‘Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe’ is a group show of photography exploring new visual representations of lifestyle and landscape in Eastern Europe. The exhibition, that opens at the Calvert 22 Space in London this week, gathers the work of a young generation of artists rising to prominence a quarter century after the end of Communism. Here we speak to the curators Ekow Eshun and Anastasiia Fedorova about the ideas behind the show and to select some of their favourite photographers involved.
Eastern Europe has often been overlooked and under explored in the West. We tend to think about it as grey and drab, as if it is still sunk in the Cold War. But there’s a cultural dynamism to the place right now coming through in everything from fashion to art to film.
The show gathers works from photographers in Georgia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Although the personal circumstances of these photographers may differ, they share a common past: either they themselves, or their parents, grew up in countries that once existed under communist rule. Against the complicated politics of many of those countries, there’s a generational wave of creativity that is really thrilling to see.
With the show we’re interested in how people live and look and connect with each other; how they construct their identity as citizens of relatively recently independent nations and how they make sense of their own place against the complicated past of their country. For example, the relationship between photography and architecture in the show is very important. Communist-era buildings and monuments loom over many post-Soviet cities today. It’s very hard to walk through Moscow or Kiev or many other cities without encountering these domineering structures. They are a reminder of the power and control that an overbearing system tried to exert on its citizens. At the same time, history isn’t static. What’s interesting to explore, is how people now put some of these buildings to use and how photographers are looking anew at their own past.
Tower blocks are a recurring theme in post-Soviet photography. These buildings are ugly and overbearing, not to say reminiscent of an authoritarian Communist past. But if you’ve grown up in Eastern Europe, looking at them as an ever-present part of the urban landscape, you tend to have a personal and possibly tender relationship with them.
The work of the Polish photographer Jędrzej Franek is a good example of this. He has created a beautiful series of images that depict his hometown of Poznan in Poland. The city’s tower blocks are set against pastel skies or wreathed in clouds with shafts of celestial sunlight piercing the gloaming like a Renaissance painting. Franek talks about his work as a love letter to his city and you can see the devotion in each image he takes.
David Meskhi (top of page)
You wouldn’t know it to see it but this image, by photographer David Meskhi, is taken in his home country, Georgia. It’s part of a fantastic set of work that follows a group of teenage skateboarders in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Meshki also filmed them for a great documentary, When Earth Seems To Be Light.
He captures the kids using the Brutalist structures of the Communist past, like old buildings and ruined Soviet monuments, as their skateboard terrain. What you can’t see in the images is that they take place against a backdrop of demonstrations and public protest organised by an emerging liberal democratic movement against the conservative Georgian government.
Michal Korta is a Polish-born photographer. This image is part of a study he’s done of Brutalist buildings in Skopje, Macedonia. In his work, the buildings take on a strange, otherworldly quality as if they’ve been conjured from some science fiction movie. His work, in part, is about stripping the buildings of their history as symbols of an authoritarian regime, and gazing at them anew, as extraordinary and slightly unsettling structures.
Post-Soviet Visions addresses history, memory and identity in the contemporary world. I was born in Russia in 1989, and most of my peers grew up with no real memories of the Soviet era. But we all grew up surrounded by traces of socialism in our architecture, material culture and ways of thinking, combined and merged with the growing influence of global capitalism. I’m interested in how this historical transition influenced our identity and the way we look at the world today — and if there’s anything we share that relates to the future, rather than the past.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing interest in Eastern Europe, partly influenced by the success of fashion designers like Gosha Rubchisnkiy and Demna Gvasalia. In fashion and photography, the post-Soviet space and Eastern Europe have almost become conceptual categories with a certain number of visual codes attached to them. It’s incredibly interesting to see how these codes are being used by the new generation of image-makers emerging from countries like Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Russia and many others. These artists have a unique background, stories to tell, and all the global tools with which to tell them. In the end, Post-Soviet Visions is about new voices and new stories, successfully transcending borders and preconceptions.
This picture by Masha Demianova was taken in Moscow, but takes the viewer much further away. I love the inky shadows and the way the shot is composed — as if you’re gazing from outside a frame of a film. I’ve been an admirer of Demianova’s work for a long time: she pays close attention to texture and atmosphere, evoking iconography from classical art, cinema and mythology. She is one of the most interesting contemporary young image-makers out there to be dealing with notions of sexuality and desire, as well as the relationship between body and space.
This picture of a plastic palm tree in the fog is from Paulina Korobkiewicz’s Disco Polo project, documenting the aesthetic of Poland’s transition to global capitalism after 1989. It’s an interesting example of how Western consumerism impacted the minds, tastes, dreams, aspirations and visual culture of the country. Many oppositions meet in this shot: not just East and West. There is a sense of melancholy to it, as well as a sense of humour. This photo of a modern non-place could exist in any corner of the world —but it also reflects something very unique to Poland.
I am very interested in the idea of local and global fashion and its use as a powerful narrative tool. Tbilisi-based Grigor Devejiev is one of the key image-makers behind the cutting-edge aesthetic for a new wave of Georgian fashion. He was one of the first photographers to utilise more gritty and authentic locations: Eastern markets, deserted underpasses and shabby street corners. His project, Social Realism, is shot in the style of a fashion editorial — but Devejiev’s diverse cast composed of different ages, looks and social backgrounds — highlights existing social inequality in Georgian society.
Ieva Raudsepa is from Latvia. Her series, Bloom, focuses on the first generation born and raised in the country after the country regained independence in the early 1990s. Bloom combines idyllic landscapes with frank clear portraiture, capturing both a fleeting moment of youth and a sense of national anxiety. This image reflects both her incredible work with light, her wild and natural settings, and
the intimacy of her portraiture.
Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe is at the Calvert 22 Space, London from 23 February – 15 April.