Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Photography by: Boris Mikhailov

Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Ukrainian-born Boris Mikhailov is one of the leading photographers from the former Soviet Union. For over 30 years, he has explored the place of the individual within the historical mechanisms of public ideology, touching on such subjects as the Ukraine under Soviet rule, the living conditions in post-communist Eastern Europe and the fallen ideals of the Soviet Union. Although deeply rooted in a historical context, Mikhailov’s work also presents profoundly engaging and personal narratives of humor, lust, vulnerability, aging and death.

Case History is a study of the homeless, a collection of photographs by Mikhailov of homeless people in the Ukraine. His raw images of the homeless are sometimes intensely painful and not for the squeamish; they are hard to look at, but also hard to look away from and hard to forget. The photographs from Case History are currently on exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the first in-depth presentation of Mikhailov’s seminal series (1997-98) at an American museum. The photographs portray people who are far from conventionally attractive in grungy rooms or in wintry outdoor sites, naked or pulling aside their clothes to expose parts of their bodies ordinarily hidden from view.

Mr. Mikhailov began making photographs in the 1960s, but he was arrested and interrogated twice by the K.G.B. In 1996, five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began making portraits of people who had been disenfranchised and left homeless by the rise of a new capitalist oligarchy in his hometown of Kharkov, Ukraine, where he was born in 1938. He published 400 of them in his book Case History, from which the photographs here were selected.

What does it mean to present images like these as art in a museum? In one respect, they carry on the tradition of picturing the downtrodden exemplified in photographs by countless artists from Walker Evans to Andres Serrano. Works like those tell us that, whatever their outward appearances and circumstances, the poor have souls that are worthy of respect. However, Mr. Mikhailov’s photographs are not so ennobling. They render their subjects as exotic and even demonic. Like specimens in a freak show, they elicit sympathy, revulsion or amazement, but not admiration or empathy. Because there are no titles or captions, you don’t know who the people are or anything about their lives. Maybe some were research scientists, or university professors fired for not toeing party lines or for crossing paths with a ruthless plutocrat at the wrong place and time; maybe they were all rounded up from an insane asylum, or from detox center for alcoholics.

All of his subjects seem to belong to a tribe or extended family of outcasts. But “the homeless,” one might object, is not composed of a homogeneous population. The homeless include alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes, con artists, people with mental illnesses and hard-working citizens going through rough times. But Mr. Mikhailov is not concerned with personal particulars. In his enterprise, the subjects are, above all, actors who function mainly as allegorical symbols. They stand as expressions for the underbelly of society, and their challenging revelations of their own usually hidden body parts is a metaphor for the whole project of exposing what polite society would prefer to keep under wraps. To the extent that they appear everywhere around the world, including in New York City, they are universal signs of capitalism’s failure to care for the less fortunate.

Viewers can read more about Mr. Mikhailov’s work in The New York Times here

Boris Mikhailov: Photographs from “Case History” (1999)

Slide Show: Case History/Behold the Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

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Performance in Photography Since 1960: An Audience of One

Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 9: Shimenawa, 2005

William Pope, Foraging (The Air Itself/Dark Version), 1995

Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #151, 2009

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Eiffel Tower, 1995–2003

Performance in Photography Since 1960: An Audience of One

Staging Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960 presents a wide range of images focusing on performance art that were expressly made for the artist’s camera, which was recently on exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Performance art is usually experienced live, but what documents it and ensures its enduring life is, above all, photography. Yet photography plays a constitutive role, not merely a documentary one, when the performance is staged expressly for the camera (often in the absence of an audience), and the images that result are recordings of an event but also autonomous works of art. The pictures in this exhibition exemplify the complex and varied uses artists have devised for photography in the field of performance art since the 1960s.

Many artists have experimented with the camera to test the physical and psychological limits of the body. Other artists have enlisted the camera as an accomplice in experiments with identity, suggesting the plasticity or mutability of identity itself. They have engaged the production of the self as positional rather than fixed and often played with shifting ideas of gender and/or sexual identity. The exhibition also includes both off-the-cuff and staged performative gestures of political dissent, as well as explorations of the dualities of consumerism and dispossession.

Staging Action demonstrates the complex ways in which photography, confronting us with its ability to both freeze and extend a moment in time, pushes against the grain of mere documentation to create performance art as a conceptual exercise that can be appreciated in the absence of a performing body. Often the technology of the camera is able to open up new space for performance, isolating exhibitionist, arresting, spectacular and just plain wacky moments. For every strenuous performance in this collection that challenges physical and psychological limits, there’s also a very playful one.

Viewers can read more about this exhibition in The New York Times here.

Tono Stano’s Performance Photography: Sense

Slide Show: Performance in Photography Since 1960

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