“It’s a kind of proto-punk”

“It’s a kind of proto-punk”

“It’s a kind of proto-punk”

Born in 1938, Boris Mikhailov grew up in the industrial city of Kharkov (now Kharkiv) in the then Soviet Ukraine. “There was nothing there that influenced me,” he said of his formative years as a photographer. “I found myself in a kind of zero state, a state of total openness.” With no knowledge of the history, traditions, and categories of photography, he became a self-taught artist in the truest sense of the word, his work driven by his fertile imagination, absurd humor and apparent disregard for accepted notions of technical excellence. or formal composition.

Next month, those typically Mikhailovian elements will be on display at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, which will host a large retrospective of his work. Entitled Ukrainian Diary, it presents works selected from 27 projects carried out in the last 50 years. It is an interesting time to exhibit his work, not least because Mikhailov’s Ukraine is not the Ukraine currently fixed in the popular imagination – a European-style country whose progressive principles and Europeanized culture have so angered Vladimir Putin that he declared war on its citizens. (The exhibition, and an accompanying book, were planned before the invasion and both are dedicated to “Ukraine and all those who are suffering from the insidious and incomprehensible attack on our motherland, with great pain and infinite compassion.” )

For much of Mikhailov’s life, Ukraine was a less uniform Soviet state in which the daily lives of its citizens were scrutinized, controlled and compressed by the ever-vigilant eye of the authorities. He became a photographer by accident, having initially received a camera to record life in the state factory where he worked as a young man. When the KGB found out that he was also using the factory workshop to make nude portraits of his first wife, he was fired and narrowly avoided being sent to prison. Undeterred, he continued to take experimental photographs, often wandering the streets of Kharkiv, where a person with a camera was automatically the subject of suspicion. He exhibited his work in clandestine exhibitions held in the apartments of friends and fellow artists, some of which became the core of what would become known as the Kharkiv School, many of which he volunteered for.

His first project, Yesterday’s sandwich, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was born out of a moment of inattention: “One day I threw a bunch of slides on a bed and two of them stuck together,” he says in one intriguing first-person memories that introduce each section of the book, “Fascinated by the resulting image, I began to layer one slide on top of another and place them in a frame, putting them together like a sandwich.” Prints are often grainy and juxtapositions seem improvised, but the images are strangely beautiful and slightly disturbing: a naked female torso covered in handwritten text; a fried egg floating in the sky over an expanse of grainy blue sea; an anonymous couple walking in a circle of raw meat.

“I see Boris as a kind of proto-punk,” says Aron Mörel, of Mörel Books, companion book publisher and friend of Mikhailov and his second wife and creative collaborator, Vita. “He has this attitude and an instinctively independent way of looking at things, as well as a resolutely do-it-yourself approach. The poetic possibilities of the lo-fi aesthetic are far more interesting to him than our received notions of formal craftsmanship and beauty. “

Since then, Mikhailov seems to have followed where his instincts have led him. For Black archive (1968-1979), he went in search of the “medium” and the “anonymous” as a means to subvert the officially sanctioned photography of the time. Another series, Red, includes snaps of state-organized Communist parades where color predominates over headbands, flags, banners and propaganda posters. Under communism, he recalls, “red has permeated all of our lives on all levels”.

Elsewhere, Mikhailov’s approach is more maliciously subversive as it plays with all our received ideas about art. In a 1988 series called Crimean snobbery, he photographed himself and his friends, “playing to be rich, to be bourgeois”, in exaggerated poses. “Both the greyness and the pomposity of the Soviet era are present in Boris’ photographs,” says Mörel, “but, in contrast to that, there is also the world in which he lived with his friends and always is. playful and mischievous “.


In the post-Soviet years of the 1990s, things took a darker turn in his work when he made his best known and most controversial series, Historical case, for which he paid homeless and poor Ukrainians to pose for his camera in paintings that often recalled Christian iconography and classical painting. The results remain shocking and his motives have been questioned by some critics, but, for Mikhailov, the impetus was an urgent sense of social responsibility. In the book he describes how, after spending a year in Berlin in the mid-1990s, he returned to Kharkiv to find a much changed city that, at least superficially, appeared more conspicuously rich and sophisticated. “Then I noticed that shadows were passing in the streets… these shadows were homeless, more and more numerous. It was then that it occurred to me to make a requiem dedicated to these men and women who were dying. “

Historical case it is an inexorably gloomy, sometimes grotesque catalog of human misfortunes and debris. Ragged, emaciated men drop their trousers; drunk old women baring their breasts; young savages sniff glue. There is a sense of relentless squalor and a stench of death in the series that almost defies the critical or aesthetic evaluation of the work, but rather asks us to look at these abject human beings or to turn our backs. Objections, of course, tended to be moral: Was he exploiting his desperate subjects for our vicar gaze? The question still resonates.

A self-styled prankster, provocateur and cheater, Boris Mikhailov makes art that doesn’t quite fit into any of the enduring categories of photography. For a long time he was an outsider and a nonconformist out of necessity and, despite the embrace of the art world, he remains so by temperament. Between the absurdity and the provocation of his Ukrainian Diary, there is both humor and hope.

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