Julia Borissova, Dimitry

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2016 (here). Die cut hardcover with handmade binding, 88 pages, with 39 color reproductions of photographs/collages, protected by a folded craft paper wrapper secured by a small piece of red tape. Includes short texts by Alexander Fokin and the artist. In an edition of 100 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Julia Borissova’s self-published photobook Dimitry captures the subtle rhythms of an ever shifting Russian reality, where the persistent echoes of the past quietly interrupt the everyday lives of the present. Using roughly cut collaged elements on top of her own photographs, she generates a claustrophobic world that alternates between the drabness of the ordinary and the fantastical mystery of an allegorical fable or ghost story.

By contemporary standards, the inspiration for Borissova’s modern investigation of myth came from an unlikely source – the story of the 1591 death of Tsarevich Dimitry, the last (illegitimate) son of Ivan the Terrible. Like so many historical struggles for power, the details of the actual events are murky at best – the official story was that the boy died of a self-inflicted stab wound sustained during an epileptic attack, but alternate histories have Dimitry murdered by assassins hired by Boris Godunov (thereby conveniently removing Dimitry from the contested and messy line of royal descent) or escaping the attempt on his life, only to return (via various imposters) as a kind of cleansing moral savior decades later.

In her short essay, Borissova sees a connection between this kind of opportunistic legend-making and the more recent use of political information (and disinformation) to distort current realities. In both cases, the less we know about the facts and circumstances, the more pliable the story becomes, the very absence of the hero allowing the narrative wander in all kinds of unexpected and unlikely directions. Her photobook takes this idea as a jumping off point, infusing the mysterious essence of Dimitry back into her impressions of the present.

Most of Borissova’s photographs show us the forgettable details of rural small town life – wooden sheds and shacks, misty trees, frozen ponds, and rocky winter farmland, decorated by idling men, roosters, and elderly women trudging through the snow to church. These are images of a largely unchanging Russia, where golden domes peek over rotting fences, laundry hangs from sagging clotheslines, and aging buildings recall more prosperous times.

Borissova magically collapses past and present via her collaged elements, which interrupt the underlying landscapes and city views with layers of additional imagery, most of which have been cut and shaped to blend into the surroundings. The silhouette of Dimitry inhabits many of these familiar places – walking in the snow, sprinting along a lakeside road, crossing the street, and waiting for the bus. His form is never entirely human, but instead filled with fragments of painted imagery, much of it seemingly drawn from painted religious icons and relics (he was canonized in 1606). Indistinct faces surrounded by gold leaf haloes hover within his body, or are launched into the nearby treetops to dangle like watchful overseers. The faceless Dimitry is everywhere and nowhere, above the rooftops and transformed into flowering greenery, the push and pull between painted scenes and photographic reality interwoven into a hybrid world where the distant past tangibly impacts the here and now.

The hand-crafted construction of the photobook more directly alludes to the violent circumstances of Dimitry’s death. The paper wrapper that encloses the book is splattered with red dots, like drops of blood dripping from a wound. That same knife wound is given bold presence on the cover, where a slashing jagged-edged gash cuts into the surface, revealing and under layer of flat red. Red cardboard divides the book into several sections, and a small red silhouette against a otherwise white page gets the story started. And the bloody smear from the cover returns again near the end, in a seeping pooled collage element that covers the concrete platform of a bus stop where Dimitry (in the partial form of a Madonna?) sits.

Other ominous allusions – a huge rock looming above the streets of the town, a faceless form with skeleton hands, a crumpled advertisement of two smiling boys left to rot in the dirt, the windows of a building scratched out – seem to remind us that the long arm of the past is able to reach out and touch us at any point. And Borissova telescopes images of images throughout the book (where a rephotographed collage is later repeated as a framed element hung elsewhere), the iterative hall of mirrors effect bending our perception of reality even further.

While a few standout collaged works have the power to stand on their own, this photobook functions best as an integrated product, where the whole package functions as a single resonant metaphor. Dimitry may have died some 400 years ago, but the idea Borissova sees in his death lives on in the flowering of conspiracy theories, false information, and political machinations that cloud the ability of ordinary Russian citizens to find truth in their contemporary existence. In her art, ancient history is actively re-animating the present, so much so that we can easily get lost in the intertwined influences and connections. Her photobook is darkly Russian magical realism, where ghosts inhabit small towns and Dimitry lives on, haunting the streets with an outstretched arm.

Collector’s POV: Julia Borissova is represented by FotoDepartment Gallery in St. Petersburg (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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