Red is a group of eighty-four colour photographs taken between 1968 and 1975 in Mikhailov’s home town of Kharkiv in the north-east of present day Ukraine. A diverse array of subjects and situations are depicted: scenes from official military parades and political rallies, views of the Kharkiv cityscape, and unofficial private moments between family and friends. The snapshots do not document significant events; instead they trace the Soviet byt, the banal mundanities of everyday life in the Soviet Union under communist rule. Mikhailov suggested that ‘the more we can exclude the event from representation, the closer we can approach the most important thing – being’ (Boris Mikhailov, Unfinished Dissertation, Zurich 1999, p.28). Shot using colour film, an unusual luxury in the Ukraine at this time, the images draw upon the aesthetics of early twentieth-century Soviet avant-garde photographers such as Aleksandr Rodchenko with their abruptly cropped compositions taken from unconventional perspectives.
Every one of the eight-four disparate images in the series contains the colour red, after which the series is named. The art historian Urs Stahel has observed how Mikhailov ‘attentively, seismographically even, traces every little speck of red in the Russian-Ukrainian landscape ... and visualises the saturation and thorough coloration of the social body’ (Stahel 2003, p.15). Red flags and placards are ostentatiously displayed at jubilant parades. Red infiltrates the Kharkiv landscape on building facades and painted monuments. Red clothes and lipstick adorn Soviet bodies. Red finds its way into the private sphere of the home, in wallpaper, curtains and flowers. In some images only the tiniest flecks of red are discernable – a pin on a lapel or a painted toenail – or the colour is displaced onto a pink flower or an orange swimming costume. Red is even inscribed on the human body, becoming corporeal as bruises, inflamed spots, seeping wounds or sunburnt flesh. The cumulative effect, according to curator Margarita Tupitsyn, is that of an entire society ‘contaminated by the visual toxicity of red’ (Margarita Tupitsyn in Stahel 2003, p.43).
Tupitsyn also notes how the colour red had ‘long ago entrapped the collective psyche of its consumers’ (Tupitsyn in Stahel 2003, p.43). From the Red Army, to the red communist flag, to the use of red in Russian constructivist art, the colour has pervaded Soviet visual culture. Red also assumed ideological significance through its inextricable association with the Soviet political system, insistently deployed in communist art and propaganda. By drawing attention to the inescapable presence of the colour in the Ukrainian social landscape, the series suggests the extent to which communist ideology had permeated all aspects of Soviet life.
In Russian the noun krasnoe meaning ‘red’ is etymologically linked to krasivoe meaning ‘beautiful’, binding the meaning of the two words together. The art critic Martin Herbert has suggested that Mikhailov’s series resonates as ‘a paranoid cataloguing of instances of the colour red in the Soviet landscape that blooms, more optimistically, into symbolic efforts to reclaim it for private pleasure’ (Martin Herbert in Bush and Sladen 2006, p.239).
The series bridges the documentary and conceptual aspects of Mikhailov’s practice. Sharing a formal resemblance to constructivist photomontage and journalistic photo-essays published in Soviet propaganda publications, the photographs are printed to a small scale and loosely arranged in a disorderly grid format over one wall, with several remaining images positioned in a horizontal line around the rest of the gallery at chest height. Displaying the photographs in this manner de-prioritises any one single pictorial record of reality, producing instead a series of fragmentary images that are to be seen together as a whole. Moving beyond conventional documentary procedures, the large-scale installation surrounds the viewer’s field of vision, immersing the viewer in Mikhailov’s personal perspective on life in his home town.
Mikhailov’s commitment to photography was rare among Soviet unofficial artists working in the late 1960s, when severe restrictions were placed on artistic practice. Describing himself as ‘a photographer endowed with unofficial authority’, Mikhailov took pictures covertly in order to ‘track down, spy, sneak’ (Boris Mikhailov, Unfinished Dissertation, Zurich 1999, p.196). Often harsh and uncompromising, Mikhailov’s images imply an element of social criticism, an effect underscored by close framing and cropping that lures the viewer uncomfortably close to the subjects photographed. His images operate at the juncture between the official and the unofficial, photographing scenes of Soviet reality stripped of their ‘mythographic decor’ (Margarita Tupitsyn in Global Conceptualism, exhibition catalogue, Queens Museum of Art, New York 1999, p.106).
Urs Stahel (ed.), Boris Mikhailov: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur 2003.
Diane Neumaier (ed.), Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art, New Brunswick 2004.
Kate Bush and Mark Sladen (eds.), In the Face of History, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2006.