2013 – 2019
Size: 235 x165 mm
Hardcover, 124 pages
70 colour photographs
Red Zet, 2020
The eye of the photographer and the light in the darkness of the lived moment
The present is the most puzzling of all times. The philosopher Ernst Bloch spoke of the present as the »darkness of the lived moment«. Unlike the past, which, if not fully understood in retrospect, is nevertheless lying occluded and comprehensible behind us, and unlike the future yet to come that one can only speculate about without being able to say anything specific, unless they are prophets doing their fortune-telling, the present surrounding us is a whole different matter. We are at the same level with it, right in the middle of it. There is no point from which it can be looked over. Nothing is more difficult than being on the cutting edge. Everything that happens happens simultaneously, not successively, one event after the other in a linear sequence, but parallelly, with each event next to the other, in a confusing mixture. In the historical look-back, we can draw broad lines, identify developments, maybe even make up a certain logic or evaluate the past experiences, »come to a conclusion«. In the present everything is in flux, unfinished, unformed, incomplete, and at the same time everything happens to be the beginning, the opening. Cassandra has it easy: she can afford (as a rule) to utter catastrophic announcements. They have the advantage of being unambiguous. The person living in the present must take in the bits which may be conceived in two or more ways, deal with situations and developments whose consequences are not yet foreseeable. The present has a horizon of great expectations, perhaps even visions and dreams, but there is also something scary and terrifying in it because everything about it is uncertain. The most important virtue in open situations is to endure the openness, not to fall prey to panic or become hysterical, not to flee forward or into a mythical past, but instead to be prepared for everything and remain calm, showing presence of mind. To be wide awake, that is. It is the hour of poetry, of a glance that captures the moment and stops time translating it into images.
After the Iron Curtain collapsed, Eastern Europe became the testing ground for eye training for photographers like Kirill Golovchenko. Born and raised in Odessa, he was both young and old enough not just to embrace the third-hand accounts of the Soviet system’s late days followed by the period of stagnation, but to witness them with his own eyes. To sensitize people’s agony. Historical events that come crashing down on you, in which an entire era disappears and another emerges, cultivate our sense for the Unheard-of, for the Never-seen-before. Being catapulted from one era to another sharpens all the senses, not just the eyesight. Having lived in the Federal Republic of Germany since the early 1990s and having completed his photography course under most competent guidance and support, Kirill Golovchenko enjoyed the privilege of the gaze from the outside: Ukraine, like many other independent countries emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union, underwent a dramatic development process ultimately becoming an experimental field for sharpened perception.
Intimate familiarity with Ukraine together with the distance made possible by moving to Germany generate a desire to keep an eye on radical changes. Historical moments are broken down into fragments and then reassembled anew. The longue durée, or the long view history, is also rooted out and made visible again where it previously disappeared in the swirl of tumultuous events. In order to convey knowledge about a thing, a fact, or a situation, images or metaphors may be more adequate than a concept or model created for or even imposed from the outside on an infinitely complicated world. The picture summarizes what the language of concepts often fails to do. Images shed light on the »darkness of the lived moment«.
Time measurements, site visits
Analytics engaging with reality has its fields of investigation, approaches and measuring points. One can explore them at regular intervals and in a certain sequence and then find out something about the tempos, penetrating power or even superficiality of social transformations. Or familiarize oneself with the histoire évenementielle, or the history of events, and the longue durée, or the long view history. Such long-term observations may be used to sharpen one‘s eyes as well as the ability to make judgments. Images and perceptions are essential, they are not just mere »impressionism«. If Moscow changes its skyline almost every six months, it says something about the pressure of the capital concentrated in the Russian metropolis. If Saint Petersburg is still waiting to ship out, like an old tanker stranded on the sandbar of time, it says something about the forces required for getting the capital of the Russian Empire back in shape. And if a skyscraper silhouette grows in the center of Warsaw within a year or less, that says something about the pace of successful modernization, though in other places it may also be indicative of the destructive power of globalization flattening old neighbourhoods and historical buildings.
Almost the same universal indicators serve as a resource to draw our conclusions from. The eye sticks to what one sees »at first glance«. How the given urban landscape has changed since one’s last visit, whether the city has tilted towards urbanisation or ruralization, how people are dressed and move around. All the details are important: the adverts in newspapers, especially those concerning property, the movies shown in cinemas, the time it takes for the supermarket cashier to take care of your order, the condition of the entrance hall of the railway station, and the routine the ticket is issued with. Unmistakable indicators of where the development is headed are the procedures that crossing the border entails, the speed and courtesy with which one is checked in and out at the hotel reception. In order to assess the condition of a city, one can address the number of street cafes. Should the bazaars and kiosks disappear from the city center, it may signify that economic life has normalized. Should there be few people walking around in tracksuits and Reebok sneakers, it might as well mean that the primitive accumulation of capital has been completed and the new stage of development has begun.
The time of great forgetfulness has begun: having once been ubiquitous, waiting in queues is no longer a concept for the youth. Instead, they have already been to the big wide world, visited Berlin, Vienna or Istanbul, and can now make comparisons. Commuting between Petersburg and Helsinki, or Lemberg and Berlin has turned locals into Europeans, for whom crossing borders has become a matter of routine. Some horror scenarios failed to come true: the waves of consumer and packaging waste that engulfed the world after the fall of the Soviet Bloc have now been tamed. The darkest of those fears, however, fade in comparison to the gruesome reality: after half a century, a dreadful war broke out in the Balkans and in the North Caucasus, the real one, not the simulation of war upon returning to Europe. In 2014, Crimea was occupied and annexed by Putin‘s troops. The war in eastern Ukraine has been going on for years, with thousands of deaths and millions of internal refugees. Meanwhile, the people in the occupied territories have learned to adapt to the new social phenotypes: namely to the people who always ride in heavy sedans with tinted windows and a personal driver and for whom the doors are opened by young men with smoothly polished skulls wearing earphones, their cords hiding under the collars of tailored suits.
Every detail is revealing: the price increase for metro, buses and trains equipped with metal strips and barcodes, the newly bought books, the trash art design of a new restaurant. There is evidence of whether the modernization is only a momentary, insular event, or it is spreading and going to last. One quick once-over at the facades gives one an insight into privatization of the housing market and gentrification of neighborhoods. The triumphal march of sprawling IKEA branches explains to us that an entire society is reorganizing itself and that the furniture characteristic of the died-out era is moving to the »rubble of history«.
One can measure the acceleration of time in the Eastern European metropolises as well as its slowdown on the outskirts of cities and in the province. One can feel the entry into the digital age as well as the regression into the subsistence economy of the premodern times. The sound that the tires used to make on the cobblestones and alleyways is now silent. It has given way to the sound of the smooth asphalt – this is how the sound of an era comes to an end. Odours disappear: the acrid flavour of the »Belomor« brand or the smell of perishable food. What used to be fiskultura is now called fitness, and what was once a turbasa is now called a wellness center. The time that was once strictly determined is now loosened. The only thing that the Soviet Bloc had in abundance – namely time, the time that didn‘t cost anything and didn‘t bring anything – has now become scarce, because nowadays »time is money«. The handling procedure at the airports reveals that national time across countries has caught up with the World time. Every trip to the region in the past decade used to be a trip into the disintegration of once homogeneous time and space. Creation of new time periods, of new experiences and broadening the life horizons. Site visits, if they are not just tourists-oriented landmarks, but the life process of a society, are forms of time diagnosis. It can be rooted out from the metamorphosis of public places, the removing or erection of monuments of the expired times and the times yet to come. It is the case in which contemporaries become historians and historians become contemporaries.
Theories and images
The experts who could put together the pictures in which the time of transition is depicted, along with the curators who could supervise an exhibition of the transitional period, are probably not identical with the professional observers and interpreters, i.e. the intellectuals and writers. During the transitional period, they were primarily responsible for dreaming of Europe and criticizing the reality unlucky enough to deviate from those dreams. If only there had been people like Georg Simmel to set up their antennas in the centers of the new Europe – in Budapest and Warsaw, Saint Petersburg and Kyiv – and to observe and analyze the process of formation of the new society up close!
And yet there is a new layer, well-informed and agile, that will bring together the images of the changed Europe. Perhaps it is the logisticians and forwarding agents who have worked out the new routes; they are all specialists in exploring the shortest routes in an enlarged Europe.
The list also includes various traders and smugglers (of weapons, people, drugs), whose aggressive intelligence is sharper than that of the political strategists who imagine themselves to be the masters of the process. It is perhaps the engineers who build new bridges and corridors, rather than those visionaries talking about the construction of the »European house«.
One learns an infinite amount of new things while listening to a banker who opens new branches and forms an opinion about the »economics of the transitional period« based on his own experience. And the stories of border officials dealing with cross border commuters every day are much more revealing. A new class of transnationals and expatriates has been formed, which is drifting from one place to another depending on the economic or political situation: Prague today, Budapest tomorrow, perhaps Bucharest or Kyiv later. Europe also has its intellectual »merchant ants«. Not to forget the cross-border immigrant workers and Erasmus students.
Pictures of the exhibition in the Museum of Transitional Period
Perhaps now the time has come for an exhibition that we did not have time to do at the moment of relevant developments. Every time of the day has its specific look. The late hour looks like serenity, it is the time of »facing-up«, fatalistically calm and melancholic. Departure times are still too close to the upcoming events, they are nervous and hectic. Perhaps the current time is somewhere in between. The changing world has revealed itself. The dogmatism of the long-established, respectable and overly confident Europe is about to dissolve. The days when you could dismiss the new as exotic are over. It has taken too long for people to start trusting their eyes again.
An exhibition of the transitional period arranged post festum would bring together the images the transition research has withheld from us. It is the pictures that make up the time horizon of the generation and at the same time are passed on as family legends. Those are primarily colourful images, Kodak or Fuji, or even video images, at least no longer in black and white colours reminding us of the pre-war and post-war years. The catalog of the exhibition would not so much capture the historical moments that we are all well aware of – the evacuation of Ceaucescus, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sakharov‘s presentation before the Supreme Soviet - but instead it would depict the changing environment, the molecular processes and capillary ramifications.
Those images show us the white-blue-red stripes of polyethylene bags hanging on platforms and at bus and coach terminals, at border crossing points and on ferries. Those are the colours of border diffusion, of commodity circulation subversion, of the baggage of the whole generation of »merchant ants« and retailers, who have criss-crossed the whole Europe turning it into their place of trade and experience gaining.
There you would also find pictures with Hagia Sophia, the pier of Thessaloniki or Palermo in the background where tourists went ashore, but not in order to tour, but to go shopping. The album contained pictures of a new experience of the world: the Turkish Riviera, or Spain and Italy are now also included.
The travel agency brochure is not just an advertisement, but also the aesthetic testimony of the great Go West hike, comparable only to what Western Europe faced in the 1950s and 1960s. The album showed the cities that had previously been on the periphery and have now emerged out of the woodwork.
The exhibition features the characteristic objects of the material culture of the transition: plastic bottles filled with drinks and juices in all colours; Snickers brought in from Turkey; construction materials for building dachas; plastic chairs the first street cafes were renowned for; aluminum and PVC window and door frames as symbols of Euroremont; padded doors that are now finally being discarded; children‘s books that you no longer wish to keep and pass on to the next generation since nowadays kids prefer video games; socialist medals, awards, certificates that have found their way onto the tourist center tables cluttered with junk; monuments that have fallen and are now in need to be disposed of; libraries decommissioned from schools and cultural centers that are no longer included in the curriculum; redundant furniture pieces – containers of the era and images of a life form which has perished. Kirill Golovchenko‘s pictures also belong in this exhibition.
Form in a chaotic world
For a while the world kept eyes glued to the post-Soviet universe, perceiving it as a landscape of ruins. Fair enough, so it was: neglected old towns that had not been restored for decades, dilapidated houses, rusting industrial plants that nowadays are just scattered about like dinosaurs of the Iron Age. Fascination for the great which comes from the landscape of ruins, and the melancholy of the end of an era. But the fixation on the legacy left in ruins remains blind to the developing and self-asserting life they’re teeming with. The post-Soviet world has its own life that wishes to step out of the shadow of the devastated empire. This life no longer wants to define itself as a post-Soviet or post-socialist echo, but rather sees itself as something new, as a new beginning.
Golovchenko is familiar with the landscape of ruins, but he did not succumb to the fixation on them. Instead, he follows the trail of life, as complicated and almost hopeless as it may sometimes seem. The dramatic events which drew the attention of the European Union to Ukraine again continue to occur only marginally, and almost discreetly: carnations in the bullet holes of protective vests pointing out the bloody outcome of the Maidan, the gray-brown colours of the camouflage pattern that have seeped into the everyday life.
The blue-yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag, with the blue being the symbol of the sky, but also the dominant colour of the plastic tarps, seem to be discreet as well. The washed out gray colour was the fundamental shade of the large socialist panel-block buildings, or at least it was perceived as such. Explosion of colours, a clash of colours: golden domes and sales stands.
Colours trigger associations: the pieces of meat on the market tables and the bloody red of the flag. There are stations: Kyiv, Kharkiv, and above all and once again, Odessa. Also, the pictures do not show the counter-world of glamour and shamelessly displayed wealth of the nouveau riche and oligarchs, of which there are more than enough examples in Ukraine. So they’re not about the aesthetics of exposure. They provide a look at the ordinary that stands for itself and thus becomes remarkable, even puzzling. The world is broken down and then scrutinized through a mirror: as a reflection of advertising in the shop windows. The dream of a better life gets ruined along with the promises of the world of goods. The real goods, the big brands only exist as an imitation, as a substitute, as second hand items, but in turn in an abundance that unfolds its own magic.
It is not always clear what is an illusion and what is reality. And yet chaos is not just chaos. In all the obvious chaos there is a struggle for form, structure, and order. The most striking example is the Odessa market, the field of dreams, the Seventh-Kilometer Market. The chaos gives rise to its own order, a case of the power of self-organization. It is the kind of order that stems from the mere installation of thousands of containers in geometrically arranged shopping streets, it stems from spatial organization which serves as a means of coping with the daily visits of hundreds of thousands of sellers and customers.
It can be seen in the placement of product assortment, in the aesthetics of series: cigarette brands, beers, perfumes, mannequin torsos, rows with hats, wigs, sunglasses, even fish bodies – all of them are arranged in neat series in the shops and kiosks.
The discipline of those who have inescapably formed an orderly line is even reflected in the shadow drawn on the asphalt by the patient queue. In decline, the power of self-assertion and resistance becomes even more visible. You don‘t settle down in chaos, but you can manage it. You don‘t get used to it, but you oppose it with something. Self-empowerment. You don‘t give up, you keep yourself in shape. The struggle for the form that has been reclaimed from chaos shows that nothing is lost, least of all after the end of utopias.
Karl Schlögel, Berlin, 2020