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Anna Alexeevna, Kich-Gorodok, 2010Olya Ivanova

Restoring a missing image of contemporary Russia

Curator Kate Bush teams up with Russia's most evocative image makers for Calvert 22 gallery's new exhibition Close and Far: Russian Photography Now

The image of contemporary Russia – of dramatic extremes, intricate culture and unique diversity – has been abruptly diverted of late. Via the recent international catastrophes of Sochi, Pussy Riot & Ukraine, the country's struggle with sustained disjuncture, brutality and exploitation continues to embattle the nation’s reputation and it's frosty relationship with the West – inciting a somewhat bleak outlook for its future generations. However, against this background of post–Soviet societal turmoil, creativity thrives in the shadows. Russia’s young and upcoming visionaries are documenting an unseen, uncensored Russia, reflecting the state of the people’s Russia today.

Russia’s stark edge lands, city margins, vast countryside and towering suburbs are inspiring a cultural renaissance enacted by a new era of creative talent, who are being celebrated in Close and Far: Russian Photography Now, Calvert 22 gallery’s contribution to the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014, which showcases the long cultural tradition of engagement between the two countries and visualises Russia’s cultural identity, past and present.

"I wanted to make an exhibition which contrasted the end of one empire in Russia – the Russia of the Romanov Tsars – with the end of another empire," curator Kate Bush explains. "Today's young photographers and artists are the first generation to develop fully after the collapse of the Soviet empire. I think each of the photographers in the show are dealing with pressing questions of identity and are very conscious of working in a very new Russian cultural and political landscape. A new Russia is emerging, and this new generation are enjoying an unprecedented freedom in terms of what and how they are able to photograph and that is exciting to watch develop."

Here, we speak to photographers Alexander Gronsky, Olya Ivanova and Max Sher, who alongside Dimitry Venkov and Taus Makhacheva, are excavating tradition to restore the missing image of contemporary Russia.

How does Russia influence your work? 

Max Sher: Russia offers a colossal amount of sociological, historical, geographical, anthropological and economical material to study and make sense of. Former Soviet leader Andropov allegedly said in the 1980s that we do not know the country we live in. And we really don't. That's because the whole Soviet project was to build a Utopia, which also meant to create a parallel universe in the minds of Soviet citizens, an image of the country having as little relation to everyday reality as possible. We still may have very archaic, mythical, and alienated image of our own country. My work is intenteded to change this, mostly in myself, of course, to get down to Earth back from the Utopian Neverland.     

What draws you to the suburbs?

Alexander Gronsky: The suburbs I am interested in are much less regulated than urban space, it is not wilderness yet, but something transitional, the borderlands of human habitat.

By showcasing your photographs, what image of Russia do you want to bring to the exhibitions audience?

Max Sher: My main focus is on how Russian capitalism changes the country's built-up enviroment, in that perspective Russia may seem much less folkloric, enigmatic or mystic a place than it was previously thought of.      

Tell us about your recent project Village Day?

Olya Ivanova: I wanted to make a story about Russian women. I don't know why exactly but now Russia is absolutely women's country. We have strong beautiful women and weak passive men. It's obvious when you visit events in small quiet places. Every village has its own Village Day – an annual festival where all the inhabitants eat, drink and dance together. I met a lot of women in beautiful dresses with bright make-up, but I didn't meet any interesting men. Some of them were already drunk or too young. Why did all these women try to be sexy and beautiful if nobody could appreciate it? I am interested in women identity in the situation of gender imbalance in society.

Do you have any personal connections to the places or people you photograph?

Alexander Gronsky: It's hard to say. I'm not sure I clearly understand what inspiration is, perhaps I photograph what I photograph because I feel some strange unexpressed connection to certain places and situations.

Who has been your best person to photograph?

Olya Ivanova: For me, unknown people are the most interesting. As with other photographers I'm looking for a special type of the face and I always seem to recognise it at first glance. I like to change places for shooting – now I prefer remote places and closed communities that are difficult to be in. 

How does the everyday life of Russia inspire your photos?

Max Sher: Greatly. Everyday life and how Russia really works and looks like was, until recently, out of sight for most Russians. This is now changing quickly but it's still sweet to think that you are working with something that helps rediscover your own country and may still undermine the offiicial state discourse centered on cranky ideas on Russia's unique spirituality.

How do you feel about being showcased in the Close and Far exhibition? Do you think it's important in light of recent poltical problems to highlight positive creative talent emerging from Russia?

Max Sher: I have mixed feelings. Needless to say, I am grateful to the Calvert Foundation for this opportunity to show fresh work which I hope will provoke further thought and discussion. I am also happy that our event is sponsored by a private Russian institution which means we stay away from the rather simplistic picture of the world imposed by politics and mass media. At the same time, I understand that, rephrasing one famous sentence, "Nothing kills an artist like being obliged to represent a country".  

Close and Far: Russian Photography Now will be exhibited from the 18th  June - 17th August 2014 at Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch.