Last week I caught the tail-end of a photography exhibition at the Calvert 22 Foundation’s gallery in London devoted to Post-Soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe, curated by Ekow Eshun and Anastasiia Fedorova. The accompanying leaflet and booklet describe it as ‘A group show of photography from the New East’, and the text accurately talks about the display ‘exploring new visual representations of lifestyle and landscape in Eastern Europe’ by younger artists ‘a quarter century after the end of Communism’.
In the show were 14 photographers (two working collaboratively) from Azerbaijan, Georgia (x2), Germany (x2), Latvia, Poland (x3), Russia (x3), Ukraine (the introduction in the booklet states Ukraine, though the gallery caption diplomatically refers only to ‘Crimea’, where the photographer lives), and Uzbekistan – the last an honorary addition to Eastern Europe. The pair working together hail from Munich, which doesn’t sound like the New East, or the Old East for that matter. These geographical confusions proved to be significant.
I enjoyed the exhibition greatly but found myself, as an outsider, questioning the emphasis on post-Soviet, and the bracketing together of photographers who come from widely differing backgrounds. The press release confidently declares that the show ‘takes place at a time when the term “post-Soviet” has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film,’ and the booklet tells us ‘In recent years, the rise of the so-called post-Soviet aesthetic has turned a historical term into a trendy buzz word.’ I do not mean to criticise the curators who are to be applauded for promoting this impressive work to a British audience in an energetic way, but I have to take issue with the use of ‘post-Soviet’.
It may be a handy label for curators, but it does not help artists trying to break free of the constraints of the past, even if they are happy to deal with certain aspects of that past, such as its architecture. Using post-Soviet as a catch-all links photographers who are mainly joined by accidents of geography and the shared history of their forebears, but whose futures will increasingly diverge. As that happens, this emphasis on the past will become increasingly unhelpful. After all, these are young photographers who will probably have only vague memories, or perhaps no memories at all, of the Soviet era.
The use of the alternative expression ‘New East’, which Calvert 22 defines as ‘Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia’, also strikes me as problematic. Apart from possible confusion with the established Near/Middle/Far East trichotomy, it too lumps countries widely separated geographically and culturally. It is still defining the ‘new’ east against the ‘old’, i.e. the ex-Soviet bloc, though it has to be better than post-Soviet, with a more positive ring to it.
The curators themselves note how technology is erasing the old borders as the world becomes increasingly interconnected (four of the 14 photographers work in a different country to the one they were born in). The present is certainly affected by the past history, as can be seen in many of the photographs in the exhibition, but these are photographers who in various ways want to get away from it, not be defined by it.
As the leaflet concludes, ‘Instead of old binaries of East vs West, socialist vs capitalist, their images capture a generation shaped by issues that are personal rather than political; by questions of sexuality, gender and style.’ It also refers to ‘new identities emerging across the region.’ The probing of issues of sexuality, gender and style may have reasonably common roots in the past as their home countries were constituents of the USSR, though they had their differences even then, but enough time has elapsed to diminish the Soviet Union’s relevance and allow the foregrounding of more contemporary concerns.
To illustrate this point, Turkina Faso is a Russian-born but London-based photographer, a background which says much about the international perspectives of young artists today. She participated in the panel discussion to launch the exhibition and gave a brief interview to the website Russian Art + Culture. In her interview she stated ‘I am not a post-Soviet photographer – this is just a tag that people put on me.’ Quite. I wonder how many of the others represented in the exhibition would say that the label is irrelevant to their practice and merely a marketing tool.
She was not able, or willing, to define what post-Soviet meant in this context, even though she was specifically asked; the closest she could get was to suggest that for her, ‘Soviet photography is associated with something worn out and awkward’, and all she wanted to do was take photographs and be recognised for that. She ended with a plea not to be pigeonholed and categorised, which surely undermines the use of the term Post-Soviet.
In a factual sense, to describe those countries which made up the Soviet Union and its satellites as post-Soviet is relevant, but when it comes to the cultures of those countries as they forge their own identities, it is hard to see how it is helpful. As Anastasiia Fedorova says in her introductory essay in the exhibition booklet, ‘Former East, New East, Former West, Post-Soviet – none of these terms offer (sic) a liberation from the Cold War narrative’.
Why use them then? Like the Soviet Union itself, such phrases may have had their day. Perhaps it is time to focus on the countries the individuals come from, not what bound them at an increasingly remote point in the past. I enjoyed the photographs, which were well selected, but grouping them according to the criterion that they were post-Soviet added nothing to them.