'Historical Insinuations' With a Detached Gaze

MTSoviet photographer Boris Mikhailov gesturing as he strolls past his work at the opening of his exhibition at Winzavod.
A bald Soviet army soldier with bushy eyebrows holds a rosebud to his lip, half-smiling. He looks to the side, and you can imagine that in the next moment he will start dancing the tango.

In a nearby photograph, a hunched old woman in a blue coat pauses before a curb, as if she's gathering the strength to step down. Bleak high rises tower behind her; the ground is muddy, bald and puddled. It's the typical picture of Soviet destitution.

The carefree and the desolate, the tender and the aggressively vulgar, such is the range tread by Boris Mikhailov in his 70th-anniversary exhibition at the Winzavod Center. The three series in the exhibition, titled "Historical Insinuations," span 40 years of history, presenting the artist's vision of the banal flesh of life.

"The beautiful and the horrible, he sees them both, equally and without judgment. He shows that the world consists of both," said Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography and organizer of the exhibition.

The detachment of Mikhailov's gaze can be hard to take, as in a plain portrayal of the sores on a man's leg and genitals, juxtaposed with a nearby photo of the rust marks on a marble statue of a naked Greek god.

Mikhailov's distance is also an asset, however, allowing him to chronicle the details of Soviet life in a way that was never done before, Sviblova said.

After World War II, Soviet photography ceased to exist as an art form. Photographers were either forced to toe the party line, presenting images of happy factory workers and farmhands, or they were confined to pure documentary, working on assignment for newspapers and magazines.

Mikhailov first picked up a camera in 1966 in the midst of Nikita Khrushchev's thaw, when previously stringent social codes were relaxed. Amateur photographers turned to more romantic portrayals of landscapes and children.

But Mikhailov's talent lay in his ability to avoid simple emotionalism, Sviblova said. "The problem of all those photographers was that they got emotionally caught up in their subjects. They extracted everything that they did not want to see," she said. Mikhailov, on the other hand, "always had the ability to see the world from the side. ... He could see things with a clearer eye."

In "Suzy and Others," the first series in the exhibition, the photographs are small. Some have faded colors. Others appear posed. Yet taken together, they are Mikhailov's most powerful pieces. Instead of romantic portraits, he offers a diary of the quotidian. There is a still life of a hunk of black bread, a pickle and an onion. There is a woman waiting for a trolley.

Instead of the typical social portraits of miners or peasants, the photographs present naked bodies. As Sviblova puts it, "The only thing remaining for those stripped of their social role are their own bodies and their own sex."

In "Salt Lakes," the next series in the exhibition, Mikhailov uses people's bodies to present a more pointed social metaphor. The large photographs, in typical black-and-white documentary style, present many unattractive men and women bathing in a river.

The caption reveals that the water source is a factory pipe. The people, however, have been told that the water has healing properties. And so they wallow in it, climb on the pipe and soak in the dirty foam.

"He renders the absurdity of this faith on the physical level," Sviblova said. "He shows just how physiologically unpleasant it is when people end up being controlled by their faith."

The photographs were taken in 1986, during the time of the perestroika, when many people in the Soviet Union believed that beyond the Iron Curtain there were only crystal-clear streams and smiling faces, Sviblova said.

However, Mikhailov's last series, "Rest at Tenerife," shows that unhappiness can be universal.

The photographs depict mostly retired tourists in Tenerife, the European resort town. Yet, just like the swimmers in "Salt Lakes," they are ungainly and overweight. They walk around, squinting at maps, posing for pictures -- all without any visible enjoyment. The photos flash past on a projector screen, one unsmiling, sunburned face blending into the next.

Mikhailov's work is not always uplifting. However, it is often pierced with vivacity, a feeling Sviblova calls a "yearning for beauty."

"Life can't be an opera stage every day," she said. "But if we accept life as the way it is, if we have a reference point, then we can see the opera scene" in all its beauty.

"Historical Insinuations" runs through Aug. 31 at the RIGroup halls of the Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts in the Winzavod Center of Contemporary Arts. 1 4th Syromyatnichesky Pereulok, Bldg. 6. Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 917-4646. Admission is 120 rubles.