Still Grim in Kharkiv
I’ve Been Here Once Before — David Teboul (ed.) / Tea Coffee Cappuccino — Boris Mikhailov
Book Review by Alexandra Harrington
I’ve Been Here Once Before by David Teboul
Published by: Hirmer
Tea Coffee Cappuccino by Boris Mikhailov
Published by: Walther König
Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov began to work as a photographer in the 1960s when he was sacked from his engineering job for taking nude pictures of his wife. During his long career, he has created a significant and compelling body of work, most of which has only been accessible since the break-up of the Soviet Union. His international reputation was secured with the publication (by Phaidon in 1990) of Yesterday’s Sandwich, a series dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s in which unconnected images are superimposed upon one another to create a fascinating, surreal landscape. His Red Series of 1968- 75, which has recently been acquired by the Tate, plays with the conventions of Socialist Realism, making it a photographic counterpart to the Sots Art of Mikhailov’s Russian contemporaries Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhailov’s work has documented and commented upon the complexities of postSoviet life, most famously through his brutal Case Histories, a series of portraits depicting the homeless of his birthplace, the large industrial city of Kharkiv. These photographs make for extremely uncomfortable viewing, particularly given the fact that Mikhailov gave his subjects money and fed them in exchange for their posing for him, generally partially clothed or naked. The awkward, palpable, disparity in status between the photographer and his subjects that results from this coercion forms part of Mikhailov’s provocative and controversial social commentary – it is distasteful, but so is the reality.
I’ve Been Here Once Before is comprised mainly of a transcript interview with Mikhailov by French film maker David Teboul, conducted for a recent film (Arte, 2010) about the photographer and his work. A central section contains stills of Mikhailov and his pictures as he leafs through them. The images shown include his distinctive colourised portraits (black and white photographs coloured by hand) of the 1970s. These engaging pictures serve to comment implicitly on the fake veneer painted on to reality by the Soviet regime, displaying Mikhailov’s keen eye for the essentially kitsch qualities of everyday Soviet life. He once said of his subject matter that ‘it was important that it shouldn’t be important’. This is a natural enough reaction for a photographer of his generation to the sensation and spectacle of Soviet life and its idealistic portrayal in official culture. It also explains his enduring preoccupation with the average and ordinary, perhaps most apparent in his depictions of the human body, which is definitely not the healthy, athletic body of the Socialist Realist canon. The bodies Mikhailov chooses to represent are frequently sagging, blemished, and diseased. As he remarks in his interview with Teboul, ‘ugliness has as much right to exist as beauty’.
The notion of ugliness is central to Mikhailov’s previous post-Soviet work, such as Case History, and remains so in his latest collection, Tea Coffee Cappuccino, named in imitation of the cries of old women selling drinks from their trolleys. It is comprised of photographs taken between 2000 and 2010 in which the people of Kharkiv are shown against a derelict, filthy and littered, urban background. In the short text that follows the photos, Mikhailov explains that his aim was to focus on the ordinary, everyday, and mundane, and to show humans in their surrounding environment, away from the high street. In the interview with Teboul, Mikhailov confesses, ‘I got tired of positive things. I didn’t have the slightest desire to photograph them’. Certainly, the representation of life in Ukraine furnished by Tea Coffee Cappuccino is overwhelmingly negative, lacking anything positive to give it balance. This is not to say that the grimness is wholly unremitting: it is alleviated by flashes of humour. One image, for instance, shows a man in a park balancing bottles and cans in an array of coloured towers, to the mild amusement of a row of onlookers seated on a bench. Another pair of photographs shows two old ladies in sunhats eating bananas. In the first image, they shrink away from the camera with evident suspicion, but in the next they face it uninhibitedly, still eating their bananas. The most effective of the photographs, like these, convey an affection and warmth towards their subjects, who emerge as individuals. Others, such as a group of three pictures depicting a woman urinating in the street surrounded by oblivious bystanders, or a photograph of a man passed out lying awkwardly by a railing as a dog cocks its leg against it, have the uncomfortable, exploitative feel of Case Histories but without the challenging and provocative complexity.
Mikhailov tells Teboul that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about the ‘end of irony’ and the beginning of ‘morbid empathy’. However, the degree to which his highly commercial work can be seen as exploitative somewhat mitigates the claim to empathy. Moreover, the work of his compatriot Sergei Bratkov (fellow founding member of the Fast Reaction group in 1994), which is similarly provocative and problematic – deliberately transgressing the boundaries of good taste in order to challenge the viewer’s comfortable complacency – manages to retain a biting sense of irony. Tea Coffee Cappuccino seems ultimately to conform to clichéd stereotypes and preconceptions about the post-Soviet world, and in this regard does not distinguish itself much from the mass of other documentary photography depicting the misery, degradation and poverty of post-Soviet society.