When I think of Boris Mikhailov’s photography, I think of large prints, perfectly composed, people of the street who have been violated and abused usually by the State. The slick gelatin-silver prints make the naked bodies more vulnerable and more confronting, creating an uncomfortable viewing experience.
The current exhibition of photographs at Suzanne Tarasieve’s Marais gallery could not be further from the familiar Mikhailov prints, and the viewer’s experience could not be more different. The series of 67 photographs in Arles, Paris … and are small, ephemeral, even whimsical. They are light, joyful and celebratory. Mikhailov travelled to Paris in 1989, the year the Soviet Bloc collapsed and took these photographs apparently, to capture the joy and freedom of the West. For this current exhibition, Mikhailov re-presents the images, and as if to give a contemporary commentary, he overpaints them in bright colours. These images are anything but the tragedy of his native Ukraine.
This context, the re-articulation of Paris 26 years after the fall of communism, is essential to understanding the power and influence of Mikhailov’s photographs. Without it, the rationale behind the overpainting is not always clear. Knowledge of the context, and in particular, the date of 1989, however, underlines the celebration that is indeed taking place in the photographs. Hand in hand with seeing the joy and freedom that Mikhailov experiences on this, his first visit to the West, we cannot ignore the grey austere world that he has left behind. Thus, the small, hand painted photographs make a powerful political statement on behalf of their artist.
Without the story behind them, the vision of Paris in the photographs is enchanting. Every traveller to Paris thinks that her photographs are special and different. Really, they are the same as those of every other tourist. Mikhailov’s are however, unique. Not only is each photograph individualized through the addition of gold, silver, green and yellow paint, but each has an unexplored vision of Paris. Even the familiar icons and landmarks become curiosities in Mikhailov’s images. Together with the overpainting, the landscape frame stretches the image, making Paris strange, offering a perspective to which other tourists are blind.
Images courtesy Suzanne Tarasieve/the Artist