Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 large scale photographs, either framed in black and unmatted or affixed directly to the wall, displayed against white walls in the large single room gallery space. 9 of the works (8 single images and 1 diptych) are pigment prints, sized either 36×43 or 40×47 (or reverse). The other works are printed on newsprint, either 34×23 for the single images or 34×45 for the double images; there are 33 single images and 12 double images on display. The show also includes 4 videos, 1 large map, and a three walled interior space filled with numerous smaller photos (sized between 5×6 and 16×20), books, souvenirs, and other ephemera. All of the works were made between 2009 and 2014. A massive monograph of this body of work was published in 2013 by Aperture (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s ambitious Sochi Project sits at the murky junction of fine art, documentary photography, regional history, investigative journalism, and freestyle sociology, combining pieces of each into a sprawling, multi-dimensional portrait of the city of Sochi, Russia, and the surrounding area of the North Caucasus in the five year run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. As its subtitle implies, it chronicles the uneasy balance between war and tourism, where long running feuds and separatist rebellions have mixed with large scale investment and economic redevelopment, all amid the geographical contrasts of the rugged mountains and the balmy seashores.

This exhibit (and the wrist breaking tome that accompanies/supports it) follows Hornstra and van Bruggen as they travel through the region, and captures their findings in a unique combination of photography and text. Both the exhibit and book are densely packed with information, with countless stories, vignettes, and small background details at the ready for those who want to dig in with both hands. Every face, every landscape, every rotting building has a nuanced backstory with layers and perspectives to unravel; it’s the kind of project to get lost in, and the kind that you might ingest carefully and meticulously with the best of intentions and still not entirely understand.

Hornstra’s photographs are crisply straightforward, often delivered with just a fleeting hint of deadpan irony. Portraits make up the majority of the images, from up close faces to in situ full body poses that provide a sense of cultural context, all drawn from a wide cross section of local society: villagers, policemen, families, elders, politicians, club dancers, and countless others. These pictures are then surrounded by vistas of the mountains, images of hotels and ongoing construction, and still life details found along the way.

The best of Hornstra’s photographs reveal subtle contradictions that would be overlooked by a casual visitor, ones that suddenly present themselves as emblematic of the whole complex Sochi situation when framed with such perceptive attention. Interloping beachgoers revel in the water by the railway tracks, opting for a cheaper vacation than those provided by the expensive hotels and sanatoria. A diptych of a mossy decaying hotel ballroom appear to be two halves of the same image; the twist comes when it becomes clear that the pictures were taken four years apart, and the planned redevelopment never actually happened. And a somber portrait of an amputee police officer with his young daughter gives the ongoing clashes between government and rebels a tangible personal reality.

What is fascinating about this show is that it signals a shift in the traditional balance of the roles of photobooks and exhibitions in communicating a body of work to an audience. The exhaustive archive of The Sochi Project is the starting point here, with the book the comprehensive document of the entire circuitous journey. The intermediate steps along the way (posters, installments, kickstarter giveaways, newsprint books, and other ephemera) all roll up into the final book, as do all of the tiny details and anecdotes captured in their travel journals. What’s on view at Aperture is a subset of this immersive experience, just as open ended and non-linear as the larger project itself, but pared down into a form that can be digested in a short span of time. Instead of a greatest hits end point, the exhibition is an appetizer (inherently temporary in nature), an enticing selection of material that mimics the look and feel of the book and draws the viewer into a deeper discussion that leads back to the photobook (inherently permanent). There are of course some traditional framed photographs on view, but most of the works are shown as newsprint spreads (just like the book) stuck directly to the gallery walls. The exhibit feels like reading the book.

It’s clear that we’ve entered a time period when contemporary photographers have embraced the photobook with newfound fervor, creativity, and seriousness, and this innovative show raises some questions about how exhibits are going to be conceived and presented going forward. This approach doesn’t prejudice us to think the exhibit is somehow more important than the book, or that the book is some kind of throwaway afterthought to be tucked in your briefcase and shelved as reference. It argues that a thoughtful combination of exhibit and book can be the best way to get involved with a complex story like the one Hornstra and van Bruggen are telling. What they’ve done is taken the photo essay form developed in the picture magazines half a century ago and expanded it exponentially, to the point that the results look more like an interlocked matrix of ideas and images rather than a discrete one way thought; the contents can be sliced and diced from multiple angles to get at subtle insights about the region. The white cube gallery form needs to embrace this increased complexity and adapt to tell this new kind of storytelling (or it will be replaced by more effective digital means), and this show is a terrific example of how that synthesis can happen effectively.

In the end, the formal and organizational innovations in The Sochi Project may be more durable than its particular content and imagery. They signal a kind of pivot point, where expertly designed books take center stage and become the central vehicle for complicated, deep content storytelling. They also provide a natural bridge to the power of digital frameworks that we have begun to better understand and exploit. Yes, The Sochi Project is “slow journalism” (as it has been called), but its underlying structural features have equally broad implications for the trajectory of projects in the world of fine art.

Collector’s POV: As is often the case in this gallery space, it isn’t altogether clear what is, or might be, for sale; there were no prices on the checklist. Rob Hornstra is represented by Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam (here), and has little track record in the secondary markets for photography, so gallery retail is the likely best bet for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Arnold van Bruggen, Rob Hornstra, Aperture Gallery, Aperture

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