After glow

A new ex­hi­bi­tion of post-soviet pho­tog­ra­phy brings light where there was dark­ness

Wallpaper - - Art - Writer: Nick Comp­ton

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)

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