Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2020
Boris Mikhailov: Before Sleep/After Drinking
C/O Berlin, March 16–June 1, 2019
Boris Mikhailov: Before Sleep/After Drinking, installation view, C/O Berlin, 2019 (photograph © David von Becker, provided by C/O Berlin)

C/O Berlin, a nonprofit venue established in 2000 and solely dedicated to photography, celebrated Boris Mikhailov’s eightieth birthday with an exhibition of five series of photographs. Case History, I am not I, Suzi et cetera, Diary, and the most recent, Temptation of Death, cover his work since the 1960s, when Mikhailov, who worked as a train engineer in Kharkiv, Ukraine, began taking photographs. He is an autodidact whose early work depicts people he knew. His success as an artist began after 1990, and he has lived part-time in Berlin since the late 1990s. Although the geographical and historical context of his work both in the USSR and in the aftermath of its collapse often results in strong visual themes, the exhibition’s curator, Felix Hoffmann, did not place him within that framework. Instead, the exhibition maintained a sharp and refreshing focus on Mikhailov’s unsparing exhibition of the human body. Four series of photographs and a set of medical specimens highlighted Mikhailov’s varied approaches to capturing people’s flesh and limbs, probing the idea of exposure, while the fifth series presented a productive counterpoint, pairing older and newer images to think about form and distortion on a larger scale. The curator’s insightful, jam-packed wall texts explored each series’ meaning and specificity and, in lieu of a catalog, offered starting points for deeper analyses. C/O Berlin’s newspaper served as a longer exhibition guide.

The exhibition began with Case History, which was published in book form in 1998 and represented at C/O with a selection of 250 of the series’ 417 photographs. In the immediate post-Soviet period, Mikhailov paid people in Kharkiv to expose themselves in front of his lens. Men and women revealed their genitalia, their illnesses, and their injuries. They urinated. They showed off their ragged and ill-fitting clothes, missing teeth, and tattoos. Some look drunk and nearly all seem somewhat lost, or at a loss, in a cityscape full of rust, weeds, and urban decay. The visibility of the subjects’ naked skin between piles of not-yet-melted snow and bare branches underscores the awkwardness of the encounter: not only is it unusual to see seminudes whose subjects’ state actively denies society’s standard of beauty, but those modeling have done this in the cold, pulling aside layers of clothing. These are posed street photographs, but neither are the images shot indoors poised or serene: they reveal the same vulnerability and openness, with the same unsparing view. Lest Mikhailov be accused of exploitation, Hoffmann notes that the artist also appears in some of the photographs. Instead of looking down on his subjects, he casts himself among them.

On the way from Case History to the next room, viewers passed shelves of pathological-anatomical wet specimens loaned from the Berlin Museum of Medical History, labeled “Virchow’s Real Pictures” after the Berlin pathologist, Rudolf Virchow, who initiated the collection at the turn of the twentieth century. The specimens provided a crucial counterweight to the exhibition as a whole. They offered a way of thinking about the two-dimensional bodies in the photographs as three-dimensional objects, while also enacting a reduction, as each specimen reduces a body to its diseased part. The tension between Case History’s intimacy and anonymity was dissolved, here, into a display of the pathologies of people who, unlike Mikhailov’s living subjects, cannot return the gaze. Mikhailov, who worked with Hoffmann in choosing photographs for the exhibition, selected the specimens himself.

The exhibition poster, hung at bus stops all over the city, used an image from the black-and-white series I am not I (early 1990s) in which Mikhailov, wearing nothing but dark socks, dark shoes, and a white athletic supporter, poses facing the camera, hands clasped behind his back and one foot up on a stool with both knees bent in an asymmetrical squat. As the public image of Before Sleep/After Drinking, the shot revealed to prospective visitors the subject that Mikhailov renders most vulnerable of all—himself. In the exhibition, I am not I used large formats to emphasize the interplay between the openness of his naked body and his clownish poses. Mikhailov prances with a short sword, dances, poses in silly imitation of classical statue, and holds a dildo. His apparent invitation to ridicule, on the one hand, and the seriousness of the exploration of his own vulnerability and exposure, on the other, create a different kind of tension than in Case History. In the same room as I am not I, the series Suzi et cetera, all smaller-format images from the 1960s and 1970s, was shown in glass cases. This work was deemed pornographic in the USSR, and its discovery bore negative consequences for Mikhailov. Regrettably, Suzi et cetera did not register nearly as strongly as the other series in the exhibition, due to the smaller formats and their presentation. Considering the bluntness of Mikhailov’s own self-expression, on display in the same room, it seems almost quaint or naive that Suzi et cetera would have been considered porn. In juxtaposition, Suzi et cetera and I am not I appear to present, respectively, the germination of an idea and its mature form.

The exhibition’s large final room opened a broader view, literally and thematically. Diary, displayed on three walls, consists of older images—sorted-out snapshots, bloopers, darkroom snafus, duplicates—now affixed to A4-size sheets of white paper, sometimes inscribed in Russian, all from Mikhailov’s archive. They neither form, nor do they come from, a systematic documentation of his work over the past six decades; rather, Mikhailov has mined them for more possibilities, sometimes creating collages or pairings that now stand in dialogue with other bodies of work. Posed and unposed naked subjects are combined with other indoor and outdoor shots. An element of randomness or chance was strongest here.

In Temptation of Death, scanned analog prints and shots from 2017 were projected as diptychs onto the fourth wall of the room. In this work, Mikhailov’s focus has shifted beyond the human body to larger themes. Photographs of an abandoned crematorium in Kiev capture nature’s takeover, industrial decay, transience, the possibility of something spiritual, and the closeness of life and death. But this is not ruin porn. In the context of Before Sleep/After Drinking, it appears as a logical continuation of Mikhailov’s explorations. Like the human bodies he captures, Temptation of Death forces its viewers to see unpretty, blemished, not-quite-normal, and distorted surfaces and shapes. Here, as elsewhere, Mikhailov eschews framing devices that would clean up or neatly package his subjects.

Amid this discerning and close reading of Mikhailov’s work, the exhibition did not address the role of his wife, Vita. She is visible in some photographs and has herself taken others. She is a vocal partner and does not give the impression, in person, of being pushed to the side; often enough, Boris prefers to let her respond to questions. Hoffmann and other curators openly acknowledge Vita’s large role. Yet it can be jarring, today, to see a partnership where only one person is referred to as the artist. It will be interesting to follow the way that Vita’s contribution is assessed and understood in the years and scholarship to come.

From 2006 until 2013, C/O Berlin rented a space in the former East Berlin: the Postfuhramt, a mail distribution center built in 1881. Following wartime damage, continued use, partial restoration, occasionally unclear ownership and management authority after German reunification, and finally sale to a private company, it embodies a stereotypical progression for much of this city’s real estate. In 2014, C/O moved into another space that tells an equally representative story. Amerika Haus, in the former West Berlin, was built in the 1950s and used until 2006 as a public cultural and information hub in the American sector. It stood for a positive America, often perceived as the “liberator” by West Germans; attracted massive protests during the Vietnam War; became nearly inaccessible due to security concerns after September 11, 2001; and finally was deemed surplus, following completion of the large new American Embassy, which does not offer its cultural programs to the public. It is tempting to see an exhibition of Mikhailov’s work as spanning a similarly symbolic change of eras: Soviet control or oppression, post-Soviet uncertainty combined with a new mobility, and acclaim from the international contemporary art system of biennials and chic gallery representation. To Mikhailov’s (or the Mikhailovs’?) and Hoffmann’s credit, Before Sleep/After Drinking resisted such an easy narrative, choosing to take a long, incisive look instead.

Emily Joyce Evans
Research Associate, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin