A new exhibition of post-soviet photography brings light where there was darkness
The designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, a hoodie-wearing Muscovite still in his early thirties, has been fashion’s big story for half a decade, closely followed by his Georgian buddy Demna Gvasalia, the design brains behind Vetements and Balenciaga. Rubchinskiy earned that attention with a celebration of Moscow streetstyle, all buzz cuts, scowls and knock-off sportswear (Adidas’ current good fortunes certainly owe something to his reimagined ‘gopniks’). But he started out as a photographer and still takes pictures, producing photo books to accompany his collections; and you could argue that Rubchinskiy is as much a multimedia creative riffing on post-soviet style as he is a designer.
‘Post-soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe’, a new exhibition at the Calvert 22 Foundation’s gallery space in East London, takes in the work of other young photographers across the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. And in much of their work you can see the same ambiguous, impressionistic take on post-soviet possibility. The foundation, which also runs online magazine
The Calvert Journal, is dedicated to looking at contemporary culture and creativity in what it calls the ‘New East’. And the exhibition, says Calvert 22’s creative director Ekow Eshun, comes out of that conversation. What is marked in pretty much all the works is not nihilism and despair, but rather improvised opportunity. ‘The show is about how these artists imagine and create space,’ Eshun says. For curator Anastasiia Fedorova, ‘it’s also about youth, and youth in historical context, how the 26 years since the collapse of the USSR is a whole life for the new generation. Just like youth, this historical transition is also about growing pains, empathy and ecstasy, and the restless identity search.’
It is also a show that takes you a long way from Moscow and St Petersburg, across the vast stretch of what Fedorova calls a ‘collapsed utopia’. David Meskhi shoots the skate kids of Georgia, and Hassan Kurbanbaev the teenagers of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Michal Korta works with the brutalist architecture of Skopje, Macedonia, and Jędrzej Franek the pop-colour post-soviet pimping of Poland’s tower blocks.
For Fedorova, the show also goes beyond the easy shorthand of post-soviet cool, what she calls a ‘constructed fiction’. ‘We wanted to explore the new
visual culture and identity coming from postcommunist countries,’ she says.
Given that the post-soviet condition is still in its mid-twenties, youth culture and the broader working out of identity in the post-soviet space are intimately linked and carry a special weight and interest. ‘For young people, the question of a shared post-soviet identity is huge. We have shared memories, certain shared struggles, a cultural heritage, but we also yearn to connect simply on a human level.’
The fact that people even talk about youth culture in these areas, as opposed to griping about entitled millennials, is instructive. Something different and distinct is happening. ‘In many places in Eastern Europe, youth culture retains the joy of making it up as you go along. There is a great sense of community, and potential to create a whole separate universe that exists in parallel to the mainstream. There is also a unique urban romanticism, which comes through in a lot of visuals in the show – it’s about reclaiming the seemingly bleak places and making them your own.’
Beyond the testaments of post-soviet youth, there are also landscapes in the show; not blasted or desolate but shabbily alive. Scraps of gritty riverside become beaches and ranked tower blocks misty white cliffs. ‘This environment could seem oppressive, but it also becomes your playground,’ says Fedorova. ‘Capturing the essence of the place is not about documenting it, it’s about creating a new kind of romanticism, your own mythology. There is a certain air of wandering into the unknown – hardly a safe space, yet enchanting.’
‘Post-soviet Visions’ is at the Calvert 22 gallery from 23 February-15 April (calvert22.org). See our May issue for a special section on the New East’s creative revolution
‘What is marked in the works is not nihilism and despair but improvised opportunity’
Photographers appearing in the Calvert 22 Foundation’s exhibition in London include Ieva Raudsepa (above left and opposite, bottom), Jędrzej Franek (above right), David Meskhi (opposite, top left) and Dima Komarov (opposite, top right)