Boris Mikhailov, Diary

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Walther König (here). Hardcover, 430 pages, with 900 color and black and white illustrations. Includes an essay booklet with a text by Francesco Zanot and a short text by the artist. The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition Boris Mikhailov: Ukraine organized by Camera-Centro Italiano per la Fotografia, Turin (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Paging through Boris Mikhailov’s Diary is a deeply harrowing journey, and its brash dispiriting ugliness will likely make even the most hardened viewers a bit uncomfortable. But once your senses become accustomed to Mikhalov’s brand of crude artistic experimentation, his scattered shards of imagery, seemingly just unearthed from an old shoebox somewhere and haphazardly taped into place, start to coalesce into something powerfully potent – a highly personal response to the constraints of the Soviet world and a scathing indictment of life under a repressive regime. And perhaps the most shockingly unexpected thing is that at the end of this parade of playful human grotesqueries, there is a feeling of subtle uplift, like Mikhailov has scored a small but meaningful victory over the forces that have tried so hard to push him down.

The thumbnail version of Mikhailov’s history begins with getting fired from his job as an engineer in a Ukrainian weapons factory, purportedly for using the company darkroom to print nude images of his wife. Labeled a pornographer (a common charge against many who were seen to be contrary to the government), Mikhailov was pushed away from mainstream Soviet life, and ultimately found his way into the arts underground. Marginalized by the system, it was here that he began to make private artworks that made of a mockery of the ridiculousness and oppression he saw all around him. The threat of exposure and severe punishment were all too real, so Mikhailov’s images were made inside a tight circle of trust, with friends and family members his willing participants.

This photobook gathers together works that weren’t part of Mikhailov’s larger projects, so there is a sense that these pictures are alternates, outtakes, experiments, and even cast offs and mistakes, where artistic ideas were being tried out but had not yet been entirely perfected. It is a personal archive, but one that has been remixed to eliminate any sense of chronology, order, or progression – divided into loose sections, it operates more like a continuous flow, where common themes ebb and flow, being considered, reworked, discarded, and then taken up again in new ways.

In building up an incisive critical response to the Soviet system, Mikhailov starts with street life, repeatedly making pictures of the pervasive drab greyness. Dirty snow, grimy rain, hulking apartment blocks, trash strewn vacant lots, ancient trolley cars, muddy pathways – he captures everyday citizens in fur hats and overcoats trudging through the interminable grimness, flanked by feral dogs and belching smokestacks. On top of his imagery, he added dark tints and uneven splotches, creating even darker shadows and sickly discolorations. And when he adds a slash or two of overpainted color to these scenes, it comes with a feeling of mockery, as if the obvious bleakness couldn’t possibly be hidden by some happy color – in fact, it makes the scenes that much more miserable.

When Mikhailov moves inside, his private pictures probe the psychological trauma that the system imposed. Against the backdrop of deadening boredom and widespread poverty, theatrical play becomes the primary form of group entertainment, the last place where lively spirits can be freed from oppression and allowed to express themselves. Leapfrogging, wigs, and goofball skits soon turn much darker, and nudity seems to become the last bastion for thumbing one’s nose at the controls of the state.

Mikhailov’s nudes run the gamut from the quietly lyrical to the blatantly bawdy, finding honest beauty amid the squalor, and then actively destroying that very same beauty, laughing at its cheap tawdriness, or insolently reveling in its sexy orgiastic hedonism. Bodies (male and female like) are seen with leering spread legs, bent over lechery and irreverent disrespect, where piss and shit are celebrated with laughing whoops and fleshy imperfect bodies wallow in close up degradations. But within this stew of overt deviance and deliberate rebellion also lie play, and love, and tenderness, and not-so-hidden desperation, a heady end-of-the-world mix of genuine emotions that makes it hard to look away, however much Mikhailov has exaggerated the human ugliness of his escapades.

Scratches, tears, blotches, and gestural painting add to the surreal aura of many of the compositions, heightening their sense of being strangely trapped – the whole Soviet existence takes on a sense of eerie unreality. As a whole, these scraps show Mikhailov to be remarkably inventive, trying out different combinations and modifications to generate the right visceral response. And as the pictures pile up, the limits keep getting broken, each new image diving farther into wretchedness, testing the place where we will say we have seen too much, only to pull us back from that brink with a flash of happiness or dimly muted hope.

Mikhilov’s refusal to conform is gloriously wicked, to the point of feeling almost heroic. The blatant toxicity of his Diary is evidence of a stubborn unwillingness to give in, and a need to find a way to see truth and stay human inside a system that stripped such things away with ruthless efficiency. Every picture is this wrist-breaking volume is a private rebellion, and that persistence is contagious, especially when he makes us shake our heads in uncomfortable dismay. This is a photobook full of dangerously exhilarating risks, and seen in support of his larger career, it is a vitally emblematic manifestation of Mikhailov’s uniquely daring perspective.

Collector’s POV: Boris Mikhailov is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here), Suzanne Tarasieve in Paris (here), Barbara Gross Galerie in Munich (here) and Guido Costa Projects in Turin (here). His most recent show in New York was with Dominique Lévy Gallery in 2013 (reviewed here). Mikhailov’s work has only been sporadically available at auction in recent years; prices have ranged between roughly $3000 and $30000. But given that the secondary markets haven’t included a representative sample of his work, gallery retail is likely still the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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