In: Post Soviet photography

Around the Red | Viktor Balaguar
April 14, 2022

Around the Red | Viktor Balaguar

Balaguer’s series Around the Red (which includes the image shared here) is perhaps my favourite of his series (a hard decision, though, as Teriberka or Street Photography for Xiaomi are enchanting, too). 

Often, his images of St. Petersburg and Moscow suggest a perpetual winter in Russia, but these are less so of that style. The vibrant reds – which never seem forced and hold your eye without overly dominating the scene – run through these works, which are captured moments of places and people. The title implicates historical factors, of course, as Russia and the world are still negotiating the rise and fall of the USSR, in contemporary Russia and beyond those borders (sometimes acknowledging what happened, sometimes not, as we dance ‘around the red’). There is no point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins in sites of contested narratives (like St. Petersburg or Moscow, Eastern Europe or even in a larger world history), and Balaguer’s Around the Red sometimes hints – and sometimes hammers – at that, visually.

I should add that I began writing this post prior to the most recent acts of war by Russia, but that simply adds more weight to the geo – political insinuations of Balaguer’s scenes….perhaps, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned us in his The Gulag Archipelago if you “dwell on the past…you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” To be honest, I had mixed feelings about sharing this work, considering the current political climate, but will temper that with the recommendation of Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010…..

From here : French photographer, architect and interior designer Viktor Balaguer fell in love at first sight with the ‘Venice of the North’ where he has settled with his family. “Saint Petersburg is a romantic city where you can go from a narrow street to wide avenues, where you follow the sublime and immense Neva River that is completely frozen for part of the year,” he said, calling it “A city of strong contrasts, with a succession of magical palaces and imperial facades whose entrance gates you must cross and visit the dark backyards of the Soviet era. A city deeply melancholic by nature, immersed in a relaxing rhythm of life and permanently open to contemplation.”

In selecting this image, I had a difficult time, as any of the vignettes in Around the Red by Balaguer are worthy of consideration: you can see more of them here, and many of his other fine images at both his IG: @viktor_balaguer and his site

~ Bart Gazzola

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Lara Vychuzhanina | The life of Barbie and Ken in the Soviet Union
November 30, 2021

Lara Vychuzhanina | The life of Barbie and Ken in the Soviet Union, 2017

First as tragedy, then as farce, we were warned a long time ago by Marx, is how history will play out. That’s a bit damning, but as we make our way further into the 21st century, it’s to be forgiven if many of us also see a more black than bleak humour in all this, a dark comedy that still makes us laugh, inappropriately. 

Lara Vychuzhanina (whose Instagram name is aptly @lara_art_dolls) is a Russian photographer from Yekaterinburg – formerly known as Sverdlovsk, during the Soviet era, which I mention as it intersects with some of the ideas present in her work here, where she’s created a tableaux of Barbie and her partner Ken living in the USSR in the 1980s.

There’s always an element of nostalgia in depictions of history, allusions to a ‘simpler time’, and it’s interesting to see one about the USSR, as in the West we’re usually inundated with this false trope about the 1950s, or 1960s: Lara Vychuzhanina is too young to remember the 1980s in the former Soviet Union, but this doesn’t stop others from offering caustic and contested interpretations of those eras, either. Employing Barbie and Ken for this is a nice intersection of mythologies of East and West, capitalism and communism, plasticity and reality – and it is also, in the inherent contradictions of its assemblage, very funny. 

After all, “comedy is in act superior to tragedy and humourous reasoning superior to grandiloquent reasoning” (which, fittingly, is attributed to Friedrich Engels by Karl Marx, back in 1862)…..

More images by this artist can be enjoyed at her Instagram. ~ Bart Gazzola

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trunkdrunk
July 31, 2021

Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of Pagliacci, the clown consumed by sadness he hides to make the audiences laugh. I will admit it will always be tied, for me, with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In that graphic novel, Rorschach offers something of a lonely graveside eulogy for the character The Comedian (who ‘evolves’ from a snide position of ‘Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense’ to a weeping lament of “I mean, what’s so funny? What’s so goddamned funny?”). Rorshach recites a ‘joke’ about Pagliacci’s visit to a doctor, decrying his despair, only to be told by the well meaning doctor to visit the ‘famous clown’ to be cheered up. Pagliacci bursts into tears, revealing to the well meaning but unaware doctor that he is, in fact, the clown, and an empty shell who can’t even help himself… 

The self described ‘comedian’ trunkdrunk occupies that same space. His Instagram page offers only that “I don’t even ask for happiness, just a little less pain.” An article on his work has the following spare and succinct comment: “trunkdrunk takes photos in Russia’s saddest places. As this was not sad enough, he takes pictures in full head overhead elephant mask. Images are captured in different places of Russia; mostly in gloomy and depressing surroundings.”

More of trunkdrunk’s images can be found on Instagram often accompanied by long swathes of text in Russian, that meld dourness, humour and memory. This image was originally posted to his IG account in October, 2016, with the following reminiscence: “Indian tea, the same – with an elephant. I remember him from my Soviet childhood. when my mother poured this Indo-Georgian mixture into a glass from a cardboard box, and then poured boiling water – the smell was stunning throughout the apartment!”

A previous Curator’s Pick of mine was a wonderful image by Alexey Titarenko: this could be said to have documented the fall of the Soviet Empire, in real time, with very real people as the unwilling players. Looking at trunkdrunk’s world, nearly forty years later, offers a new chapter to Russia history, perhaps attempting to laugh as one has no other choice, except to cry. ~ Bart Gazzola

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Metro Station Crowd 1, City of Shadows, 1992
April 20, 2021

Alexey Titarenko, Vasileostrovoskaya Metro Station Crowd 1, from City of Shadows, 1992

I was twenty two when Titarenko captured this image, a freshly posthumous portrait of the USSR – and that was nearly forty years ago. The Cold War, as we knew it, was over, but the uncertainty, both for the bustling passengers of the once and future St. Petersburg, after its decades as Leningrad, and the rest of the world, is encapsulated in this image. Titarenko is an acclaimed photographer, not least for how after “the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 he produced several series of photographs about the human condition of the Russian people during this time and the suffering they endured throughout the twentieth century. To illustrate links between the present and the past, he created powerful metaphors by introducing long exposure and intentional camera movement into street photography. The most well known series of this period is City of Shadows.” More of Titarenko’s work can be seen here. 

~ Bart Gazzola

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Amber Lee WIlliams – Femina Bulla Est #9
August 18, 2021

The work of Amber Lee Williams, an artist from the Niagara Region of Southern Ontario, almost always concerns itself with motherhood and children, exploring the concepts of life within, the constancy of change, attachment and removal, and notions of femininity.

Femina Bulla Est (Woman is a Bubble), is a sequence of macro photographs of pink bubblegum. Amber deftly takes the binary state of man’s being, as depicted by the soap bubble in Dutch Renaissance Vanitas paintings (homo bulla est) and turns it on its ear… where man is either strong or broken, women have a strength and flexibility that allows them to persevere.

“I thought I would begin by simply blowing soap bubbles, photographing them, and seeing what happened. I asked (my daughter) if she wanted to help me blow bubbles and she thought I meant bubblegum bubbles. As soon as she mentioned the bubblegum it was a total lightbulb moment, and I have to give her credit for the idea.”

Femina Bulla Est #9 is incredibly organic, suggesting a beating heart, or the crepe-like tissue of placenta. Partially inflated, one gathers that there is life within, flush with blood and good health. One could also perceive the darker top section as a scab, protecting the soft tissue below as it heals from a trauma.

“The original bubble in Vanitas paintings suddenly pops and life ends, but in my version the bubble inflates and deflates again and again. The bubble is both fragile and resilient. Beyond the more obvious, and my personal connections to motherhood (carrying a child within my body, that body stretching…), I also think of the inflated and deflated, not just as physical states but also states of mind and related to mental health.”

You can seem more of Amber’s work at https://amberleeart.com, and on Instagram @amberlee.art. ~ Mark Walton

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