Boris Mikhailov about the series “If I were a German…”
It was in August 1994, Yeltsin was on TV. He was in Berlin at the celebration of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany. With the sound of marches in the background, he made the most important statement of the post-war life: “We like German people, but we don’t like fascists”. After the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Iron Curtain had fallen revealing the new world and Germany (!) to us, these words became relevant in a new way.
I had recently come back from Germany — I had a few exhibitions there. An acquaintance of mine got married to a German and was going to move to Germany, and lots of our women would like to do the same.
Our German friends often came to visit us… A new era had come: new countries and new history; the images from Soviet movies failed to work as before and the new era “demanded” stepping out of the past. It was time to seek a new identity (in 1992 I went to the Forum in Graz with a lecture* on “Identity”). And I remember:
… It was two of us, my mother and me. I was alarmed at her persistent panic. She was really worried, but we made it. In October 1941, we went to Kirov in the freight car of one of the last trains provided by the Malyshev Factory where she worked. In a few weeks, the Germans entered Kharkiv.
… We came back home three years later. I saw imprisoned Germans being led down Krasin street just near our house. The imprisoned Germans worked on rebuilding the ruined city of Kharkiv for ten years after the war ended.
… “A Ukrainian father, a Jewish mother” — that was what I wrote on autobiographical photos in 1982. In 1997, I presented them at a group exhibition in the Palace of Students of Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute.
… “Perestroika”: a lot was revealed, previously secret information and documents were printed, including the war-related documents — a shocking reminder of the secret part of the peace treaty with Germany (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). And I also remember the information that was revealed during the thaw.
1993: for the music festival dedicated to Mendelssohn**, I went to the synagogue and shot a series of self-portraits in profile… I remember that once at a station, far in the Urals, boys pulled my nose and asked, “Are you a Muscovite or a Jew?”
There is an incentive moment, the Yeltsin’s speech, and there is a moment in which everything seems to converge: both memory and personal reactions (to the pact, etc.). By the latter, I mean the news about German uniforms that can be hired for shooting. And this evokes associations coming from the memory, from the culture, from the cinema and from life.
And then we had that backpack with a German uniform at home. A friend, Sergiy Ilyin, collected military uniforms, and I asked if he could bring one for me to try to take photos with it on: “Would I have a different profile if I were a German?”
And I began to do the work in which everything was close to me personally, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to talk about: it was the time of transition, and it was necessary to translate one concept of a German into another in our minds, change the old attitudes to completely opposite ones, as the dialectics of life required. Maneuvering, as if through a minefield, between the landmarks of historical memory, I needed to pay tribute to the past, and overcome it in order to move on to the present.
Ideas are born in one head, but it’s good to have a like-minded person nearby. Vita got enthusiastic over that topic, which was also close to her:
her brother was born in Potsdam, her dad, a colonel, had served in Germany for 10 years after the war ended, and her mother had spent 4 years under the German occupation.
She was seething with ideas that I tried to translate into photography. She slipped me a volume of Goethe, from which I took quotes about “the endlessness of nature” and “I will not break the passion”. This is where thoughts about Goethe’s illness came from. And by the time I returned from my trip to New York, she prepared a picture “you serve, and we will wait for you”.
We took photos of each other and us together. These pictures eventually became a part of “At the patient’s bedside” and “The last days of Goethe.”
I came up with photo captions that, by telling a story, were supposed to connect separate pictures into a series. I had already used that trick in Viscosity and Unfinished Dissertation.
In different series, texts worked in different ways: at first, they tautologically repeated what you saw, then they became more poetic and deep, and turned into reflections on life and photography, with quotations added to them.
The captions that I prepared for this series contained all of it: the repetition of what you saw, poetic quotes and reflections. The main thing, however, was that they all worked on duality: the duality of the statement itself and the duality of the text and visuality.
Often, I came up with captions to the photos I’d already taken, but some photographs that derived from the text. For example, the first two, from which the series began: “life on the lap” (about the past occupation) and “would stand on tiptoes” (about the present life, about love). Both captions appeared at once and immediately outlined the borders of the entire series: everything that was needed had to fit between these two poles.
The first tests were taken with the friend who gave the uniform — the photo “life on the lap“. I also took pictures of other friends who came to visit us. I selected photographs from the family album that fit the topic “a flower like Durer’s”, “cute secrets”.
First shooting test (with Sergiy Ilyin)
My brother’s wife (“with Durer’s flower”)
Daughter’s classmate (“None died”)
Inka came around (“On the secrets”)
After shooting tests with Sergei Ilyin, I continued shooting with Sergei Bratkov: he often came over to our place. Because of his acting skills he sometimes overacted when portraying a German as a hero or an enemy. What I was looking for was a person. It was easy to work with him because he was good at picking up ideas. Later Sergiy Solonsky joined us: without him, the triptych “Spiritual Photography” by Vita wouldn’t exist.
September 1994: we were going out of town to reshoot pictures with a goat. The film was defective, and we lost the good shots. During this trip, we shot “when in the endlessness of nature” and “be silent, I will not break the passion”— the photos that, as for me, reflected the depth of the German spirit, glorified by Tannhäuser. At the same time, the photos “Life on the Lap” were taken, which turned out to be the best of all tests done before.
That was the place where my fellow artist’s sister lived. The goat was hers, and she was afraid that after the shooting, the goat would lose milk due to the stress.
When we were about to go back home, it turned out that we wouldn’t be able to return to Kharkiv that evening. Because of the default on debts, the railway had the electricity cut off. There was a piece of paper stuck to the glass of the booking office window, saying “No trains!”
A rolling blackout means lights are out at your house in the evening, refrigerators defrost, and if you have an electric stove, it is impossible even to heat a kettle. But we had no idea that the railway could be left without electricity…
Our whole company walked several kilometers to Bratkov’s parents, who lived nearby, and spent the night there.
In the morning, I was the first one to get up… Garden! Sun!… Apples were lying on the ground, as if in the scenes of Dovzhenko’s Earth****! Under the trees, there were baskets of apples. I woke up the others, I called them into the garden… and I told them to undress quickly! Seryozha was in a panic — what would his parents say? Everyone was in a panic, but I insisted: I knew that such a chance could not be missed!
I emptied the baskets and started undressing first. Seryozha also undressed. Vita ran into the house to talk with Seryozha’s parents. She knew them well and had a particularly kind and warm relationship with Seryozha’s mother. Though overwhelmed with shame and fear, she somehow persuaded them to stay in the house. She said that we had received an order to illustrate the Bible, and then she came back to us and we shot quite biblical scenes.
The almost iconic triptych, “spiritual photography”, was created by chance. If there had been electric trains that evening, we would not have spent the night in Yuzhnoye. And there wouldn’t have been such a morning, apples and an opportunity for shooting.
Getting up when the whole house is still asleep, going to the garden, seeing and feeling, waking everyone up and taking pictures – all of this would have been impossible if we had just come for a visit.
Eventuality is important in creativity! And if such an opportunity occurs, it’s essential to be able not to miss it. A photographer is alive as long as chance helps them!
I shot, printed samples and selected works. If I was in the frame, Vita was shooting. Sometimes Solonsky took pictures. They shot the scenes that I staged.
30 photographs were selected from hundreds of printed samples. The selection of pictures for me was dictated by the importance of the issues raised.
Moving like on a razor blade, I tried to balance between memory and forgiveness: “…no one died…”, “…would I wash a Jewess?”, “…a log in someone else’s eye…”, “…would I have a different profile…?”
For many years, I had been researching the Soviet in my photography — summarizing the Soviet was my main theme in photography. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany was the end of the Soviet, and Yeltsin’s speech greatly inspired me to work.
This series is connected with my personal memory, with my personal understanding and with a new attitude. It is a continued reflection of the reaction in my photography to social and political change in my life.
The shooting resembled an amateur movie, in which all the participants were friends of mine. All of them were 20-25 years younger than me, not burdened with personal memory and civic responsibility. Everyone willingly took part in these shootings.
Two of the participants were photographers. I tried to help them as a friend and wanted to have my people at exhibitions, like musicians, who want to have their band. So I added their names when agreeing on exhibitions.
Sergey Bratkov: before he came to me, he had not had his own photographic field yet. He tried himself in painting, but without a specialized education he did not really succeed there. Seryozha is talented, and I, not seeing great prospects in painting, pushed him into photography. And while working with me, he began to create his own photographic field, which he began to gradually develop.
In 1991, at the Kharkiv Sotis-Photo festival, the work he did based on my design was presented. “Parcel” was a concrete cube with photographs walled up in it.
Sergiy Solonsky: was engaged in a very beautiful aesthetic photography.
And none of the two was interested in either social or real photography and did not shoot anything like that. In the same way, my active aggressive play with nudity was alien to both of them. Both, it seemed to me, were relatively free at that time, did not really know what to do (during the transition periods, artists in Kharkiv would lose perspective) and both were happy to work with me.
Through conversations and work, I introduced everyone to my field: I had already made the entire “Soviet” layer, in which the underground (with its duality) was worked out, and the average Soviet person and versions of their life were determined. The method of parallel associations had already been worked out, through which I, by the means of the Americanisms noticed on the beach in Berdyansk, compared our visuality with American photographs of the Great Depression. The classic documentary Salt Lakes, corresponding to Soviet reality, had already been filmed; By the Ground and At Dusk had already been created, dealing with historical changes, memory, and war. There had already been three series with texts and there had been such series as Sandwiches and Suzy and Others, with elements of active male and female nudity. And there were Luriki and Sots Art, corresponding to the cultural Soviet codes. There were sex-aesthetic Calendars and I am not I; and there was Crimean Snobbism, which was a play and posing of “someone else’s life.” There had already been many different developments and techniques. In photography, I had already had my own large photographic field and already had a lot of exhibitions, including those at MoMA (New York), Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh), MIT (Boston).
I am very glad that the work turned out well, and that it turned out like this! With others, it would be different… And this is not about it being better or worse — this is about it being different… And I am glad that I managed to immediately arrange exhibitions and make the book!
What if the series wouldn’t have worked out? In my life, art life, probably nothing would have changed, but it would be a pity if it had not worked out.
It was a good time of friendship and pure relationships (everyone went to the exhibitions)!
The whole series is an artistic dialectical commentary made on the field of my freedom to two parts of Yeltsin’s statement: “we hate…” and “we love…”
Continuing the general development of the German cultural part of the Goethe-Durer-Nietzsche project, Sergey Bratkov made a good photo of Wagner, sexually modestly “stuck at the piano“, which was not included in the book. And the photos with “twisting the light bulbs at the entrance” and “riding on the parents harnessed to the sled” did not work out because they were heavily associated with the old images of Soviet cinema.
Sergiy Solonsky took me to the shooting at the Museum of Nature, to a stuffed pig. There were legends about how huge it was, and that during the years of occupation German soldiers liked to be photographed near it. The photographs were too overwhelming for the series, but it was a good experience that broadened the search for shooting opportunities.
(recorded by Vita Mikhailova)
* Lecture text: “Identities”, 1992.
** from Dedication to Mendelssohn, 1993.
From a German portrait, 2008
*** The first quote — “when in the endlessness of nature” — is a word-for-word translation of the line from A. Revich’s translation of “Zahme Xenien VI” by Goethe. The English translation of the verse, however, is quite different from the Russian one:
And while throughout the self same motion
Repeated on forever flows
The thousandfold o er arching ocean
Its strong embrace around all throws
Streams through all things the joy of living
The least star thrilleth fond accord
And all their crowding all their striving
Is endless rest in God the Lord
The second — “I will not break the passion” — is most likely to be a transofrmed first two lines from the song of Mignon in “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” (1795-1796) by Goethe. Their word-by-word translation in Russian is “Restrain, I shall not reveal the secret”. The German original begining of the verse is “Heiß mich nicht reden, heiß mich schweigen, Denn mein Geheimnis ist mir Pflicht”. These lines were translated by Thomas Carlyle as “O, ask me not to speak, I pray thee! It must not be reveal’d but hid”.
**** film by O. Dovzhenko, “Earth”, 1930