Boris Mikhailov at FOAM

by Jonathan Blaustein

You’re in a museum, in a foreign country. Your brain has been inundated with massive amounts of new information. This is not unusual. Travel makes you smarter, as does art. Still, you’ve been on the road for days, and everything is starting to look the same.

You visit a famous photo museum in Amsterdam. It’s called FOAM. They have a magazine too, which you’ve heard of, but never really seen. It is assumed that you’ll like what is on display, because they ought to be experts at showing people cool photographs.

Let’s remove the hypothetical now. I did visit FOAM this past spring, and was jazzed up to see some great art. I was also more burnt than a chocolate chip cookie in an eight hundred degree oven. I’ve previously admitted to having killed off several million brain cells during this very trip, so you’ll have to imagine that my vision was woozy. (Though not literally. I was not under the influence at the time, as I’m a professional.)

As I wandered through the “Primrose: Russian Color Photography” exhibition, my expectations were not, exactly, met. The work presented spanned most of the Communist era, and was as indistinct as I can possibly recollect. The photos reminded me of magazine pictures from forty years ago covering news stories that no one remembers anymore. (Like a neighborhood fire that destroys five buildings, but leaves no one dead.)

Back and forth I marched, looking for any photo that excited me, or any tidbit of information that I could consider new or fascinating. “Fascinate, me, dammit. Fascinate me,” I screamed. The guard came over and told me that if I didn’t lower my voice, they’d have to escort me to the street. (Never happened. The Dutch guards were actually the nicest I’ve encountered, and they let you take photos of art in all the museums I visited.)

Basically, I found myself parsing photographs made during a totalitarian regime so powerful that it was able to erase even pleasure or meaning from a parade of color photographs. Yes, I was more impressed by the rigor of the Soviet censors than I was of the photographers trying to make anything interesting without saying anything of interest. (The color was pretty, I guess. So that’s something.)

And then, I walked into a small room and heard the familiar hum of a slide projector. A couple of people were seated, and not in an antsy kind of way. They were not moving, which was a good sign.

I leaned against the wall, and began to look. The pictures moved quickly, so each was gone too soon. But they were not boring, not from the outset. I began to see people, some naked, others frolicking, or doing real, actual things. There were plenty of seedy Soviet scenes, which were absent in the main exhibition space. What’s this, then?

I pushed myself off the wall, as my body was covering the wall text. Who made these naughty, beautiful photos? Boris Mikhailov. As if I should have been surprised. (Click here to read my insanely positive review of his 2011 exhibition at MoMA.) The project was called “Suzi et Cetera.”

It’s difficult for me to actually describe an onslaught of photographs, each seen for an instant, that took place almost four months ago. So that makes this a challenging review, I suppose. But I did manage to jot down some notes, so here goes:

A vagina peeing on the ground, a ram’s head, a girl with grass on her face, a Soviet sculpture, a flag, some nude girls, a grandma in a nightgown, a girl screaming, an image of Lenin, a skinned rabbit, a disgusting mottled leg, some rotten tomatoes with a milk bottle, a bruised and swollen penis, a fish like something out of a Hiroshige print, flowers, drying clothes, a guy on a moped talking to a girl, some horn players in a field, women dancing in a square, blood running down a leg…you get the picture.

Why was it so impressive? Why do the remnants of Mr. Mikhailov’s vision linger in my memory, despite the copious amounts of THC that tried to wipe it away? Desperation. Necessity. Toying with the ultimate risk.

At the time, in the 80’s, these pictures were illegal in their taking, making and showing. The underground group of compatriots that would have gathered to watch such a show, back in the day, were willing to face death and torture to experience these photographs. And that energy was palpable. It was kind of like watching Michael Jordan play pickup basketball in a North Carolina schoolyard, circa 1979. (The talent and need were dripping with sweat.)

I don’t know if the folks at FOAM knew that most of the Primrose exhibition was less-than-memorable. There is a business relationship between Holland and Russia at this point, as evidenced by the Van Gogh Museum collection’s long stint at the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum. Was this just another case of politics and money driving a museum’s exhibition program? I don’t know.

I’d like to think, though, that the curators were very conscious in their exhibition construction. A heap of PC, Soviet-acceptable photographs were the pomegranate husk, and Mr. Mikhailov’s flickering images were the juicy bits hidden within. It was the perfect structural metaphor for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain. The public face, with it’s inscrutable inoffensiveness, and the living, bloody heart at the core of it all, left to exist behind closed, locked, doors. (With the curtains drawn, of course.)

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 5 Comments On This Article.

  1. What I find interesting is the explanation of the metaphor. Not only photographs to look at on a wall (or in a book) but a more complex visual experience. Which works when you look and think. The times, the historical context, the risks involved with doing it. Thanks for giving this key for reading Mikhailov’s work.
    robert

  2. Mstyslav Chernov

    Come on guys, this all sounds like a joke. You would remember those pictures because they are dirty, sexual and exhibited in the museum at the same time. These are basic archetypes, shown not in quite amateur along with very well made concept and correctly advertised.
    There is no art in dirt you put on the wall. Desperation? Toying with ultimate risk? These pictures were never illegal, controversial in USSR, they were just… trivial. By 80th censorship was week. Special? You can find that dirt, penises, vaginas homeless people and naked girls in every part of our beautiful world. Always. Nothing to do with history or real image of society of that time. Home-made photos which emigrated to Germany Mikhailov brought with him.
    The point is that at that time Western world WANTED to see the Soviet Union as mountain of crap with Star on the top, so this photography turned out to be quite successful.
    It’s empty, dude. Sorry. Nothing to do with art, metaphors, or historical context – just commercial project. I am telling you as documentary photographer and citizen of very same country, from which BM has ran away.

    • Refreshing slap in the face, Mstyslav- there is a significant part of his work that certainly seems downright exploitative, to say the very least. Much of it seems to be his latter work, which I personally find less lyrical, less inquisitive- more sensationalist.