That the art world, with its exhibitions, biennials, and art fairs, ground to a halt during the pandemic was frustrating for everyone involved. Now that the situation is more or less under control, most people have felt a sense of relief and have gone back to their old ways. Life is back to normal. Again. In light of this, it’s notable that the kunsthalle Kohta in Helsinki has integrated the swift decision making from Covid times into its post-pandemic operations.
Even though I’m generally of the opinion that fast reactions often give rise to cliched comments and banal artworks, I found Kohta’s decision to respond to the war in Ukraine by showing the Ukrainian artist Sergey Bratkov so daring that I felt a certain respect for the initiative even before seeing the show. Instead of peppering its social media accounts with the Ukrainian flag, the kunsthalle has elected for more meaningful action.
A lot can be said of Bratkov’s career. I know of him as a provocateur, and an heir to Boris Mikhailov, whose oeuvre is tightly entwined with the geopolitical reality in which it was conceived. Like Mikhailov, Bratkov was born and raised in Kharkiv during the Soviet era. Both are famous for shocking photographs of post-Soviet lives: Mikhailov for his images of homeless addicts; Bratkov for his powerful portraits of children whose parents nurture hopes of future modelling careers for them.
Bratkov first exhibited his series ‘Kids’ (2001) some two decades ago. That is as long (more than one-third of his life) as he has lived in Moscow and been active in the Russian art scene. The exhibition at Kohta is not a retrospective, but an attempt to reflect Bratkov’s identity by taking a long look back in time, all the way to the 1990s.
The exhibition’s title Harkova/Moskova establishes the scene, both geographically and spiritually. The Finnish names of Bratkov’s two hometowns constitutes a veritable highway of associations to travel in the only direction that seems possible right now. Harkova is described as a war-torn mourning nest. Moskova is constantly in the headlines as the seat of totalitarian power. It is not an easy gateway for the visitor to enter.
The exhibition consists of four artworks, three of which comprise many separate parts. The outlier is Portrait of My Father (2015) which greets visitors at the entrance. This is one of Bratkov’s last photographic portraits of his father and is presented as a huge matte inkjet print. The show’s title establishes the context, but Portrait of My Father sets the mood. The starting point for the curation may be the war, but visually Harkova/Moskova is an elegy for humanity. It is permeated by a deep sadness over how things are, not just right now, but also in the past.
The portrait is an attempt to create photographic evidence of how time degrades us. The elder Bratkov, once lively and strong-willed, is depicted in his nineties, neglected and ill. The photograph is painterly to the extent that even his soiled garments are aestheticised. From a purely ethical point of view, it is a problematic image. On the other hand, photography’s ethical aspects are precisely what Bratkov has so often worked with. He makes no bones about there always being a power dynamic between the photographer and the subject. Indeed, it can even be argued that this deliberately exploitative gaze is one of Bratkov’s main themes.
Here the portrait becomes a sophisticated slap in the face, where the now-deceased father represents not only the passage of time, physical decay, poverty, and misery, but also the histories of the Soviet Union and Ukraine after the former’s collapse. With Kharkiv as a background, two other works carry on that theme: the series ‘Birds’ (1997), which consists of photographs from an orphanage and from a natural history museum; and the video installation Architectural Measurements (2018/2022), in which the artist’s brother examines a dilapidated Soviet-era public institution.
Alongside the above-mentioned selection from Bratkov’s vast archive, the brand-new installation Refuge (2022) is shown. It represents the aftermath of the exhibition title Moskova and was conceived of in early April at the Rodchenko School of Photography and Multimedia, where Bratkov teaches. The Moscow that appears in Refuge is a place dominated by total confusion and delirium. The art school’s gallery is made to symbolise the reality of Moscow dissidents by acting as a dormitory for eight students and a flock of live pigeons for one night. Surveillance footage is shown on a screen flanked by photographs taken by Bratkov during the night. The urban pigeons are far from white doves. Grey and empty-eyed, they peck seeds from the floor while people doze on the hard surface. The work also includes the participating students’ dreams, recorded immediately upon waking and printed on ordinary A4 paper. It is completely absurd, and thus entirely reasonable.
It takes a controversial Ukrainian-born artist like Bratkov to compile an exhibition, in the third month of the war, that lifts the lid on the situation in Ukraine: that despite democratic development and goals of joining the European Union, it is a country which carries a lot of pain and is scarred by deep-seated corruption. For Bratkov, all human beings are imperfect, and that is also why his work carries a transformative power. Narratives about nations of heroes are just fairy tales, after all. Viewed from Harkova/Moskova’s point of view, the war appears as it is: illogical, sick, and dripping with atrocities.