Boris Mikhailov

At Dusk


Not on display

Boris Mikhailov born 1938
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, tinted
Image: 120 × 277 mm
Presented by Boris and Vita Mikhailov 2011


At Dusk is a group of 111 small, hand-tinted panoramic photographs taken in Mikhailov’s hometown of Kharkiv in the north-east of present-day Ukraine, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Bleak and uncompromising street scenes reveal the harsh realities of living in a newly independent, post-socialist country. Locals queue for food, huddle around a makeshift fire or hold scarce consumer goods up to the camera. Other images document the ruination of the urban landscape: roads have fallen into disrepair with rubble filling the streets; disused industrial sites have become a locus for abandoned detritus and overgrown weeds. The economic deprivation evident within the images is underscored by the gloomy aesthetic of the prints, offering a ‘mute and subdued’ lament on life in the wake of Soviet rule (Stahel 2003, p.13).

Often harsh and unforgiving, Mikhailov’s images imply an element of social criticism, an effect underscored by close framing and abrupt cropping. Taken from hip height the photographs offer an unusually low vantage point on the people and landscapes of Kharkiv. This effect is reiterated by Mikhailov’s stipulated method of display: the prints are installed in a single line and hung low on the gallery wall, compelling the viewer to stoop towards the images, bringing them unusually close to the subjects photographed. The cityscapes are strangely distorted: buildings appear artificially bloated while horizon lines tilt horizontally or are transformed into arching curves. Taken with a ‘horizon’ camera which scans the landscape horizontally in a circular motion to create long panoramic photographs, the images create an unusual visual language of disorientation that mimics the peculiarity of the new social reality.

The title implies the photographs were taken at dusk, a suggestion reinforced by the hazy grey-blue colour of the prints invoking the ‘blue hour’ of twilight. Dusk suggests a moment of transition at which the light of day turns into the dark of night. Mikhailov embraces this as an elegiac metaphor for the Ukraine’s transition to independence after years of communist rule. Yet the artist’s dusk does not promise a dawn; the people of Kharkiv appear caught in a perpetual twilight devoid of light or colour in which ‘there seems to be no boundary between life and death, between heavy sleep and eternal oblivion’ (Helen Petrovsky in Stahel 2003, p.137).

Each black and white print is hand-tinted by the artist with a cobalt blue wash. The unique effects created by this over-painting underscore the subjectivity of Mikhailov’s project. Sweeping horizontal brushstrokes efface details within an image; elsewhere water marks are created where dye has run unevenly. Occasionally the faint suggestion of a finger print can be discerned, an indexical trace of the artist’s agency. Rather than serving as a reliable document, At Dusk offers Mikhailov’s own personal, poetic version of events. The artist has explained:

I always need a very saturated situation for a reportage because it expresses a subjective view, one’s unique sensation of the world. What’s important is to represent not an event but one’s relationship with the world. And yet I think that this relationship should concern everyone. Although a situation is represented through a personal viewpoint, it concerns social processes that are common, shared.
(Boris Mikhailov in Neumaier 2004, p.274.)

In a statement that accompanies the series, Mikhailov deliberately sets up a comparison between the contemporary situation in Kharkiv and his personal childhood recollections of traumas associated with the Second World War, another bleak period in the Ukraine’s history:

‘Every generation has its war’
(Folk wisdom)

1941. I was three years old and I can still remember the bombings, the howling sirens and the searchlights in the wonderful, dark-blue sky. Blue, blue, light-blue ... For some reason we think that one generation will be spared a war.
I see this blue series as the second.
(Mikhailov in Martin Barnes and Kate Best, Twilight: Photography in the Magic Hour, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2006, p.142.)

The series moves beyond conventional tropes of documentary photography, occupying a hybrid position between a documentary and a conceptual work. As the
curator Kate Best suggests, Mikhailov is not only ‘recording but also staging a time of abject poverty and social decay, of unemployment, fuel shortages, disease and lawlessness that could be both 1941 and 1993, or neither’ (Barnes and Best 2006, p.32).

Mikhailov’s blue landscapes significantly lack any trace of the colour red, a colour inextricably associated with the communist political system. Under Soviet rule an entire society was, according to the curator Margarita Tupitsyn, ‘contaminated by the visual toxicity of red’ (Margarita Tupitsyn in Stahel 2003, p.43) with red flags, placards and billboards filling the streets and even infiltrating the private space of the home (see Boris Mikhailov, Red 1968–75, Tate T13358). After the collapse of the Soviet Union the colour red disappeared almost instantly, stripping public spaces of their ‘mythographic decor’ (Tupitsyn in Global Conceptualism, exhibition catalogue, Queens Museum of Art, New York 1999, p.106).

At Dusk documents Mikhailov’s native Kharkiv in this state of ‘post-redness’ when more subdued colours began to emerge as the ‘pigmentation’ of the new epoch (Tupitsyn in Stahel 2003, p.42). For Mikhailov one such colour was brown: in the series On the Ground 1991 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which recalls the events leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, the prints are tinted with an earthy sepia wash. On the Ground was conceived alongside At Dusk as part of a trilogy to be concluded by a final pink series, symbolising the dawn of a new beginning for the Ukraine. Instead Mikhailov produced Case History 1997–8 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), a far bleaker series of colour photographs documenting the desperate poverty of those left homeless after the collapse of the Soviet regime. The art historian Urs Stahel describes the trinity of At Dusk, On the Ground and Case History as a ‘requiem in three parts on the decay of social order’ (Stahel 2003, p.13).

Further reading
Boris Mikhailov, At Dusk/On the Ground, 2 vols., Zurich 1996.
Urs Stahel (ed.), Boris Mikhailov: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Fotomuseum Winterthur 2003.
Diane Neumaier (ed.), Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art, New Brunswick 2004.

Sabina Jaskot-Gill
November 2012

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