Boris Mikhailov/Case History X, Saatchi Gallery
Images do not always speak for themselves. Take the photographs currently hanging on the walls of the Saatchi Gallery. In them you will see described, in graphic detail, the degraded lives of the homeless of Kharkov, a run-of-the-mill town in the Ukraine, the prime casualties of the botched transition from communism to capitalism that has scarred the former USSR.
A woman with a hideously distended, jutting belly poses naked for the cam- era. Street kids are pictured smoking, pissing and sniffing glue. A balding man in his forties with a tattoo of Stalin on his right breast proudly shows off his large, warty penis. A young prostitute bares her arse, disfigured by STDs.
What is one supposed to make of images like these? Seen within the incongruous context of the exhibition’s private view, peopled as it was with serving staff dressed up in Damien Hirst spot-painting T-shirts filling and re-filling champagne glasses, the images inevitably appeared voyeuristic, exploitative and bordered on the repulsive. Especially so, given that many of portraits are nude, the models were paid and, to make matters worse, many have died since the pictures were taken, only a few years ago.
These are all accusations that have been levelled at Mikhailov before, most recently when he won the Citibank Photography Prize earlier this year. He remains, however, unrepentant, and it is his description of what he does and why, laid out in the introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibition, that is possibly the only saving grace of this exhibition.
According to Mikhailov, he had a “professional and civic duty” to record the lives of these fellow Ukranians that would otherwise fade unnoticed from the world, to give them a place in history as well as to bestow visibility on their plight. His undeniably powerful images succeed in achieving these two aims, but a final judgment of this kind of work seems to me to depend upon what the artist thinks, or at least claims he is doing, and whether or not you believe them, which is why images cannot always speak for themselves. In a different context, this exhibition might have been acceptable — in this gallery, with its history of chasing shock-value, it is not.
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