Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Vicki Goldberg: More History in Russian Photographs

Vicki Goldberg assesses the contemporary work of Vadim Guschchin and Nikolai Kulebyakin.

 - November 12, 2014

In 2013, writer Vicki Goldberg traveled to Russia and Ukraine, where she examined postwar and contemporary visual imagery that illuminates life under and after communism. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we publish Goldberg’s three-part diary, which looks to photography from the Soviet era and today. In part three, Goldberg assesses the contemporary work of Vadim Guschchin and Nikolai Kulebyakin.

Part 3: More History in Russian Photographs

Russian art photographer Vadim Gushchin, who combines minimalist, conceptualist, and abstract strategies, is also entwined with two crucial aspects of Russian art that are inseparable from the nation’s identity and history. (He is widely exhibited internationally and since summer 2013 has been shown twice in Moscow, once in Vienna, and once in Paris.) He photographs the most mundane objects from his (and our) daily life, each in series: books, envelopes, pills, packages, bread. Photographers from Stephen Shore to Gabriel Orozco have also photographed the least imposing elements in our homes— a plate, a pail, a table mat— but Gushchin manages to transpose the globally recognizable, inconsequential, disposable fragments of life into pristine artifacts of art, more beautiful in their spare perfection than reproductions of his work suggest.

A wrapped package, a red business card holder, an envelope, or a single pill is isolated and centered on a table. (He likes envelopes because they tell signify important events: births, weddings, deaths, even in this age of email.)

Seen from above, an envelope or package on a table are flattened into abstract shapes; the table tilts up and runs into the featureless dark ground like a table in a Cézanne still life: a mere three colors, minutely scrutinized and arranged, a single rectangle, sometimes cut off by the frame and maneuvered into different geometries: we are in Malevich territory here, with objects destined for wastebaskets converted to Constructivism, a heroic movement in Russian and indeed in twentieth century art. Gushchin says that it is impossible to invent new forms of art: “The language has been invented. The question is, what do you want to say?”

For fifteen years he photographed only in black and white. In a series of photographs of the white pyramids and spheres used to teach student artists how to draw three-dimensional objects, Guschin pointed out the marks left by handling, which encode a kind of history of the objects. The last of the black and whites was a series of different water glasses, the light choreographing complex patterns within them, each one topped with a different kind of bread. A Russian would understand it at a level of personal and national history: at a Russian wake, family and friends gather to drink wine and eat bread, leaving one empty glass and piece of bread for the dead. Gushchin combined particular glasses with breads of different shapes in an attempt to create the impression of particular people. “Thus,” he told me, “an imaginary portrait gallery of the dead appeared.”

In color, his subjects are frequently red, a color associated not only with Malevich but even more often with icons as it is associated with blood. What’s more, the artist says, the word ‘red’ in Russian is very close to the word for beauty. In a photograph of several plastic jar tops in a row, Gushchin points out a gold metal jar top as another reference: the gold backgrounds of icons refer to the constant splendor of light in heaven. Several of the wrapped packages he photographs are bound with rubber bands, to make a cross. This is a more humble reference to religion than even the current Pope’s automobile: a cross made of rubber bands that have never been blessed, holding together a package that, who knows? may be contaminated with atheism. Can such pedestrian objects assume the mantel of faith? Gushchin says that being Russian, he has to reflect Russia, a country with a long history of fervent belief that persisted even while the Soviets killed millions for their beliefs.

During the summer of 2013 the Glaz (Eye) Gallery in Moscow had an exhibition of work by Nikolai Kulebyakin, another photographer widely known internationally. There were arresting, sometimes counterintuitive, even inexplicable color photographs of the outdoors, made with exposures as long as an entire night and into the day with unpredictable results. Color shifted and light misbehaved as the world turned and the lens lingered.

A larger selection of black- and- white prints offered a dazzlingly, endlessly complex set of still lifes of overlapping glass sheets and objects, some of them broken, plus mirrors, layer upon layer, with light improbably sifting through or ricocheting off unlikely surfaces. These images were tantalizing puzzles with no reasonable solutions – what was in front of what and what behind? What was seen through glass? What was reflected, and what was not? Both series were about photography, seeing, perception, and the limits of all three.

Kulebyakin too has jousted with history, even personal history, on occasion. A series called “Reproduction of Archive” consists of snapshots of children, family groups, a man with a dog, and so on, in diptychs with negative and positive on adjacent halves. The series comments on photography again and the retrieval of family history, the creation and reinforcement of memory through reprinted negatives, a slippery matter: does anyone remember the dog’s name after all these years? Can anyone identify the child in that damaged photograph?

Forget history for the moment or leave it to the future to construct – Kulebyakin’s black-and-white portraits are as individual as, well, the individuals, and take a fresh and powerful look at an age-old genre. The sitters maintain strong identities while negatives of slightly different portraits of themselves are thrown upon the background in rectangles that are somewhat distorted and askew. Something is usually aslant– a trapezoid of light. a wall, or a pane of glass– and strong lights, shadows, and bits of negative portraits of themselves fall over faces, shirts, lightly patterned backgrounds. The result is a partly modernist, partly cubist shifting pattern of lights, darks, and negative reversals, and yet the sitter’s image triumphs over all. A psychic insight is implied: that another self exists, perhaps an inner self, possibly inverse or darker, or just differently perceived by a spectator – or by a photographer. At the same time, these images emphasize the reproducible nature of photography and make visible the ordinary studio procedure of taking more than one portrait of a sitter. They deploy the extraordinary potentials of light in a medium that owes its existence to it.

Possibly somewhere in the vast repository of current work there is some that will make history and last within it, but history can be fickle and elusive. None of us knows what art (original or not), what records, or even what inventions will be preserved in the notebook that time keeps on file until someone opens the file drawer, realizes that something of value is inside and opens it to the present, restoring it to memory– or perhaps to the history of photography.

Vicki Goldberg is a writer on photography and author of the Aperture book Light Matters.