Tashkent international photo biennale held from the 9th till the 30th of October in seven art venues of the capital city (the Tashkent House of Photography, the Central Exhibition Hall of the Academy of Arts of Uzbekistan, the Palace of Young People’s Art, the Art Gallery of Uzbekistan, the Culture and Art Exhibition, the State Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan, and the Caravanserai of Culture), as well as in the Chorsu Gallery in Samarqand, has been a milestone event and, undoubtedly, central to the cultural life of our country. In scope and coverage the fifth anniversary show of the finest works of photographers from around the world has surpassed its predecessor events: the Biennale Organizing Committee received about 2000 art photographs from 174 professional and amateur photographers from 43 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Australia, of which more than 800 pictures were chosen for the exhibition.
There is certainly a need to somehow arrange and systematize what was have seen, because the Photobiennale offers a starting point from which to move forward; it sets direction for further development of photography, at least in our country. The diversity and originality of the works make it impossible to describe and analyze them all. Our choice has been subjective, as well as the perception of relevance. Sometimes one cannot help drawing parallels to well-known literary characters, which, nevertheless, can help to better understand all the subtleties in the pieces displayed in the metropolitan galleries.
Reportage series «The Children of Africa» by Nigerian photographer John Agberagba Tavershima tells us about everyday life of African families. In this Photobiennale, this has been one of the most vivid manifestations of lyrical individualism, a strong aspiration for freedom at all levels — existential, social, sensual, and artistic. Tavershima cares about the fate of his people. And, like the famous Fennimore Cooper characters, he follows the principle that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to overcome it. Courageous man is not someone who is not afraid, but one who fights his fear.
This is not the first time Hernan Lorenzo (Argentina) exhibits his works in Tashkent. Many connoisseurs of photography surely remember his personal exhibition «Backstage Tango». Lorenzo’s photographs are the cocktail of exquisite eroticism and illusive romance filled with the spirit of rock and poignant note of tragedy. Argentinean photographer looks at the woman through the lens not so much emotionally, but rather with a detached eye, allowing the viewer to understand the feelings and psychology of a woman. ‘Today one should be able to communicate emotions without the element of provocation’ he says. ‘Camera is not an automatic device, and should not be used as such’.
Russian photographer Roman Ratner presented a series titled «Benaris, the Eternal City» that tells about foreigners who travel the world in search for their identity. Renaissance in their colour range, his photos show the almost mystical beauty and energy of Indian landscapes. A comparison to Kipling is unavoidable: he, being a foreigner too, told the world about the distinctive culture of India. Ratner’s photos are technically unique and daring.
Vivid and memorable series of photographs was presented by a guest from the Philippines Bartolome Hafalla. The Philipino version of Hoja Nasreddin, the famous folk tale character, appeared before us in his works. Filled with subtle humour, the black-and-white photographs reveal to the viewers the daily life, traditions and mentality of the Filipino people. An episode showing the wedding of two striking characters makes one wonder what happens if a jovial and humour-loving woman marries a nerd? Is their marriage going to be fun or boredom? At first glance, Hafalla’s photo humoresques appear pretty cynical and characters vulgar. But very soon, as one gets introduced to this world, one begins to have a better sense of this captivating and totally different cultural environment.
French woman artist Sylvie Lasserre also has two polar series. The first one presents her travel experiences, and the second one is dedicated to dance. It is natural to draw analogies to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters created by Tom Stoppard. One is pragmatic, the other reckless: is it not a perfect match? Yet they are perceived as one integral whole!
In her travels Lasserre captures and interprets nature in different climatic regions, which, in her understanding, is the soul. But what this soul actually is? Is it harmonious? Or, as Stoppard argued, the nature is full of provocative elements? Sylvie Lasserre does not provide a clear answer. «I admire the primeval forest and desert, mountains and steppes. I love it all, I love it so much. But I love it contrary to reason», she says. But man, as the civilization develops, creates a different landscape that is purely industrial, devoid of nature. He creates the harmony of shockingly modern collective suicide. The artist destroys this «harmony» and puts her extreme man in a situation of environmentally pure experiment in order to better understand his character.
Successful at the Photobiennale were the works of two brothers, not by blood but by spirit — Erlan Akmatov and Orest Lyjechka. Both authors presented photographs similar in form but different in their semantic content. If Akmatov’s «Blues» series alludes to the poetry of Sergei Yesenin — «You are still alive, my old lady, and so am I who says hello…», Lyjechka’s series «Babushkas of the neighbourhood» feels more like Gogol and his «Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka».
In my opinion, the most important discovery of «TashkentAle» was the art of our compatriot Anzor Solijonov. His two stunning photographs, «DVD» and «TV Set», are the masterpieces of «optical psychology»; clear to the degree of a hallucination, like mirages in the desert, they let one feel the depth of a fault in human consciousness that has lost touch with reality — not only natural or physical reality, but also the reality of sensations.
Modern man, immersed in the mirror abyss of reflections, is not capable of love. He regains this ability only after having experienced the nearness of death and barbaric «alien being» beyond the edge of civilization. This is how Anzor deals with his characters — old men and children; this is how they are dealt with by life, and this is how they are dealt with by the Orient. The «DVD» photograph has another theme in it: the falsification of reality, when a different reality (movies, television) becomes fundamental. One can associate it with fantasy world and one of its famous characters — Aragorn in Tolkien’s «The Lord of the Rings».
Garik Avanesian, representative of Czech Republic, is a master of telling almost subject-less story. Avanesian himself does not conceal the fact that he simply goes out into the street and observes life. This thesis became fundamental for his series «The Pauper from Prague», where on the background of domestic scene the photographer observed body movements of a nameless crowd. Rodion Raskolnikov would be a suitable specimen for reflections. In resemblance to the downtrodden characters of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Avanesian’s universe is inhabited by vagabonds, naturalized immigrants and bored night-shift doormen, that is, people whose outsider image belongs to a completely different cultural stratum. In his pictures one can probably sense a contraposition between intellectuals and ordinary people. …But not to the advantage of the former. According to Avanesian, the beauty of a human being, as the beauty of all things, is determined by naturalness, not by cultural or moral qualifications. Spontaneous individual experiences his joys and sorrows differently — more primitively, but more strongly. The more primitive a human specimen, the more spontaneous and uninhibited is the manifestation of his essence. The more its needs are suppressed by «superstructure», the more they burst out as asthenia or aggression, invert or overt hysteria. So, the series in itself is quite of an Underground, and if someone does not want to equate, say, Beethoven with Jim Morrison, it’s all because one is a hypocrite and a puritan.
The sense of marginality becomes even more acute, and illusions and hope for escape give way to sustainable legend in the works of Dutch artist Benno Neeleman. Taken in Africa and Pakistan that suffered from severe flooding, the photos seem to be saying that the man behind the lens has regained his sight after total blindness and experienced a visual shock from the world’s scenery: perpetual wars and natural disasters. Do you recognize Leeloo from Luc Besson’s «The Fifth Element»? It is in this guise that I imagine the Dutch master. In this context the most eloquent is the series «Children by the Ruins of Their Home».
The photographer bases his work on contrast: children’s tears next to joy when they are given food, and pain goes along with carefree playing by the ruins; this is as dramatic as photographs by Svetlana Kiselyova. Two of her works, «The Character» and «The Outcast», should be given credit for their hooliganism and spontaneity. Especially the first one: this is a living Huckleberry Finn, a bit wild and uncultured, but a true skinflint. Although these pictures contain certain irony, the emptiness in the background alludes to potential violence…
From this nonconformist triad, let us move to the works of a completely different order. In «The Wings of Experiment» nomination, the keen sense of a master crossing the obscure line between reality and dream enables getting some amazing effects, which are still based on reality that surrounds us. Yet this kind of pieces is particularly difficult to analyze and describe. Keeping to the literary line, I chose to associate the works of Rimintas Penkauskas (Lithuania) with a Corsican man Mateo Falcone (Prosper Merime, «Mateo Falcone»). He may have lacked creativity, but made it up by being uncompromising. Besides, I am convinced that Falcone (Penkauskas) has been able to open up in a new way at the «TashkentAle». Despite his excessive «arithmetic» rationalism and being come-il-faut, the Lithuanian photographer has been able to turn everyday objects into elements of art environment, into complex and ambivalent symbols…
A few words need to be said about the Tashkent art photographer Alexander Borisov, whose «TashkentAle» works caused quite an excitement. Not without reason. Borisov is a mage who presents his audience with gift-surprises as if they were children at the Christmas tree. He offers a new interpretation of the collage tradition, interfacing it with the latest effects of digital reality. He creates photographic fireworks, an ecstatic poem of playing, dancing and pyrotechnics. This is a real circus tent with a mighty weight-lifter, juggler and acrobat. He has been able to bring to the logical conclusion and reproduce the spirit of immortal films by Fellini, and, in a mannerist fashion, to construct his photographs from the fragments of old genres and myths. The photographs of a Baroque ecstasy… The photographs of a tragicomedy… They have both spontaneity and ease.
The Uzbek audience remembers Janos Eifert (Hungary) well — he was a success at the previous international photo biennale in Tashkent. An avant-garde artist in his spirit, Janos appeared in the heart of Central Asia in the guise of Bulgakov’s Woland. In Eifert’s fantasies once can unmistakably recognize the images of devils and demons. All his photographs are characterized by magical themes, brutal atmosphere, mystical ritualism, occult motifs, and certain exhibitionism. In «Soul», for instance, the duality of human soul is revealed in light of a Catholic ritual. So, the surreal opuses of Eifert really seem to be the mischief «of the Evil One».
Not everyone manages to do as Caesar did: he came, he saw, he conquered. Sometimes it can be as this: you came, you saw, you got it. In the face and it really hurts. This is the story told in the photographs of an Argentinean Ronaldo Carlos Girgulsky. In clandestine fights brutality goes along with entertainment as show-business dealers can do one thing that politicians have not yet learned: to cheat people so that they enjoy it. With the help of modern computer technology the artist makes his fighters wriggle, creating surreal photo pictures. Speaking of the duels, one recalls song lyrics by Vysotsky [about a knocked down boxer]: «He lay there thinking that life is good. For some…»
Immediate associations come to mind from looking at a remarkable series called «Cornflower Tea and Hidden Chocolate» by Alyona Zandarova (Russia). Soft and warm shades of photographs, as well as the nature and age of the main character suggest that she is the true Lolita, as imagined by Nabokov.
The character of Kisa Vorobyaninov, who, after the fiasco with the twelfth chair, is sitting and looking sadly into the distance, can be discerned in a photo by Natalia Nesterova. Hidden irony, kindness and sympathy — everything is present here.
Creativity and keen sense of humour of the Tashkent photo artist Vladimir Shlosberg are the hallmark of his works. It is no accident that he earned the privilege of having a dedicated display at the Biennale. Photographs of architectural structures stand out by exciting camera perspective, and a «hot» shot of two women, one of whom bravely clears an obstacle posed by a puddle, while the other is still hesitating, add some spice to the overall atmosphere. Yet, his works still have room for lyricism. It is true for the series dedicated to the «Lik» Movement Theatre.
Khaled Hasan from Bangladesh presented his «Tears of Memory» series. It appears to be made in a reportage style. In this series the author simply tells the story of a small village. But the photographer takes the road of austere reproduction of events, mundane and shocking at the same time, causing the association with Aureliano Buendia Senior, the character of the famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez «One Hundred Years of Solitude». The face of an old man with grey beard who smiles at us through the prism of bygone years reflects his life-time experience and the wisdom that comes only with age or never comes at all. But this is another story. Black and white photographs contribute a degree of mystery and magnetism to the series.
Chinese artist Liu Dong presented only one photograph at the «TashkentAle», but what piece of work this is! Up until mid 1990s, Chinese photography remained terra incognita for the rest of the world. But today Chinese photo art is quickly gaining international recognition. Liu Dong’s «Drunk» proves this. The photograph has an ultramodern «package» and a skilful measure of folklore exotics. The spirit of a melodramatic parable on the brink of tragedy and a beautiful face of a man with a cigarette can be confidently called a masterpiece of pictorial symbolism. The most striking thing in the «Drunk» is that from a universal code of human destiny grows the tragedy of life… In modern parlance, «All rights reserved»: the Liu Dong’s piece could only be compared, perhaps, with the art of his compatriot, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai.
One of the TashkentAle-2010 most remarkable heroes is, no doubt, the Iranian master Kaveh Baghdadchi. His symbolically furnished «Life on a Persian Rug» gravitates towards parable on the one hand, and ethnography on the other. Baghdadchi’s intellectual contemplation reflects some universal processes in Iranian society that is trying to uphold its faith in traditional values in the face of rapidly changing world. These processes are painful and controversial, and only a true artist who responds to the call of harmony can find his own solutions. This series also clearly demonstrates how life itself creates the works of art. The palette of pomegranate blossoms, persimmon, blue and ochre colours transform the photographs into a Persian carpet.
Other photographs reveal the author’s empathic feeling for his country where the conventions of Islam hide the arms and shoulders of young girls. We can see that under their black veils women perceive themselves as potential Marilyn Monroes. Americanization, however, affected these people only superficially. In fact, photography provides for them a kind of a therapeutic environment where they can release their emotions and concealed feelings. Living in a closed society, they easily open their faces to the camera. Yet in the world of Baghdadchi the bitterness of philosophical paradoxes is balanced by his inexhaustible joviality and love of humanity. This is what his philosophical series «The Way of Eating an Apple» is all about. The author managed to cleverly portray different human archetypes: funny and serious, cynical and frivolous. But only time can dot all the i’s: in its hands the apple remains intact.
I recall the words of the great mystic poet Rumi: «The truth is a mirror that fell from the hands of Allah and broke into pieces. Everyone who found a piece believes that it contains the whole truth». Part of the truth paradoxically revealed by the phenomenon of Iranian photography is that fundamentalist censorship may facilitate artistic discoveries even more successfully than liberal dictates of political correctness.
The magical festival of photography has come to an end. We discovered many new names, and among them, which is very encouraging, are many of our compatriots, whose art shone with the colours of high professionalism, placed side by side with the photographs of guest artists from all over the world.