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Boris Mikhailov’s ‘Ukrainian Diary’ Meet the photographer who chronicled post-Soviet Ukraine
This month, a sweeping retrospective of Boris Mikhailov’s photography opened at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, under the title “Journal ukrainien” – “Ukrainian Diary.” Mikhailov, a Kharkiv native, dedicated this 800-photograph exhibition to Ukraine and “to all those who suffer from the treacherous and inexplicable attack on our motherland,” “with immense sadness and boundless commiseration.” Anton Dolin, Meduza’s film and art critic, visited the exhibition and shares his thoughts about the celebrated art photographer and his work.
With all eyes fixed, as they are now, on current events in Ukraine, it might be easy to see Boris Mikhailov’s vast retrospective as a gesture of pandering to the market and what’s “hot.” But Mikhailov, who is now 84, has long – at least, since the early 1990s – been recognized as a living classic and a genius who altered the conventions of photography. Mikhailov is the only native of the post-Soviet space to win the prestigious Hasselblad Award. His entire career challenged the norms and proprieties of Soviet life – and later, life at large. For more than fifty years, he lived in the USSR. Later, he moved to Germany, where he lives now. Still, he considers himself a Ukrainian – an identity that is incontrovertibly a part of his art.
Mikhailov documented the USSR’s collapse and the first decades of Ukraine’s independence – and he did this with unmatched ruthlessness, and equally unrivaled lyricism. His photographs always form series and cycles. “Close to the Earth” (1991) was inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths.” In “Dusk” (1993), a gray fog becomes a source of light. The monumental “Industrial Zone” (2011) was made in the Donbas. “Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino” (2000–2010) is a piercing chronicle of post-Soviet chaos in Kharkiv, the photographer’s own birthplace.
These various series are now exhibited in Paris. After a visit to the “Ukrainian Diary,” it seems that understanding the past few decades of Ukrainian life is only possible by looking at it through Mikhailov’s lens, with the same unsparing tenderness.
Back in the USSR, Mikhailov was forever shooting what was forbidden – including nudes, the cause of his being fired from his first job. (He was trained as an electromechanical engineer.) What he was after was the hidden and unofficial side of things that shows itself as if by accident.
In his series “The Luriks” (1971–1985), he hand-painted and otherwise “improved” other people’s family photos. In “Soc.Art” (1975–1985), he “beautified” his own reportage from Soviet demonstrations and other official events. His “Red Series” (1968–1975) makes a powerful impression, by turning everyday Soviet officialdom into a Boschian gallery of freaks and monsters. From the very start, Mikhailov was in dialogue with his contemporaries – about aesthetics, and about the meaning of art.
The split between being and consciousness is expressively probed in Mikhailov’s “Salt Lakes” (1986). That series shows people vacationing outside of the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, near a lake they considered medicinal, while toxic waste was actually being dumped into the water by the nearby factories. But Mikhailov’s response is not limited to grotesque caricature. In his series “Dancing” (1978), he photographs a Kharkiv community dance venue – with such a delicacy that you simply want to hug each and every one of its exhausted, stressed-out and rumpled attendees.
Mikhailov’s art has its own chapter on the events of the Ukrainian Maidan Uprising. In the astonishing series “Theater of War. Act II. Intermission” (2013–2014) he enlarges the visible facts, lending them a different scale.
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It is no accident that the “Ukrainian Journal” should be named this way. Mikhailov kept a diary all his life, and photos from those pages fill a whole room at the exhibition. His other series are not presented chronologically, and this is understandable: many of them developed over 20–30 years.
The exposition mingles the epic with the lyrical. Mikhailov’s “Salt Lakes” meet his “Crimean Snobbery” (1982), an ironic depiction of the artist’s own orthodox-Soviet-style seaside vacation. The metaphysical series “Viscosity” (1982), whose title reflects the essence of the Soviet stagnation period, is balanced by the “Unfinished Dissertation” (1984), in which Mikhailov arranges his photographs and philosophical remarks on the pages of an imagined scholarly dissertation.
A whole room is dedicated to “Anamnesis” (1997–1998), a series of portraits of homeless people. Through Mikhailov’s lens, its protagonists appear as tragic characters, resembling those painted by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Some photographs are unbearably intimate – you feel like turning away, but can’t – and they remain in memory, scarring it. But the ability to recognize the sacred in the profane, the touching in the revolting, the beautiful in the ugly, the comic in the terrible, and the terrible in the comic is undoubtedly what separates great talent from something that’s merely ordinary.
The provocative series of self-portraits “I not I” (1992), in which the artist poses nude before the camera, holding a dildo, resembles a silent slapstick. But another series seems even more risky today: it is the 1994 “If I Was a German,” in which Mikhailov once again turns the camera on himself, with the same sarcasm that he is so skilled at when photographing his surroundings.
It’s impossible, in the end, to separate subjectivity from objectivity, and a true photographer must at once chronicle and destroy perceptible reality. The slide show “Yesterday’s Sandwich” (1960s–1970s) is a series of “flawed” photographs, mingled unexpectedly with Pink Floyd’s psychedelic soundtrack, to an effect of sometimes startling beauty.
The final accord of the exhibition is another slide show. This time, it is the prophetic “Trial by Death” (2014–2019), inspired by the modernist architecture of a Soviet crematorium.
The exhibition is held together by the same idea that threads Mikhailov’s biography. The artist shows, again and again, how comic, vulnerable and imperfect can be the human body, subjected to disease and aging. But this body is, at the same time, more durable and resilient than ideologies – and the “beauty standards” they try to impose on it.
The photographs of the Maidan Uprising fit this reading, too: what they depict is not the abstract “people” in the singular (that standard Soviet trope), but people in the plural – real people, who are able to prevail over all sorts of mirages, and most of all over the myth of the “great Soviet past.” Mikhailov’s long life has seen several epochs come and go. Let us hope that he gets to document the finale of the war happening now in his home country, Ukraine.
Translation by Anna Razumnaya
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