Poetics of absence: chasing the vanishing points

Turmoil of life under the soviets and after? Its a critique against the “mask of beauty” after the uprising of post-soviet capitalism. In such a panoply of visual images that Russia affords, how can a photographer capture the truth; a given truth to which thought attains is always finite and this perception of the truth, this glimpse, remains the recognition of the finite amid all the chaos of apparent infinity. But the choice of the artist is not arbitrary. The spontaneity of the photograph seems more a case of discovery than invention; a temporary truth that the mind establishes. …

---“Nakedness doesn’t begin to describe this condition, so I asked my models to pull up their clothes as a metaphor for their life.” The results are unsettling. The knowledge that the pictures have been directed creates some dissonance. The poses and costumes keep the subjects at a distance even as they make their lives feel more profound. Manipulated to feel miserable and occasionally darkly titillated, the viewer feels implicated, even exploited. When asked why he didn’t rely on conventional documentary methods, Mr Mikhailov told Ms Respini that “documentary cannot be truth. Documentary pictures are one-sided, only one part of the conversation.” Not everyone may agree with his tactics, but it is hard to look away from the awful truth of his staged pictures.----Read More:http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/06/boris-mikhailovs-photographs?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/harshpicturesharschconditions image:http://zero1blog.com/?p=2102


At one stage in the 1970s, he took to hand-coloring b/w photos to accentuate a pop sensibility, and to wryly mimic the way Soviet propaganda artificially brightened very dreary, gray life events. But the faces and postures do not lie. On one photo he adds in handwriting: “Everything here is so gray in gray that there isn’t even anything to color.”…Ironically, Mikhailov was never caught, censored or punished for his work during the Soviet regime. But when he published a book titled Case History, documenting the terrible and desperate conditions of the homeless in the late 1990s “after” the Soviets, he was seen as a traitor, going too far, exposing too much ugliness, sorrow and suffering…. Read More:http://www.lensculture.com/mikhailov.html

---Even if, as Kabakov suggests, these pictures can be regarded as part of an ethnology of Russian normality today, they also strike closer to home. The flashes of nakedness show us what we share, even if, while doing so, they generate an entirely useless guilt and revulsion, an enfeebled empathy. I have no defence to them, save an equally useless and banal aestheticisation: this image is like a Pietà of a Deposition, that is a corner in a Bruegel or a Cranach. This is a modern medieval world of squalid transactions and terrible privations, life reduced to near-zero possibilities. After Mikhailov, the photographs of Hannah Starkey and Hellen van Meene can barely compete. They look like well-meant minor league photography-as-art. It is not their fault. Starkey's staged photos of women and girls in artificial everyday situations and Van Meene's young girls on the cusp of puberty in Holland leave me, presently, a bit cold.---Read More:http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/feature/0,1169,728586,00.html image:http://zero1blog.com/?p=2102


Its the neglected men, women and children. The stranded. The detritus of post-socialist society displayed like market wares without any of the ethically conventional norms or aesthetic filtering that permits a buffer zone, an inner distance from what we view. The idea is that if we look at this misery at the lowest common denominator we begin to see its permutations and variations in the street with the unsettling feeling that the laws of gravity tend to push these ordinal rankings to the bottom. Mikhailov’s is clearly an anti-consumerist message, amid an orgy of indulgence peddled by official economic policy.

Mikhailov  says more in one photograph than Naomi Klein, Fast Food Nation, Adbusters, etc. say after hundreds of pages of white liberal scribblings of moral pieties. No, its the elan, the moxie and the guile of Mikhailov to avoid the pose and gesture of the critique of mass society- usually by the affluent for the affluent- and to attack consumerism for what it creates: pockets of concentration camp “light”, likely reassuring to many,  amid the public spectacle of consumption as means of asserting our individuality and uniqueness. Mikhailov truly understands consumer society and takes the path of most resistance by undermining it not reinforcing it.


---After the KGB found nude pictures of his wife he was set off his job as an engineer and started to full-time work with photography. He shot a series of everyday-life scenes-documentation. His most famous work during this period (1968–1975) was the "Red Serie". In these photographs he mainly used the colour red, to picture people, groups and city-life. Red is the color standing for October Revolution, political party and the social system of soviet society. It is often said, that within those works critical elements toward the existing political circumstances can be found.---Read More:http://the-russian-art.blogspot.com/2011/05/boris-mikhailov.html

…The absolutely true, that is, what no further experience will ever modify, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge. Since all knowledge is relative, all truth is relative. And absolute truth i

far distant as perfect wisdom. The truth to which thought attains then is always finite. Indeed, the perception of truth is the recognition of the finite amid all the chaos of apparent infinity. I look at Mikhail’s work as a complementary to Isaac Babel and Boris Pasternak stripped of any traces of magic realism. Its the precarity of comfort.

We owe more to those who tear up our comforts than to those who calmly accept its seduction. What shocks with Mikhailov’s work is the realization that conventional society is an affair of elegance in trifles; a society that has neither ideas, nor aims,  save those to increase its comfort. By and large, those who attempt to disturb the serenity by delving for the truth are hated.

Searle:The artist pays the homeless "bomzhes" in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov to pose for him. He gets them to drop their pants or open their ragged coats to show the camera their diseases, their Lenin tattoos, their scars. Bare arses in the snow, cold white breasts and bellies, raddled flesh. How much Mikhailov goads or coerces his subjects and how much they are complicit, or aggressively confrontational and exhibitionistic when faced with his camera and his coins, one cannot always tell. As he sees it, his payment duplicates the economics of the new Russia. Questions about the morality of these images are surely part of their subject. Harrowing they may be, but the photographer does not seem to me to be unscrupulous. "I am no better than anyone else," he appears to be saying. And no different, either. Read More:http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/feature/0,1169,728586,00.html image:click image for more...

Adrian Searle:Mikhailov’s photographs – human wreckage, variously drunk, mad, glue-sniffing, filthy, delusional, impoverished, sick, hysterical and defeated, sloping towards death – present a dismal and unredemptive portrait of outcast humanity in post-Soviet Russia, even if some also have a terrible, Bruegelian humour. The cumulative effect is of an abject normality, though one which is almost impossible for us to get used to. Read More:http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/feature/0,1169,728586,00.html


---Larissa Harris: "....Mikhailov's interests in the individual rather than the type, immediacy rather than distance, and the everyday rather than the ceremonial remain constant throughout, constituting a direct challenge to what Boris Groys might call ‘the Soviet promotion machine.’” Read More:http://www.lensculture.com/mikhailov.html image:http://jonnycochrane.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/boris-mikhailov/

ADDENDUM:So, Mikhailov’s photography is great art. It demands the suspension of disbelief. The emperor wears no clothes: there is an absence of god and the need for dialogue or some form of discourse to mediate this absence. The words to express the absence are lacking, so the image is used to express the poetics of absence; memory must somehow fill the historical void here in this nightmarish world, a world without values encroaching on our comforting values. Like a knock on our door in the dead of night. Who is there? Do I dare ask?


---In his increasingly difficult times, it also became safer not to be easily understood. When Stalin startled the life out of him with a "friendly" midnight phone-call – Well? What can you say about that poem of Mandelstam's? – Pasternak replied with a deflective discussion of what was, for him, the fundamental issue of human right over life and death. Questioning a homicidal despot's power to his face carries some risks. Fortunately, Stalin was too impatient to understand, and cut off the call. This time, the sentence for Mandelstam's anti-Stalinist poem was a mild form of exile – but in the great purge of 1937 he was one of the 44,000 liquidated. Beside Pasternak's name, Stalin reputedly scribbled the instruction "Don't touch this cloud-dweller".--- Pasternak. 1958. Read More:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/06/doctor-zhivago-boris-pasternak-translation

aaaPasternak ranges the individualism of Zhivago against the heartless society that is being erected by the Bolsheviks on the grave of Tsarist Russia. Where Zhivago questions his every deed from the standpoint of conscience, left-wing leaders like Lara’s husband, Pasha Antipov, who styles himself as Strelnikov or “Shooter,” kill without blinking or thinking.

The Bolsheviks promise a classless utopia for all, justifying their purges and mass executions by what they will achieve in the future. Zhivago revels in physical toil and sharing of the earth’s bounty, but he is not interested in the imminent triumph of Communism. He seeks a “new form of communion, conceived in the heart and known as the Kingdom of God,” where “there are no peoples, there are persons.” …Of infinitely greater importance is the fact that Doctor Zhivago has stood the test of time far better than the Iron Curtain or tales of Cold War intrigue. Pasternak’s novel is the story of a man of conscience who asserts human dignity in the face of the all-powerful state. That issue certainly has not faded with the passage of time. Read More:http://calitreview.com/12251



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One Response to Poetics of absence: chasing the vanishing points

  1. Rich Okun says:

    WOW – What a great piece David. I was not really familiar with his work.
    Thank you.

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