Contemporary Russian Art Photography

Article excerpt

Since perestroika and especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the political, economic, and cultural situation 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 promised.(1) Beginning in the 1950s, Soviet photographers, like other Russian artists, invented clever, coded ways of producing meaningful 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, I 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 unconstitutionally dissolved the former and banned some fifteen opposition publications under cannon fire. By the time this journal is out, the 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 accurately, whose illusion of immediacy--is directly associated with "real" social conditions. Together the six photographic critiques of Soviet iconography, monuments, 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).(Fig. 1 omitted) Only a couple of years ago Alexander Tiagny-Riadno, as part of his ongoing series Lenin with Us, which documents Lenin's continuing presence in Russian society, photographed Communist leader Boris Yeltsin lecturing before Lenin's image (fig. 2).(Fig 2 omitted) 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 characterized as an antimonument (fig. 3). (Fig. 3 omitted) 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). (Fig. 4 omitted) In Moscow Tatiana Lieberman, in what I as a Western feminist interpret as a feminist critique, elevates/reduces the famous Stalinist Moscow skyline to human proportions (fig. 5). (Fig. 5 omitted) 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). (Fig. 6 omitted) 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 Photography. …