Boris Mikhailov: Ukrainian Diary

October 10, 2023 > January 28, 2024

Curated by Laurie Hurwitz in collaboration with Boris and Vita Mikhailov
 

Exhibition promoted by Assessorato alla Cultura di Roma Capitale e Azienda Speciale Palaexpo

Produced by Azienda Speciale Palaexpo and organized in collaboration with the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris


Palazzo Esposizioni Rome presents the most important retrospective to date dedicated in Italy to the Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov (Kharkiv, 1938).

The exhibition at Palazzo Esposizioni, the result of a cultural policy that increases international collaborations between institutions, ideally continues that of the Maison Européen de la photographie de Paris curated by Laurie Hurwitz, in collaboration with Boris and Vita Mikhailov, expanding it with a section dedicated to the work done by Mikhailov in Rome.

Today considered one of the most influential contemporary artists from Eastern Europe, Mikhailov has conceived, in more than fifty years, a body of experimental photographic work that explores social and political subjects. Since the 1960s, he has been committed to documenting the tumultuous changes in Ukraine linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disastrous consequences of its dissolution.

Over the years, his pioneering research has included documentary photography, conceptual work, painting and performance. Conceived in close collaboration with the artist, the exhibition brings together more than 800 images from the most important historical series to the most recent work.

Mikhailov has mostly articulated his work in series, which vary enormously in terms of technique, format and approach. The exhibition brings together the images selected from about twenty series made between 1965 and the 2000s.

Mikhailov has challenged every categorisation by unravelling the established visual codes. He has created fruitful connections between photographs and texts, and between different images, often composing them in superimpositions and diptychs on which he has intervened with blurs, cut-outs or hand-colouring that accentuate their ironic, poetic or nostalgic character. He has created these images to the point of theorising the concept of "bad" photography: images deliberately conceived in low contrast, blurry, full of visible flaws, or on poor-quality paper, in order to subvert the glorified imagery of social realism and glossy photography.
 

The series produced while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union aim to question collective memory and reflect the societal contradictions that existed at the time. In Yesterday's Sandwich, made from 1965 onwards, the artist shows a dual reality, ambiguous and poetic, juxtaposing beauty and ugliness. In Red (1968–1975), he underlines the omnipresence of the colour red, evoking the pervasive presence of the communist regime and the way it introduced itself into individual consciousness and collective memory. The series Luriki (1971–1985) and Sots Art (1975–1986) are a cynical reflection on the way propaganda images artificially idealise reality. The underside of the proselytised utopia is also revealed in Salt Lake (1986), images of bathers taken clandestinely on the shore of a lake in southern Ukraine.

Mikhailov also frequently uses humour as a weapon of subversion, a means of resistance to oppression and a potential stimulus to emancipation. This is the case in the series of provocative self-portraits I am not I (1992) and National Hero (1992), in which, more so than a direct criticism of society, he uses self-criticism and irony.

Other series created during and after the collapse of the USSR bear witness to the failure of both communism and capitalism in Ukraine and shed light on the origins of war: from By the ground (1991) and At Dusk (1993) to Case History (1997–1998); while in the emblematic series Case History there is a devastating portrayal of the disenfranchised in Kharkiv, left homeless by the new capitalist society.

Through his uncompromising approach to controversial subjects, Boris Mikhailov demonstrates the subversive power of art. For more than half a century, he has been bearing witness to the grip of the Soviet system on his country, constructing a complex and powerful photographic narrative of Ukraine's contemporary history that, in the light of current events, is all the more poignant and enlightening.
 

The exhibition is accompanied by the book Boris Mikhailov 1965–2022, Mörel / MEP, London-Paris 2023 (English language) and the bilingual publication (Italian and English), Saggi e Note. Essays and Notes, Mörel, London 2023, with texts by the artist and Simon Baker, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, Laurie Hurwitz, Leigh Ledare.