Phantom Sensations on Silver
pARTisan, #2,2004, Minsk
those who say that photography
is a criterion for objectivity
probably believe it
Sergey Kozhemyakin. Paradoxical Revelations.
From Echo of Silence. Minsk, 1996
When you find yourself in Berlin, you are always impressed by a great diversity of compelling events to choose from. The new capital of contemporary European art has plenty to offer, so you can hardly see all places not to be missed.
In autumn 2000 it was worth visiting the National Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart. It was there that following the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, After the Wall global project representing 155 artists from all countries of new Europe was being exhibited. The brick-thick black-and-white volumes of the catalogue were stylised to resemble Khrushchov’s tomb-stone by Ernst Neizvestny. Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe brought together the cream of contemporary art. Three of the five Belarusian participants were photo artists. Suddenly I got feeling of déjà vu. It occurred to me that I had already seen some of the pictures at the Fotografie aus Minsk exhibition held at the renowned Berlin ifa-Galerie in 1994.
I was talking with Sergey Kozhemyakin, a participant in these exhibitions, over a cup of coffee in Minsk.
My first question was about the Childish Album (1989), a series of kids’ portraits printed from old time-scratched films thrown away by a photo studio in Minsk. In the black-and-white pictures you could see children dressed up in clothes showing an eclectic mixture of styles, from Russian kokoshniks and hussar uniforms of Napoleon times to the present-day Russian military uniforms and emblems. The absurdity monotonously repeated over and over again by the hack photographer features the kid’s state of mind, creating a unique image of … totalitarian society, where people should all be as alike as two peas, deprived of any personality. “The outward looks become part and parcel of your ego, commanding you how to behave and what to do. The series brings about a horrible idea – these photos are but a tiny detail in a huge mechanism to annihilate the individual,” said Valery Lobko, a legendary figure, father of all now well know Belarusian photo artist. Ten years later David Elliott, director of Moderna Museet, couldn’t help including Children’s Album into his project.
Sergey Kozhemyakin’s CV is an illustration of the rise, boom period and fall (?) of Belarusian creative photography in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The 1980s saw the emergence of Belarusian photo art school, which was further on called ‘a flourishing cultural enclave functioning separately from the Soviet art mainstream in Moscow.’ The artists had a few exhibitions in Moscow and Scandinavia, but it was the book Photo Manifesto. Contemporary Photography in the USSR published in 1991 in New York that gave the deepest insight into the Soviet photo art at the time of perestroika. It had The Daughter by Sergey Kozhemyakin (1988) on its cover, a naked baby lying on the colours of the empire. The outward simplicity is deeply symbolic, it depicts the whole epoch concentrated in one snapshot.
Sergey Kozhemyakin was at the time working at a new series, The Family Album: Real Photographs from Real Life, 1953–1989. He was one of the first belarusian artists to make use of old anonymous pictures to create conceptual works in underground aesthetics. The series combined two totally different levels, the first one deliberately intimate, with touching inscriptions on the pictures, while the second was documentary impartial, a cold view of an observer who knows how it is all going to end up and therefore refrains from passing judgement. Fragments of life preserved by bromine and silver… Dmitri Vilensky would label this trend in photography ‘photo archaeology’.
The impressionist Blue Butterflies (1992) are congenial to its predecessors, with an addition of mixed techniques and surreal elements. People with butterflies’ face, around a bizarre butterfly-winged monument, black silhouettes of faceless children…
From 1991 to 1994 Sergey Kozhemyakin participated in a number of major exhibitions in the USA, Poland, Holland, Russia and Germany.
However, in the mid 1990s art photography in Belarus began drifting towards a crisis. “Cultural events today can no longer hit the headlines. Known to very few, creative photographers find themselves in circumstances typical of underground artists. You cannot indulge in photo art professionally; it does not earn you a living. Creative and commercial photo market in Belarus is rather undeveloped,’ said Valery Lobko.
In 1995 the legendary 6th Line Gallery hosted Fotografie aus Minsk, which had been previously exhibited in ifa-Galerie, Berlin. Minskers were able to see and grasp photo art, a genre still new to Belarus.
In 1996 the Goethe Institute in Minsk has arranged Echo of Silence photo exhibition, inspired by Vera Bagaliantz, the Head of the office. It was the first time Belarusian photo artists had were working in a project with a clearly outlined subject, 10 years since the Chernobyl catastrophe. “The artistic representation precisely corresponds to the image of being torn apart, discrete, fragmented time and space… Photography does not only exist as apotheosis to reality, but also makes part of this horrid reality… Existing in the post-modern space, it becomes a form, which reveals the essence of things,” commented Nadezhda Khadson, an art historian from St.Petersburg.
Belarusian photo art was definitely going through a deep crisis at the time. Joint exhibitions no longer held, most artists went on to do photo hack-work, others chose to emigrate. Sergey Kozhemyakin was lucky, as his works continued to attract audiences overseas. In 1997 the highly prestigious Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden, hosted an exhibition of three Belarusian photo artists, Galina Moskaleva, Sergey Kozhemyakin and Igor Savchenko. It was more than successful; it gave the feeling of being recognised at the top level of the world’s photo art.
By the time Sergey Kozhemyakin had nearly completed his new series Phantom Sensations, later shown at some major art exhibitions.
The picture of a jumbo cube, which seems to have no functional purpose at all, becomes a screen for ‘projecting’ life fragments, incomplete landscapes, somebody else’s memories, which got caught on the concrete after having endlessly wandered in the wilderness…
The extreme reality of the cube intermingles with hardly noticeable images twinkling mysteriously. Kozhemyakin keeps reproducing the same visual scene, which in its commanding suggestiveness arranges all the diversity of images into a logically and emotionally coherent whole. “The combination of brutal materialism with delicate memories brings to life some vague phantom sensations, making what is unseen more significant than what is seen, which is rather a sign than an imprint of life,” said Ina Reút, an art historian and curator from Minsk.
“As for the prospects of Belarusian photo art, Sergey Kozhemyakin said, to get the right idea you have to understand that photography from one hand deals with high tech and materialism of the world, and at the same time can be turned in the artist’s hands into a subtle tool of cognition and self-expression.” Photography has been more than once studied by great thinkers, such as Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag et al. Generally speaking, photography leads to philosophy, since every picture reminds us of death...