Case History, Gaiety Is The Most Outstanding Feature Of The Soviet Union, 2012
Boris Mikhailov, probably the most influential photographer working in Russia today, has spent decades documenting the social condition of individuals living in the Soviet Union and the aftermath of its collapse. His work, both conceptual and documentary in nature, is guided by personal impression. His projects create a composite, alternative portrait of the political status quo in post-communist society drawn out of individual situations and faces.
Case History encompasses 413 photographs of people taken between 1997–98 in his hometown of Kharkov, in the Ukraine, ten years after the dismantlement of the Soviet system. Fifteen years on, it is still a startling chronicle of the extremes of life on the streets for suddenly destitute members of society – the abandoned working class, young and old, chronically poor, and newly homeless individuals who fell through the cracks of a system now without a net, failed by the promises of Perestroika and capitalism. A carnival of desperate characters, whether under the influence, lost or larking about, his Goya-like players put a face to the anonymous despair of a public ideology gone bankrupt.
The artist explains he “might equally call [the project] the ‘clinical file of a disease’… A big city, such as Kharkov, offered me a great deal of raw material. And I did not miss it, I did not ignore it.” But this is decidedly not a photojournalistic project; Mikhailov controversially paid and fed his subjects to pose for him. Yet these images don’t claim to be objective. Perhaps because of this personal involvement, his graphic portrayal of bleakness stands as one of the most frank documents of the human condition in times of desperation.
By Lupe Nùñez-Fernández, 2012
Case History: Boris Mikhailov Revisited
Boris Mikhailov: "BOMJI". It is a term made of capital letters, recently coined. It literally refers to those people without a stable residence, practically living in the streets, wherever they can stretch their bones. It is a disgraceful world, populated by some creatures that were once humans, but now these living beings are degraded, ghastly, appalling. This "fauna" is specific especially to the period of quasi-general diffidence, specific for most of the post-communist world. For as long as the USSR existed, there were no homeless people. Most of them sold their houses and "invested" the money they received in booze until they spent it to the last dime. I have personally met some of them, those from my hometown, Harkov. I followed them in order to know how they lived, how they behaved, how they survived, how they fought for their lives. I chased some of them, paying them to pose. I was compared to a cat, studying its prey at large, insistently, before grabbing it. Most of them duly waited for me to take pictures of them, as long as I need.
Vladimir Bulat: Do you consider yourself a social artist above all, or are your photographic series only aesthetic products?
Boris Mikhailov: I don’t consider myself in any way. I have found this subject and I like to make the most of it. I think that, in this part of the world at least, it cannot die – it will be there forever, as long as there will be people around here. I say, in this part of the world, because in fact there are homeless people everywhere. I have seen them in Berlin, where I am living now. But what happened on the ruins of the ex-Soviet Empire is still unique. Motivations are different. These guys’ shabbiness is the mirror of the ruin and disappointment of a much larger number of people, most of whom no longer feel safe and wealthy as in the Soviet era; many people’s ideals are gone forever, others have simply gone mad! I have taken pictures of them and I have enjoyed it, and maybe the whole world has a better understanding of the post-communist dramas through these sequences taken directly after nature. They show a living nature without any make up on. I am invited everywhere to show them, to confess.
Vladimir Bulat: There was a time when you only made black-and-white photos, or use sepia light brown or blue, so they looked old. Are those series history now?
Boris Mikhailov: At that time photos were meant to conform to a state of war and indifference. They were "in consonance" with the social time when they were made. The mono-color photography was best for that era. Color photography is now what links the poor and the rich. It is a sign of the new times. Working to that purpose, I can grant the poor a feeling of "now we also live well". As an artist, you cannot be immune to the fact that there are "Kodak", "Fuji" or "Konica" shops around every corner…
Vladimir Bulat: What we see here, on the ART MOSCOW 2003 stand, is a recent series, does it represent your latest work? Do you consider yourself a faithful "chronographer" of the reality of those "disclaimed by their free will"?
Boris Mikhailov: This series of photos is not actually my latest work. It is a cycle called "Case History", that I might equally call the "clinical file of a disease". It took shape round 1997-1998. A big city, such as Harkov, offered me a great deal of raw material. And I did not miss it, I did not ignore it. I tried to capture the feeling of their helplessness, of their social oppression; I one witnessed a scene whereby a strong young man caviled at a poor guy passing by and kicked him hard. I even thought I had heard the poor man’s bones break. Nobody noticed it, either those nearby, or the militia man patrolling close by. I felt guilty, as I often feel guilty of things I see and take pictures of. Many people tell me that they have noticed such guys only after seeing my photos. Before, they didn’t have eyes for them. I could not say that I am a "chronographer" above all, because I am selecting, even sniffing situations for a long time. They say about me, and now I am repeating myself – because I like the comparison – that I proceed like a cat hiding, watching. I am waiting for the best moment to push the button of the camera. Eventually I do show the raw, direct, non-mediated photographic image. I am not trying to take pictures of sensational things, but rather of those things which are in excess. I am trying to find the unique in that manifold reality itself. Maybe that is exactly what people like, first of all. Even if I am now living in Berlin, I am still bringing my documentary material for new exhibitions from Ukraine. That is my inspiration source. Realities over there are best known to me, even on a large scale.
Vladimir Bulat: How did you perceive the granting of this award for your special contribution to promoting the Russian culture? After all, you are not a Russian, nor did you ever live in Russia! To say nothing of the fact that your visits to Moscow were always sporadic, especially after Ilya Kabakov’s emigration. He is, of course, a very good friend of yours. From the Russian daily and specialty media I have found out that the discovery of your work, here in Moscow, took place, in fact, rather late, only around 1993-1994, and even then through small exhibitions, organized exclusively by small, private galleries…
Boris Mikhailov: I think that the phenomenon I am telling the world about is post-communist and post-Soviet in its essence and that it belongs especially to this world, to the Slavic universe. Russia has always been a world of social cataclysms, and this was obvious along the entire 20th century. Showing them here, in the heart of the former empire, is like returning home. The Russian cultural environment perceives me as one of its own, as a representative of this mental and cultural universe. But, in the end, the decision was taken by a board made of three (Jara Bubnova, Sofia; Viktor Misiano, Moscow; Alexander Borovsky, Sankt-Petersburg), who considered that my work was representative for the sensibility and "cultural architecture" of present-day Russia. If, although coming from different professional and geographic environments, eventually came to a common result, as you could see, it means that they sensed what I also feel and really represent in my work. In the future I will continue to maintain very close cultural relations with this metropolis of culture. Now, for instance, I am going to open, in the XL Gallery in Moscow, an exhibition with new photos gathered under the cycle called "Football".
Vladimir Bulat, Moscow 2003
The interview appears courtesy of artphoto Source: www.artphoto.ro