise questions of accountability. The same interplay between critique and accountability is found in the series The Wedding (2008) – also on view at Sprovieri – in which homeless models recreate scenes from traditional weddings, again in various states of undress.
Although the art world claims to like contradiction and professes to uphold freedom of expression, there are limits to the amount of change that can be reconciled. Case History is not simply a critique of an exterior system, but the capitalist regime we share. Our reception of Mikhailov’s work is no longer solely structured through a dominant power relationship and a fascination with the “Other”. Orientalism involves dehumanising the “other”, but in Case History our reaction is built on common humanity, the accountability is shared.
Mikhailov says he asks his models to strip in order to reveal their humanity – to take away the difference structured through the signs of poverty worn on their clothes. Mikhailov’s work manages not to be purely exploitative because of his participation. His conceptual project – attempting to renegotiate his position within the capitalist regime – functions as an extended caption, structuring our interpretation. The exploitation is reconciled through a constructive act of learning, these images become noble through Mikhailov’s participation in them, he gives them significance.
Though the discomfort felt when looking at Case History is a result of a reception that involves recognition of common humanity, there is still a separation. While it is Mikhailov’s context, as a participant, that ennobles the images, gives them legitimacy, makes them palatable, the context of the viewer is equally important in its balance between inclusion and separation. If there was no distance, it would be impossible to look at the images in Case History and not to act, the reaction would be revolutionary, not simply discomfort. We are able to reconcile the difference because of the balance between inclusion and separation.
Yet Mikhailov’s photographs do not always elicit a reaction through shock, instead he often harnesses humour as a means to traverse a set of complex issues related to the post-Soviet condition and structures of power. In series such as Luriki (1970-80) Mikhailov takes old photographs and colours them by hand, questioning both notions of veracity and beauty – pushing the image towards post-Soviet kitsch. By garishly colouring images of former Soviet comrades, Mikhailov deconstructs both the fabrication of the heroic perfection of the loyal Soviet citizen and the objectivity of the photographic medium, drawing attention to the photographic surface by manipulating the photograph with aniline dye by hand.
Ideals of beauty – a complex question in a post-Soviet arena laced with the legacy of the aesthetic language of Socialist Realism – is found in Mikhailov’s series Yesterday’s Sandwich (late 1960s/70s), in which the artist superimposes two photographs taken in the 1960s or 70s to create a new composite image. In plate number 48, Mikhailov has combined an entirely red image of a large crowd with an image of two friends standing in a field after a game of tennis, juxtaposing both the communal and the personal. What is immediately evident when looking at the image is its strange beauty, as the image of the crowd seems to melt into an abstract red pattern washing over the two figures. While the subjects found in these two images may seem very different – a crowd versus a pair – they both bear strong ties to the iconography of Soviet Realism, as one celebrates the communal, single body of many, while the other glorifies the ideal body of the Soviet man and woman, as exemplified in the youthful image of the couple. Mikhailov has commented that when one combines two images of beauty or, perhaps, two images of a Soviet ideal, you inevitably end up with a negative. Thus by combining two photographs, Mikhailov achieves not an apotheosis but a deconstruction, revealing the fallacy inherent in both images. Yet beyond a deconstruction Mikhailov also again cleverly plays with notions of memory. In Yesterday’s Sandwich and even in series such as Case History the artist uses images to re-negotiate beliefs and memories we thought we knew so well. The familiar becomes uncanny, memory is questioned or even changed, and it is here that Mikhailov finds his strength.