Kirill Kovalenko | Boundaries of Meaning
By Cecilia Rubino
In the period from 2014 until the winter of 2015, while Crimea was being occupied by Russia, Ukrainian artist Kirill Kovalenko was creating a body of work which since then has become a timeless portrait of this oddly significant place, a utopian antipode to the events that were taking place at the time. For most of his life, Kovalenko, who is now based in Lviv, used to call the Crimean peninsula his home, a vulnerable spot on the map that still bears a confusing geopolitical identity.
This sort of "geographical confusion" that Crimea brings up to some of us is also widely reflected in Kovalenko’s practice. When looking at his work for the first time, you may ask yourself where does Crimea belong, or when exactly were these images taken. And while doubts and confusion abound, one thing remains, a certain feeling of familiarity, the sense that you have already been there. It is somewhere you know.
And yes, while there is no specific record of it, the images you see were all taken during that particular gap of time in Crimea's history. It certainly does not seem as if they were intended as a document, but if they were, what would have they documented?
"Initially, I worked in the genre of documentary, while experimenting in different directions. Then slowly, I began allowing for more subjectivity to pour into my work. As I come from painting, there was a point when I was wondering if it was at all possible to be oneself in the framework of photography. The question was, to what extent is it necessary to negate your own position in order to be a "true" documentary photographer."
Certainty, the primary nature of these images does not appear to be of a document, neither do Kovalenko's subjects ask for further biographical research. Much rather, they could be thought of as a record of shared feelings. Everything glows with this sweet, warm tone, the outlined figures stand delicate and finely curved. Looking at his work, you might start believing that you yourself were there at the beach during those endless summers while the glistening light blinded you, exaggerating your sense of freedom. There is an organic layering to his work which charges each frame with a mystic, otherworldly sense of peace.
"Photography is when you think a lot and do it quickly." Gradually, he realized the potential of photography as an artistic medium beyond documentation and started to develop his practice in a new direction. Nevertheless, you can sense the painter's instinct that goes into each piece, his evident attention to the various dynamics playing a role in the frame. Color complementation, the distance between objects, the line of the horizon, it all works. His process is simple, his understanding of photography quite straightforward and unorthodox. The series on the beach and between the blocks started as two separate projects and then slowly merged into one sequence, but until now, they haven't been defined as a finished piece. The work grows, flows and takes its turns, just like the bold brush strokes on a canvas make it look unfinished to the viewer, until you slowly start noticing what the painter had in mind. When I asked him about his technical approach and if he shoots analog, he shared his belief that the use of film often adds an artistic flair to the image which otherwise might not be there, hence it could be understood as artificial or misleading to the nature of the photograph and the photographer's intention. "I'm not against it, I just decide to concentrate mainly on my thoughts."
Is there a story he would like to tell? "I don't like the concept of a "story" in the traditional sense of the word, and in general, I do not create any stories. History is a text that dominates and determines the boundaries of what is understood, the boundaries of meaning. I work through viral matter, through the visual component, primarily." A position easily explicable if you come from a place whose history has been retold so many times.
Which makes it compelling to observe the concept of time as developed in his work. Could we intuit the future ahead of us watching at these images? Or are we trapped in a continuous loop of time? In a 'deja-vu', where one can only say "I have already lived that, I have been there, I have seen these people doing exactly these same things. And yet, I haven't." Maybe this is what these photographs are: a tender cure to us, the melancholic ones, an alluring invitation to bring back a memory, when you know you should rather leave it behind.
"These works were made on the shores of Crimea. Crimea was my long-time home and the place where I made my first steps in photography. It is like a quiet backwater where nothing changes, except for the seasons, like a monument in the "Museum of History", pressing on you with its attributes and purposefully diverting your view from points outlined by logic. A great place to fall into serenity or to feel old regardless of age, to learn to see the invisible, document the lack of reflection in the people around you. And it could not be otherwise, could it? Since, in the middle of the street, there is always little thought. Documentation through idealization. Idealization is in its nature inverted documentation, I believe. In my last years on Crimea, I began to understand that you can only look in one direction while being there, and it is this direction that prevails in most of my works from that period."