JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Ediciones Anómalas (here), copublished with Comunidad de Madrid. Hardcover with embossed, two sided jacket, 88 pages, with 39 black and white reproductions. Includes a short introductory text by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the early 1830s, Japanese ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai made a now classic series of woodblock print landscapes entitled the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. With the famous mountain depicted in each carefully composed frame, the portfolio is a composite portrait of the mystical national symbol. The project captures Mount Fuji from various vantage points, in differing seasons, and in a range of light and weather conditions, including memorably underneath the frothy edge of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The instantly recognizable snow-capped form of the summit alternately pokes through trees, glows red in the clear sky, nestles under torii gates, is reflected in nearby lakes, bookends city streets, and balances hilly terrain. Each scene is a graceful reminder of its benevolent presence, its natural beauty a fixture in the lives of its many surrounding inhabitants.
That Fyodor Telkov would use Hokusai’s typological masterpiece as a model for his own series of photographs of the towering slag heaps outside the small copper mining town of Degtyarsk tells us something about the artist’s clever sense for dark comedy. Telkov’s project balances right on the edge of pitch perfect satire, inverting the purity of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji and replacing them with inspired local replicas that mimic the motifs of the original compositions, but replace their spiritual grace with looming environmental disaster. Japan’s sacred mountain and the ugly waste heaps at the edges of this Russian town share both a common form and an undeniably massive physical presence, and these similarities allow Telkov to brilliantly appropriate one artistic approach and apply it to a wholly different set of real world circumstances.
Telkov sets the stage for his own set of 36 views with a three image prelude that offers a Soviet propaganda-style perspective on the copper mining operation. A patriotic mural (with muscular and surprisingly clean miners emerging from underground), a public-spirited parade (with girls spinning striped flags in front of thick crowds), and a happy children’s drawing of the mine provide an optimistic backdrop to Telkov’s photographs, the glorious sacrifices made to build the two dreary slag heaps given a heavy nationalistic tilt.
The first several views introduce the dominating presence of the two hills. A rocky upward view, roughly carved by now-dry cascades of water, nearly blots out the sky, which is followed by a reversed look downward at the snowy apartment blocks and electrical towers of the town, the black shadow of the heap encroaching from above like a monster. Subsequent scenes find the heaps lurking at the end of a pair of train tracks, blanketed by snow like the nearby rooftops, and artfully obscured by forests of birch trees.
When Telkov introduces grimmer details into his compositions, the balance between beauty and ugliness becomes more anxious. In some works, a burnt out car decorates the base of one rocky expanse, and a stagnant water reflection of one of the heaps (with doubled sticks reminiscent of Minor White) is interrupted by a jumble of discarded plastic bottles and trash. In others, a nearby waterway is choked with piles of logs and old tires, and smokestacks belch plumes of white smoke into the grey winter sky. In each scene, the ever present heaps, and their ominous message to the future, anchor the action.
Part of the vitality found in Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji comes in the tiny human vignettes that play out in and around the central mountain landscapes. In Telkov’s world, these take the form of goats and ducks cavorting in a makeshift pen, an old woman with a cane trudging through the snow, two men sharing a bicycle, young military cadets marching, and mine workers reflected in plate glass windows. Tiny Breughel-like kids pull sleds and inner tubes through the snow and play soccer on scrubby fields, seemingly entirely unaware of the hulking forms nearby.
And at his most artful, Telkov takes some bolder compositional risks. He places one heap inside the rusted out diamond of a road sign, and captures bursts of fireworks atop a nearby hill. He glances upward at a heap through scratched glass, and sees another (or the same) heap in the distance, underneath a treehouse. He looks through a dark circular tunnel (perhaps a culvert or pipe) at a heap, and finds a heap in a hand mirror, flanked by the watchful face of Lenin. In every case, he’s taken his initial inspiration from Hokusai, but then gone further, taking the original ideas in new directions.
Construction-wise, 36 Views is appropriately tall and hefty, its size allowing the images to become enveloping. The mostly landscape-oriented pictures spread across the gutter, but the book lies flat enough to largely avoid distraction. The tactile matte-surface paper and smell of ink add to the pleasures of engaging with the photographs. And for those that look closely, small embossed dots on the cover turn out to be spots on a map of the city (presumably where each image was taken) printed inside the jacket. All of these design decisions add up to a photobook experience that is well matched to the content.
There is a sophisticated elegance of execution here that moves Telkov’s project away from something that could have been gimmicky. The conceptual twist of daring to replace Mount Fuji with the dreariness of these hills makes the outcome seem wholly unexpected, and yet when we see the results, they are undeniably smartly conceived. Telkov has replaced sublime landscape beauty with environmental degradation, and he has done so in way that highlights both his own artistic voice and the overlooked peril of those toiling in its midst.
Collector’s POV: Fyodor Telkov does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).