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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On struggle for visual justice

For the first time over the past 30 years a large exhibit of the famous art photographer Borys Mykhailov is held in Kharkiv
11 December, 2013 - 17:49
Photo from the website GLAVNOE.UA

Borys Mykhailov’s works could be seen in London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, New York, Tokyo, and Beijing… People on all the continents applauded to Mykhailov and gave him prestigious awards. But not in his home city of Kharkiv. There his exhibits used to be closed down and prohibited… However, there were separate exhibits for his close environment.

The opening of the exhibit in Kharkiv was surprising, it seemed that Yermilov Center gathered the whole city. The holiday was incredible which pleased the famous citizen of Kharkiv who organized the exhibit to celebrate his 75th birthday. However, even now after the experts have explained the value of the artists’ works to the audience, in the post-Soviet space they perceived ambiguously. Borys Mykhailov or “Bob” as his friends tenderly call him says that he was ready for difficulties in Kharkiv.


It is strange to hear that you are criticized for your Homeless, just like in the remote 1980s…

“Many critics did not expect such much attention to be paid to my exhibit in Kharkiv. Twenty years ago Alexander Rappaport said that my art ‘has no future!’ (now my works are presented and studied in the western schools)… He said that I do not like people and they look like garbage in my works! If you look attentively at Homeless, you will see that their positions remind of Biblical plots: deposition from the cross, obeisance, and comprehension of the death. The undressed woman is Maria Magdalena as she was a harlot. Then it becomes clear that they are not homeless but almost heroes. This is how my works have been seen and understood by people who help the homeless. They have seen that my Homeless are photographed with respect and without any pressure on them. However, most of the people do not see it.”

The art does not have to be liked. It is supposed to provoke emotions and make people think…

“I agree with this. However, it is not the only point. Here in Ukraine the situation turned to be quite complicated, however, I expected it to be so. I realized that for most people it would be a point at issue. Many of them do not accept my photos.”

How can you explain it?

“The Soviet era finished a long time ago and some of the elements of my works might not be accepted by young people. On the other hand, they are not that important for older people anymore. We have approached the main question: why is the art needed in general? Especially, the photograph? In my opinion, the art and the photograph are needed to surround us with different types of images that together with other sources of information, such as a TV and a computer, make a picture of the social realm. When you observe, you see the perceptible but do not see the important! Any person can see only the cover of the life without constant analytical look and verbal confirmation.”

Even without any deep analysis people say to each other that “we live badly.”

“Saying how we live is one thing and another thing is to record and prove what has been said. Compare the good and the bad. This is what the art is needed for. My “Blue Series” is an artistic evidence of what things were in reality in the USSR. This is recording of the information by a person of that time. In the art a chronicler becomes an artist. This person modifies their feelings into something important and significant for everybody. I would be glad if someone had taken other photos of the then life. But they do not exist! If previously we needed something bad, now we need to find something good. Not something naturally good, when you go away from the city and meditate to a chamomile, but something socially and visually good and beautiful. However, we have not found it yet. Why? It means that the pain of the society is stronger than its bliss that can show it. When this pain decreases another art will appear.”

Why is your art accepted and understood abroad but not in Ukraine?

“Perception depends on education. The Soviet culture was based on Aristotle’s catharsis theory. If you find catharsis in the art, it will make you feel free and you will be released from your tension. Even tragedies have something that you take as positive. However, our culture still implies admiration for catharsis this philosophy still exists. However, the western tradition requires not admiration but shiver! You see something and shiver. This shiver accumulates and when accumulating you reject it as you know that it should not be this way! You react critically.”


What does “Unrespectable” exhibit in Yermilov Center consist of?

“The goal of this exhibit was to not only show the modern, but to make a retrospective and prove that it was. We prepared it for half a year. The project is non-commercial, a ‘shot in the air.’ This is what we did in the 1980s when we showed ‘air’ for our close environment. Then we had a feeling that we were doing something important, putting something into people’s minds. I have always had a charge, inner feeling of justice and I wanted to voice my position without thinking about money. Then I knew that people would support it. Now I am not sure they will. If you show something it is estimated with money. I am glad that so many people came.”

What message have you prepared for today’s audience?

“There are two things. The works on the upper floor present a social view and the accent is made on the 1990s when everything collapsed. The works on the ground floor show the time when a person, an artist started travelling, this is a trip between ‘here’ and ‘there’ when strict moral principles are being undermined. Today’s situation is ‘in between.’ My ‘drafts’ show a circle of today’s questions. The falling house is a return to the old, the thoughts about the past era. The torn mouth is the aggression that lasts and escalates. Reflection on the news of domestic homicides, when women abandon their children. People without faces is a new interpretation of Jesus Christ’s images. These are the issues we think about, the verbal interpretation of new relations.”

Your works can be called a symbol of struggle against the totalitarian regime.

“Yes, I can say so. However, I am not sure it is called ‘a totalitarian regime.’ This is the fight for visual justice, for civil understanding. That is why not only citizens but images have to be equal. In my opinion, the task of the art is to establish the parity and restore the balance. The artist’s task is to maintain this fire so that it continues burning.”

Can we say that the balance is a condition of freedom?

“It is both a condition and an indicator of freedom.”

By Olena SOKOLYNSKA, Kharkiv
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