Staged Realities | Exhibition with Ostlook, Volksbühne & POSTWEST Festival

by Maya Hristova

"Staged Realities" presents a curated selection of images by 11 experimental photographers from Eastern Europe who use their uniquely developed visual languages to transform the body adding new layers of interpretation to lived history and universal human experience existing on the border between political and personal, intimate and public. Originally planned to take place at Berlin's Volksbühne, the exhibition curated by Jewgeni Roppel and Maya Hristova is presented in the form of posters around Berlin between 22 June and 5 July 2020 and will be documented on the POSTWEST website.

Maya Hristova and Jewgeni Roppel, the respective founders of the platform EEP Berlin & Ostlook, are joining forces to collectively tackle the challenge of bending preconceived notions about East Europe by presenting the works of its contemporary visual artists and photographers to German audiences. The collaboration between the two platforms founded with the same idea, passion and vision about photography based in two German cities - Hamburg and Berlin, is kicking off with "Staged Realities", an outdoor exhibition featuring the works by Weronika Gęsicka (Poland), Svitlana Levchenko (Ukraine), Rafał Milach (Poland), Peter Puklus (Hungary), Viacheslav Poliakov & Elena Subach (Ukraine), Agnieszka Sejud (Poland), Syncrodogs (Ukraine), Danila Tkachenko (Russia), Dominik Wojciechowski (Poland) and Yan Yugay (Russia).

"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).

"Traces" by Weronika Gęsicka, series 2015-2017, Courtesy of the artist and Jednostka Gallery

"Traces" by Weronika Gęsicka

The magic of the "Traces" series by Weronika Gęsicka consists in the viewer's inability to recognize correctly their intention. Are we looking at a real family idyll or are these staged interpretations of the American dream in the 50s. The original images were purchased by the author from an image bank but were masterfully reconstructed and manipulated to transcend their once intended messages into almost satirical metaphors of the well-known tale we are all familiar with, the one that ends with "...and they lived happily ever after." We could imagine Gęsicka ironically asking "Or did they?" What happens when we try to stage our lives according to images that were themselves meticulously staged? A degree of abstraction is achieved through the use of aesthetics which the viewer is already familiar with and has a programmed response to - the so-called Golden Age of the 50s when seemingly everyone could afford that "better life".

"Traces", series 2015-2017, Courtesy of the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka"s work is deeply psychological and at the same time functions as an anthroposophical study of the systems and symbols commonly used in advertising to allure us with mental images of our dreams, the existence of a state of happiness for which we so dangerously crave of in our "boring, normal" lives. It is in the same way that the artist deforms the characters in her images, that the advertising industries are twisting and turning our ability to remain sane in this wildly oversaturated world. Gazing nostalgically at the 50s at a history which we were not part of, we again become helplessly enticed by these images' powerful illusion. What worked back then miraculously still works now.

"Traces" by Weronika Gęsicka, series 2015-2017, Courtesy of the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka's work is part of the collections of Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankurt, the Dom Museum in Vienna and the Museum of Photography, Cracow. She was also one of the FOAM Talents in 2017.

"Decorations" by Danila Tkachenko

"Decorations" by Danila Tkachenko, series, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

Danila Tkachenko is a highly controversial visual artist from Moscow. He won the first prize at World Press Photo for his series s "Escape", while his piece "Restricted Areas" has been awarded with the European Publishers Award in Photography. For his project "Motherland" reflecting on Russia's dwindling rural population, Tkachenko made images of abandoned rural buildings which he would set on fire. For this performative gesture, activists from all over Russia appealed to the Ministry of Culture to bring charges against the artist. The "Motherland" series has since then been exhibited internationally including at the Kehrer Gallery in Berlin.

"Decorations" is another project of Tkachenko which was shown at the Athen's Photo Festival in 2019. It depicts staged scenes of destruction on reimagined stages, among the ruins left by war and human suffering. Like in a dream their subjects appear in front of the camera reminding us of the falsehoods in the representation of wars as part of our modern culture in which the borders between entertainment and reporting have blurred to a degree which alienates the viewer from the suffering of others.

"You are the Fear that I Lost" by Svitlana Levchenko

Untitled from "You Are the Fear that I Lost [YATFTIL]" by Svitlana Levchenko, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist

Svitlana Levchenko is a Ukrainian photographer born in a small neighborhood of Odessa back in 1983. After graduating from school, she studied at the Institute of Refrigeration to become an ecologist. In her artistic practice, she explores the nature of human behavior through the photographic medium: “I have always admired the human body. The way a person uses it, not in a purely physical sense, but as a way to communicate with the world.” In one of her most recent series ‘YATFTIL’ [You are the Fear...], Levchenko reflects on a very personal journey, while pointing our attention to a reality which is universal to all women, something existing as a taboo and biggest ideal all at once - female beauty. ‘As a child, my mother often used to tell me "You are not beautiful, you are pretty." And I grew up with this knowledge.’

In YATFTIL the individual appears sometimes as a whole, but often fragmented, dissected in different pieces and poses, ordered in scattered categories of personal experience. We see the female body molded into a square, modeled after its container. The photographic series itself is a painful process of self-reflection on the elusiveness of identity as something shaped by outside judgment, of a painful rebirth and the need of becoming one with oneself.

"The Epic Love Story of a Warrior" by Peter Puklus

Untitled from "The Epic Love Story of a Warrior" by Peter Puklus, series 2011-2016, Courtesy of the artist

In "The Epic Love Story of a Warrior" Hungarian visual artist Peter Puklus makes a contemporary interpretation of the main conflicts and events of the 20th century as they have been engraved in our collective memory. He does that through the eyes of a Central European family pointing to the personal significance they hold for him and his awareness of the extent to which his family has been affected by them. Associative processes and storytelling are in the core of Puklus' practice, while his approach to photography is highly experimental, playful and often acts as a reflection on the medium itself. His work has been exhibited at C/O Berlin, he has been shortlisted at the Aperture / Paris Photo Photobook Award and he has published two photo books published two photo-books: ‘One and a half meter‘ with Kehrer Verlag and ‘Handbook to the Stars‘ with Stokovec, Banská Stiavnica. Puklus is represented by Glassyard Gallery in Budapest, by Robert Morat Gallery in Berlin and Hamburg, by Conrads Gallery in Düsseldorf and by Folia Gallery in Paris.

Selected Works by Synchrodogs

"Lights on Hill" from "Slightly Altered" by Synchrodogs, Courtesy of the artist

Tania Shcheglova & Roman Noven are a duo of art photographers from Ukraine better known as Synchrodogs who explore the human form within nature, the interplay between various materialities, alien gestures, the intricacy of texture, the magnificence of Earth. The power of their images lies in their metamorphic complexity reminding us of tableaux vivants whose otherworldly actors are carefully posed and majestically lit, seemingly through a power of their own. Synchrodogs's work presents the viewer with scenes which are as tender as they are monumental and invariably prompt our imagination to try and reconstruct their creation. How were they made, what were the artists imagining? Performance, painting, sculpture all blend into one sublime image which could have been taken on another planet.

Selected Works by Agnieszka Sejud

Untitled by Agnieszka Sejud, 2019, Courtesy of the artist

Agnieszka Sejud is a Polish visual artist whose colorful vision starkly contrasts with the realities she depicts. She recently published her first monograph "HOAX" which thematizes faith in her homeland of Poland, one of the most religious countries in Europe where 87% of the population are baptized catholics. In her opinion, seemingly devout religious people are often quite selective in the teachings they follow painting a grim picture - "Not all members of society – women, racial and sexual minorities – are considered full citizens. And homosexuality is still treated as a disease by some. Forests resemble wild garbage dumps. The mass destruction of trees and the coal-based power industry fill our lungs with smog. The use of renewable energy is practically non-existent while additional coal power plants are planned to be built." Sejud's practice combines documentary approach with staged performance, installation and digital manipulation to create a unique visual language as playful as it is consistent.

"The Castle" by Dominik Wojciechowski

Untitled from "The Castle" by Dominik Wojciechowski, series 2019, Courtesy of the artist

Dominik Wojciechowski is probably best known for his visual research on the territories of Former Yugoslavia in his series "Svijet". His witty observations of the symbols remaining from a common past underline the tragedy of the recent wars and explore how separation is being lived by the generations from the various countries which belonged to "the once-great country". It is a testimony to the endurance of the visions and ideologies created by propaganda which often are able to outlive the oppressive systems that once created them. The images presented as part of 'Staged Realities" are from another project from Wojciechowski's body of work, the series "Castle", a therapeutic study of his relationship with his mother during a very difficult period of separation from his father. Wojciechowski used performance to reimagine scenarios from their family life between the walls of her apartment home making it hard to find the right words to describe his photography style and encapsulate the whole. Wojciechowski’s photographs in "The Castle" are normalcy subverted. Love there, yet changed and shifted by time. Childhood memories dimmed and altered by the passing of time. Our homes, much like the artist’s home, are places of comfort, yet they can hide gaping holes that are covered up or ignored. They are our castles, a place of refuge, but what hides inside them is often chaotic. "The Castle" is currently being exhibited as part of Krakow Photomonth.

"50 meters" by Yan Yugay

Untitled from "50 Meters" by Yan Yugay, series 2017, Courtesy of the artist

Yugay’s project "50 Meters" was conceived in a small village next to Goa, where he dwelled on the words — "The artist is always alone with their art." An idea which led him to limit his visual research to an area of up to 50 meters from the place where he was staying. This creative limitation, thorough practical research, and the visual lack of safety prompted him to discover new ground in his practice, one in which he could be equally involved in each aspect of the image-making process. The resulting archetypal compositions are carefully thought out interpretations of the place and culture they were created in, belonging more to the subconscious than to the real world, demonstrating influences from fashion, sculpture and conceptual art. Yugay’s interest in masks which often appear in his work, has its roots in his childhood in the multicultural region of the Northern Caucasus as well as in his family history. His mother is of Romani origins and his father is half Japanese, half Korean. In 1998, he entered the Faculty of Arts at the North Ossetian State University, specializing in Painting. He currently works as a professional photographer contributing to leading magazines such as Vogue, Esquire, GQ, Marie Claire, Elle and Harper's Bazaar. Nevertheless, his artistic practice is not confined solely to the photographic medium, apart from it, he works in painting, video- and performance art. 

Selected Works by Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov

Untitled from "City of Gardens" by Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov, 2018, Courtesy of the artists

Urban legend becomes the starting point for Ukrainian photographers Subach and Poliakov’s exploration of the real and hypothetical spaces of the Polish city of Katowice. Elena says that the fall of the Soviet Union with the following process of post-industrialization, have in her opinion brought about the return of life led by superstition. While in the modern microcosm of the city, Poliakov is interested in the accidental nature of urban transformation and the echoes of global and local influences onto its material surface.

Subach and Poliakov are based in Lviv and the focus of their work lies in the cultural space of Western Ukraine with its unpredictable urban and rural environments, local myths and contemporary utopias. ‘City of Gardens’ is a collaborative project, which takes them to a new place - the modern metropolis and former center of the mining industry in the Polish region of Silesia, Katowice.

Untitled from "Grandmothers" by Elena Subach, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist

In her iconic series "Grandmothers" Elena Subach explores the lives of grandmothers in her native Ukraine. The series which is far from documentary, shines light on the growing gap of cultural understanding between the different generations and familiarizes us with the grandmothers' colorful and chaotic reality, the symbolism behind their scarfs, patterns and clothes. "There is a lot of blue in the series, it means the infinity of the sky and is also a symbol of a different and eternal world, while red is a symbol of the life victory over death." Moreover, the work is an attempt to increase our understanding of the degree to which belief and superstition rule over the grandmothers' understanding of the world. "They do not always know what the Internet is and what is the value of information in the modern world. They live with their post-war values, keep their savings in a scarf for a rainy day and procure products for the future." The project is carried out in an aesthetic synonymous with Subach and Poliakov. It borders on kitsch but not quite. It could be understood as a scholarly study, a vivid and mystical interpretation of an unfamiliar rural culture into a contemporary visual language.

Untitled from "Lviv—God’s Will" by Viacheslav Poliakov, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist

"Lviv—God’s Will" is a dazzling visualization of a tale characteristic of many border regions across the world. Centralization causes desolation in these areas usually torn between opposing political identities and cultural ideologies. God's Will, or Bozha Volya in Ukrainian, is the name of a small village at the Ukrainian border with Poland, an outer border to the European Union or as Poliakov ironically points out "the promised land of wealth and eternal joy". What we see in these images are temporary sculptures without a singular author, scenes that are created by all and no one, encountered along the road which takes you from one side to the other. "The bus departs from the main gate of an old Lviv cemetery and travels west." Through his metaphorical visual approach, Poliakov is able to isolate details that otherwise might have stayed unnoticed, condense scenes that speak for themselves if you would only listen carefully. Rooted in the material world, his compositions possess an unearthly quality reminding of us altars, places of pilgrimage, prayer but to whom, to what? As much as they reveal, these naturally occurring assemblages pose more questions than they answer leaving the reality impenetrable but vivid in the imagination of those who have seen it.

Untitled from "Lviv—God’s Will" by Viacheslav Poliakov, series 2018, Courtesy of the artist

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