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Igor Manko is a photographer in Kharkov, the Ukraine. He has been a member of the National Union of Fine Art Photographers of Ukraine since 1992. He is educated as a linguist and is director of a language school. He has exhibited his photographic work in Kharkov, Kiev, Moscow, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Denmark. He has recently exhibited his work on VASA.
The beginning of the Soviet “belle époque” was marked with Sergei Eisenstein’s red flag ascending over the rebel Potemkin battleship in the 1925 premiere of the film. Battleship Potemkin was black and white, and the flag was hand-colored in every frame and every copy of the movie.
Misha Pedan’s The End of la Belle Époque depicts its near-death agony in 84 black and white pictures. In one of the pictures, Pedan, in a token handshake with Eisenstein, manually colors red the flags on the Soviet style mural in each of the 500 numbered and signed copies of the book.
Official Soviet art was prescribed to use higher register to relay the Great Beginning story (Optimistic Tragedy or How the Steel Was Tempered, for example). However, there is no drama in its end, according to Pedan, and the tragedy of its beginning transforms by the end of its existence into something that sooner looks like a pessimistic comedy. The triviality of street scenes and the mediocrity of their subjects do not allow any solemnity or pompousness, like there is nothing solemn in a giant decomposing corpse.
When Misha Pedan entered the Kharkov art scene in mid-1980s, it felt like a bubble ready to blast. With Gorbachev having announced Perestroika, the old ideological restrictions were dropped, but the emerging freedom (and the freedom of artistic expression as well) was still a moot concept to be defined.
In photography, a group of artists (the Vremya Group) had worked out a set of new aesthetic criteria underlying what was soon to be named the Kharkov School of Photography, and their underground artistic activity that had been under permanent control by ideological watchdogs suddenly surfaced in numerous exhibits around the city. A number of younger generation artists followed suit promptly adopting the new language of photo art in their imagery. Misha Pedan was one of these, a co-founder of the Gosprom group which at different times brought together a total of eight younger generation photographers including the writer of these lines.
The Communist Party officials were at loss in recognizing the new reality too and found it difficult to adapt to the new rules for the old game, so they often tried to stick to the familiar guns, with less success, though. Thus, in 1987, the first grand-scale exhibition of Kharkov photography that attracted crowds of spectators lining up to enter the gallery was about to be banned. Pedan, its curator, used all his organizational talent, wit, and connections to initiate a public discussion, which salvaged the show from being closed down and further arose the interest of visitors. A whiff of scandal has often followed Pedan‘s curatorial efforts throughout his career. The latest event, Two Views on Ukraine’s Photography exhibit in Kiev in 2009, led to the appearance of Ukrainian Photographic Alternative, an association of artists opposing traditional tastes of the majority of art photographers.
(A video presentation of the book. There is no audio to the video)
Aesthetically Pedan’s work continues some of his Vremya group predecessors’ principles. Iryna Sandomirskaya, Professor of Cultural Studies at the Centre for Baltic and Eastern European Studies, University College Södertörn (Sweden), describes the influences on Pedan’s work in the essay The End of la Belle Époque published in the reviewed book:
“Boris Mikhailov is the artist who has won international fame for Pedan‘s city of Kharkov as the capital of Soviet dissident photography. Mikhailov introduced «bad photography» as a method to undermine the Soviet compositional canon and the optimistic narrative that the canon served to represent. For Mikhailov, depicting the Soviet reality at the moment of its irreversible and violent break-up, «bad photography» became a tool of aesthetic and social critique.”
Another artist who influenced Pedan’s, as well as some other younger generation photographers‘, imagery was Moscow-based Alexander Slyusarev (links to publications on Alexander Slyusarey that may be helpful to the reader: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Sliussarev ; http://www.blurb.com/b/647899-alexander-slyusarev-photographs; http://www.photographer.ru/gallery/166.htm#24). Slyusarev was friends with Mikhailov and frequented Kharkov.
“Slyusarev filmed the impoverished texture of everyday objects corroded by time and abject poverty as if they were Platonic ideas. Ironically, he made cellophane bags, lampshades, and pillows look like minimalist fetishes, as if eternalized by a metaphysical interaction of light and shadows” (Iryna Sandomirskaya, Op. cit.).
The two masters moved, one may say, in opposite directions, but “both in Mikhailov‘s critical statement and in Slyusarev‘s irony, the spectator understands and sympathizes with the undermining gesture addressed to the political system and the aesthetic mainstream” (Iryna Sandomirskaya, Op. cit.).
The combination of these influences forms Pedan‘s mainly documentary aesthetics (as well as the aesthetics of most of the Gosprom group member photographers) where criticism is never ruthless; it is, rather, dissolved in irony as there are no strong feelings left towards the once formidable and sinister enemy.
Inspired by the novelty of this vision, the new generation of photographers prowled the city streets day after day, discovering new subjects and looking for unexpected compositional arrangements. It resulted in an unending series of images of the late 1980s Kharkov, its dilapidated streets that nobody cared to maintain, its picturesque inhabitants who unexpectedly found themselves out of the Communist Motherland‘s firm grip not knowing what to do with this newly acquired freedom. We couldn’t imagine at the time that the snapshots we were producing were to become History – a visual document registering the last and somewhat frivolous farewell gesture of the passing La Bell Époque.
The End According to Pedan
The End of La Belle Époque
Designed by:Anders Malmströmer
Text by: Irina Sandomirskaya
Publisher: Khimaira förlag
Publ. year: 2013
Languages: English, Russian
Illustrations: 84 b/w
Width x height: 220 x 270 (mm)
Binding: hardcover, in slip-sleeve
Weight: 710 g
**Edition: Limited to 500 numbered & signed copies;
each copy has a hand-colored red flag