Boris Mikhailov, Untitled, from the series Diary, 1973 . Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin.

by Nadia Kovalchuk

In the last six months Europe has been swept by a series of nostalgic projects that openly aestheticize the Soviet era. In Paris alone, in early December Kirill Serebrennikov’s moving black and white film Summer, which romanticizes the Soviet underground rock scene, was released and did very well at the box office, and was one of Cahiers du cinema magazine’s top ten films of the year. On March 20 at the Grand Palais, Pompidou Centre curator Nicolas Lucci-Gutnikov opened the pathetic exhibition “Rouge”, illustrating the transformation from early Soviet avant-garde utopia to Stalinist socialist realism.

The pinnacle of this fascination in the French capital with the Soviet era was the premier of director Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s monumental film Dau, which is difficult to assign to a specific genre or typology. The secretive project required cosmic human and financial resources, the latter of which were shared by Ukraine’s Derzhkino, which explains the “local” premier at Kyiv’s Zhovten movie theater in spring 2018.     

Reviews of Dau called it “exaggerated” and “grim”. The 400 characters of the 700-hour film were played by professional actors as well as some famous amateurs: Nobel prize winning physicist Lev Landau is portrayed by Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis, artists Marina Abramovic, Boris and Vita Mikhailov also appear. The Ukrainian artist from Kharkiv played himself as the photographer-engineer who created technical documentation for the scientific institute. Photographs of a completely different kind are being shown at Mikhailov’s Berlin retrospective that runs through 1 June 2019.  

The Kunstkammer of late-Soviet society

“Before Sleep/After Drinking” is being shown at C/O Berlin Foundation, a venue for contemporary photography and visual media. The exhibition, presented in three halls, includes five projects spanning a broad period: from photographs taken in the late 1960s, to his latest “Temptation of Death” (2017-2019). Launched to celebrate the world-renowned Ukrainian artist’s 80th birthday, the exhibition showcases more than 400 photos that show all aspects of his oeuvre, known not only for its brutal candor but also for the variety of subjects and artistic methods.      

The exhibition is not chronological. The first project the spectator sees is, quite predictably, Mikhailov’s most famous series, “Case History”, shot in Kharkiv in 1997-1998. On the one hand, the often startling images of victims of the fall of the Soviet Union contrast with the tidy, minimalist “museum” presentation of the prints, laid out in an even, rhythmic, modernist grid. The large prints of the most recognizable images of the series, in particular those with biblical motifs such as the descent from the cross, seem to jump off the wall.   

According to one of the exhibition curators, Francesco Zanot, [1] the selection of 431 images represents a pathological anatomy catalogue – scratches, wounds, swelling, ulcers, infections, ruptures consistent with the exhibition of “real pictures” in the collection of preserved damaged organs assembled by Berlin pathologist Rudolf Virchow at the Museum of Medical History.

Undermining the laws of the documentary genre, [2] Mikhailov “infects” the series, in which we’d expect a cold-blooded inventory of the misery of the ‘90s, with his performative presence and theatricality of certain scenes. The photographer’s work is characterized by a meticulous look at the surrounding reality, the desire to fill gaps in the unrepresented spheres of Soviet and post-Soviet life, and, at the same time, a distrust in the objectivity of the photographic media. 

The body as text

Mikhailov’s earliest works are presented in the exhibition with the series “Suzi et Cetera” (1960-1980s). The photobook of this colorful series is no longer in print, but the Italian independent publishing house 89books has issued a limited 89 copies of the new book Suzi et Cetera (Part 2). It has photos that didn’t make it into the first book but are regularly shown in the photographer’s exhibitions. In Berlin the photographs are displayed in glass cases in the center of a small room, surrounded by large prints from the series “I am not I” (1992). The latter shows the author in hyperbolized theatrical poses, playing to the camera with various props, from  a sword to a dildo. Він створює та демонструє своє фіктивне «Я», продовжуючи тему проблемного ставлення до реальності прямої документальної фотографії[3].

There is an obvious connection with Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger’s exhibition “Double Take”, being shown at C/O at the same time. The duo from Switzerland reproduce, or rather quite effectively “forge”, iconic images by classics of photography (from Andreas Gursky and William Eggleston to Robert Capa, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson) and those popularized by the media (shots from the September 11 terror attack in New York or photos from the US Apollo moon mission). The reproductions are made by constructing hyperrealistic scenery, still lifes, and rephotographing them. The final images emphasize their fabrication, deliberately showing the instruments used to creates these Mise-en-scènes: spray paint cans, pieces of cotton, adhesive tape, lighting. “Every image is a construction”, is the name of Christian Caujolle’s essay about Cortis and Sonderegger’s work. [4] This phrase also describes Mikhailov’s documentary photography.  

The series “Suzi et Cetera” is like a private archive of “amateur” photographs documenting Soviet everyday life – we finally see the repressed personal life of Soviet citizens, their intimacy in communal living, their naked unidealized bodies, which every day have to fit into the disciplined collective body. In the 1960s, having just picked up the camera, Mikhailov was already opposing the official figure of the Soviet professional photojournalist by occupying the only possible niche for himself as an amateur photographer – voyeur-insider.

Layer by layer, he photographs the canons of photojournalism, getting as close as possible in the portraying the banned nude image in the USSR to “tactile visuality”, the absolute achievement of which, according to Jonathan Crary, became impossible with the invention of the camera. [5] As philosopher and art critic Victor Agamov-Tupitsyn writes: “The way in which [nudes] are visually perceived and exploited now has more to do with linguistic practices, ‘speech vision,’ than ‘tactile visuality.’”[6] Nudity in a kind of “clothing”; the “fibers of social codes are closely intertwined with streams of symbolic and imaginative identification”. That’s why “the naked body is no less clothed [in symbolic text], and … nakedness is more impenetrable than a chastity belt”. [7] 

What kind of text manifests itself in the naked physicality of Mykhailov’s pictures?

Agamov-Tupitsyn writes of the hidden text of “biopower”, “not because it can be touched, but because it (power) can do this to us.”[8] In this sense, the effect of the wave of memory that covers viewers familiar with Soviet realities, which Olena Petrovska talks about with regard to Mikhailov’s series “Yesterday’s Sandwich” (1960s-70s), becomes clearer.[9]

But Mikhailov’s fabulous series, which is not represented in the Berlin exhibition, is very similar to “Suzi…” in its scattered materiality. In both cases, the photographs were made on color slides and printed on paper much later. [10] Initially they were shown as projections during informal gatherings of the photographer’s inner circle in underground Kharkiv cafes or at flat parties and often set to music. This aesthetic collective experience was crucial for many young photographers who in the 1980s created the so-called second generation of the Kharkiv school of photography. There were two reasons why they were shown this way: primarily because of the difficulty of printing color photos in the USSR,[11] but also, according to Mikhailov, the search for scattered, non-material, cinematographic images was very inspiring to him at the time. [12] 

Mikhailov’s newest series, “The Temptation of Death” (2017-2019), which will officially premier at the Biennale dell’immagine in Chiasso, Switzerland in December 2019, is also similar to the absent “sandwiches” series, hinting this time at its method – unexpected associations made by compiling/comparing images. While the “sandwich” images penetrate each another, outlining the “shapeless”, “blurred” object [13] that slips out of direct representation, the “Temptation of Death” series combines old and new images taken on the territory of the abandoned crematorium in Kyiv. In the series of diptychs, the associations between the images “create unexpected messages and formal solutions”, while the gap between the time when these images were shot “cast doubt … on the concept of evolution and linear narrative”. [14]

«Verbal photography»[15]

Along the white walls of the last and largest hall of the retrospective there is a row of sheets of paper set behind glass. Most have small photographs taped to them, some are painted, and they have comments of different lengths. The book published that same year by Germany’s Walther King publisher takes its name from the “Diary” series (2015). Not only is it an obvious references to two series in which the photographer works with the interaction of text and image – “Viscosity” (1982) and “Unfinished Dissertation” (1984) – it also contains explicit references to other works and consists of archival images that weren’t included in the main collection.   

Boris Mikhailov, Untitled, from the series Diary, 1973-2016 . Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin.

The use of manual coloring and colored handwritten captions brings to mind the method used in “Luriki” (1971-1985). The comments don’t match the images they are placed next to and create an interpretive gap between them. As always, the intimate captions throw you off, force you to look at the images differently, fantasize about links between what is depicted and what is written. Words, unlike their traditional use in the media, don’t guarantee the authenticity of the image and give the photograph additional meaning. [16]

“Diary” consists of four parts: “Blue Horse”, “Private”, “Instruments or Methods” and “Mythologies”. But no breaks in the fabric of the story are observed while flipping through the book or looking at the series in the exhibition space.  

The “parts” here act as conceptual guides that help you read the array of images and can also be applied to each one individually. The first – “Blue Horse” – refers to the well-known story of the attack on a group of young Kharkiv stilyagi in the late 1950s, during which nude photographs taken by members of the group were confiscated. During the trial, the photographs were used as evidence of their moral corruption. [17] “Blue Horse” is a necessary, preliminary reminder of the status of photography in the USSR as something suspicious that encroaches on the flawless image of Soviet life, and a reminder about the existence of another, an invisible informal life, private leisure time, which although it contrasts with the public, the official and the state is inextricably linked to it.     

How different is Mikhailov’s evidence of the Soviet Union from modern projects that speculate on this aesthetic, independently creating the effect of something exotic in the Western context? We should reject the thesis that these photographs are authentic, that they were created in the conditions of the Soviet Union. Mikhailov himself is well aware of the manipulative nature of this category (let’s recall “Temptation of Death”, where the boundary between old and new images is erased).   

In his essay on “Diary”, Fancesco Zanot identifies two characteristics that describe the photographer’s opus: his critical approach, or, using the terminology of Viktor Agamov-Tupitsyn, his negative optic. Втім, цей критичний підхід не має жодної утопічної реформаторської мети, але представляє глузливий і деструктивний акт і роботу з матеріалом, про який у фотографа є пряме, безпосереднє, інтимне знання[18]. Можливість підійти якомога ближче до свого об’єкту, максимальна інсайдерська позиція була вирішальною й у створенні вже пострадянської серії про бомжів[19]. These two simple and inexhaustible characteristics are what separate Mikhailov’s work and the spectacular, elegiac and nostalgic projects of the post-Soviet and Western cultural industries.     

Photos provided by C/O Berlin Foundation.


[1] Francesco Zanot, «Case History, or The End of History», C/O Berlin, №22, 03.2019, 13.

[2] See Olena Chervonik’s “Урбаністична опера Бориса Михайлова” [The Urbanistic Opera of Boris Mikhailov]. Korydor, 22 February 2016:

[3] Simon Baker, “I am not I (And you are not you)” in Simon Baker, Boris Mikhailov, I am not I. n.p. 2015.

[4] Christian Caujolle, “Every image is a construction”, C/O Berlin, №22, 03.2019, 25.

[5] Victor Agamov-Tupitsyn, Бесполетное воздухоплавание: статьи, рецензии и разговоры с художниками [Flightless ballooning: Articles, reviews and conversations with artists], New Literary Review: Moscow, 2018, 45.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 43.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Elena Petrovskaya: “Strictly speaking, it’s not the memory that is preserved, it’s the one that covers us, like a wave. And here, in this memory that covered us, as you can see in Mikhailov’s work, horns stick out, pantyhose flutter in the wind, whimsical textures of the walls appear. In a word, details burst forth and they become incredibly sharp, but they remain incomprehensible because they don’t come together into a statement. See Elena Petrovskaya: «Материя и память в фотографии. Новая документальность Б. Михайлова» [Material and Memory in Photography. New Documentary. B. Mikhailov], NLO, №117, 2012: :

[10] The book «Yesterday’s Sandwich» was printed by the English Phaidon Press in 2005, while «Suzi et cetera» was first published in Cologne in 2007.

[11] To read about the first failed attempts at Soviet color photography at the 1939 New York World’s Fair see Margarita Tupitsyn, Glaube, Hoffnung, Anpassung, 1928-1945, Folkwang Museum, Essen, 1995.

[12] From a conversation with the author.

[13] Elena Petrovskaya, op.cit.

[14] From the exhibition wall captions.

[15] The phrase refers to the name of the exhibition held in 2004 at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal. The curators, Victor and Margarita Tupitsyn, united works by Ilya Kabakov, Boris Mikhailov and the “Collective Actions” group around the concept of “verbal photography”.

[16] Victor Tupitsyn. «Boris Mikhailov: Who is afraid of a «bad» photograph?» in Victor Tupitsyn, Margarita Tupitsyn, Verbal photography : Ilya Kabakov, Boris Mikhailov and the Moscow archive of new art, Serralves, Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004, 149.

[17] Tatiana Pavlova, «Ukrainian photography 1939-1969» in Václav Macek et al., The History of European photography, Vol.II, Vienna-Bratislava, The Central European House of Photography, 2014, 804.

[18] Francesco Zanot, “The scorpion and the Coca-Cola : An Autopsy of the Homo Sovieticus” in Boris Mikhailov, Diary, Köln, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König,  2015. 3.

[19] “I missed the moment with the ‘new Russians’. There was a time when they still didn’t realize their wealth and position… Then there came a time when you could write a book about another main feature of the time – poverty. The best way was to photograph the homeless. And this ‘chance’ … was available, as it seemed to me, only for a short time.” See Boris Mikhailov, Case History, Zurich, Scalo, 1999, 5.

The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).


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