This text was originally published on Russian Art & Culture, 1 June 2016.
Like the year before, the second edition of the art fair PhotoLondon presented Russian photography. The difference between this year’s art fair in comparison to its inaugural edition was the amount of space it devoted to it. Amongst several gallery displays, such as at the Nailya Alexander Gallery from New York and at the Galerie Ernst Hilger from Vienna, the West Embankment Galleries were devoted to a colour series by the Russian contemporary photographer Sergey Chilikov (*1953). The large picture show Photoprovocations, well hidden on the Embankment level of the photography fair, was curated by the director of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (MAMM) Olga Sviblova. Focusing on one of his photographic series from the 1990s, the exhibition presented an imagery of erotic semi/nudes in domestic interiors – as well as everyday street scenes that are in motion.
Mrs Sviblova’s commissioned exhibition presented work in London that came about after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The decision to focus on the years straight after 1991 put the spotlight on how some Soviet people experienced their newly defined state of liberty at that time. So far, socio-politically engaged Russian bodies of photography (especially from the 1920s and 1930s) are internationally well-known, but of course much more can be done to make contemporary Russian photography more accessible to a European audience; the show Photoprovocations has already taken one pressing step into deepening the transnational exchange between Western and Eastern culture.
Since 1976, Chilikov’s work has become associated with the photography community of Soviet Pop Art. In questioning common photographic techniques, his exhibited outdoor shots that came about due to the decision to use longer exposure time than it is required for taking a photo – resulting in that his street scenes create the impression of continuous movement within two-dimensional photographs.
In contrast to his outdoor work, Chilikov’s domestic portraits rethink the stereotypical posing of women in photographs. In the photo below, the two female figures demonstrate an opened up body language. Legs apart, but covered by clothes. Arms, comfortably spread out onto the furniture which surrounds them. Chilikov’s representation of Russian women in the early 1990s puts the popular thought that female bodies serve as erotic objects in photography at stake; and suggests that female sitters, like photo models, pleasurefully play with the camera – the gaze of the photographer. A kind of dispersal of female portraiture is at work; here, in an attempt to generate new questions about the domestic relationships between the agents that actively participate in Chilikov’s photographs. The image below in particular leaves us with the question, what kind of socio-economic affair is depicted in this photograph?
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 does indeed come into play of how Chilikov placed and chose to depict bodies in his delicately coloured photo works. The renaming of ‘Soviet photography’ to ‘Russian photography’ renders this literate, as Mrs Sviblova pointed out in her conversation with the British art historian Sarah Wilson that was part of the public programme of PhotoLondon. The discussion, which unfortunately turned into a monologue, was still interesting to follow since it provided a personal insight into how Mrs Svilblova founded the today well-renown art collection and public museum of the MAMM complex in 1995.
Tired of art installations, many artists were naturally moving into photography in the 1980s, the director of the museum recalled. At that time, she herself was inspired by the Parisian photography scene and studied the relationships between photography in Paris and Moscow. Until the mid-1990s, her problem with the Russian photography art world was rooted in the absence of an art market in terms of its institutions (artists moved away to Germany or the US where they had the possibility to get scholarships), but also in regards to the non-existence of critics and a keen public for photography. Hence, the history of contemporary Russian photography was still in its making. After liaising with artists over several years and a PhD on the psychologies of art, Mrs Sviblova finally opened the doors of her Museum of Photography in Moscow.
Just as the technological environment around photography changed in the 1990s, Mrs Sviblova’s understanding of an artistic medium changed likewise: “everything can be a medium.” This lead to that the collection of the museum – which at first only focused on historical and contemporary Russian photography – consists of bodies of video, photographic, internet, and installation art, but not of painting today. The decision to further enlarge the collection also resulted in a change of name: the Moscow House of Photography became The Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow.
Despite the serial character of photography, meaning that a photographic picture can be easily reproduced and used to be sold over and over again by making several edition for a more reasonable price than paintings, its artistic nature and working process does not differ from other artistic practices. It is still a hand- and eye-based artistic craft, whose time intensive execution continues to consist of more than a technological, or chemical, technique. The choice to focus on new media is representative for Mrs Sviblova’s appreciation and acceptance of new media art as an art form. Interestingly, a debate on whether photography is indeed an artistic medium came up again in the later afternoon when the British photographer/curator/teacher Martin Parr was in conversation, on the same day. Notably, Parr pointed out that the Tate only started collecting photography in 2002 – seven years after Mrs Sviblova has started to explore the potential of new media art in Moscow. The Russian representation of their photography at PhotoLondon 2016 showed that there can be still much learned from the Eastern European practice and representation of contemporary photography in the rest of Europe.
Similar to Svilblova’s show at the Embankment Galleries, the gallery Nailya Alexander Gallery from New York exhibited a selection of works by Alexey Titarenko (*1962) which explores the photographic effect of longer exposure times. Keeping Chilikov’s moving street scenes from the 1990s in mind, the NY gallery likewise decided to show images that tackle motion and still objects within the medium of photography – but in a different historically informed language. One of the exhibited photographs (above) is a part of his series City of Shadows from the 1990s, and reminds of the silent moving images of the Odessa Steps scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). The montaged film scene shows the Russian people running down the large set of stairs that connects the waterfront with the city of Odessa in an attempt to flee from the shooting tsarist soldiers. However, in contrast to the figurative moving images of Eisenstein, Titarenko’s work presents an abstraction of a moving crowd, one that runs up the stairs, instead of down. Not a single figure is visible.
Working within an analogue darkroom-based photographic practice, his photographs create the illusion of atemporality. It seems that neither time nor a single human figure matters in this photograph Variant Crowd 2 (1992). People are moving up the stairs at the Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station in St. Petersburg in a ghost-like unformed flow. In reinforcing the visual effect of photography by bleaching and toning his analogue photographs, Titarenko’s abstracted pictures create an illusion of a revolt against the more and more disappearing practice of analogue photography; but as the exhibited variety of photographic techniques at PhotoLondon showed, photography remains photography – regardless of its national origin, art historical backup, or its application of different technological methods.
Visit the website to learn more about the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow.