Boris Mikhailov’s subversive aim at MEP or Commodity Exchange

Russia’s war against Ukraine gives a tragic color to the exhibitions of Boris Mikhailov, one of the great figures of Ukrainian photography. The European House of Photography (MEP) in Paris is devoting a retrospective to his work from the Soviet era to the Maidan uprising. More than eight hundred photographs, presented in twenty series on two floors, reflect the traces of half a century of artistic creativity between documentary, everyday and conceptual works. Between subtlety, provocation and biting irony.

If today most of the places where Boris Mikhailov painted are in ruins, mainly in his hometown Kharkiv, his work, beyond its documentary value, tells about the daily life of Ukrainians since 1965. subversive, he denounces the failure of communism as the failure of unbridled capitalism that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Accepting the banal, meaningless and even trashy aesthetics as a mirror of society, he claims. a strange incompleteness as an aesthetic principle » and visual resistance to official iconography. These are the principles of the Kharkov school of photography, in which Boris Mikhailov was the main figure.

Visual Codes of Distorted Soviet Images

Boris Mikhailov, now 83 years old and living in Berlin, was born in Kharkov to an engineering family, and he never stopped taking photos. Having become an engineer himself, he uses a camera meant to document the company to create nude pictures of his wife. Discovered by the KGB, he was immediately fired for pornography.

He rebelled, then decided to devote himself to photography. From his first series, he plays with the visual codes of Soviet imagery to subvert them: serial Red (1965-1978) composes a hundred images in which the color red is present, juxtaposes images of everyday life from Soviet propaganda alongside military parades with medals, tomatoes, varnished nails, panties or pimples.

Another series, Yesterday’s sandwich, presented as a slide show, was born out of an accident: when he casually threw a bunch of slides on the bed, two of them stuck on top of each other, creating a never-before-seen third image. . The artist decides to recreate this accident, which is a sequence of surrealist compositions: a young woman lying on the grass eating flames, a giant ear in the middle of passers-by…

Identity crisis

“Like any dissident work, the series was full of hints and innuendos. The ambiguity of each description echoed interestingly my background—my father is Ukrainian and my mother is Jewish. The fierce anti-Semitism that raged at that time caused a particularly painful identity crisis in me.” mentions Boris Mikhailov in the interesting catalog published on the occasion.

In subsequent series, Luriki (1971-1985) and Stupid Art (1975-1986), the artist adds kitsch colors to black and white photographs taken from family albums or publicity photos. Fiery pop colors betray the artificiality of Soviet decoration. The duality of Soviet life, the metaphorical meaning, the dialectic of contradictions are important keys to understanding Boris Mikhailov’s creativity in all its depth.

Not forgetting the more documentary-inspired, less ironic, but no less critical work he began with the series in the late 1960s Black archive (1969-1978), secret pursuit of scenes of everyday lifeWith the ground (1991), a sepia-toned bird’s-eye view of the homeless that haunts him Case History (1997-1998), unvarnished large-format portraits of those left behind in post-communist society. And especially In the dark (1993), in panoramic format, continues to document the country’s degradation in the post-Soviet collapse.

The nostalgic sepia color has been replaced with cobalt blue. This eerie blue of twilight evokes traumatic memories of his childhood, the color of nights of terror during World War II. In modern times, it is heartbreaking to display all 110 prints of this series at the Commodity Exchange.

From factory to photography

1938: He was born in the family of an engineer in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

1957: Boris Mikhailov studied engineering, then got a job at a factory.

1966: He becomes interested in photography and joins the Kharkov photo club.

1968: After being fired from the factory, he decides to turn photography into his main activity.

1971: Together with seven other photographers, he creates the “Vremya” collective at the origin of the Kharkiv School of Photography (KSOP), a dissident movement committed to the aesthetics and ideology of socialist realism.

1996: He spends a year in Berlin on a scholarship.

2007 and 2017: Represents Ukraine at the Venice Biennale.

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