Urban opera of Boris Mikhailov

08/04/20

Olena Chervonik

Photo courtesy of Boris and Vita Mikhailov

In 1997, after a year of living in Berlin, Boris Mikhailov returned to Kharkiv, Ukraine just in time to observe some tectonic socio-economic shifts happening to his native city. The dismantling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s brought about the long-awaited relief from the stifling Soviet order; the relief that was immediately marred with a spiraling economic down fall. Unregulated, vertiginous freedom of the 1990s emerged as a wild, chaotic period when everything became possible almost overnight: propelling into extreme affluence or rolling to the margins of the society into abject poverty. With his keen eye and a sensitivity of an astute observer, Mikhailov recorded this condition of a “zero state” of the new society, that was just emerging from the ruins of a previous political and cultural formation, in his most controversial photographic project “Case History”, executed in 1997 – 1998 and published in a book format in 1999 [1].

In the book preface, Mikhailov explains that already in 1997 he vividly apprehended the rupture of Ukrainian society into new, burgeoning social strata, when the new rich and the new poor began to acquire features of class identities with their own psychology and behavioral modalities. The new rich were already hard to approach, protecting themselves with bodyguards and other social fences. The new poor, however, specifically the bomzhes (homeless people with no social support) could still allow an outsider in their midst – this was “a chance”, according to Mikhailov, that could only last for a short period of time. Most of the book’s protagonists had only recently lost their homes. Their rapidly deteriorating social position was still uncertain, malleable, and flickering with hope. Yet, the transformation was inevitable, which propelled the artist to act: “For me it was very important that I took their photos when they were still like “normal” people. I made a book about the people who got into trouble but didn’t manage to harden so far” [2].

Case History has been widely publicized since its release, meriting multiple exhibitions including the one at MOMA New York in 2011. However, the number of exhibition projects Case History participated in does not corroborate the bulk of scholarship on Mikhailov. The word “bulk” is also a misnomer as it presupposes weight and count, while in reality the scholarship consists just of a handful of articles apart from equally scarce introductions to artists’ other books. Moreover, the critical discourse on Mikhailov seems to be firmly fixated on the questions of ethics of relationships between the artist and his photographic subjects [3]. However important the questions on ethics of social relationships are, the text that follows departs from a different angle, that of “documentariness” of the project, which has largely been neglected or mentioned only in passing. Mikhailov insists in calling his photographs of the homeless documentary at the same time claiming the following: “Documentary cannot be truth. Documentary pictures are one-sided, only one part of the conversation. Anyway, documentary pictures are not possible anymore with digital technology as nobody believes in the truth of pictures […] For Case History, old documentary methods weren’t possible — it was important and necessary for me to find new methods to show this life” [4].

After a brief semiotic reading of the project’s formal aspects, the paper then situates it within the general framework of the documentary genre and specifically its origin in the Farm Security Administration photographic efforts of the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s. Then it proceeds to show how Mikhailov has appropriated some of the documentary tropes and has purposefully contravened with the others. With this act of transgression, Mikhailov has exposed the limits of representation of the documentary genre simultaneously exposing the limits of representation at large and the position of the artist within the process of breaking the documentary mold.

Turning real lives into writing

Case History resulted in over 400 photographs, that have been exhibited widely, often in an almost life-size format, and also published as a book with an introductory essay and scant artist’s verbal commentaries. To be precise, commentaries appear twice. First time, almost at the beginning, on a page titled “Requiem”, Mikhailov points out that three of his protagonists died within three months of photographing them. Second time, the visual narrative, that otherwise contains no captions or verbal elements of any kind, is suddenly interrupted closer to the end of the book. “Oh, I forgot to say,” exclaims the artist and gives a couple of almost arbitrary details about two characters, singled out from several dozens of others, silently parading through the pages. This exclamation, almost odd and certainly comical in its randomness, covertly delivers artist’s astute equation of the visual to the verbal which constitutes a text weaved as a conglomeration of elements whose juxtapositions produce meaning. Thus photography here turns into a mode of writing, with each individual image surfacing as a lexical unit whose meaning develops through relations with other units.

Mikhailov’s visual narrative that emerges forcefully through these juxtapositions, is coarse and traumatic to apprehend. In a kaleidoscopic and over-saturated whirlpool of human and animal bodies, close-ups of some objects, street and domestic scenes, homelessness appears as an ambiguous and often metaphoric notion that defies documentary dimensions. Ironically, some of the book protagonists who bear definite markers of destitution and thus “homelessness” are portrayed in a domestic interior. In a privacy of some apartment, they sleep or bathe, apply make-up, pose with some domestic animals or knick-knacks, eat, often in a very festive manner, raising glasses, with bottles of vodka featured prominently on the table. The home is not theirs, of course, but that of the artist who invites his photographic subjects inside his apartment and purposefully stages the scenes, orchestrating desired postures and gestures.

 

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Side by side to these interiors, Mikhailov places street shots, often from crowded places such as impromptu street markets or bus stops. These scenes are obviously not staged. The movements and arrangements of the passers-by are hardly manipulated by the artist. Yet, people from the street shots look uncannily similar to the main protagonists of Mikhailov’s book. In worn-out mismatched clothing that resists temporal identification, existing outside of any kind of fashion and thus season, year, or even decade, these people stoop over equally decrepit goods sold by petty peddlers directly off the dirty pavement or sheepishly flock around a road sign waiting for an ever delayed bus. The whole country appears homeless, displaced and propelled into some social and political limbo. Shop signs on some of the photographs further perpetuate the eerie sense of disorientation and a hidden desire to stabilize the surrounding world.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Contrary to the typical advertising logic that lures consumers to choose between brands and types of goods, the shop signs in Ukraine of the 1990s indicate the most basic categories: “Bread”, “Restaurant”, “Fresh Flowers”, “Vodka” – they do not advertise but serve as some kind of anchorage, a stable orientation point for those perennial wanderers lost in a vacuous labyrinth of post-communist collapse.

Mikhailov’s visual pairings deliver unambiguous messages, almost violent in their straightforwardness. Multiple juxtapositions of unconsciously drunk men prostrating under passers-by feet to that of stray dogs, dead or alive, explicitly comment on human’s life disintegration to the state of an animal, its reduction to bare bones – and yes, an animal carcass, a metaphoric sign of abject poverty, is also present in this visual narrative in a scene with two men dragging a piece of spinal vertebrae of a large creature, a cow or, perhaps, a horse. Rotten banana peels sit across the page from infected flaccid limbs and genitalia. A posture of a naked woman reclining on a sullied mattress echoes that of a rubber sex doll staring from the next page. A close-up of a bruised woman’s breast with a crude stitches over a wound parallels gaping cracks of a damaged mail box. Thus physical body of a homeless person starts speaking about the city as an organism, equally abused and dismembered. Wounds inflected upon flesh are surface manifestations of wounds inflected upon the city and the society at large.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

These visual juxtapositions recur as some sort of punctuation, exclamation and interrogation marks in the disturbing flow of the main narrative, that of the life of the homeless. The cast of characters is diverse, from very young, almost toddlers, to the elderly, although with many of the portrayed protagonists age disappears under dirt and excrements intensified by wounds and dermatological infections that disfigure the bodies. Photographs with children are, perhaps, the most confounding, if it is possible to measure a degree of a visual shock produced by Case History. Homeless children, most of whom have not obviously reached a teenage threshold, flock in packs, sniffing glue smudged in plastic bags, smoking, drinking alcohol, exposing themselves in a state of narcotic inebriation, and touching each other’s private parts. Their bodies are already tinged with decease and decay.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Scenes with adults engaged in the activities of the same kind feature an additional level of distress for the viewer. These scenes are staged, often in a very provocative manner. Upon Mikhailov’s request, his photographic subjects assume certain poses and repeat certain gestures, most of the time stripping naked, exposing themselves and reenacting some lewd scenes. Moreover, the artist speaks openly about soliciting these activities for money. He profiles this exchange in the very introduction of the book and emphasizes it in his multiple interviews. The pecuniary underpinnings of Case History appear to be its front line, the part and parcel of an overall message rather than an enabling mechanism of photographer/subject economy that should remain hidden behind the scene.

This is where the logic of the documentary shatters. Is it even possible to call this project documentary as it seems to violate the primary unspoken rule of the genre predicated on the assumed objectivity, non-intrusion, and non-fictionality, of recording life “as is”? Practically all commentators of Case History issue remarks on its performativity, often invoking metaphors of masquerade and theater. Nicolas Bourriaud extends the paradoxical comparison to the utmost degree, dubbing it “an urban opera”- this staged form of ultimate artifice, visual and audial overabundance and exuberance, absolutely antithetical to the documentary mode [5]. Yet Bourriaud’s trope seems oddly pertinent to Mikhailov’s cast of graphic characters in contorted exaggerated poses and motley rags. If the visual texture and the logic of portrayal of Mikhailov’s images are so theatrical, what is of documentary here?

The nature of documentary

The question bears significance for a comprehensive definition of the documentary, which seems to be a frustratingly elusive notion. The definition conundrum stems from critics’ recurring erroneous emphasis on non-fictionality and objectivity as the most essential features of the documentary. Upon closer scrutiny, these features turn out to be non-differentiating: a category of non-fiction can equally subsume advertising, instructional films or plethora of other such like materials. While objectivity, believed to be located in photography’s and film’s indexical nature, comes across as a type of conceit which obscures these media’s manipulative operations. Carl Plantinga in “What a Documentary Is, After All” summarizes two most widespread positions in regards to the documentary, demonstrating their conceptual pitfalls [6]. The Documentary as Indexical Record position asserts that it is photo’s or film’s indexical proximity to its referent which invests them with the documentary attributes. However, the indexicality of both media creates a deceitful impression of impartiality of recording, thus concealing their interpretive power. Even though a photo is created with the help of a mechanical device, it is the gaze of an operator behind the camera that structures its image. A photographer editorializes, consciously or subconsciously, by selecting what to shoot, how to frame the subject matter, what technical means to employ for shooting, etc. The Documentary as Assertion position claims that documentary creators assert some reliable facts that hold true in the actual world and compel the viewers to adopt a certain attitude towards these facts. Although persuasive power does play a significant role in the documentary mode, this power equally emanates from other types of representation, thus failing to be essential for defining documentary.

Instances such as Mikhailov’s Case History, that transgress objectivity and non-fictionality and issue an ambiguous message beyond a clear-cut “asserted position”, convincingly demonstrate that the defining feature of the documentary should be located elsewhere – in its subject matter, to be precise. Documentary, rather than a medium-specific pictorial style, is primarily a genre, defined in its broad art historical sense as a container to a particular subject matter it depicts. Similarly to portraiture, landscape or still life that can feature diverse pictorial conventions depending on their historical and geographic iterations and that maintain their genre coherence in spite of those variations due to the depicted subject-matter, documentary should be defined as a depiction of the disenfranchised as they exist in the actual world, with an understanding that this depiction is inevitably going to be editorialized and manipulated. Genres as coherent pictorial forms are historically bound categories conditioned by socio-economic relations of certain times and places and subject to historical transformations. Often it is possible to mark the emergence of a genre and also observe its dissolution into a state of unimportance or total oblivion. This is certainly true of documentary, whose notion first appeared in the cultural discourse in the late 1920s in the writings of John Grierson, a sociologist turned film maker, who defined it as the “creative treatment of actuality” and who was vehemently engaged in social critique of labor conditions and the overall problems of the Great Depression in the US [7] .

Why did documentary as a defined artistic practice appear in the US context around the 1920s, if one can argue the disenfranchised and the poor have certainly existed under many other historical and social condition? John Tagg in his “The Burden of Representation” asserts that the formation of the documentary was connected to the emergence of new forms of state power, new social classes and, as a consequence, new disciplinary techniques to control those classes in Western Europe and the US in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries [8]. Due to the fact that rapid industrialization acquired full force by the mid nineteenth century, a new social group was formed, that of the working class, which had to be taught social obedience and docility. The sheer number and diversity of the new workforce could not be controlled through coercion alone, thus the state power had to be transformed from punitive into ideologically affirmative:  “The explicit, dramatic and total power of the absolute monarch had given place to what Michel Foucault has called a diffuse and pervasive ‘microphysics of power’, operating unremarked in the smallest duties and gestures of everyday life. The seat of this capillary power was a new ‘technology’: that constellation of institutions – including the hospital, the asylum, the school, the prison, the police force – whose disciplinary methods and techniques of regulated examination produced, trained and positioned a hierarchy of docile social subjects in the form required by the capitalist division of labour for the orderly conduct of social and economic life” [9] .

Photography, according to Tagg, played a decisive role in introducing new disciplinary techniques to control the masses as it provided surveillance tools to measure, observe, catalogue –  in other words, to objectify and subjugate the new social body placed in the network of new disciplinary institutions. Documentary per se appeared several decades later at the time of a specific social and economic crisis in the states, known as the Great Depression. Yet documentary was a direct heir of the surveillance and record-keeping practices of the previous decades. Moreover, around the turn of the century the US state ideology further changed from philanthropy to welfarism which triggered the change in the visual rhetoric of how the disenfranchised, a contextual synonym of the working class, had to be depicted.

The documentary of the Depression years shaped by the paternalistic New Deal principles put into action by the Farm Security Administration and its photographic department created an archive of the subaltern portrayed in such a way so that they would qualify for social welfare disbursement. Tagg emphasizes that the documentary of the 1930s was bound to a particular social strategy:  “a liberal, corporatist plan to negotiate economic, political and cultural crisis through a limited program of structural reforms, relief measures, and a cultural intervention aimed at restructuring the order of discourse, appropriating dissent, and re-securing the threatened bonds of social consent” [10].

The documentary mode of the 1930s in the US arose as an extensive cultural formation that surfaced through art works of various media (painting, photo, dance, theater) but it was also a part of an agenda for radio and popular magazines, education and advertising [11]. Documentary was very prominent in non-fictional literature giving a head start to such forms of writing as case-worker reports, “worker narratives” and “angry exposes of the human cost of capitalism” as well as more moderate types of social science statements on workers’ condition and other semi-academic and vernacular types of literature. The preoccupation with documentary was predicated on an enthusiastic belief in the possibility of social changes orchestrated by the liberal state. Documentary photography of the time was essentially propagandistic: it was meant to make the viewer recognize certain social problems and support the state in an effort to eliminate them.

Thus documentary was closely linked to the economy monopolized by the liberal state. As this liberal state monopolization waned in the US, so did the documentary rhetoric, which after the WWII only appeared in some overgeneralized form on the pages of popular magazines such as Life and National Geographic or occasionally surfaced in other cultural spaces as sporadic outbursts of humanistic bathos similar to Steichen’s exhibition The Family of Men.

Although often described at the time as a progressive phenomena and a type of democratization of visual culture, the New Deal documentary photography has been criticized in recent years for overt victimization of the working class that was often presented in a public discourse as a monolithic, unidimensional social body, passive and helpless, and therefore necessarily dependent on the protection of the state.

By the mid 1970s, documentary photography had lost its social currency, chastised for its liberal humanist sentimentality, propagandistic simplification, and positivist claims for objectivity. However, certain visual devices inherited from documentary apogee of the 1930s have lingered on as a part of the art discourse. The social has been transformed into the aesthetic surfacing through the visual codes of a snap-shot, a family album, a visual diary – the devices that speak of proximity and intimacy, thus able to establish an empathic connection between the viewer and a photographed subject [12].

Coming back to Mikhailov’s Case History, the artist’s adoption of the documentary rhetoric is certainly predicated on his subject-matter – the homeless. Yet, his engagement with this rhetoric constitutes a practice of use and misuse. Mikhailov exploits just enough documentary conventions for his photographs to produce a semblance of objectivity and real-life record. At the same time, he manipulates most of the typical documentary visual tropes to such an extent that their corrupted counterparts begin to unsettle the logic of the genre thus creating subversive maneuvers to negotiate the discredited liberal naivete and also, most importantly, allowing Mikhailov to cast perspicacious commentaries on the nature and the limits of representation and the position of the artist.

Breaking the documentary mold [13]

Not claiming to be a documentarian or a photojournalists, Mikhailov simply appropriates some visual conventions from the arsenal of cultural history. In a typical postmodern fashion, he is not concerned with developing a signature style of his own. His photographs have been described as “evoking all modes of photography”  [15] , “evasive and multivalent” [14] , performative [16] or even unsystematic [17]. Stylistically, he has run the whole gamut of visual codes, from montage and coloring of found photographs (Luriki, 1981, Superimpositions, late 1960s – early 1970s), to performative self-portraiture with allusions to foreign cinematographic conventions (Crimean Snobbery, 1982), to imitations of archival and scientific illustrations (Unfinished Dissertation, 1984-1985). In this light, his engagement with the documentary should be understood through the mechanism of postmodern quotation with its propensity to purposeful clashes of disaccording contexts.

In the post-communist Ukraine of the 1990s the documentary mode came across as a visual language debased of its original reformist intentionality. In a private artistic quest (as opposed to a state-commissioned chronicling of social evils), Mikhailov reverted to documentary only to profile a complete absence of the state or, in fact, any kind of coherent governance. The country at the time was stuck in a limbo: “For myself I call this situation of the country a “zero” state, because besides the creation of the new classes, there is no advancement from point “zero.” The dynamics of the process became relatively constant. The internal energy of the society is not directed to future creation,” points out Mikhailov in the preface to Case History [18]. While the country was stumbling around, enduring social and economic stagnation, Mikhailov’s documentary, that ironically misplaced visual tool of social reform, produced melancholy rather than progressivist fervor.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Zooming in onto the structure of Case History, it becomes clear that Mikhailov has turned inside out various other conventions of the genre. The most obvious divergence from the reformist ethos is manifest in abandoning the sentimental trope. In the documentary of the 1930s the imaged of the disenfranchised would always be simplified to a formula of noble poverty [19]. The oppressed, those victims of the society that had to be saved by proper social reforms, would never be portrayed as lazy, filthy, callous, etc. The “worthy poor” would have no vice. Impeccably honest and exaggeratedly naive, they could demonstrate only one fault – their “poor taste”, that is certain simplicity, crudeness, unsophistication that resulted from educational lacks. The “noble poor” from the FSA photographs would suffer from the wrongdoings of the society or natural disaster but never from their own negligence or corruption.

Mikhailov editorializes his images of the homeless in an antithetical way. They do not emanate restrain and dignity as do photographic subjects of Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and other documentary classics of the Depression era. On the contrary, they smoke and drink, rummage through garbage bins, collect junk and “picnic” surrounded by piles of filthy waste. They copulate and defecate on public, prostitute themselves and engage in all sorts of violence, whose aftermath transpires on their bodies.

Alluding to medical discourse even in its title, Case History is full of corporeal aberrations. Matthias Christen in “Symbolic Bodies, Real Pain” suggests an enlightened interpretation of Mikhailov’s rhetoric of a damaged body which confronts the viewer in all its vividness [20]. Through a mechanism of symbolic transfer, the disfigured and infected bodies of the Kharkiv homeless become manifestations of the ruins of the collapsed Soviet ideology. This ideology is literary inscribed upon its subjects’ flesh as is the case with one of the protagonists who exposes a tattoo of Lenin’s head on his chest. Contaminated in a literal and metaphoric sense by both ideology and disease (or ideology-as-disease), the bodies of the homeless are turned into writing thus themselves becoming symbolic signs in a photographic narrative that tells a story of an empire’s demise.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Moreover, Mikhailov purposefully orchestrates these images of suffering, with some of them unambiguously alluding to well-known art historical motives. In their compositional arrangements, they visually quote some established themes such as Eve sharing an apple with Adam or a reclining nude suggesting sexual interplay with her Odalisque pose. Other compositions reenacted by the homeless upon Mikhailov’s request appear specific to a particular painting which might not be immediately apparent to the general audience. Namely, the images that are reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anna”, c. 1503 or Rembrandt’s “Self portrait with Saskia” and in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”, c. 1635. However, even without profound art historical connoisseurship on part of the viewer these images still ooze familiar artfulness – and this is precisely why they are bearable to contemplate. Images imbued with the aesthetics of suffering legitimized by Christian art or “classical nudity” of the Western visual culture sparingly punctuate the main visual narrative that otherwise traumatizes rather than consoles the viewer.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

The majority of Mikhailov’s photographs provide no emotional crutches to lean on, no mechanism of ennobling or aestheticizing infected abused flesh of the homeless. It is presented “as is”: frontal, looming large with all its detailed naturalistic vividness. If there is a visual code that Mikhailov activates in these images, it comes from a clinical rather than an art discourse, from surveilling patents for medical records. It is a discourse that John Tagg described as a nineteenth century record-keeping practice associated with certain disciplinary institutions such as an asylum or a prison that with the help of photography created a new social body of dependent subjects upon whom power could be exercised due to their newly-minted subaltern position.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

Art, following Barthes’ dictum, domesticates and tames photography [21]. It generates the level of “studium”, accepted cultural knowledge that veils the trauma, renders it familiar, therefore trivial, therefore easily dismissed. Mikhailov makes his viewers constantly oscillate between images that give themselves for contemplation and images that confront with their clinical nature that can be scrutinized and observed by certainly not contemplated. Not one or the other type of image, but the switch between the two unsettles the viewing process. Mikhailov orchestrates poses and gestures of his subjects to create this visual roller-coster of plunging in and out of the aesthetic.

The classical documentary of the 1930s implicated its viewers, addressed them with the “you” pronoun and demanded an emotional response – pity, shock, compassion, outrage [22]. Mikhailov builds upon the mechanism of implication embedded in the genre. Yet a position of a reformist is not available for the Mikhailov’s viewer. This implication is of a different kind, turning the viewer into an accomplice in the act of transgressive looking. Thus his photos turn into “a silent form of conspiracy” pushing the viewers to test their own threshold of the ethics of representation. Thus Case History acquires interpretive dimensions that go beyond a debate on ethics and veracity and start commenting on the nature and the limits of representation as well as the limits of looking.

Last, and perhaps the most important, incursion upon the territory of the documentary comes from Mikhailov’s posing for some of the images in his narrative. On some pictures he stands in place of an examiner analyzing the homeless’ private parts. Mikhailov’s voyeurism implicates his viewer in the same voyeuristic act of the second degree: peeking at somebody who is examining somebody else (isn’t it what photography is about after all, the second degree voyeurism?) But more significantly Mikhailov poses as one of the characters from his own narration, his naked body looming large from one of the pages, as exposed and vulnerable as that of the homeless.

Mikhailov, Boris. Case History. Zurich: Scalo, 1999. Series – 1997-1998.

On the one hand, the artist’s inclusion of himself is consistent with the overall trope of witnessing, often essential for documentary. To be authentic the classical documentary had to be generated by an actual eyewitness who would also, on occasion, confess his/her own hardships which, to a certain degree, would echo those of the depicted. The confessional mode was also most prominent in the documentary literature of the 1930s often transforming eye witnessing accounts into over-sentimentalized stories of passion and romance in the pulp fiction magazines [23]. Mikhailov seems to accept the genre’s penchant for the sentimental: the mis-en-scenes he stages with his cast of the homeless hint at all sorts of romantic tropes. The homeless seem to reenact love and jealousy, spite and friendship, merry drinking and fighting – the whole urban opera is unfolding in front of the viewer’s eyes.

Witnessing in documentary also presupposes a more sober aspect as well, that of a civic duty of exposing social predicaments. Mikhailov, attuned to that kind of witnessing, claims that “taking pictures of poverty was my professional and civic duty”, emphasizing his attempt to go against the typical Soviet practice of eradication certain uncomfortable moments from the country’s history [24]. He wanted to document poverty of the 1990s so that this period would not be erased from people’s memory as famine, war, or generally ordinary Soviet street life was censored from the pubic discourse.

However, Mikhailov’s inclusion the images of himself into Case History speaks of something more then mere witnessing as veracity technique or a civic duty. In particular, there is one photograph, that of the artist lying in a bath tub, that coils the whole narrative in a tight central locus, the spring of meaning that unwinds on other pages. The artist is half submerged under water, cramping his knees to fit this tiny bath tub of a Soviet apartment. He is prostrate on his back, horizontal, naked, obviously uncomfortable, in brief, in a position of passivity and vulnerability. Moreover, the perspectival arrangement of the shot, its foreshortening renders the body almost upside down, as if it is slipping downward, ever unstable and asked to be caught – asked to be saved.

This rendition of the artist’s body equates him to that of his photographic subjects, the homeless. The artist as an ontological category is as displaced and “homeless” as the actual homeless. The artist often functions from the margins of the society, beyond the borders of its morality or ethics as one needs to step outside the system to gain some critical distance to observe mechanisms of this system. Mikhailov’s own uncertainty and social instability that he comments upon in the book preface allow him to infiltrate the circle of the homeless, to gain the trust of a closed cliquish subculture that often endures physical abuse thus being petrified of strangers. To trigger a conversation on morality and ethics one needs to be able to look at the other side of the issue. The transgressive act of peeking beyond the acceptable is what delineates the precarious position of the artist and art at large and also what stigmatizes the artist as an outcast of the society which strifes to preserve its status-quo undisturbed.

Overall, fixation on the ethics of social relations has produced a plethora of critical responses on Case History that often accuse Mikhailov of exploitation or even soliciting prostitution. At the same time this fixation has obscured another dimension of the ethical, that of the ethics of representation.

Do there exist things or situations that should not be looked at and should not be represented? Are the processes of looking and representing symmetrical or is it permissible in some cases to look at thing but not to represent them? Under which context a certain situation might be acceptable for viewing? What happens with the switch of the context? Are there borders of acceptability for viewing and do they coincide with moral border? Does ethics regulate representation or their relations are not necessarily commensurate? Who is the artist who dares to push the limits of representation – a transgressor who needs to be punished or a liberator who needs to be praised?

All these questions, surprisingly, are left unanswered in Mikhailov’s scholarship. Perhaps, the issues of the limits of representation disturb too much of inner fears and deep-seated self-censored taboos of the Western art history. Plunging into these taboos does not give the self-righteous satisfaction one derives from defending the poor and arguing about the appropriateness of artist’s paying or not paying his models.

Mikhailov has been purposefully disturbing the viewer since the very beginning of his photographing practice in the 1960s. At the time, he was subjected to multiple KGB’s interrogations for constantly transgressing Soviet visual codes: he risked photographing nudes, various leisurely activities, people drinking and smoking, in other words, the themes that violated the sense of propriety of the Soviet subject. This is precisely where consistency of Mikhailov’s seemingly disparate postmodern bricolage lies –  in the act of transgression of the acceptable limits of representation.

1. Boris Mikhailov, Case History (Zurich: Scalo, 1985).
2. Ibid., 5.
3. Один з найбільш заангажованих поглядів на етику свідчення Михайлова викладено у Matthias Christen, “Symbolic Bodies, Real Pain: Post-Soviet History, Boris Mikhailov and the Impasse of Documentary Photography,” в The Image and the Witness. Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 52 – 66. Також Viktor Misiano and Anna Pilkington, “The Ethics of a View: Notes on Boris Mikhailov,” в Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 21 (2005), 72 – 79. Також, Alla Efimova and Boris Mihailov, “Photographic Ethics in the Work of Boris Mihailov,” в Art Journal 53, no. 2 (1994), 63 – 69. Та Walead Beshty, “Toward an Empathic Resistance: Boris Mikhailov’s Embodied Documents,” в Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 12 (2005), 80 – 88.
4. Boris Mikhailov and Eva Respini, “A Conversation with Boris Mikhailov.” Accessed May 18, 2015.
5. Nicolas Bourriaud, “Notes on Boris Mikhailov,” in Boris Mikhailov. I’ve Been Here Once Before, edited by David Teboul (Munich: Hirmer Verlag GmbH, 2011), 9 – 12.
6. Carl Plantinga, “What a Documentary Is, After All,” in Documentary (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 52 – 62.
7. Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983), 19.
8. Ibid., 52.
9. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
10. Ibid., 62 – 63.
11. Ibid., 8.
12. Stott, Documentary Expression, 4.
13. Walead Beshty, “Toward an Empathic Resistance: Boris Mikhailov’s Embodied Documents,” в Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry 12 (2005), 80 – 81.
14. Фраза належить Вільяму Стотту, який використовує її у фінальному розділі Documentary Expression and Thirties America, де він описує книгу Уолкера Еванса та Джеймса Ейджі Let Us Know Praise Famous Men як таку, що одночасно резюмувала дух 1930-х рр. в США та нівелювала документальні шаблони, підриваючи деякі принципи документального жанру. Згідно зі Стоттом, книга вийшла занадто особистісною, відвертою та навіть жорстокою у самовикритті. Він особливо звертається до стилю письма Ейджі, який переступає канони документального репортажу. Вираз “нівелюючи документальні шаблони” здається доречним щодо робіт Михайлова, який розсунув межі документального ще більше, таким чином оприявнюючи його обмеження, нерідко в жорсткій формі. William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 261 – 266.
15. Bourriaud, Notes, 9 – 10.
16. Beshty, EmpathicResistance, 82.
17. Misiano and Pilkington, Ethics of a View, 76 – 77.
18. Francois Prodromides, “Red Babylon,” in Boris Mikhailov. I’ve Been Here Once Before, edited by David Teboul (Munich: HirmerVerlag GmbH, 2011), 26.
19. Mikhailov, Case History, 4 – 5.
20. Stott, Documentary Expression, 57 – 63.
21. Matthias Christen, “Symbolic Bodies, Real Pain: Post-Soviet History, Boris Mikhailov and the Impasse of Documentary Photography,” in The Image and the Witness. Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 52 – 66.
22. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
23. Stott, Documentary Expression, 28.
24. Ibid., 36 – 42.
25. Mikhailov, Case History, 6 – 7.