The noughties were an action-packed decade for Russia: Vladimir Putin became president at the turn of the century, the Second Chechen War began and ended in a long-lasting ‘peace process’ that still involves the occasional special forces operation and terrorist attacks. Oil became incredibly expensive, then crawled back to cheap. Russian oligarchs became Londoners, buying art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Dasha Zhukova opened a much-needed Kunsthalle, and three Moscow Biennales came and went. But in Sergey Bratkov’s reappraisal of the period, presented in his show ‘Neither War Nor Peace’, nearly everything is empty and literally devoid of life – conscious life at least. In his video and photographic works from 2010–11, the photographer looks back on the 2000s and sees a vacuum. No wonder: what started as a new beginning for post-Soviet Russia in the new millennium is now considered a state of stasis, with Putin succeeding in populist leadership and not much else. His handpicked administration has earned the nickname ‘Zeroviks’ (zero plus Bolshevik) for their failure to remake a resource-based economy into something more economically and politically stable.
Bratkov, a Ukrainian and a disciple of one of the best-known Russian-Ukrainian contemporary artists, Boris Mikhailov (the two collaborated on photo installations and performances in the 1990s), never shied away from depicting people. He became instantly infamous when he presented his scandalous photographic series ‘Kids’ at the Regina Gallery in 2001, in which aspiring child stars, their faces covered in make-up, posed before his unforgiving lens. Bratkov then shifted to depicting other social strata, choosing his subjects for their primal vitality: rowdy Marines at an open-air drinking binge in Moscow’s Gorky Park, women serving in the Ukrainian army, and brutal turn-of-the-century businessmen. Last year, Bratkov earned Russia’s ‘Innovation’ contemporary art prize with his work Balaklavsky Drive (2009), a video of young men diving in a small bay, the bottom of which was known to be polluted by toxic construction leftovers.
‘Neither War Nor Peace’ presents a radical change of mood. If Balaklavsky Drive was charged with the full-blooded stupidity of adolescence, with its heroes diving recklessly into dangerous waters, here, everything stood still. Five panoramic photographs depicted spaces that seem to be defunct or ransacked: a room in a country house, a floor scattered with pieces of glass, a window with a blood-red curtain. A boarding ramp stands before an open airplane exit, no people in sight. The abandoned spaces and the sleek surfaces of the photos are reminiscent of Thomas Demand’s works, but there’s no explanation behind the sites and their significance is never even hinted at. The large-scale photo installation Crossroads (2009) was much more straightforward. Here, 12 red-tinted photographs, featuring black silhouettes of cheap bars and drunk people on nondescript streets, are arranged into a shape resembling a swastika, a clear nod to the latest rise of grass-roots (or is it state-approved? We have no way of knowing) nationalism in Moscow and other Russian cities. Crossroads is supposed to show a cross-section of contemporary Russian faces, and these, according to Bratkov, solidify in the fascist shape. This may be too forceful a metaphor, but Bratkov echoes the feelings of many Russians who feel that the jobless or underpaid masses are drifting towards the new nationalism.
In an untitled video made this year, a static camera records soldiers’ helmets falling one by one to the ground. This is clearly a commentary on conflicts beyond internal policy, a scary evocation of wars still fought even when they are not declared. The empty helmets are physically present but hollow, much like the spaces in Bratkov’s photos. The artist evokes a vision of a country that is hauntingly empty and threatened by powerful forces. Bratkov’s work is fittingly sombre in tone, if sometimes too gothic to ring true.