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Boris Mikhailov’s Staged Realism
Audrey Flack: Breaking the Rules
Really Nice Guys: Louis K. Meisel on Photorealism’s Beginnings
Dual View: Zoe Leonard
Subtle Irritations: Benjamin Yavuzsoy’s video performances
Postcards from Indonesia: New Acquisitions to the Deutsche Bank Collection
A Journey Back to the Heyday of Photorealism


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The Naked Truth:

Boris Mikhailov's Staged Realism

The age of exaggeration, embellishment, and illusory promise is over. What is growing in response to the global economic crisis is a need for truth, for showing the world as it really is, unadorned. This is what the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov has been doing since the sixties. His photographs of the disintegrating Soviet empire, portraits of the upheaval's losers, have brought him international renown. Many of Mikhailov's works have become a part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Brigitte Werneburg met with Mikhailov in Berlin for a talk and discovered that even the mise-en-scène can bring us very close to reality.

Boris Mikhailov portrays people in their nakedness—even when he is merely focusing on the ever-naked face, as he does with the approximately 500 amateur actors from Braunschweig who performed as a speaking chorus in Claudia Bosse's theater production The Persians. Together with the photographer Sascha Weidner, Boris Mikhailov accompanied the project last summer. "At the moment," says Mikhailov, "I’m preparing the series for a book publication with the Steidl Verlag."

Boris Mikhailov shows people naked, yet he does not expose them—even if there's a fine line between the two, as can be seen in the photographs of the Braunschweig chorus members, whom Mikhailov portrayed in profile. Sometimes a chin is too short, or too long, but certainly as unevenly proportioned as the noses are, some of which are crooked, and some of which are too flat or too big.

Boris Mikhailov plays with the concept of the bank shot; in contrast with the visual portrayal of people in the mass media, in which the profile plays a marginal role at best, a person's "profile" actually plays a key role in social communication. It's no accident that we speak of a "profile" when we apply for something, when we represent ourselves in the Internet, or when we’re referring to a company's activities. Mikhailov knows this. And he also knows that his work is unsettling on two levels—visually and politically. In his series, he shows the basic stuff from which profiles of character and bodily attributes are constructed in today's thoroughly economized world. And this basic stuff makes for an entirely different image than the idealized and embellished forms being sold to us in the truest sense of the word.

Boris Mikhailov lets the emperor stand there, naked in his new clothes. He uses his concept to hold a mirror up to a competitive world and to expose its profile as a mere marketing product, as an image forged according to economic strictures and then improved upon and standardized—as the profile most lacking in profile, as it were.

It comes as no surprise that one current imperative for communication is to "get real!" Indeed, we can no longer escape from a world that we've infused with a business sense that we today know was destined to ruin our endeavors in spite of how fantastic, fabulous, and deceptive its arguments were. And now that we can no longer rid ourselves of this commercial aspect, we yearn for things to be more solid and plausible—and more real, more relevant. But how should a society whose growth potential can only be detected in the competition for immaterial resources—in which it's all about hegemonies of interpretation and the coding of systems of symbols—not lose contact with reality? Hello! Get real!

Which is precisely what Boris Mikhailov's citizens of Braunschweig did, even though their portraits arose in a theatrical and thoroughly staged reality. What makes the impersonal, stereotypical, yet entirely individual image Mikhailov took of each lay actor seem so real? Why do we discover true personalities in the images instead of mere extras in a conceptual work of art?

One would like to say that what's real is the way in which Boris Mikhailov took on the task of approaching this large group of very different people in an artistic, socio-political, and highly personal way. What's real is the way he took on the artistic challenge of creating a portrait of a multifarious unity of group in which the individual is not an extra, but a protagonist. Not in the sense of solitariness, but solidarity, as a cooperative member of the ensemble and the entire theater and art project. What's real is that Boris Mikhailov knew what an imposition the photo shooting was; this is why he also shot another series in which he pokes fun at himself and the artificial situation he created. Here, we see how Sascha Weidner, taking photographs as his alter ego, is every bit as uncomfortable as the chorus members being photographed. What’s real is the utilitarian, objective attitude behind all of Mikhailov's stagings, dark little games, and fantastic, deceptive montages.

In no way is Mikhailov a realist or a documentarist like the Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt, for instance, who claims that he subordinates the motifs he photographs. Because it's only when things represent themselves that one can see their true meaning and purpose. For Boris Mikhailov, "the meaning and purpose of things can only be recognized when it's clear that their image is an aesthetic and media construct." Whether he is addressing the reality of his native Ukrainian city of Charkov with its many homeless people following the demise of the Soviet Union, or the comrades of Soviet times who gathered together in public places for a merry dance: Boris Mikhailov is interested in the world and its inhabitants in terms of the way they stylize themselves. The people he photographs, he says, "are aware of this fact; they are posing for me." And when they're not posing, then at least they are doing it for someone else. In fact, it's almost always actors he depicts, more precisely lay actors, such as the citizens of Braunschweig.

Consider, for instance, the images of the series Case History from ten years ago, which depicts what's left of revolutionary socialism's "New Human of the New Society"—but do not be misled by the documentary character of Boris Mikhailov's color photographs. This document is born out of the concept that the snapshot owes its existence to the pose; the people photographed display their miserable existence in exchange for the money the photographer offers them. And in return, Homo sovieticus of the post-communist era, the homeless drunkard weakened by the great experiment, bares himself in public. The profile of Mikhailov's people is by no means an original or unadulterated one; yet despite this, no one would dream of telling them to "get real."

Despite or perhaps even due to their posing and self-stylization, these people acquire a precarious dignity; they are, after all, made of flesh and blood. While elsewhere everything that is undesirable becomes deleted or retouched, in Mikhailov's work it's purposely staged. Think of the hideous wound on the arm of a Ukrainian woman that stands out brilliantly against the well-lit background and arrangement of flowers; her boyfriend attacked her with a knife, as an accompanying note states, because "when he beats her, he loves her."

But this doesn't mean that only the things that stray from the norm, that shock and unsettle, that are ugly and out of place are realistic or real. Rather, it means that anything that's always pleasant and agrees with the norm while displaying some certain attractive feature immediately comes across as implausible and unrealistic. Boris Mikhailov plays bank shots.

His artistic socialization, which took place during the era of real existing socialism, largely predetermined this. Who could have known better than the artists of his generation about the phenomenon of life's inescapably real unreality? Any clearly expressed scenario automatically entered into opposition with the overall picture of social reality. And so it comes as no surprise that the 1938-born artist has made precisely this specific scenario the conceptual core of his photographic work.

This also applies to the Red Series made between 1968 and 1975, with its images of a world dominated by flags, organized political demonstrations, Lenin portraits, and military decorations in which the private red of a dress or a tabletop can seem ironic—as though it were a sidelong sneer at the officious red. This is even more apparent in the Private Series, taken around the same time. Its pictures of intimacy, nakedness, and the inadequacy of the private body in the face of the official heroic norm suggest a very personal, equally proscribed satisfaction. When both come together out in the open, albeit surreptitiously as with the series of bathers in Am Salzsee (1986) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, no real nudity is needed. The collective summer pleasure suffices for the appropriately inappropriate images. It's a situation that is so clearly captured that the inescapably real unreality of real existing socialism automatically becomes boycotted.

In other works, however, Mikhailov implements techniques of altering the image. In his series Superimpositions from the '60s/70s (2005/06) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, prototypical images of Soviet culture are superimposed with personal snapshots. Elsewhere, he colors and applies found objects with typed or cut-out texts written in a cheery tone that somehow doesn't quite cheer us at all. And he stages things. This is something he learned early on: that reality is a politically coded media construct with a prefabricated aesthetic and symbolism. In opposition to an orchestration of life from above that shows no mercy for the individual, Boris Mikhailov stages an everyday life from below with respect for the individual, especially where it is most difficult to locate.

Boris Mikhailov shows people in their nakedness. His photographs speak of the materiality of the social: schnapps, skin, old age, debt. "They don’t merely depict a superficial image," he emphasized in conversation; instead, as Mikhailov is happily able to show us in his photographs, they are about people who are present lock, stock, and barrel when they are playing in the theater.

Western capitalist society, however, no longer remembers this materiality of the social. It has long since lost touch; it prides itself in its flexibility. This was Mikhailov's biggest surprise when he resettled in the West: the fact that people here also believe that the demands of everyday reality can be indefinitely postponed. But society is more than a mere game of expectations and expectations of expectations. Which is why one should take a closer look around, says Mikhailov. "This was the greatest lesson I impressed upon my students at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig.

The fact that Boris Mikhailov not only shows the world in its nakedness, but now and again actually exposes it, leads us to realize how ridiculous we're being when we claim that the really important things in life no longer count.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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