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  • Contemporary Russian Art PhotographyAuthor(s): Diane NeumaierSource: Art Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2, Contemporary Russian Art Photography (Summer, 1994),pp. 18-21Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 19:40

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  • editorssate e I

    Contemporary Russian Art Photography

    Diane Neumaier


    Since perestroika and especially since the dissolution of the

    Soviet Union, the political, economic, and cultural situation of all Russians, including artists, has dramatically changed.

    During the course of assembling this issue of Art Journal, the

    working conditions of Russian artists have relaxed in many ways, yet deteriorated in others. At this early moment in post-Soviet society both censorship and prohibitions against the market have been

    lifted, leaving artists in a new situation. Russian artists are no longer silenced by the state; rather they

    are ignored or abused by foreign and domestic markets that have not developed in their favor as the 1980s Western art market prom- ised.1 Beginning in the 1950s, Soviet photographers, like other Russian artists, invented clever, coded ways of producing meaning- ful artworks against the official grain; today it is no longer necessary, and perhaps not even possible, to produce artworks in code. And

    ironically, just as many former "unofficial" artists have come into official positions of power, art is no longer supported by the state. In

    short, Russian artists-including photographers-today face a new

    challenge, arguably, a new crisis. In varying ways the photographers and authors whose works are collected here address this issue.

    In 1991 I made my first, and technically my last, visit to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Within a few months the USSR ceased to be; social, political, and economic changes accelerated

    globally and regionally. While I expect to be in Russia for my fifth visit during most of 1994, I1 cannot imagine what the situation in Russia will be half a year from now when this, the Summer 1994 issue of Art Journal, is released. As I write, Russia is without a

    parliament or free press, President Boris Yeltsin having unconstitu-

    tionally dissolved the former and banned some fifteen opposition publications under cannon fire. By the time this journal is out, the

    FIG. 1 Valery Shchekoldin, The Making of Brezhnev, 1978, black-and-white photograph, 9% x 14/2 inches (24.8 x 36.8 cmr Collection of the artist.

    SUMMER 1994

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  • FIG. 2 Alexander Tiagny-Riadno, from the series Lenin with Us, 1991, black- and-white photograph, 14Y2 x 93/4 inches (36.8 x 24.8 cm) Collection of the artist.

    scheduled election of a new parliament and Yeltsin's own reelection or defeat should have taken place. It is not alarmist to say that in

    Russian today nothing is certain. These unstable conditions are often made evident through

    photography, whose immediacy-or more acurately, whose illusion of immediacy-is directly associated with "real" social conditions.

    Together the six photographic critiques of Soviet iconography, mon-

    uments, and monumentality presented here testify to and resist the

    visual presence of state authority in Soviet and even post-Soviet society. Fifteen years ago Valery Shchekoldin recorded, perhaps

    straightforwardly, perhaps ironically, The Making of Brezhnev (fig. 1). Only a couple of years ago Alexander Tiagny-Riadno, as part of his ongoing series Lenin with Us, which documents Lenin's continu-

    ing presence in Russian society, photographed Communist leader Boris Yeltsin lecturing before Lenin's image (fig. 2). Embalmed, not so differently from Lenin himself, are the photographic remains, the

    representational specimens, that like spectators peer out of Sergei Bratkov's recent installation Mausoleum, which could be char-

    acterized as an antimonument (fig. 3). Ukrainian artist Viktor

    Kochetov likens the escalating political struggle between Ukraine

    and Russia to a sports match in his colorful mockery of a Soviet

    monument, Ukraine with Russia (fig. 4). In Moscow Tatiana Lieber-

    man, in what I as a Western feminist interpret as a feminist critique, elevates/reduces the famous Stalinist Moscow skyline to human

    proportions (fig. 5). In a constructed image from his series Red

    Square, Vladimir Shakhlevich visualizes the alarming new presence of the United States in the Kremlin (fig. 6). The range of approaches to a single popular theme that these photographs represent is characteristic of art photography in Russia today.

    As it has evolved this issue of Art Journal, which was originally to have been devoted to contemporary Soviet photography, has been readdressed to the topic "Contemporary Russian Art Photog- raphy." This significant change in title was not casually made. The decision to use the convenient term Russian was based partly on

    geographical considerations (nearly everything considered here is located within the Russian Federation), partly on the historically conventional (albeit objectionable) practice by Soviets as well as by Westerners of referring to things Soviet as Russian, and partly on the


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    FIG. 3 Sergei Bratkov, Mausoleum, 1992, installation view of jars on shelves containing photographs. Collection of the artist.


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    FIG. 4 Viktor Kochetov, Ukraine with Russia, 1992, hand-colored black-and- white photograph, 7 x 91/ inches (17.8 x 23.6 cm).r Collection of the artist.

    Russian identity of those photographers whose works are explored here. Perhaps my reasoning is best explained by Sergei Gitman and

    Valery Stigneev in their essay in this issue, in which, in their first

    endnote, they discuss their use of the same term. The Baltic region of the former Soviet Union, whose photography is explored in Western histories of photography as East European, never voluntarily identi- fied itself as either Soviet or Russian. The limited and limiting term "Russian" points to an underdeveloped consideration of Soviet and

    post-Soviet photographic practices not Russian, such as of the

    regions of middle Asia. Questioning what is Russian, or Ukrainian, or Kazak, or Soviet-or for that matter what is American or Canadian-cuts to the heart of the matter: cultural identity versus nationalism.

    The essays assembled in this collection fall loosely into three main categories: institutional circumstances, the work of specific artists, and polemical formulations. Critically placed as the opening essay is "After Raskolnikov: Russian Photography Today," in which John P. Jacob, an American photography curator, takes issue with the tendency of recent American anthologies of Russian art pho- tography to infantilize the field by grossly compacting its rich his-

    tory. In "Photographers of Russia, Unite Yourselves!" Moscow

    photography-community organizers Sergei Gitman and Valery Stigneev survey the last century of Russian photographers' organi- zations, and in an ancillary essay, "An Update: Afterthoughts on Two Annual Exhibitions," Valery Stigneev assesses the activities of one of the most recent of these, the Russian Union of Art Photogra- phers. Many of the essays necessarily refer to the period imme-

    diately preceding perestroika in order to set forth contemporary

    practices. An analysis of the institutional conditions of photography in the Soviet Union during that period is contributed by British art historian Susan Reid in "Photography in the Thaw." The other essay that addresses institutional matters is "Conceptual Photography in the Russian Museum," in which Alexander Borofsky, chief cura- tor of the Contemporary Department of the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, examines the museum's newly founded collection of Russian conceptual photography.

    Moscow arts organizer Joseph Bakshtein identifies a pecu- liarly Soviet artists' way of communicating under repressive political conditions in "Russian Photography and Its Contexts," in which he isolates two contemporary inheritors of this legacy. In "The Future of a Disillusion: Sex, Truth, and Photography in the Former Soviet Union," American art historian Jo Anna Isaak examines crucial differences between Russian and Western negotiations of photo- graphic representation in order to explore the work of several Rus- sian artists. Martha Rosler's report on some recent activities in Moscow, "Negotiating New (His)stories of Photography," critiques photography's place within Russia's new economic order, paying particular attention to its effect on women. "Against the Camera; For the Photographic Archive," by Margarita Tupitsyn, features several recent artworks that critically employ photography. Alla Efimova, like Tupitsyn a Russian-born American, focuses, in "Photo-

    graphic Ethics in the Work of Boris Mihailov," on the influential

    practice of one artist referred to by many of the other writers. In

    "Photography and Reality in the Work of Afrika," American critic Collette A. Chattopadhyay also considers the conceptual applica- tion of photography by one artist. Moscow artist Gennady Goushchin has written an introduction to his own collage project, "Alternative Museum."

    FIG. 5 Tatiana Lieberman, Moscow, 1993, black-and-white photograph, 6/2 x 103/16 inches (16.6 x 24.9 cmn

    Collection of the artist.

    SUMMER 1994

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  • FIG. 6 Vladimir Shakhlevich, from the series Red Square, 1993, hand-colored black-and-white multiple-image photograph, 8/s x 11Y16 inches (21.4 x 29.5 cm) Collection of the artist.


    In "The Sun without a Muzzle," VictorTupitsyn, an American cultural theorist who was born in Moscow, considers the implica- tions of traditional Russian solar mythology as it is now reformu- lated. In "Cool Reflections: A Kind of Utopian Manifesto for Recon- struction," the concluding and perhaps most characteristically Russian text of this collection, Moscow art critic and organizer Viktor Misiano elliptically cautions the new generation of Russian concep- tual artists against cynical modes of art production.

    In many ways what appears in this issue reflects an interna- tional range of critical approaches to Russian art photography, that is, a Western rather than a Russian approach. The contradiction inherent in the term "art photography" is often embraced in the West because it both does and does not fit art-historical categories. For example, it is readily accepted that a photograph can be pro- duced for many non-art purposes and later collected as a work of art

    by a museum. In Russia, photography's art status is generally so low that its defenders often deny theoretical complications in favor of

    simplistic valorization. Russian photography criticism is a fledgling post-Soviet practice; only conceptual photography is thus far care-

    fully considered. The bulk of writing to be found within photogra- phy circles cannot be called serious criticism, and I find no discussion of documentary photographic practices. Most glaringly absent is any analysis of the predominating romantic style of contemporary Russian art photography.

    Perhaps the most difficult task in this cross-cultural project has been negotiating the multiple layers of Russian-English transla- tion, including Russian visual artists' clever and ironic use of word

    play whose subtle and nuanced precision I cannot grasp without

    long-winded explanation. Not only does the language difference

    demand translators who understand a peculiar variety of issues, but the lack of mutual concerns-or even an awareness of each other's concerns-further impedes real communication. As an American feminist and progressive artist, I find the cultural differences barely bridgeable. For example, critiques of representation, while not uni-

    versally constructed or articulated in the same way, are at least

    acknowledged in the West, and feminist perspectives, backlash or

    not, are also familiar here; yet for the most part neither concept exists in Russian society. And, of course, there are parallel ways of

    knowing that are givens in that society, which I cannot even recog- nize. On the one hand, photography's visual nature and its vernacu- lar character in both cultures, albeit very different, offer a beginning place for communication. On the other, photography's disarming accessibility, often more apparent than real, can lead to misconcep- tions beyond imagining. The aim of this collection of essays and

    photographs is not only to impart much-needed information but also to open up areas of discourse and to promote greater under-

    standing both in Russia and the West.

    Note 1. Most of the Russian photographers I've worked with have shocking on-going relations with Western dealers who rob them. The art trade between the West and Russian artists exploits the

    Russians, who have neither the experience to recognize the exploitation as irregular, nor recourse at home or abroad. Fraudulent accounting and unethical contractual practices are the norm. I

    personally know of hundreds of works by well-known Russian photographers that have been

    effectively stolen by American and European dealers. These new art market victims are afraid to

    go on record since the corruption still represents their best economic hope. European arts activists have begun organizing an expos6 of these thefts.

    D IA N E N E U MA I E R is a photographer and writer who teaches at

    Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. She edited the anthology ReFr...


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