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EIKON : Accounts of people that count

Sinizkij M.P. Bronnizi, Serie Bezhin Lug, C-Print, 100x80cm (c) A. Khoroshilova

Facing viewers with his head upraised, and looking back onto a glorious past: such is the pose of an old man who proudly exhibits his military medals in his village home.
The harmony of two generations at the family table: an old woman faithful to her traditions and a young one with a more western style. Both smile at us, and so demonstrate their contentment.

Barsuki, aus der Serie “Bezhin Lug”
2004, C-Print, 100 x 114 cm © Anastasia Khoroshilova © Anastasia Khoroshilova

Idle farming under a sky dotted with clouds conveys a farmer's life unburdened by any sorrows. Since everyday life and religion are level, dolls and an iron lie at the feet of the Virgin Mother instead of candles or statues of saints. The viewers' attention is captured by the banality of a calendar's pages.

All of this is part of Anastasia Khoroshilova's latest photo series about Russian rural society, entitled Bezhin Lug. In some of the photographs landscape and buildings from Russia even stand on their own and thus, the appearance of man as a centrepiece in these works is consciously eclipsed, even if he remains present due to his interference with the environment.

Young Russian photographer Anastasia Khoroshilova was brought up in the midst of Moscovian bourgeoisie. In 1993, at the age of 15, she left her native Russia and went to Germany. For Bezhin Lug, a series of 70 photographs, she returns to her country. For about four months Khoroshilova, one of Jörg Sasse's students, travels through four regions and visits over a dozen villages. She pays close attention to the villagers, who are representative of Russian population and have witnessed decades of complex social, economic and political change from within. But Khoroshilova is really more interested in the stories these people have to tell. So she tries to capture the portrayed persons' state of mind, their soul: the famous "Russian soul" maybe, which the generic name of Bezhin Lug stands for.

Her work is not field research into Russian rural society, just as it is not reportage into the decline of the farmers' community. Rather, the artist is engaging in a quest for the famous "Russian soul". She is comparable to Turgenev in that respect, in that he was one of the first writers to defend the farmers' evolution towards freedom and the abolishment of serfdom. In his short story Bezhin Lug(1), which inspired the title of the photo series, Turgenev discovers and reveals to us the romantic aspects of life in rural Russia. Episodes from everyday life or mysticism intertwined with religious belief are depicted alongside images of inhumane conditions. Khoroshilova sees these descriptions of magically beautiful Russian countryside as a leitmotif. She chooses to show the farmers' special relationship with the nature that surrounds them and makes this accessible to viewers through the frames her photographs offer (2).

Hours of intensive talks with the farmers reveal life stories and village rumours to the artist. Over a cup of chai, the villagers tell her their memories from the Great Patriotic War or their lives in sovkhozes and kolkhozes. All of these things are firmly embedded in their consciousness. Khoroshilova eagerly listens to the stories, always waiting for the right moment in which to release the shutter, so capturing the narrator's soul just as it is. Nothing added, nothing omitted.

Lena, Chludnewo, aus der Serie „Bezhin Lug“ 2004, C-Print, 100 x 80 cm © Anastasia Khoroshilova © Anastasia Khoroshilova

The single person; the individual among a group: the same phenomenon is at the centre of Koroshilova's first photo series. Islanders was created between 2002 and 2004, focussing on the world of boarding schools and orphanages and the like. The world of people who, just like the artist herself, traded in their home for forms of communitarian living(3). An adolescent poses in his own tiny individualised room in an elite boarding school. Ambitious ballet students heading for success, whose body language gives evidence of adult maturity, proudly examine the viewer. And then, the timid expression on the face of an orphan who is about to find a new home. Islanders once again reflects the artist's endeavour to make a person's state of mind visible. What all of these people have in common is that they are uprooted. Facing a new situation on the one hand, adapting to it on the other. The most important thing is the bond between the portrayed people and their environment, the surrounding objects, because these play a crucial part in the process of personalising standardised living units.

Such particular patterns of relationships are of prime importance in these psychological and sensitive portraits. They are characterised by respect, tolerance and unobtrusiveness, which makes them the silent witnesses of stories - and history. The evidence they give inspires and impresses by its aesthetic and content, and this is mainly because of the artist's special sensitivity to colour play and composition.

Author: Marion Geier

1 In English the short story is entitled Bezhin Meadow. It is part of the volume A Sportsman's Notebook (translated by Charles and Natasha Hepburn, New York 1992).

2 Besides Turgenev's short story from 1848 we could also mention Sergej Eisenstein's film of the same name (unfinished; 1935 - 37) and Vladimir Sorokin's Novel (no English translation; a German edition exists, Roman, translated by Thomas Wiedling, Zurich, 1995). These two works also show the life of the Russian people in periods of transition.

3 Khoroshilova attended boarding school in Holzminden from 1993 to 1999. The residents jokingly referred to themselves as "islanders" and so suggested the title of her photo series.

Contribution of the Austrian art magazine Eikon

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