Music Box

On a ferry Balagansk—Anosovo, someone had a music box for a child’s entertainment. The child had long lost any interest in it, and did not open the lead. I was curious what it sounded like. Finally, the music box fell on the floor with a frail ringing, and started playing. It played a familiar melody. My aunt, being a maiden, had such a box, it looked exactly the same—black, plastic, with flat gleaming walls; opened, it displayed several red velvet compartments.

I once took off a cover which shielded the notched cylinder, and studied the mechanism. One had to tighten the spring for the cylinder to rotate. Thin metal plates which responded with pleasant sounds to the notches disturbing them, captivated my attention. I could look at their alternating bending and straightening for a long time.

Once taken off, the cover was never glued back. I saw other music boxes of this model, only with a plexiglass cover showing the secret mechanics. That was a smart invention; it probably saved a great deal of boxes from being taken apart.

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Garden of Ruins / Nostalgic Seizure

With the breaking of the Communist rule, there emerged, among other architectural incongruent consequences, the gardens of ruins, stone gardens, in a way: specifically organized spaces where sculptures and monuments whose symbolic meaning expired, are collected. Inspirations that effigies had to provide before they were discarded, on a number of occasions were transformed into the didacticity of “look how terrible it was, how ugly, how megalomaniac, and how unstable and fleeting was their existence, as well as the existence of regimes which engendered them.” Such a park exists, for instance, in Moscow near the TsDKh, the Central House of Artist (Tsentralny Dom Khudozhnika; it retained its Soviet-time name), side by side with the agglomeration of the modern, quite amorphous and ugly, perhaps intentionally, contemporary sculpture. With their existence, they pose the question: To what extent and how ruins encode ideological meaning? They necessarily evoke the image of active construction, of practices that were at play at the time; of which they are mere husks. The splendor they once exuded is not lost, but transformed.

The charmed garden of the broken statues of Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Stalin, sickles and hummers, machine gears and five-arrowed stars on the backyard of what seems to be civilization, restores in the mind of the visitor the USSR of a never arriving future. The utopia of a country, where only the best images of life proliferated and replicated, such as young pioneers applying their puffed lips to the horns, with the scarlet reflections of the red flag on their slightly downed, gilded cheeks, is floating here vaguely. Yet it is also impossible to look at the heavy bronze monuments without recollecting devindividualized, often nameless, dehumanized bare life in barren landscapes of forced labor camps. Another vision is a columbarium of the party cemetery, the niches of which, for instance, on Novodevichie cemetery, are full of ashes of devoted Communists. The sculpture garden is a columbarium of monuments.

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Ivan Petrovich Petukhov, the member of KPSS since 1904. The member of the former Society of Old Bolshevicks. (Novodevichie cemetery)

Once again, looking at the garden of ruins, one could not help but notes: a huge bronze sculpture of the USSR national emblem, stone embodiments of revolutioners and Bolshevicks’: Felix Dzerzhinsky by Vuchetich (the monument which was previously towering over Lubyanka square); Yakov Sverdlov by Ambarzumyan; Slalin by Merkurov; writer Maxim Gorky, and several incarnations of Vladimir Lenin; fallic symbols of nations’ friendship, along with compositions commemorating deeds of the military glory, some probably discarded for no good reason.[1] Ironically or not, but certainly intentionally, “istukans” (“idols”) were gathered in vicinity of the modern memorial commemorating the repressed.

 

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[1] In the spree of reconfiguring the space, unreasonable displacement of sculptures or acts of renaming happened on more than several occasions. Thus, when the names of the Moscow metro stations were changed massively, in the late 1980s and 1990s, exterminating the communist mapping of the city and replacing it with the map of the new times, the metro station Lermontovskaya, commemorating the name of the magnificent Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, was wiped out from the plans. It was renamed to the supposedly historic Krasnie Vorota, The Red Gate, in honor of the triumphal arch above the ground, demolished in 1926 by Mossovet, the city administration of the Soviet government. Moscow palimpsest is the palimpsest of lacks, losses, glaring gaps and broken texture of a manuscript, rather than the palimpsest of careful obliteration of details and replacing them with new layers of meaning.

Photograph, Time Suspended

To be naturally evoking, the photo should depart from every naturalness, and be heavily edited. There is no reason not to edit a photo up to making the depicted object unrecognizable. The photo is a specter of the moment, an apparition of the thing, and a ghost of the person. It is far more “natural” when it makes no direct allusion to the reality that it “represents,” not to mention that it does not re-present but simply presents. Presents something. Not reality. Or at least not really. The further it departs from shapes and shades, forms and surfaces, conventional lights and shadows, the better. Thus it does not attempt to deceive you, signaling with all possible clarity that this is the mold of what is already gone (if it ever was, at all).

Cartier-Bresson wrote: “A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.” (http://todayspictures.slate.com/afterwar/18.html) The imagery of this phrase immediately burst into the bundle of separate galleries: transit refers to the fleeting, ephemeral nature of the matter, vestige and trace, to the capability of objects to remain visible and feelable after their disappearance and dispersing into nihil. The neighboring of the death and trace in the phrase evokes the moss-covered tombs on the old cemetery, in-rotten into dewed grass. To take it further, photography is a trace of what never happened, it is the flattening of the three-dimensional objects which makes them strangely, perversely more visual, stops attention, and settles into memory.

It has been noted how much the technological changes advanced photography. But the photography would soon live through another revolution when professional cameras would finally be capable of uploading the images onto the web directly. Before that, we live in the medieval times.

The development of technology changes the experiences of taking the photo and of being photographed. It has been a time since I had an experience of a posed collective photo, previously a popular genre. Family gatherings may still require this sort of ritualized activity, but once it was a ceremony that had to be agreed upon in advance. My mother and her sister would clad themselves and us, their children, in the fine dresses, and lead to a studio. The photographer would arrange everyone like the docile dolls, put your hand here, lift your chin, do not blink, stare at the aperture of the camera resembling the squid’s eye; now the bird will fly out. One of such photographs, buried somewhere in my archives, is memorable because it pictures the three children’s faces, out of four, unhappy, with the angles of their lips pointed down, while Lena, the oldest sister, and our mothers are appropriately cheerful and smile. For some reason, my brothers and I, three of us, did not want to undergo the procedure slowing down our summer entertainment. We did not succeed in convincing adults that it is not a good idea, but we succeeded that day in spoiling everyone’s mood, and the photograph, with our silly pouts.

By contrast, new genres emerge to supersede the dying with the development of technologies. Selfie, which now requires nothing but a moment, has been propagating at the frightening rate. Periodical grumblings that people nowadays have exclusively selfies in their camera rolls aside, the creative projects exploring the ephemerality of one’s own face are on the rise: A Man Takes Photos of Himself for 12.5 Years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPPzXlMdi7o). Woman Takes a Picture of Herself for 5 years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgcBx4Ut-JA). And so on. One of the most powerful projects here is Abused Woman Takes Pictures of Herself for a Year (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03HnWYb3oTs).

With the exception of this last example, which goes far beyond these tasks, that is the exploration of how we age, what happens to us, and how it changes our facial features, the inescapability of time, the impact of the environment.

Photography is the second invention of time; time made tangible. A work of the photographer is the work of the collector, the self-assigned archivist, and the translator who renders seen by many, captured by no one, into the language known by all.

The majority of photographers are the classifiers that are interested in no system but in kickshaws and miscellany. But once a conceptual clear-cut comes into play (like the idea of architectural geometry in the Soviet spaces), the visual projects come into being and flourish.