FotoFest Brings Russia's Photographic History to Houston, From Its Socialist Past to Its Vulgar Present

Anastasia Tailakova's "Untitled 9," 2009, from the series In Vain
(Courtesy of FotoFest 2012)

HOUSTON — If you're at all interested in Russian photography (which hasn't exactly caught on with Muscovite audiences quite yet), then the best place to be is half a world away in Houston, Texas. The city's FotoFest, a photography-only biennial that has also developed a series of international projects over its three decades of history, has devoted its 2012 outing to an extensive — and impressive — survey of the subject, assembling a series of exhibitions sprinkled around the city’s studio warehouses and corporate towers that together give viewers a sense of the medium's arc in Russia from the 1940s to the present. The ongoing story of modern Russia is a dramatic one, and it has left in its wake plenty of dramatic images. 

The show's historical depth couldn't have come together without the help of contemporary Russia's assertive new arts institutions, including Dasha Zhukova’s Moscow-based Garage Contemporary Arts Center and its funding wing, the Iris Foundation, as well as the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography, an organization founded in 2010 with the goal of expanding awareness of and scholarship on Russian photography. The biennial was curated by three Iris-associated Russian curators and editors: Evgeny Berezner, cutting the classic image of a Russian intellectual with a halo of frizzed hair, wide eyes, and tweed jackets; Irina Chmyreva, a warm woman who expressed a love for Texan barbecue; and Natalia Tarasova, a writer and consultant who translated for the group. 

“After Stalin and The Thaw,” shown in the Brutalist lobby of Houston’s Philip Johnson-designed Williams Tower, forms the first part of the exhibition, though certainly not the best, and definitely the ugliest. Prints from the late 1940s through the ‘70s (the majority drawn from the Lumiere Brothers Center’s collection) are shown on corporate gray exhibition stands, dwarfed by the enormous space. In the earlier decades of the history charted here, photography was limited to officially sanctioned photojournalism in the service of ideology. Thus, the wide-eyed optimism and graphical clarity of Soviet Realism dominates. Work like Alexander Ustinov’s 1960 “Electronics,” depicting a factory full of reflective electronics equipment that brings to mind Jetsons-style antennae, is striking but tinged with irony: History shows how that Utopian dream fizzled.

As Khrushchev relaxed limits on artistic expression in the 1960s, photography became a popular hobby for workers, and many urban factories hosted small gallery spaces that showed the work of amateur photography clubs like Moscow’s Novator (which is still active today). At that time, “independent photography was born,” explained Lumiere Brothers Center co-founder Natalia Grigorieva, and a newfound freedom shows through in the images. The tone of the later part of “The Thaw” becomes markedly more humanist in its depiction of daily life at ground level, even verging on cynicism. In “The Year 1980” by German Vorotnikov, a member of Novator, two busts of Stalin are shown slumping in the bed of a truck, blanketed by a tarp.

FotoFest’s heart, however, lays in its central exhibition “Perestroika: Liberalization and Experimentation Mid 1980s-2010,” a mammoth show spread throughout two Houston studio buildings. Particularly in “Perestroika,” one of the biennial’s principal joys is the potential for discovery it holds for non-Russian audiences. Work like Andrey Chezhin’s “Drawing Pin and Modernism” series, in which he used photo-collage techniques to turn shots of everyday thumbtacks into replicas of pieces by artists like Kazimir Malevich and Duchamp, is famed within Russia but little known in the United States. (The thumbtack is such a signature for the artist that Chezhin, who was in attendance in Houston, carried around a wooden toy dog plastered with the pins.)  

As this section of the exhibition progresses to the collapse of the USSR and the fall of Communism in 1991, social (as opposed to Socialist) realism becomes the order of the day with gritty work that pulls no punches in documenting the depths of Russian society. Alik Yakubovich’s “Patsany (Guys)” series (2002-09) is a portrait of masculinity that runs to the hard-boiled, with scarred toughs sucking down cigarettes. Photographers began to work in color, and then in multimedia, on a large scale. Alexey Kuzmichev’s heavily saturated portraits of Russian cultural figures provide a look at the national creative class. Olga Tobreluts’s mammoth digitally composed prints show both political acumen and formal experimentation. Her “Modernization” (2002), a mural of muscular men wrestling virtual monsters, is particularly astute in its sarcasm — the title term has become a euphemistic buzzword of Putin’s.

If the artists in “Perestroika” wrung hard-won inspiration from the changing politics and social structures of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the photographers of “The Young Generation,” part three of the biennial exhibition laid out in the pleasant interior galleries of FotoFest’s open-air office building, have a tendency to come off as less relevant in comparison. The work sacrifices visceral awareness for interior contemplation, and often puts one in mind of the twee escapist fantasies of Ryan McGinley. An image like Margo Ovcharenko’s odalisque “Rita with a Cigarette” is stunning, but has more style than content. The best among the group is Ivan Mikhailov’s gently mocking, bemused “Playground” series (2009-10), which pictures climbing towers and monkey bars designed in the shape of spaceships, showing how the old threat of intergalactic Soviet supremacy has eroded into subconscious dreams.

That the “Young Generation” actually represents the highlights of Russia’s new crop of emerging artists is debatable. In a confusing curatorial decision, a number of young photographers have been placed in “Perestroika” instead, and benefit from the more serious context. Photographer Alexey Kuzmichev wondered aloud why he had been slotted for the chronologically earlier show when his age might have put him in "Young Generation." He didn't feel left out, though. The work in “Young Generation” was “generic,” he said, reflecting not the lights of emerging Russian photography but the fads of the global contemporary art world.

FotoFest 2012 succeeds in telling the story of the transformation of Russian photography from a tightly restricted ideological tool to a weapon of social documentary and satire, and finally into a wide-open medium, free for artistic exploration both successful and not. The trajectory is never overly didactic, and rarely boring, even when the selection falters in coming to terms with the present. In the age of art exhibitions as transient attempts to illustrate the fleeting qualities of the present moment, it’s refreshing to see a biennial so oriented toward plumbing an artistic lineage with deep, rarely explored roots.

To see photos from Houston's FotoFest 2012, click on the slide show