Review by Julia Secklehner for ceel.org.uk
The small gallery space of Dadiani Fine Art had nine of Roman Pyatkovka’s large-scale combination photos on display. Looking like movie posters, they mix Soviet kitsch imagery with mostly naked girls, flirting with spectators from behind a veil of folklore dancers, children watching boats or camera manuals.
The imagery Pyatkovka has constructed with this artificial blend of eroticism and Soviet officialdom offers a – sometimes amusing – new perspective on two strands of photography which existed alongside each other- one approved by the state, one driven underground. Pyatkovka combines images from ‘Soviet Photo’ (the only official photography publication in the Soviet Union for the better part of the twentieth century) with photographs he himself produced as a dissident from the 1980s onwards. In the artist’s own words, he wants the viewer ‘to reconsider and reflect upon this period of Russian history through these contrasting images.’
So what do we see? A girl’s pubic hair becomes a happy worker’s beard, a pair of panties a cosmonaut’s mono-brow and a well-nourished little girl in folk costume is offered an apple by a lascivious nude. What’s more, we find ourselves in the images through reflections on the glass behind which they’re kept, adding an extra layer to the already contrasting compositions.
None of the photographs are labelled, and they represent only a small part of the series Pyatkovka produced in 2012, when he mixed and matched nudity bordering on the pornographic with state-sanctioned ‘Soviet Photo’ images from the 1960s onwards. At first, the fact there are no titles, no indication of how works were produced or when, is a bit startling – as if there’s information missing that in an exhibition we’d normally expect. On second thoughts, however, this method of display fits the idea of undermining official Soviet imagery, which was tightly controlled and constructed to avoid any subversive interpretations. Lacking any further information about the photograph, we can ask our own questions and make sense of the images one by one ourselves.
The anonymity of the display also hides the fact the images were produced as lambda photographic prints, allowing digital sources to be imposed directly onto photographic material. The contrast between this fine printing technology and the graininess of the originals adds a sense of timelessness to the works, almost like retro-film or advertising posters. The subversiveness Pyatkovka hints at is thus contained as much in the form as the content, adding a level of complexity invisible at first sight.
The works themselves are all rather similar: images that correspond with ‘typical’ and official Soviet life are juxtaposed with ‘unofficial views’. The latter, however, have a rather narrow focus: nude girls in lascivious poses. Certainly, the contrast underlines that there were other things in the USSR besides happy workers and cosmonauts – namely a private life behind closed doors which, it seems, involved a lot of sex. It’s an erotic form of criticism, and Pyatkovka’s comment that ‘any depiction of nudity was considered pornographic’ suggests he chose those images for the wide gap they reveal between an open sexuality and the closed-mindedness of the regime. Inevitably however, this leaves us wondering what other subversive themes in photography existed at the time – and how typical these are. And if the official ‘Soviet Photo’ images are formulaic, aren’t the photographs of the girls as well? As typical Soviet imagery is mixed with a cliché of women enjoying themselves naked in a clash between what may be considered ‘proper’ and ‘improper,’ we’re confronted with a kind of ‘sexy socialism,’ – no less questionable, perhaps, than official propaganda.
Yet Pyatkovka’s photos invite a number of interpretations and his humorous juxtapositions make his work a delight. They leave room for our own stories in the space between official and unofficial, Soviet surface and underground, and in doing so provide an excellent canvas for our own reconsiderations of Russian history – just as he suggested.
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