from St. Petersburg
Viacheslav Kartsovnik, Ph.D
I shouldnt like to call the works by Michael Iofin
that make the series Letters form Petersburg still life,
though all the signs of the genre (showing objects placed
within a space) are apparently present.
However, to diagnose one genre or another is just a superficial
approach. Much more important is seeing the inner sense
of things, their emotional existence and, not least, for
what sake those things appeared against the background of
a darkened urban landscape. When the artist tries to talk
using things for words, every picture turns into his monologue,
into a message to the Epoch and the Man; hence the word
Letters here in the title of the series is not a mere metaphor.
The sequence of subjects gives us a historical essay about
a Petersburgian family whose life is represented by realities
of the Past, so the hero of the artists works is the
Time itself. This main character is absent or, rather, almost
imperceptible only in two Letters, in the first and the
last ones, where the course of events either didnt
commence yet or paused in suspense expecting the Unknown.
Between those half-empty worlds, hang poised the five central
pictures: a chronology of our century, the private life
with which the History imperiously meddled and which itself
became the History. It is obvious how closely these Letters
are tied with the Epoch: object absorbs the Time that created
them and dissolves in it.
The world of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (which
is the theme of the second work of the series) disgorges
into the space of the urban landscape badges of Russian
armies destroying each other, photographs of people who
were to disappear somewhere in that cloven Universe, other
attributes of the years that were slipping away never to
return. This Letter is full of vagueness and dim forebodings.
The next work is concrete to highest degree and leaves no
room for illusions: this is a world of nightmares, that
of total Stalinist terror. The very flesh of things is contaminated,
were it a pack of papirossy (brand of Russian cigarettes)
with the map of the White Sea Canal on it, which was dug
at the expense of thousands of camp prisoners lives, or
a letter burnt in a hurry, or eyeglasses smashed by those
known un-human beings, or a door-bell ripped savagely off
The fourth Letter brings us to the realities of World War
II, but its atmosphere is more serene (less dim is the reason,
perhaps), even though we see a symbol of the Leningrad Siege:
placed on the sales of a chemists balance there is
a scanty ration of bread which decided whether you would
last another day; and even though the yellow Mahendavid
of a Jewish Ghetto is stained with blood-red paint, whether
it were the color of blood poured, or the symbol of another
totalitarian power which stuck a Soviet camp prisoners
ID number to that Yellow Star.
A war may be followed by peace, and cruelty by ambiguity.
So the fifth picture shows us the famous Thaw of the Fifties.
Attributes of those times are bull of hope, as delusive
as it may seem: unsealed by the Great Funerals of the Great
Tyrant, appear first letters from abroad, first tape records
on non-censored songs, keys for the Nuclear Holocaust and
a discharge certificate of a former camp prisoner, that
long-waited one promising a normal life which had been by
somebody known bereft; all that overshadowed by Kroushchevs
hand waving salute.
The context of the sixth Letter is much more ambiguous,
for this is the world of the recentness. Here one can see
the full-dress coat of the Chief of State as if borrowed
form some farce properties. There, some Hinduism relic and
the Christian Cross as symbols of spiritual strivings of
the intellectuals of the Seventies. Next to them, some marks
of the Western culture, as if from the other world which
burst its way through the door that had been well battened
down. And at least, a label of the Afghan olives, the only
material captured during the "Unknown War". All
that, put together, would have too strong a smell of absurd
if within the space of the picture there werent something
that withstands any ambiguity: from under a old typewriter
shows a manuscript of an unfinished book; but, what is most
important, for the first time during those long years, we
can see a Live Face, a face that is not portrayed on the
photographic paper; here the artist closely observes the
thins he has found to engrave forever in his memory, because
the memory is a best epoch.
Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning,
as Psalms (30:5) put it. Within the space of the last Letter
the table would seem empty if not that bluish souvenir photo
(what are those people?). Have they already left the world
of these things or come back to it for at least an instant?).
Anyway, talking things instead of words is an age-old tradition
of the European (and not only European, by the way) art.
Contemplating a work by an ancient Flemish painter, a man
of the present may not be aware that a dog is the symbol
of faithfulness, and a mirror on a wall is the Eye of God.
Every separate epoch addresses us talking its own language
of signs cracked and decayed. So we read them trying to
understand, whether we are no sailing towards the point
where all times and things meet again.
Š Michael Iofin. All rights reserved.