BY Saim Demircan in Opinion | 30 JUN 22

Revisiting Boris Mikhailov’s Vision of Social Destruction

Saim Demircan explores three decades of life and loss in Kharkiv through the work of the Ukrainian photographer

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BY Saim Demircan in Opinion | 30 JUN 22

In the two-part exhibition ‘Charkiv’, this summer, Guido Costa Projects in Turin presents photographs by Boris Mikhailov, which were taken in his home city of Kharkiv, the second-largest in Ukraine. The show features work from photographic series spanning three decades of Mikhailov’s career. These include ‘Red Series’ (1968–75), ‘At Dusk’ (1993) and ‘Case History’ (1997–98). Seen from the vantage point of its citizens, each image represents a ground-level view of the former capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Kharkiv is located near the Russian border, directly south of Moscow (the exhibition’s press release is simply a QR code that links to its location on Google Maps). When Vladimir Putin’s attack on the country began in February 2022, the city was one of the Russian troops’ first targets. It has sustained near-daily bombardment by land and air. In June this year, UNESCO reported that as many as 151 sites across Ukraine have been damaged by bombing, listing 40 in Kharkiv. Many of these buildings – which include the Regional State Administration building, the National University, the National Academic Opera Theatre, the Derzhprom state industry building and a Neo-Byzantine cathedral – appear to have been deliberately targeted, in an attack on Ukrainian architectural and cultural heritage. In the show, Mikhailov’s The End of an Era (1995) foreshadows this act of destruction: a photograph of a stately building appears twisted on its axis, a technique the artist achieved by rotating the camera during exposure. Against the backdrop of the city’s state of ruins, the structure appears to be collapsing.

Boris Mikhailov, End of an Era (1995), image of distorted city building
Boris Mikhailov, The End of an Era, 1995, chromogenic print, 3 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London

Last month at Cannes Film Festival, the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa premiered his new documentary, The Natural History of Destruction (2022), based on the first chapter of W.G. Sebald’s book On The Natural History of Destruction, originally published in Germany in 1999 as Luftkrieg und Literatur. Like the source material, Loznitsa focuses on the British bombing of German cities during the Second World War. As Peter Bradshaw noted in an early review of the film for The Guardian: ‘Nothing could be more brutally relevant given the current destruction of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities by Putin’s Russia.’ Unlike Sebald, who profusely narrates the effects of destruction on the collective psyche – which he considered at the time to be a fragmentary, unwritten history – Loznitsa’s documentary is practically voiceless. When the director does use dialogue, it is from archival recordings of the Allies celebrating their military might over the opposition, including an address by British Army Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to workers in a munitions factory. Footage of weapons being manufactured on a production line, collaged with the view from bomber planes high above the clouds, emphasizes the distance between civilian populations and ideologies of war.

Boris Mikhailov, Untitled (1997-98)
Boris Mikhailov, Untitled, 1996, from the series 'Case History', 1997–98. Courtesy: the artist and Guido Costa Projects, Turin; photograph: Enzo Obiso

Mikhailov’s photographs of Kharkiv are a reminder of the slow violence that afflicts the casualties of war. Much of the destruction remains unseen. For ‘Case History’, which was published as a photo book in 1999 and has since been exhibited widely, the photographer documented homeless inhabitants of Kharkiv at the end of the Cold War. Another conflict had started, this time over the division of wealth: ‘The rich and the homeless – the new classes of the new society – this was, as we had been taught, one of the features of capitalism,’ writes Mikhailov, recalling what he refers to as ‘Russia’s ‘experiment’: socialism’. Untitled (1996) depicts a naked woman in profile with an enormous hernia protruding from her abdomen. Mikhailov photographed people holding their clothes as if they were ‘going to the gas chambers,’ making the link between poverty and genocide profoundly visible.

Boris Mikhailov
Boris Mikhailov, Untitled, 1996, from the series 'Case History', 1997–98. Courtesy: the artist and Guido Costa Projects, Turin; photograph: Enzo Obiso

A photograph from the blue-toned panoramic series ‘At Dusk’ centers on a homeless man sitting on a sidewalk while another, businesslike in a short-sleeved shirt, walks past, seemingly oblivious. In his introduction to ‘At Dusk’, Mikhailov describes being accosted for photographing a man lying in the road, ignored by passersby. Witnessing the erasure of so many people, the artist saw encroaching capitalism in post-Soviet Kharkiv as another form of destruction. Paraphrasing the novelist Alfred Döblin in On a Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes: ‘People walked “down the street and past the dreadful ruins,” wrote Döblin in 1945, after returning from his American exile to south-west Germany, “as if nothing had happened, and … the town had always looked like that.”’ Mikhailov’s photographs from Kharkiv also depict ruins in the aftermath of war, but they are the ruined people. By training his camera on the lives that superpowers often overlook, he brings what usually remains unseen in live reportage or conventional documentaries on conflict into stark relief: a reminder that the weakest often carry the heaviest burdens.

Main Image: Triptych from the series 'Case History', 1997–1998, C-prints, each 60 × 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London

Saim Demircan is a curator and writer. He lives in Turin, Italy. He recently curated ‘Exhibition as Image’ at 80WSE, New York, USA.

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