The Hasselblad Award 2000 by Boris Mikhailov

In the year 2000, Boris Mikhailov has won the prestigious Hasselblad Award and on this occasion, a photobook was published in the same year. The book made Mr. Mikhailov’s followers familiar with a very particular and unknown fragment of his life’s work on the Soviets and their culture. The series that was selected for this publication was called “dance” and was shot in 1978 in one of the numerous outdoor diskotekas of the former capital of the Soviet Union: Moscow.

© Boris Mikhailov

The venue was exclusively attended by the elderly. They had chosen the diskoteka in order to take a break from their modest and strenuous lives in their grey, brutalist appartment blocks. We only see pensioners who had come over, perhaps by metro from another neighbourhood far away in another part of the Russian megalopolis. We see them in the warm summer afternoons with their floral dresses and also in the dark of the winter days with their chapka’s.

© Boris Mikhailov

A war veteran has come to show off with his medals, a living memory of the painful war period. But, overall, the mood seems to be outgoing. The dancers seem to be enjoying each other’s company very much. They are probably sharing a lot of memories from the good old days in one of the countless offices of the infamous state bureaucracy. One thing is clear: they are done with it all! They have learned to put the state’s propaganda into a broader perspective. Mother Russia may have the truth and the power but they – at least – have the time! Indeed, by 1979 the Soviet utopia was showing its first cracks. Shortages had started to appear and the authoritarian regime had started to drop its caring mask. Whatever! As the editor writes in his foreword: “Dance exudes optimism and humanism in difficult and demanding times.”

© Boris Mikhailov

Dance consists of a huge number of sequential photographs depicting the whirling, dancing grey-haired women and men as they are having a joly good time. The sequential photographs, representing (quality) time in a continous flow have a cinematic style. They are rather recalling Aleksandr Rodchenko‘s Soviet modernism, than the photojournalistic style as we know it from Henri Cartier-Bresson (e.g. in his Moscow book). About the photojournalistic style of the latter, M. Mikhailov is quoted saying “I think this idea about the fragmented, single picture with maximal information is a lie“.

Mr. Mikhailov, as a self-declared heir of the Moscow conceptualists of the early seventies, was not artistically interested in the lies of the system. Moscow conceptualism did not want to deal with the lies of offical culture. It did not even want to take part in the game of ‘for’ or ‘against’ this culture because “totalitarianism is less a question of social homogeneity than of the radical division of societey into ‘for’ and ‘against’ (Boris Groys)”. In the view of Moscow conceptualists, by taking a stance against totalitarianism, one is only subjecting oneself to it’s vicious mechanisms. The attitude of the Moscow conceptualists was subversive in a more clever way. It tried to look with a neutral attitude at the Soviet cultural codes and it tried to do so from the outside, only with a descriptive and analytic gaze (Boris Groys). Or, as Mr. Mikhailov explained himself: it was “above all about truth” . And this brings us back to his photobook about a Soviet diskoteka with its dancing old age pensioners.

© Boris Mikhailov

By looking at the sequences in Dance, we are witnessing how time is unfolding itself on the dance floor; we are witnessing how time (the time of a waltz), as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; and how likewise, space (the diskoteka) becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time (cfr. Mikhail Bakhtin on the chronotope). Through the assemblage of the sequential photographs of dancing couples in a diskoteka, time and space are fusing, as we are reading. Thus, the photobook is constituting a dramatic event displaying “truthfully” what was going on in the Soviet Union: While the empire was at the beginning of its demise, its subjects were “taking their time” en they were carelessly enjoying themselves.

© Boris Mikhailov

I love it how Mr. Mikhailov managed to move around and between the dancing couples, as if he were invsible. Throughout the sequential photographs, they seem to be unaware of him. But he was not invisible at all. From time to time, his gaze is meeting the eyes of the dancers. They are looking back at him (and at us) straight into the lens. And what are they telling us, these eyes? For me, they are reflecting the collective consciousness of the people of its own eternity. Individuals may personally suffer but in their collective consciousness, that has become very much tangible during their dances, they couldn’t care less about temporary or locally dominating regimes, doctrines and cultures! The people will survive!

© Boris Mikhailov