Untitled, by Alexey Titarenko, 1994. From the series 'City of Shadows'
Untitled, by Alexey Titarenko, 1994. From the series ‘City of Shadows’

Jason Stanley, philosopher, on a photograph of St Petersburg by Alexey Titarenko

GB Tell me why you chose this particular image from the series?

JS The photos in this series were taken in St. Petersburg between 1992 and 1994, during and just after a terrible economic crisis that accompanied the switch to democracy and capitalism. Countless Russians died of starvation during this time, though I am not sure of the numbers. This particular photo was taken in 1994. There are several images in this striking series that I contemplated choosing. I chose this one because you can see the wares being sold; a single record player, two bottles, possibly empty. I have seen a lot of Titarenko’s work, and the one that had struck me the most was of such a ‘market’, with a man selling a single shoe. This was the closest I could find to that image, which remains quite vivid in my mind.

One kind of art has as its goal the replication a kind of private inner aesthetic moment that one might be surprised to see evoked in (say) visual terms; Van Gogh I guess would be an example. Another kind of art makes a conceptual point about the nature of art itself – pop art is like that. My favorite art does not fall into these two categories. I’m also not myself an artist, so I can’t appreciate novel brushstrokes or whatever difficulties I suppose there must be in pointillism. The art I like the most tends to be visual intellectual history. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is one of my favorite movies, despite the simplistic moral message, because of the powerful representation of the new industrial age, as exemplified for example in the figure of the cyborg and the representation of the factory. Otto Dix and Hannah Höch are among my favorite artists; so is Emory Douglas (who is my Facebook friend!). Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Art, Anselm Kiefer’s paintings Nuremburg and Sulamith, those are the kinds of works that come to my mind when I think of my favorite 20th century work. So I like art that provides a window into a transitional moment in human history or consciousness.

This series is squarely intellectual history, a visual representation of a unique and important historical moment, the experiment in rapid applied capitalism. I think of the shadows of the figures in these pictures as the Russian shadow of authoritarianism and nationalism, which haunts the gaunt skeleton left over by the transition to “capitalism” and “freedom”. Titarenko does not conceive of the shadows in this series like this; he thinks of them as representing some general iconography of suffering I suspect. But one nice thing about art is that its interpretation is governed to a much lesser degree than philosophy by its producer’s conscious intentions.

We are used to the horrific images of US incursions of a military sort. This series documents the brief period of unfettered capitalism and democracy that Russia experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a piece about how economic and political ideology alone can have an effect like war, in this case the ideology of capitalism, democracy, and freedom – my home ideologies if you will. Like the movie The Third Man, It couldn’t have been done at any other time in any other place than the place and time at which it was done.

GB Titarenko has stated that he wants these images to inspire empathy and love for his people. Does beauty play a role in that? Does it help to communicate their suffering or distance us from it?

JS The statement you attribute to Titarenko is indeterminate between two different thoughts. One thought is that these images are supposed to inspire empathy and love for his people at the particular time at which these photos were taken, the early 1990s, a pretty horrific time for the former Soviet Union. Another thought is that the photos are supposed to inspire empathy and love by recognizing the link between Russian self-identity and suffering and tragedy, of which this moment is one of many. I confess to sharing some of the standard vaguely adolescent romanticism about Russia – over a several year period, my father read my brother and me ‘War and Peace’ when I was very young. Also, my mother was born in Novosibirsk in 1940 and spent the first six years of her life in a Russian labor camp in Siberia. The childhood movies that stand most clearly in my memory include ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ (ok, also ‘Love and Death’). I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think of Russians in somewhat tragic terms. For me, these images are yet another reminder of the connection between Russian national identity and suffering.

GB There is no shock value in the pictures. There isn’t even one recognizable individual’s pain shown. The people are blurred, ‘shadows’ as Titarenko calls them. The city is what’s in focus. This is an interesting inversion of the more common depictions of suffering we are used to. Did that affect your view?

JS The city of St. Petersburg is kind of the show in the series; here it enters in somewhat subtly via the design work over the windows. Nevertheless, I find that the grimness of the situation is clearly conveyed. In this photo the items being sold reflect the desperation of the time and place, but in other photos the general horrors of the moment are successfully conveyed despite not being traceable to obvious items in the photo. I’m not sure how Titarenko pulled that off. There is nothing in his use of long exposure or intentional camera work specifically. In interviews, Titarenko speaks of huge difference between the bustling streets of St. Petersburg before the dawn of capitalism and the famine-like conditions after. I think that comes across, the sense of very recent grandeur, and if that’s right, it may explain how these photos manage to convey the desperation of the situation.

GB Does beauty always have an ethical side to it for you?

JS No. My wife is really hot, but not like ethically hot. I would more say that the aesthetic objects that interest me generally are instruments that can be used in considering the topic of why we are so horrific to each other.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JS The only thing that comes to mind is that something is beautiful because it is the beginning of just barely endurable terror. Sorry.

GB Does beauty play a role in your appreciation of art?

JS That’s a great question, given what I was asked to do – select an object I find beautiful and discuss it – and what I did (instead?), which was to select an object I find aesthetically interesting or successful, and discuss it. I could try to save myself from the charge of shifting the question by attempting to connect aesthetic interest or success to beauty. But I have no thoughts about how such an argument would go. There are a couple different explanations that strike me for why I answered a different question. One is that I’m simply not the kind of person who has any patience at all for sitting around staring at pretty waterfalls. Another is that I think that beauty plays such a marginal role in art appreciation that the question must be shifted. Let’s go with that last explanation. It’s loftier.

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