Boris Mikhailov moves weightlessly, like a dancer. He says he is not tired, but how can we believe him? Three exhibitions in Paris: one, imposing in scope, at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie; another, titled At Dusk,at the Bourse de Commerce, with works from the Pinault Collection; and a third, at the Suzanne Tarasiève Gallery, 7 rue Pastourelle, featuring two complementary series, Case History, 1997–1998 and The Wedding, 2006. Tarasiève, the gallery owner, has been Mikhailov’s constant supporter, and this is the ninth exhibition solely dedicated to this singular, unclassifiable, unsettling artist.
The weather is mild and this unexpected warm spell at the exhibition opening acts like an injection of anti-stress serums on the visitors. He is there, a vital presence to his fans, enchanted to run into him in person. A woman offers him a bouquet of dahlias, “Is it for Suzanne,” he asks? “No, it’s for you,” replies the elegant Polish woman. Since Boris Mikhailov struggles with English, he keeps exchanging glances with her, as he does with other visitors, many very young and from distant countries, all crowding around him, trying to get a selfie with the artist, his signature on one of his books, or a smile.
“Sposibo” Boris repeats, that is, “Thank you,” or steps aside, perhaps a little overwhelmed by so much fervent attention. He turned 84 on August 25. He was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and everyone is avoiding the talk of war. It secretly brings the visitors together: it seems rude to ask him about his martyred country. This brave man, who had photographed the Maidan barricades in Kiev in December 2013, now lives mainly in Berlin, and one can easily imagine his pain. Moreover, to associate his work only with the war in Ukraine would be an anachronism: from the Soviet era through independence, the artist has never ceased exercising his freedom of expression.
He is not afraid to shock. Not afraid of pushing too far. Not afraid to be in the crosshairs. Not afraid to face ridicule. Not afraid of a minimal aesthetic. Not afraid of being unfashionable. Not afraid of ugliness. Not afraid to show the ruthlessness of the Soviet regime or of liberalism. This doesn’t mean he isn’t anxious. His muse, Vita, who is also the keeper of his memory, notes, speaking of the Case History series, possibly Mikhailov’s most power work, which some sensitive audiences have found shocking: “It’s a difficult subject, but his images bring people together.”
Suzanne Tarasiève: “I met Boris in 2000, in Berlin, which I visited every month since the fall of the Wall. I loved the energy of the city at that time, and there were many artists of incredible stature. It was Katarina Grosse, who was living in Düsseldorf at the time, who showed me his book, Case History [published in 1999 by Scalo, just after Unfinished Dissertation]. It was love at first sight! Right from the start we had a mutual sense of trust, with Boris as well as with his wife, Vita, as if we had known each other forever. He was then represented by Barbara Weiss [who passed away in 2016], but we were able to find an agreement. For me, Boris embodies a special, militant spirit; during the Soviet era he had to hide his work, otherwise everything would have been destroyed. It is thanks to his tenacity that we can now admire these images.”
Admire? The word does not shock this most original gallery owner in Paris: “With Boris, nothing bothers me, he paints life, he photographs it. So yes, it’s not a rose-colored exhibition, but that’s as it should be!” Tarasiève and her team thus wanted to exhibit Case History, in addition to the two exhibitions planned for this fall in Paris.
Boris and Vita are almost at home at the gallery, and navigate through the Case History prints without feeling embarrassed. Vita and Boris: “These are homeless people, people left adrift, bomzhi (бомж), their life is complicated, a day-to-day nightmare. These people were crying for help, some were very sick, at the end of their tether. They subsisted in the streets, in cellars, in tunnels, in all those places that weren’t closed off at the time. This is not a document, even if it evokes a precise moment in time, when Boris returned to Kharkiv following a year spent in Germany on a scholarship. These are situations, if you like, and we worked together. Boris wanted to dedicate a requiem to these condemned souls.”
The portraits of these “condemned souls” are all the more impressive for their size. Despair in large format? An outsize burden shouldered by the photographer. Impossible to ignore them: there they are, in front of you, naked, dirty, wasted by alcohol, drugs, suffering. For us, the Kharkiv dispossessed are not strangers: they have brothers in misery in Paris and many other cities. What was shocked the most? Perhaps the sight of the human condition at its most raw. In the preface to Case History, dedicated to Vita and published by Scalo, Mikhailov notes the lack of photographs of the great famine (the Holodomor) in Ukraine in the 1930s, which killed millions, as if his duty were to show what he has seen in his century.
Boris Mikhailov has recorded emptiness. Desolate landscapes. Waste. Unimportant existences. Disoriented bodies. Asphyxiated brains. It took time for the work of this self-taught artist, seemingly too trashy and defying the rules of news reporting, to win over museums and collectors. In 1990, the Tel Aviv Museum exhibited his work, with Micha Bar-Am as curator. In 1994, MoMA acquired prints (of landscapes) and exhibited it at that very year. Then Portikus Frankfurt exhibited him in 1995. And so on. Today, Boris Mikhailov’s name is known, his work has achieved recognition. “He is a genius, an unforgettable artist,” says Laurie Hurwitz, who organized the vast retrospective at the MEP. Suzanne Tarasiève, for her part, remains the faithful friend, rain or shine: “Art is the mirror of the soul … This war, unfortunately, gives new magnitude to Boris’s work and helps younger generations to understand this conflict. Boris is a tormented soul, but he also knows how to make decisions as an artist.”
Nothing seems to have stopped Mikhailov in his quest for personal expression. At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, a multitude of series unfolds across two floors, some of it work in progress. It is not easy to find your way around the streets of Kharkiv or along the shores of Gurzuf, a seaside resort on the Crimean peninsula, or around a lake in Sloviansk, in southeast Ukraine. In these places steeped in chance, he photographs women dancing with each other in the open air (Dance, 1978); friends on vacation (Crimean Snobbism, 1982); bathers indifferent to pollution (Salt Lake, 1986).
There is much to be learned from these years when the innuendo is king: what is needed is not a caption to the image, but the image itself, breaking taboos. Here he is naked, almost hysterical, in defiant poses; here he sets two handsome sailors and a teddy bear against a red background; here he is with a cat between his legs, in what looks like an ultra punk portrait of a European feline—as if the cat had just caught a glimpse of Gagarin’s shadow. Or yet he riffs on the slide show from the Sandwich (1960–1970) series, to the sound of Pink Floyd’s hit, The Dark Side of the Moon.
Case History, Suzanne Tarasiève Gallery, until November 19
Suzanne Tarasiève also presents a solo show by Boris Mikhailov at Paris Photo (Theater of War, and Tea Coffee Cappucino), from November 10 to 13
Ukrainian Diary, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, until January 15, 2023.
At Dusk, Bourse de Commerce/Collection Pinault, until January 16, 2023.
To learn more :
The Holodomor in Ukraine: Anne Applebaum, The Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Penguin
Anne Applebaum, “How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine From the World” Atlantic, 2017