Monday, February 24, 2014

Pastoral, Alexander Gronsky & Genesis, Sebastiao Salgadoà la Polka Galerie , Paris 3ème

Sebastiao Salgado, Churchgate Station, Mumbai, 1995
On entering the Polka Galerie I thought I must have missed the Salgado exhibition as the space was filled with the Russian Alexander Gronsky’s photographs. But this tiny storefront gallery in the heart of the Marais opens out onto a courtyard which hides a whole world of workshops, ateliers, as well as another exhibition space in the back. A walk over cobblestones led me to the atelier and Salgado’s wonderful images.

Alexander Gronsky, Novye Mytishchi I, 2010
The pairing of these two photographers is interesting, even if it is not intended to inspire comparisons. Gronsky’s works are sparse, capturing the stasis and infinite nothingness of Soviet Russia that has never quite left the face of a country supposed to be revelling in its post-perestroika promises. Expanses of white snowy landscapes, isolated industrial estates, undeveloped land surrounding banks of apartment blocks, the same building over and over again, are the horizon line in Gronsky’s photographs. With these worlds as their backdrops Muscovites are shown to spend their leisure time in the images of Pastoral. Gronsky’s images reminded me of Mitch Epstein’s Americans who relax in the most deadly of environments, oblivious to the terror that surrounds them. Gronsky’s are like the Communist version of Epstein’s critique of industrial and post-industrial America. But as the title suggests, Gronsky’s photographs are not critical, they do not show situations that are urgent. Indeed, there is a timelessness and a bucolic ease to Gronsky’s scenes that make for an “everything is okay” vision. Thus, at the same time, they reminded me of the realist images of the post-1980s German photographers such as Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth. They capture the same objective emptiness that marks the contemporary world.
Alexander Gronsky, Strogino I, 2009
However, Gronsky’s photographs don’t have the edge that makes Epstein’s, Gursky’s or Struth’s photographs fascinating. While they do venture into the weird and wonderful world of Russia, itself an abstraction and aberration, they do not have the aesthetic tension that would make them compelling. There is a sense in which the environment overwhelms the figures, comfortably framed by classical representations in which the horizon has simply become concrete. Ultimately, I didn’t find much of anything to keep me wondering, keep me looking again at these worlds. They were well composed, but not compelling.

Sebastiao Salgado, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991
In stark contrast, Salgado’s photographs are so intense and so complicated that there is not a moment to breath and not even a trace of emptiness. Even when in Gronsky’s photographs there are groups of people engaging in activities that might create noise, they are silent. Salgados images, however, are noisy, cacophonous and filled with an intense sensuality. The train station in Mumbai is heaving – there is not a slither of space between one person and the next. We feel the heat of the burning oil wells in Greater Burhan Oil Field, KuwaitI, 1991. And we feel the discomfort of the dirt that covers the humans as they fight the man made nightmare. Unlike suburban Moscow the far off worlds that Salgado photographs are fiery, alive, not cold and isolated. One could argue that they also depict alienation in urban spaces, it’s just of a different kind.

Sebastiao Salgado, Serra Pelada, State of Para, Brazil, 1986

Salgado’s photographs exhibited at Polka depict nightmares that we know from futuristic films, such as Elysium, 2013. In a photograph such as  Serra Peladail State of Para Brazil, 1986, there’s no difference between the Hollywood fantasy and the reality of a world in which people are human slaves suffering the dystopia of a capitalism gone awry. Salgado depicts other worlds that we have never been to, or if we have, we are still surprised that this world exists because we don’t know it in this way. He shows an “otherness” that is often created in the techniques of his photography.  Works of wonder, whether it’s animals, an elephant running through a forest or the human subjection necessary to the apocalyptic Brazil, we are watching wonder take place. It is just that it is a wonder drenched with sadness and anger because it’s not just poverty at stake, it’s the exploitation to the point of devastation, manufactured by us, in the West.

All images copyright Polka Galerie

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