“But after a few days you start to feel how this very clean retro world is rigidly controlled and ordered. The air gets a little thicker and oppressive. I found there to be an equal mix of attraction and repulsion”
Andrew Miksys’ “Tulips” is a book that I found when reading through Simon Baker’s picks for 2016. Having not seen the book, but fully trusting Baker’s taste, I inquired with Andrew about the book and was happily surprised at the overwhelming beauty of the object itself as well as the content inside. I remember paging through it and thinking that the nudes in particular were somehow pulling me towards desire, but were quickly offset by the less confrontational images of the Belarus people and environment. It is not lost on Andrew that this is the case for many people, though he indicates the images of women as an employ of façade, like the rocks or the overly stoic images of the other denizens of Belarus and should not be considered as a focal point of the book. In the interview he explains many of the issues surrounding Belarus and the work he made there with caring insight.
Brad Feuerhelm: Paging through the book, which is incredibly well designed, I came across a sort of pushing and pulling of the senses. On one hand, I am forced to deal with an implied eroticism of the women, and on the other, I am looking at an enforcement of a broken nostalgia for a country and a time that pre-exist my own notion of the political situation of Belarus. The military drills, the medal-adorned elder generation-the images of the people within seem to be at play between the present and what came before under communism. Can you elaborate on the difficulties of presenting the age gap and the global contemporary environment, which may enforce the youthful side of the presentation of sitters?
Andrew Miksys: Part of the design of TULIPS was to make it uncomfortable and disjointed. Belarus is not an easy place to photograph and sometimes feels like it exist in a slightly different dimension. At first, it gives off a friendly nostalgic vibe. There are very few signs of contemporary advertising of big western brands. Women working in shops wear uniforms similar to those found in US diners in the 1950’s with aprons and little hats. I wasn’t born in the USSR, but somehow I was reminded of the US before the intense commercialization that seemed to come in the 1980’s. But after a few days you start to feel how this very clean retro world is rigidly controlled and ordered. The air gets a little thicker and oppressive. I found there to be an equal mix of attraction and repulsion. And in TULIPS, I wanted the viewer to get some sense of my experience making the project and how I often felt confused and lost in Belarus myself. Half the time I couldn’t even say exactly what I was doing. It came as a surprise to me, but the best was to cope was through embracing the confusion and just ridding the wave. Fighting against it just didn’t work.
The “pushing and pulling” you describe hopefully provokes questions and jars the viewer from easily flipping through the pages. But making a book like this also felt a little risky and the final layout actually made me a bit nervous. Imagery is repeated. Why so many photos of rocks? I wasn’t sure if people would catch my idea or just conclude that the sequencing is “off” or even poorly put together. It’s a fine line. When I’m at book fairs, people often pick up TULIPS from my table to feel the plastic logo on the cover, but then get a little confused by what’s inside or put off and close the book. I like these reactions. Belarus is psychologically challenging and it’s not for everyone. It’s not like any other place I’ve been. People assume it’s like Russia, but it’s much more unique and specific. There is a really great text in TULIPS by Lithuanian historian, Laimonas Briedis and his words are much better than mine in describing the challenges trying to capture the “split personality” of Belarus.
“… Miksys enters not only the fractured nature of Belarus and its inherently split personality, but also the twofold reality of the country…. Modern White Russia can be summarized with a single word, bilocation, that is, the ability to appear in two places at the same time. Bilocation is usually encountered in religious, especially Christian, mysticism, where it signals saintly behavior. But it is also a marker of black magic; witches have been charged with being seen in two places at once as a proof of their Satanic work. In brief, bilocation is an extraordinary condition, always demanding a two-sided verification of the appearance. No single witness can reliably testify in the case of bilocation, since understanding the inner logic of a twofold existence is not unlike making a map of an unknown territory. You start from seeing the place as a bare – white – memory, a blank slate that comes out of the darkness of history, spotless yet never flawless. However, once you begin drawing the outlines of an unfamiliar terrain, you enter the realm of its future memory. In short, you build a legend full of color. Miksys was able to capture this dual, almost, mythological reality of Belarus by simply focusing on the margins or vestiges of the celebratory.”
“Russia is acting like it’s still a Soviet power. It’s a mix of real war with its neighbors like Ukraine and a cyber war. The US has started to realize this since the recent election, but in Eastern Europe these kinds of attacks have been going on for many years”
BF: Another quality of the book is what I think of as a painterly formalism. The use of color, no doubt also indebted to Belarus nationality, the images of tulips and the rocks in particular are an intelligent use of non-linear and non-representational images which break the book’s pace from being a standardized conflation of the presentation of the subjects within. Can you give some insight as to how you came about editing the book? Did you start with the sitters or the abstracts? Was it difficult to investigate this idea of state and population identity as an outsider? You seem to have been given access….
AM: When I start a project, I almost always gravitate toward portraits first. Making portraits is a strange mix of intimacy, confrontation, and even suspicion. It’s invasive and a bit odd to stop a stranger in the street and ask to photograph them or invite yourself over to their house to photograph them. In Belarus, though, there seemed to be almost no intimacy in my portraits. The war veterans, Pioneers, war re-enactors, and communist party guys all posed in a very official way, not as individuals, but almost hiding behind their official persona. At first, I found this very frustrating and thought I was failing as a photographer not being able to crack the façade. But then, I started to love it and made this lack of intimacy a theme in the project. The façade became more interesting than trying to find cracks in it. I get lots of questions about the nude photographs of women in the book, not just questions but criticism that I was somehow making erotica or portraying the women in some over sexualized way. All these women worked as go-go dancers or in strip clubs. And when I was photographing them they posed in their professional poses similar to the ones they used in clubs to satisfy their male customers. The poses were just for show, another façade. For me, there is nothing erotic in the images. They are cold. Intimacy usually requires some vulnerability, but most of these images have none. Perhaps this sort of posing is also some remnant of the Soviet Union. In the USSR, it was very dangerous to be vulnerable and people were more careful about showing emotion in public. One wrong look could get you killed or start a KGB investigation. And in Belarus the KGB never left. They didn’t even change the name and there is a huge KGB building on the main boulevard in Minsk. Across the street is a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the NKVD that later became the KGB. Most towns in Belarus also have KGB buildings and offices.
Most of the way I work is just through simple intuition. If something “feels right” or “looks right” I go with it. In TULIPS this was a little bit more extreme than in any of my other projects. Like if I became fascinated in the rocks and wandered all over looking for them. Then I would return year after year photographing the same rocks. I did the same with many people in the book, especially the women in the nudes. I also started to riff off the color pallet of the flags and decorations for the official parades and use these colors for the book. About half way through the project, I still wasn’t sure if the images would hold together. I also photographed much more than I had on any past projects and had tons of imagery. As I began editing some people suggested that I separate the imagery into different books. But I wanted to keep it all together. It made sense to me. Claudia Ott, the designer I’ve worked with on TULIPS and DISKO, has been a big help. Her design style is minimalistic, almost hyper-conservative, and gives me a structure to organize my chaos. I do the covers, but she works on the insides of the books, the layout, book size, image sizes, and even the first sequencing. When she sends me the first PDF with a sample layout it seems like magic. The images have a new life within her structure. Then we go back and forth finishing the design. I don’t speak German and she speaks very little English. I will ask her questions about her design and why she did something. She just responds by telling me that it felt right. And with very few words we finish the book.
BF: The images of the WWII recreations are quite stark. The winter drills, the nostalgia of defeat and victory-the scorched earth and the monuments serve as a functional representation of a nation that I assume may still be very focused on the last 70 years. The images of the soldier with the Nazi flag-a “capture” of a capture recreated presents a somewhat harrowing image though the exercise is based on collective memory, death and representation. What was it like to observe this and how in general do Belarusians cope with the past 70 years?
AM: Belarus only had one year of independence in its entire history before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mostly, it was occupied by one of its neighbors, Lithuania, Poland, or Russia. Even geographically, it’s almost a blank spot that most people would probably have trouble finding on a map. Landlocked and sandwiched between Europe and Russia it even seems to lack an independent identity. If you break up the name Bela-rus it literally means “White Rus” or White Russia. And the Rus part of Belarus leads to further confusion with many thinking that Belarus is part of Russia. Plus 70% of the people speak Russian instead of the native Belarusian. So what is Belarus? Does it have a national identity? The deep scars of World War II have helped provide the basis for an official national unifying identity. The memory of war is unavoidable and constantly reinforced by the government. For about two weeks before Victory Day there are only Soviet WWII movies on TV. Belarusians fought heroically against the Nazis and deserve a lot of credit for defeating Nazi Germany. However, the official version of the war is more than a little glorified and leaves out many facts. And while Nazism was defeated, what came next after the war was occupation by Stalin and Russia for 50 years. Celebrating victory in WWII is like celebrating your own imprisonment. In TULIPS, there is a photograph of the new statue of Stalin at Stalin Line, a military theme park outside of Minsk were I photographed the war reenactments. It can be dizzying trying to make sense of the official national narrative. It just doesn’t hold together if you look at the facts. And while I see young people adopting very European tastes and styles, I wouldn’t say that there is any large popular movement for change. Democratic change in this part of the world is often accompanied by years of painful transition. Ukraine, for instance, might have more democracy today than it did 5 years ago, but much of the economy has been dismantled. And with a neighbor like Russia that is always seeking to destabilize countries seeking change, it’s hard for Belarus to move in a different direction.
“Belarus only had one year of independence in its entire history before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mostly, it was occupied by one of its neighbors, Lithuania, Poland, or Russia. Even geographically, it’s almost a blank spot that most people would probably have trouble finding on a map. Landlocked and sandwiched between Europe and Russia it even seems to lack an independent identity”
BF: I’ve been to Kaunas and Vilnius in Lithuania. I had the chance to interview Jury Rupin some years ago. He was a Ukrainian associated with Boris Mikhailov and the Vremnya (time) group. When I visited his home outside of Vilnius, which was idyllic, his walls composed of many of his older prints, stapled to the interior of the entrance way. Waves of red and monochrome fused in the dusky light of the open door and I could not help but feel the whole of “eastern block” is still gravely affected by the war and communism. Did you grow up with any memories of this condition or time? How ingrained is this aesthetic in your own artistic output and how does that work when you live half your time in the crumbling American dream (Seattle)? It must be a huge cultural system of opposites that might give a very unique perspective.
AM: My father was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War and left in 1944 with my grandparents to escape the Soviet occupation. I grew up in the 1980’s in Seattle. Like a lot of American kids, the fear of nuclear war with the USSR was a constant undercurrent. I remember very distinctly seeing the film Red Dawn in a theater with my friends when I was in junior high. One of the first scenes is of Soviet paratroopers landing in the fields of a school in Colorado during the invasion. The movie is an amazing artifact from the Cold War. Maybe growing up during the Cold War plus my father’s life experience had more of an influence on my than I sometimes realize. The USSR cut my father off from where he was born and the Cold War provoked fear that the world and American dream could end without warning.
BF: “Wolverrrrrrriiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnes”. Sorry, had to….
AM: However, I don’t exactly share your skepticism that we are witnessing the “crumbling American dream.” These are difficult times. However, I hold out some hope that we will come through this and reinvent ourselves. The alternative is very dark. I think part of our current problem is that memory of the USSR has begun to fade in the US and Europe. There is even a whole generation of people who have grown up without the USSR. But I think it’s still important for people to educate themselves on the world before 1991, before Nirvana. Please read Czeslaw Milosz’s, The Captive Mind. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. Simon Weil. Joseph Brodsky. A world without the USSR has led to some complacency. Of course, anti-communism was used to push conservative policies, some bad foreign policy, and wars. But the threats to democracy from authoritarianism are still very real. Russia is acting like it’s still a Soviet power. It’s a mix of real war with its neighbors like Ukraine and a cyber war. The US has started to realize this since the recent election, but in Eastern Europe these kinds of attacks have been going on for many years.
BF: The work in tulips feels like documentary photojournalism, yet thankfully it works on several different levels which exceed the stoic and inept categorical implications of document that documentary practice tries so very hard to sympathize with. Do you have a background in photojournalism? What do you see as its overreaching constraint and was there any motivation to document Belarus in this tradition arrangement?
AM: In general, I’m not a fan of photojournalism. I realize photojournalism has changed over the years. I guess places like Magnum have more varied perspectives and approaches to photojournalism, but I’m still skeptical. Hopefully, my photography falls into some category outside of photojournalism. Traditional photojournalism seems to be pushing agendas that I’m not comfortable with. I’ve lived in Eastern Europe for a long time and have seen many projects about this part of the world that seem to advocate change or be prescribing solutions to political or social issues. It’s a sort of judgmental view that is moralizing suggesting that Eastern Europe should be more “normal” and like Western Europe or the USA. I don’t like photojournalism or documentary photography that suggests there is something that needs to be fixed about the subject they are photographing. I guess I have too many doubts or questions about myself and the world to have this kind of certainty when I’m working on a project. With TULIPS I even tried to avoid discussions about the political situation in Belarus. Everything in Belarus is political, but it seemed like a trap to get sucked in by politics. I’ve even been criticized for having a too favorable view of Belarus or making TULIPS like a propaganda book for Belarus. Sure I have my own perspective and biases, but I think that’s all pretty clear if you look at the photos. Maybe I’m naive to think that TULIPS was just showing Belarus the way it is, appreciating it the way it is in a certain moment of time. But this is how I like to work and people can take from it what they want.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Andrew Miksys.)