text > The Sailboats and Swans of postcommunism

The Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City has put on display a photography exhibition by Michal Chelbin. The gallery’s press release indicates that Michal Chelbin’s latest body of photography was shot in seven prisons in the Ukraine and Russia over the past six years, and that the photographs explore what it means to be locked up and constantly watched... The title of the series—Sailboats and Swans—was inspired by the murals and wallpaper that the Israeli photographer saw in these Ukrainian and Russian prisons.* The  press release tells us more than this, of course, and so do the photographs. There are Ukrainian and Russian people, mostly young, sometimes hiding shaven heads beneath rabbit-fur shapkas; with lowered eyes and absent expressions or, on the contrary, with a direct gaze that threatens the photographer’s coated lens—the obj’ektiv (as Russians and Ukrainians call this device); men and women standing or sitting inside or in front of grim buildings dressed up in uniforms that Russians sometimes call kazennye (that is, belonging to the treasury [kazna] or to the state); or young men squatting (sidet’ na kortochkakh)—a position in which one becomes comfortable only after spending years without proper furniture or the permission to sit. For the record, people like you and me are able to squat no more than fifteen minutes on average.

The photographs—all well-composed and color-balanced—aim at truthfully attesting to what many in the United States already know about this part of the world. Shown in a respectable New York art gallery, a project like this cannot fail. One supposes that it attracts enough visitors and generates positive critical response in the same way that an exhibition of photography representing US prison inmates or snapshots from daily life in the kibbutz might gather large audiences in the Ukraine and Russia. Another reason for the probable success of such a project is that Chelbin’s work is already part of a tradition or discourse. By “discourse” I mean a body of visual or linguistic statements, a totality of codified language or even a special vocabulary that tends to fall within a certain pre-established framework. What Edward Said, for instance, once called “Orientalism” is exactly this kind of discursive framework—that is, a certain way of representing the Middle Eastern Other (in Said’s case), a certain toolbox of artistic or scholarly devices employed by French and other Western European artists, writers and academics to depict the Orient, especially during the colonial and post-colonial period. It is also important to bear in mind that within Orientalism – like in other discourses – problematic political and economic assumptions are always working behind the scene.

But Chelbin’s Sailboats and Swans is part of another discourse, one that started in a totally different corner of the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, new trends and ways of representing the lives of people from the former Soviet countries began to take shape, materializing over the next two decades in various exhibitions and books. This discourse is known as “postcommunism.” One can clearly see its traces in today’s global markets of contemporary art and literature. By and large, it is used to satisfy the cultural needs of mostly non-Ukrainian and non-Russian consumers of culture; at home—that is, in Kiev and Moscow—postcommunism manifests in a radically different, more complex way. Western postcommunism, on the other hand, is maintained by foreign writers and artists who venture into the former socialist countries in search of new material and sources of inspiration, as well as by many post-Soviet artists and writers who capitalize on this interest, catering for the most part to a Western audience.

Postcommunism in art and culture is easy to recognize both on the level of artistic form and content. Let’s first consider the content. Just as at the height of Orientalism—when French and other European artists and writers, following Napoleon’s campaigns in the Middle East, rushed to depict bathing harem girls, eunuchs carrying perfumed torches, and cross-legged turbaned men smoking hookahs—today the main protagonist of postcommunism is the convict or the security guard, the homeless or the nouveau riche, the prostitute or the oligarch: it is, in other words, the loser and the winner, the cylinder and the piston of the capitalist economic engine.

Chelbin’s photographs, then, on the level of content, reveal some of these prevalent trends within the discourse of postcommunism. But, there are also visible traces of this discourse on the level of form. Take for instance the protagonists of the photographs. In most of the photography produced within the discourse of postcommunism, one will rarely encounter heroes, say, the hero of socialist labor once photographed by representatives of Soviet Constructivism from very low sharp angles in order to aggrandize and glorify this active constructor of communism. Today the coated lens of postcommunism remains for the most part positioned at the same level; its tripod is set only slightly above or slightly below the subject’s eyes—a professional trick that suggests not only the non-heroic and passive fate of the postcommunist subject, but also and most importantly, this is a clear manifestation of contemporary liberal democratic rhetoric, with its insistence on equality, individual liberty and freedom.

Of course I do not want to suggest that everything is uniform within the artistic discourse of postcommunism. Artists work hard to find various approaches to and beyond it. For instance, Chelbin’s series Sailboats and Swans instantly brings to mind the work of Boris Mikhailov, the photographer from Ukraine who also works within the boundaries of this discourse but as an insider, so to speak – as an Ukrainian who presents postcommunist Ukraine to the West. Here is an opportunity, then, to place the work of these two artists side by side for comparison.

What, first of all, do they have in common?

Like Chelbin, Mikhailov also often points his lens toward the darkest corners of post-Soviet society, catching glimpses of those who have fallen behind the locomotive of capitalism (see in particular his Case Study series). But how do the two artists treat their subjects? In Chelbin’s work the photographic subject tends to be over-aestheticized—through worked-out and very symmetrical compositions, carefully chosen camera angles, well-considered lighting, pleasant and harmoniously balanced color schemes. This is professionalism at its height. As spectator, I interpret these formal qualities as the photographer’s assurance that she cares about her subjects, that she tries to be their equal, that she empathizes with their tragic fate, and that she wants to depict them as human beings who are worth our compassion. I do not doubt this. But these gestures of empathy and of shared feeling can often, in her formal choices, seem like an aesthetic anesthetization. Such sharing will always be an impossible goal, and it is perhaps a kind of false consciousness to suggest that through purely aesthetic means one can attain solidarity of experience. To visit a Russian or an Ukrainian prison with a camera is not to live in a Russian or Ukrainian prison without one.

I sensed in other words in Chelbin’s photographs an unbridgeable gap between the photographer and the photographed or the ob’jektiv and the subject. This gap often appears in the export version of the cultural discourse of postcommunism, revealing a certain outsider’s naiveté which is similar in many respects to that of the French artists who traveled in the 19th century to Cairo and Damascus. I feel somewhat uncomfortable before these beautiful photos, as if the beauty strikes a wrong chord. And I wonder why: is it because Chelbin’s photography tends to impose an additional aesthetic regime on top of an already existing regime—that of the prison or the juvenile detention facility? Could this be too much?

If we take a look now at Mikhalov’s Case Studies, we have the impression, in comparison, that there is no real gap between the photographer and the photographed, between the ob’jektiv and the subject. One senses that Mikhailov is as down-and-out as those homeless people he photographs; as intoxicated as those Ukrainian alcoholics that he follows everywhere with his cheap camera; that he is himself as sinful and dirty as his pitiful subjects; that he is as poor and miserable as those impoverished declassed post-Soviet postcommunist citizens that tend to gather in small packs at the outskirts of Kharkov; there is no pretense of empathy, no pretense of equalitarian eye-level-sharing viewfinders, no calculated photographic angle, no color schemes, no soft lighting, no tragic beauty, no symmetry, composition, ethics, feelings —complete contingency: the wild State of photographic Nature.

Octavian Esanu, Published in ArtExperience: NYC, Fall 2012, Vol 1. No. 9


* I quote from the press release available online at Andrea Meislin Gallery’s website: http://www.andreameislin.com/