"I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass." Ralph Ellison
The framework of memory is one that lends itself naturally to the medium of photography. Nevertheless, it might appear that the visual approaches used by the artists in this exhibition often tend to subvert the notion of classic photography. And indeed, each photographer was selected on the basis of their capability to envision the medium beyond its capacity for representation. This approach to photography is rooted in the observation that Eastern Europeans may have often provided the subject of photographic exploration but there has traditionally been an absence of Eastern European subjectivity and structures of remembering that reflect Eastern European consciousness. Furthermore, even though our work is focused on bringing attention to the works of Eastern European authors, the original intention of the artists themselves is rarely to ascribe to a specific identity be it national, personal, cultural or political. On the contrary, the diversity encountered in their standpoints as citizens and artists speaks clearly about the absence of a uniform Eastern European identity. Each project featured as part of this exhibition has been the result of the photographer’s careerlong experimentation peaking in the ability to deliberately craft their own creative process. On the other hand, what characterizes many of these artists is that their upbringing has largely been shaped by narratives that have preceded their birth. In practical terms, this translates into the use of a variety of experimental techniques involving collage, sculpture, documentary, work with appropriated imagery, and the deconstruction of the family archive, the meticulous collection of testimonies, traces and any tangible signs that were left behind. What unites them all, is their deep personal connection to the events they are attempting to deconstruct and their imaginative investment in their respective fields of research.
The exhibition curated by Jewgeni Roppel and Maya Hristova is taking place between 14th and 23rd of August 2020 at Frappant Galerie, Hamburg. Artists featured are Andrii Dostliev & Lia Dostlieva, Anna Pylypyuk & Volodymyr Shypotilnykov, Blerta Hoçia, Danila Tkachenko, Masha Svyatogor, Maxim Dondyuk, Mila Panić, Monika Orpik, Niels Ackermann, Rafał Milach, Sebastian Hopp, Valentin Sidorenko, Zuzana Pustaiová.
"Fairy Castles of Donetsk" by Andrii Dostliev & Lia Dostlieva, series 2018, Courtesy of the artists
"Fairy Castles of Donetsk" by Andrii Dostliev & Lia Dostlieva | Ukraine
Remember how in the nineties we had cockroaches at home, and when you lit the stove the floor turned red from them? I once stole money that you were saving up for winter boots and bought Snickers bars for all my friends, and then was too scared to go home and you had to go looking for me. And remember when the two of us lugged home eight bags of apples? We laughed the whole time, it was such great fun, and everyone was still alive back then. And the time someone was shot in the courtyard. The shots woke me up and I lay there in unbearable silence. I could hear them downstairs whispering about throwing the body in a lake. “Take his legs, I said take his legs, fuck.” And then silence again. Everyone around me was asleep so nobody else heard it. I was really scared, and you weren't there anymore to tell you about it.
Thinking about Donetsk in the nineties is like looking at the sun from deep in the water: the light shifts and disappears, blurry shadows move above your head and you don't know if what's approaching are fishing boats or sea monsters and dragons that have risen from their mythical depths, ready to black out the sun and eat you up.
Mythologizing a place distant in time and space, and your own experience associated with this place, isn't something unique to us, it happens one way or another with everyone. To analyze this process more deeply, we invited friends, acquaintances, and strangers to share their personal stories about Donetsk in the '90s, the way they remember it. Lego bricks were used to make models of the places from their stories. These models aren't perfect representations, but they help create an emotional and material connection with the past, serving as both a symbol and a tool of that connection.
"My First Telik" by Anna Pylypyuk & Volodymyr Shypotilnikov, series 2019, Courtesy of the artists
"My First Telik" by Anna Pylypyuk & Volodymyr Shypotilnikov | Ukraine
‘Telik’ is a common colloquial name for TV that emerged as first TVs became available in the Soviet Union. The acquisition of a TV set was a milestone for soviet families. Black and white TVs were bought on credit and were subjects of pride. A TV set was more than commodity – a status and a symbol, an item of deficit, a portal to the world beyond, a transmitter of state propaganda. Today people manifest their social status in images of global travel or branded items. When once a TV did that trick. The photographs in this project were gathered in an extensive treasure hunt over numerous flea markets, secondhand shops and online auctions. They reveal a pattern in amateur photography, outlining the way people capture the same things. Through this project, we are interested in how photography functions as a cultural phenomenon and a popular practice of image production. Family photography is usually discarded as nonart and stripped of its importance when it comes to museum collections and art history books. Our experience of browsing massive amounts of photographs at flea markets shows that even before global image sharing was integrated with our everyday lives, people were taking the same images. We believe it is important to make those trends and patterns in amateur photography visible as they reveal what photography means as anthropological practice.
Through practicing archeology of soviet vernacular photography we are not only reflecting upon the post-photographic condition of today, but we also seek an ecological approach to image overproduction. We maintain a critical distance to official history and memory politics of contemporary Ukraine. Seeing how contemporaneity is shaped by conflicting memory, we look for stories on the margins of narratives in official historiography. Instead of a single narrative we choose multiple histories in which amateur photography gives us factual truths of the ‘everyday’ as they assemble in patterns, trends, and unity of a recurring form.
"Do I Remember Me?" by Blerta Hoçia | Albania
"Do I Remember Me?" by Blerta Hoçia, series, 2018, Courtesy of the artist
The interest for the crowds and their decision making power comes as a result of my work as a photographer during the 2015 election campaign in Albania. I was surprised to see in our time, such big groups of enthusiasts after a slogan or political party. As I photographed these magnificent gatherings, the question I had in my head was; how is it still possible to hypnotize the crowds? 10 people are enough to form an inspired crowd, provided they share the same ideal with fanaticism, this ideal within the crowd turns into a sense of commitment that infects all participants - Gustave Le Bon quotes in his study on the Psychology of the Crowd, a book published for the first time in 1895 and still resonating in our reality. It is not in my interest to judge the good or bad character of each crowd but to emphasize the lack of individuality of the crowd as an integral part of the society where we live and as a result of individual loss in the crowd, lose also the self. The risk is for any of us to become part of the crowd. Today, the crowd is probably losing its materiality, and we are dealing with more virtual crowds, but this does not change the hypnotism it faces and the loss of the individual within.
"Do I Remember Me?" by Blerta Hoçia, series, 2018, Courtesy of the artist
The web archive of the internet also abounds with photographic material that documents our collective memory of events, such as the opening of embassies in Albania, the ships filled with people looking for a better future or the civil war of 1997. These portraits are extracted from photographs of crowds, which belong to different periods of recent Albanian history when, for better or for worse, the fate of the majority was decided. Arranging them in a vertical manner forms a new crowd and suggests the awakening of consciousness. The large photograph of the party rally refers to the horizontality question and the crowd like a herd.
Model of the Headquarters of the Third International, Moscow from "Lost Horizon" by Danila Tkachenko, series 2016, Courtesy of the artist
Monument to the Atom, Voronezh from "Lost Horizon" by Danila Tkachenko, series 2016, Courtesy of the artist
"Lost Horizon" by Danila Tkachenko | Russia
The project “Lost Horizon” visualises the utopia of constructing the ideal world. Or rather, half-forgotten traces and ruins of this utopia: the Soviet architecture and technical buildings, which symbolically affirmed the technical progress and advance of the communist future. I make photos of these objects, built by Soviet authorities, by the medium format camera 6x6, during the night and with a powerful light source. Thus I enclose them in a suprematist figure of the black square which refers to the “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich, the early Russian avant-garde and the origins of the Soviet utopia. The radical refusal of the old, and the belief in the beginning of the new, ideal cosmic life, devoted to the liberated human, unifies the aesthetic project of the Russian avant-garde and the political project of the Soviet power. If the “Black Square” was the artistic embodiment of utopia, then the Soviet rule was its social implementation. The time has brought back the original meaning of utopia: u-topos is the absent place, place of nowhere. Presently, USSR is the utopia in its most strict sense.
"Everybody dance!" by Masha Svyatogor, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
"Everybody dance!" by Masha Svyatogor | Belarus
The series “Everybody dance!” brings together works that unfold around the artist’s reflection on the USSR and the notion of “Soviet”. They are based on the images from Soviet magazines, that is, visual material the Soviet government used to represent itself building its “ceremonial” image. It is interesting to mentioned that the artist creates her photomontages manually, deliberately abandoning digital technologies, which evokes the metaphor of the fabric of history. Masha, literally, cuts this “fabric” – she disassembles the official images of representation and uses them to make her surreal, ornamental pictures. Tearing individual images and plots out of their primary context, the artist takes them out of the official representation logic. Masha Svyatogor exposes the gaps, the multiple layers, the inconsistencies and the paradoxes inherent to the Soviet era. She not only deconstructs the images replicated in the official Soviet media, but also reassembles them. She uses these pieces and fragments to create a story of the Soviet period. And this story turns out to be more complete, multidimensional and deeper than any smooth, calibrated, doublechecked historical narrative. It is precisely due to the collage technique, that Masha manages to grasp the multi-layered nature and ambiguity of the era,
Looking at her works, we see the Soviet period where we recognize ourselves, but which does not form one single picture. Masha Svyatogor represents a whole generation of people who were born and raised outside the Soviet system, but who daily faced the images and artifacts of Soviet heritage – in the names of the streets, Soviet monuments erected in central squares, dormitory suburbs, films, etc. Similar artifacts that surround and invade everyday life have lost their original meaning for Masha and her generation. Due to this, all the Soviet images are deprived of their hierarchy, and are arranged not vertically, but horizontally. For Masha, Lenin is not a sacred symbol, but one of numerous Soviet images, alongside with ballet, marching soldiers, pioneers, and heroes of mass culture. It is the absence of the “familiar” hierarchy that allows the artist to complete the deconstruction procedure. The very name of the series “Everybody Dance!” refers not only to the famous phrase from the Soviet comic science fiction movie “Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future”, it manifests the radical position of egalitarianism – each image can become part of an ornament, take a place next to any other.
From Genesis Chapter from "Untitled Project from Chernobyl" by Maxim Dondyuk, series 2016-ongoing, Courtesy of the artist
"Untitled Project from Chernobyl" & "Apeiron" by Maxim Dondyuk | Ukraine
Nowadays, for everyone Chernobyl is associated only with a tragedy at the nuclear power plant and its consequences. But what if we come back to the flourishing times that were so far from the events of 1986? This is where the UNTITLED PROJECT starts. When I crossed the border of the exclusion zone for the first time, I was fascinated: entire villages and cities were disappearing under heavy branches of trees and shrubs. The once prosperous territories now were watching me silently. My project started as a visual exploration of the abandoned areas, villages and homes.
But over time I discovered that these houses, like museums, stored so many memorable things, which all this time were just rotting under a thick layer of trash and mud: old films, family photographs, postcards, letters. The more time went on, the less memories of people, who inhabited that lands, remained. Looters took everything that was worth at least something, except these historical objects. I couldn’t watch how a huge part of history was disappearing, all my attention was turned to an attempt to find and save these memories. This project is like an archaeological dig. Going through heaps of garbage in nearly destroyed houses, I learned more and more about their inhabitants. Lost memories were everywhere: on the floor and under broken furniture, some of them totally destroyed, some still intact. It was impossible to predict whether found films retained at least some images. Everything was covered with dirt. It took lots of time to clean it, dry and sort it out. Among photos eaten by mold, appeared smiling faces of people, their holidays, wedding ceremonies, the birth of children. I didn’t expect to find such a huge archive. Chernobyl was no longer associated with death and tragedy for me.
My visual exploration of the Present led me to the Past, and the two spaces were intertwined with each other. Observing the deserted and silent landscapes of the territories that were destroyed by the nuclear energy, at the same time we are witnessing life full of happiness, hope and love. The same villages, the same houses appear to us in the state as they were before nuclear energy pushed humans out of their homes. This is the story in which Chernobyl is still an unknown city for the world. This project shows the consequences of nuclear development and the life that existed prior to this destructive force.
From "Apeiron" by Maxim Dondyuk, series 2019, Courtesy of the artist
From "Apeiron" by Maxim Dondyuk, series 2019, Courtesy of the artist
"Like a living organism, a photograph is born directly on particles of silver, which ripen, flourish at some point, and then grows old" once said Roland Barthes. The photo negatives that were lost and forgotten several decades ago in the cities and villages of Chernobyl, have been subjected over the last 30 years to very slow degradation under the influence of radiation and the elements of nature. Passing through stages of disappearance, erasure and decay, they retained the traces of evidence of bodies or things that left their mark on the photosensitive film emulsion.
"We Have a Wonderful Life" by Mila Panić | Bosnia & Herzegovina
Pairs of analog photographs "We Have a Wonderful Life" by Mila Panić, series 2016, Courtesy of the artist
In an unusual connection between a raw, stripped realism and slightly bizarre humour and irony, this project deals with the phenomenon of the post-war migrations (beginning of 2000s) from Bosnia and Herzegovina and similar cases. The photos and VHS cassettes used in the work were sent to my family by relatives that moved to Australia in the late 90’s. This type of digital communication and sending of material back to families and friends was a common exchange for people from the Balkans, between those who left and those who stayed. It was mostly one way communication for us who stayed back to see how well they were doing and to make us believe in a better place. On the photographs one can see their activities and all their newest acquisitions. The domain of private memory in this work is a starting point for a narrative depicting the occurrence of mass migrations from conflict ridden territories such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the search for another reality, in this case, prompted by materialistic desires, dreams of social status and aspirations for a better life.
"Blue Zone" by Monika Orpik | Poland
"Blue Zone" by Monika Orpik, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
In August 1938, the SS launched a concentration camp in the vicinity of Mauthausen in Austria. Over time, a network of about 100 subcamps and external commandos, of the highest and severest category in the Third Reich, was built around the concentration camp. Gusen, operating since early 1940, was the first and the biggest subsidiary camp of Mauthausen, by many Germans called “the extermination camp for the Polish Intelligentsia.” By 1945, 190 000 men and women from various countries; Poles, citizens of the USSR, Hungary, France, Spain, were dropped to KL Mauthausen Gusen. The awaited liberation of the camp came on the 5th of May 1945, when the US Army soldiers reached the camp. In contrast to Mauthausen, which was declared a memorial site in 1949, the group of sub-camps Gusen met with complete destruction. Despite a petition sent by the University of Warsaw’s Association of Students and Alumni of the Institute of Archaeology, which described the need to protects the traces of the crimes committed at Mauthausen, Austrian government have done a lot to erase the traces of the former camps’ existence.
“Blue Zone” is a series of cyanotypes showing the remains of the concentration camps Gusen. Due to privatization of the land, there are family houses on the place of the barracks and gas chambers of the former camp. Prussian Blue, the synthetic pigment that gives cyanotypes their distinctive hue, is a chemical by-product of hydrogen cyanide of “prussic acid” which was used in Nazi German concentration camps during WW2 to kill en masse as part of their genocide program. These blueprints work as a reminder of the crimes committed in Mauthausen and create a bridge with the present and subsequent denial of their existence by the ones who eagerly work on the past to be forgotten.
"Lenin" by Niels Ackermann, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
"Lenin" by Niels Ackermann | Switzerland
“Lenin lives! Lenin is with you!” Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this hymn has been more than an ever-present slogan. Throughout the 20th century, the figure of the revolutionary leader was omnipresent. But as Russia prepares to celebrate the centennial of the October Revolution, Ukraine, the other pillar of the Soviet Empire, will have none of him. Summum of decommunization: as of late 2016, none of the 5,500 statues that formerly dotted the territory is still standing. Lenin has left the square. His face no longer overlooks the metro station. His name has disappeared from the topography of the city. This sudden eclipse evokes more questions than answers. What is the meaning of this decommunization? How does it relate to the war in the east of the country? How should we look at Lenin and the history he shaped? To visualize these questions, the photographer Niels Ackermann and the journalist Sébastien Gobert went insearch of Lenin. In the summer of 2015, they set off, traveling through Ukraine in search of crumbled stone and fragments of metal. What began as a simple journey of curious friends became a fascinating investigation, an astonishing adventure through Ukraine in upheaval. Every statue, whether found in a garbage dump, the locker room of nuclear plant, a private collection, or transformed into Darth Vader, tells a story. Through a collection of photographs, halfway between documentary and symbolism, the authors create a catalog and typology of this decommunization, capturing the issues of memory for this country that is seeking itself. Lenin is dead; Lenin is no longer with the Ukrainians. But his name still weighs heavily on the present and future of Ukraine.
"The First March of Gentlemen"by Rafał Milach, series 2017, Courtesy of the artist and Jednostka Gallery
"The First March of Gentlemen" by Rafał Milach
"The First March of Gentlemen" by Polish photographer Rafał Milach is a fictitious narration consisting of a series of collages which blend two specific historical realities - those of communist Poland in the 1950s with memories of Września's children strike from the beginning of the 20th century. The project which was created as part of Kolekcja Wrzesińska residency includes archival images by Września's native photographer Ryszard Szczepaniak. Through the reflection on past events, it becomes an allegorical commentary on the lack of equality in Polish society through which Milach is powerfully transmitting his critical position as an artist and as a citizen.
"The First March of Gentlemen" by Rafał Milach, series 2017, Courtesy of the artist and Jednostka Gallery
Rafał Milach is one of the most notable figures in contemporary Eastern European photography today. Having lived his childhood during the collapse of communism in Poland, his themes are naturally of history and transformation, societal processes on which he continuously reflects by mixing photography with a variety of other mediums including books, video, conceptual art and curation. Milach is a member of Magnum Photos which he joined as a Nominee in 2018. His works are part of the collections of the MoMA Warsaw, CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, the ING Polish Art Foundation, Kiyosato, the Museum of Photographic Arts (Japan), and Brandts in Odense (Denmark).
"Red Nostalgia" by Sebastian Hopp, series 2017, Courtesy of the artist
"Red Nostalgia" by Sebastian Hopp | Germany
In present-day Georgia two separate generations live side by side: the aging seniors raised in the Soviet era; and today’s youth, who have grown up with heavy influence from Western culture. The more Georgia’s youth is influenced by the West, the more nostalgic older generations become for their Soviet roots. Consequently, they long for a leader like Stalin to restore order to their country. While almost every city has its own Stalinist movement, one place stands out: the city of Gori, Georgia. Gori is Stalin‘s birthplace, and traces of cultish devotion can be found everywhere. Gori is home of the world’s largest Stalin museum; there the gift shop sells everything from T-shirts to cups with adorned with his face. The local grocery store has a two-story Stalin portrait on its outer facade. Devotion to Stalin is alive in the hearts of Georgian citizens. They are proud of their connection to the historic former leader.
"Roots of the Heart Grow Together" by Valentin Sidorenko, series 2017, Courtesy of the artist
"Roots of the Heart Grow Together" by Valentin Sidorenko | Russia
My family has always been very close — relatives from my mother’s and father’s sides would gather for weddings, birthday and New Years parties. That bond was beginning to break when I was born, in the middle of the 90’s. Family members died before I could get to know them, talk to them, love them. Years later, I started meeting them separately via our family photo archive. This is the way I met my father who died when I was three. He was handsome and smiling in every photo. In one, he even had a broken nose. Slowly, my father’s image began to form and I developed an attitude towards him. A similar occurrence happened with my grandfather after his death. I knew him to be a strict and morose man, but what I saw on the pictures was a merry fellow, life of the party. The same thing happened to my great-grandmother; a heavy elderly woman, whose life story was completely unknown to me, turned out to be a young snub-nosed German girl, who was once evicted from a German settlement to the Altay Kray with her family. I was going from one photo to another, from letter to letter. There were dates, names, wishes, thoughts written on the back of many photographs. Sometimes, I was unable to read the handwriting on the back of the picture. Then suddenly, I succeeded and it opened a way further in the deep, and so it went along all the branches of the family tree. It was amazing to see the life of each of the families I could have never known anything about before captured in these old images. Even minor details about my longgone relatives made them alive and truly close. This is a personal project in which I use my family archive photos. It was important for me to create a complete third image from the two inital photographs in order to create a palpable connection between the generations. In the process, it turned out that it does not matter how many images I had because only a few would work together.Photography became the only way for me to break through time and become sincerely involved in it. As a result, it occurred to me that for two families, living in different places at different times, it’s hard to have anything in common, and yet they might share a common future if they share common memories. Each family forms its own link in the chain of time, a chain that wouldn’t exist without memory.
"Family Album" by Zuzana Pustaiová, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist
"Family Album" by Zuzana Pustaiová | Slovakia
For the creation of her “Family Album” series, Slovakian photographer Zuzana Pustaiová uses photographs from her family archive and merges them with elements of painting and various objects such as lace, fabrics, and matches. By incorporating these everyday materials found within the confinements of her family home into her collages, the artist is able to transform her family history into a newly lived reality. During her childhood, she learned to do embroidery from her mother and grandmother, a skill which today enables her to sneak into the scenery of the actual photograph and form narratives through its materiality. Within this body of work, consisting of more than 150 individual pieces, Pustaiová negotiates the spaces of intimate family past on the backgrounds of history and current political realities. Despite the fact that the artist reappropriates these images, obliterating parts of their initial context in the creation of a new one, the photographs still belong to both communist and democratized Slovakia spanning across the 1970’s and 1990’s. In them, Pustaiova reimagines the ruptures of European history, the possibilities of legislation and the politics of the present and questions various scenarios preexisting in the eyes of the contemporary viewer. The resulting images are a dialogue between the physical surface of the appropriated image and her subjective interpretation of the subtle nuances in the photograph’s contents.
"Family Album" by Zuzana Pustaiová, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist