Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Magnum Print Room)


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Russia. Moscow. (2008)

The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, India. Rajasthan. Jaisalmer. (1995)


In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Japan. Tokyo. Hotel restaurant. (1996)


Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Ukraine. Clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the Ukrainian capital, on Maidan Square and across the city of Kiev. (2014)

Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.


Exhibitions as Arguments: Thinking through Contemporary Curation


It was a pleasure to welcome back David Elliott, an esteemed writer, curator, and alumni of The Courtauld, as the Research Forum Visiting Curator. A specialist in Soviet and Russian avant-garde art and modern and contemporary Asian Art, David Elliott has held numerous distinguished appointments throughout his career, most recently serving as the Artistic Director of the 4th Moscow International Bienniale of Young Artists, the Chairman of Triangle Arts Network/Gasworks in London, the Chairman of MOMENTUM in Berlin, and as a Visiting Professor of Curatorship at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. In his lecture, ‘Exhibitions as Arguments: Frameworks for Thinking through Contemporary Art’,  Elliott expounded on the nature of his curatorial practice throughout four exhibitions between 1998 and the present. Citing Hans Hess’s Pictures as Arguments as an integral framework throughout his ventures of curatorial envisioning, David Elliott suggested that exhibitions themselves subsume a rhetorical function as arguments. Elliott maintained that the notion of the artist as a consciousness-raiser and the multiplying discourses of contemporaneity serve to co-articulate the necessity of reexamining aesthetic standards in contemporary art, which exhibitions visualize in their staging of arguments.

In Exhibitions as Arguments, Elliott led the audience along for an international journey throughout his curatorial projects in Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, and Kiev, demonstrating the propositional potential of contemporary exhibitions. Without explicitly positing a singular set of values for aesthetic-ethical curatorship, Elliott’s in-depth descriptions of the curatorial ideas and processes behind his four exhibitions made manifest many fundamental tenets of his aesthetic arguments. I found his reflections on his role as the Artistic Director of the 17th Bienniale of Sydney (2008-2010) to be the most compelling example of curating an exhibition to materialize an argument of contemporary aesthetics. The bienniale, which spanned across seven venues throughout Sydney, thematized the indigenous and colonial histories of Australia to ‘take the present very seriously,’ as David Elliott maintained. Drawing inspiration from the maxim ‘all art is folk art,’ the bienniale’s geographically diverse program included works of contemporary art alongside artworks of folk origin. The seven exhibitions questioned both this long-standing division between ‘contemporary’ and ‘folk,’ as well their moments of exchange, such as in colonialism and artistic primitivism. Alongside striking works of ‘indigenous’ art from Australia and an impressive international repertoire of works by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rodney Graham, Louise Bourgeois, Steve McQueen, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Isaac Julien, Elliott chose to exhibit Jeremy Bentham’s Design for a Panopticon Prison, 1791. Elliott’s explicit reference to Bentham (and Foucault by extension) thus poignantly calls into question both the colonial and penal histories of Australia, as well as the dynamics of power that foreground the production and hegemonic discursivity of art and its history. By critically elucidating these relations of control, Elliott’s exhibit poetically challenged unconscious and conscious points of difference and otherness in contemporary art, arguing for an opening of aesthetics beyond hierarchies of media and master narratives of Eurocentric geopolitics.

Throughout Elliot’s presentation and our virtual visit to his recent international projects, the notion of the exhibition as a form of argumentation became recapitulated as a legion of exciting discursive and aesthetic possibility. Thematizing the exhibition’s function as a mode of transmission between artistic production and broader reception, David Elliot’s presentation conveyed the necessity of examining both the specific and the global in contemporary curation. By formulating exhibitions to function as aesthetic, sociopolitical, and cultural arguments, David Elliott advocated that critical curation draws upon the rich plurality of art and history to reify the potential of confronting and problematizing hegemonic, teleological narratives of value and culture.

Exhibit ‘A.’ Russian Art: Collections, Exhibitions and Archives, 21-22 March 20


Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Organised by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) in collaboration with the Moscow Lomonosov State University, the two-day conference Exhibit ‘A’. Russian Art: Collection, Exhibitions and Archives was remarkable for its inclusiveness. Papers ranged in scope from the very first collections of icons in the sixteenth century to contemporary exhibitions like Lissitzky-Kabakov: Utopia and Reality, on view at Kunsthaus Gratz until mid-May.  Such historical variety was matched by geographical comprehensiveness, as papers focused on art collections from the Central Asian Republics and the ‘Soviet East,’ as well as on artistic centres such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Among the speakers were academics, curators and art collectors, each contributing a different professional viewpoint.

Reflecting this inclusiveness, the conference was organised around themes rather than historical periods. Thus, the first session opened with Dr. Engelina S. Smirnova’s paper on the sixteenth-century displacement of sacred icons from regional centres to Moscow, and finished with Dr. Valery S. Turchin’s analysis of avant-garde artists’ fascination with folk prints, or lubki. Given in Russian, this paper was accompanied by a very clear English translation and by fascinating images, including a photograph of Kandinsky’s Munich apartment with framed lubki on the walls. All the papers in the first session questioned patrons’ motivations in creating a collection. For example, Dr. Alexandr S. Preobrazhenskii analysed how nineteenth-century members of the ‘Old Believers’ religious group used painted marks of ownership to express both their piety and their connoisseurship of valuable icons.

Similar questions informed the second session’s first paper, dedicated to eighteenth-century collections of Russian portrait engravings. Zalina V. Tetermarzova explained that such collections were created to illustrate the country’s history through the personality of its key historical players. One such player was Count Kirill Razumovsky, famously portrayed by Pompeo Batoni in a painting of striking grandeur. A recently rediscovered inventory enabled Vera S. Naumova to reconstruct his extensive art collection. The session was concluded by Dr. Rosalind P. Blakesley’s paper ‘Exhibiting Russian Success?,’ which used the methodology of performance studies to reveal tensions between nationalism and patriotism at the 1770 exhibition of St Petersburg Academy.

The conference’s second day opened with ‘East-west in dialogue in Imperial Russia.’ This session was very heterogeneous, encompassing topics as diverse as Alexandr Ivanov’s painting The Appearance of Christ before the People (1837-1857), the interior decoration of Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, and the legacy of Natalia Goncharova. Most interesting was Louise Hardiman’s discussion of the fascination for Russian decorative arts in late nineteenth-century London. As noted in the paper, this interest was greatly stimulated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Russian decorative arts were first displayed in England. Although foreign collectors prized Russian art for its alleged ‘national character,’ the exhibition began a period of real communication and exchange between the South Kensington Museum and the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing in Moscow.

The following section, ‘New State, New Art,’ discussed the importance of artistic tradition in the first decade after the revolution. Dr. Natalia Murray described the reorganisation of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace into both a ‘Palace of Arts’ open to all and a ‘Palace of the Poor’ for orphans. Chronicling the post-revolutionary exhibitions of  ‘Silver Age’ groups such as Knave of Diamonds and Fire-Colour, Dr. Alexandra P. Salienko revealed the rich diversity of the 1920s art world, by no means limited to the Constructivist avant-garde.

The next session ‘Centre and Periphery: representing the Soviet nationalities in Moscow’ explored the reception and display of artworks from the USSR’s many cultures during the 1920s and 1930s. Galina E. Abbasova described the popular festivals ‘Decades of National Art,’ which showcased art and theatre from the central Asian republics. Similar in scope was the Museum of Oriental Cultures, whose history was reconstructed by Jenn Brewin. Founded as ‘Art Asiatica’ in 1918, the museum only found lasting state support in 1926, when it became an instrument of Stalinist russification. Concentrating on the Agricultural and Domestic Crafts Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923, Dr. Alina S. Platonova described the less coercive encounter of different cultures and architectural styles in the experimental context of a vast temporary exhibition.

The conference’s last session, ‘Russian Art Abroad,’ was among my favourites. Nicholas Bueno de Mesquita’s paper was particularly interesting as it described an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Titled Art in Revolution, the show opposed a purely formalistic interpretation of avant-garde art. Thus, it both facilitated the rediscovery of politicised avant-garde architecture and tangibly revealed Cold-War tensions, witness a closed-down reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun room.

All together, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to discover many different facets of Russian art. Focusing on collections and exhibitions, it revealed the importance of art in personal and national self-representation. Encompassing both the production and the reception of artworks, it also offered insights on changing interpretations of Russian art in England and Western Europe.


Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.