Exhibit probes post-Soviet life

Sasha Rudensky’s photography focuses on post-communist Russia and Eastern Europe. Photo courtesy of sasharudensky.com
Sasha Rudensky’s photography focuses on post-communist Russia and Eastern Europe. Photo courtesy of sasharudensky.com

Last week, the anthropology and sociology departments hosted Wesleyan Professor of Photography Sasha Rudensky. According to the departments’ press release, Rudensky’s art “focuses on post-communist Eastern Europe … [and] the loss and recasting of national character that has defined the region’s history for the last 20 years.”

History and place are central to Rudensky, who was born in 1979 in Moscow and lived there for 10 years before moving to America. Her memories of Moscow are Soviet-era memories, a Gorbachev-influenced Soviet era perhaps, but a Soviet era none the less. It is fitting, then, that Rudensky documents the upheaval and confusion of national identity, especially as she casts herself in a role of duality – of two radically different nations. She has been incredibly successful in her depiction of the new Russia and the post-Soviet East. Indeed, Olga Schvenko, the professor of sociology who introduced Rudensky at the talk, placed her in the “top 10” of photographers who are “changing the way we see Russia.”

For me, her works’ message was difficult to decipher – this may have been the point of the exhibit, which Rudensky says focuses on the question of “what does it mean to be Russian … the authentic Russian self,” something that has been cast into doubt during this period of political turmoil. I can accept that this ambiguity was a purposeful choice on the part of the artist. I find it frustrating, however, that Rudensky argues that in Russia “material things have replaced ideology” and then supports her argument by documenting a very narrow portion of Russian life – her images are of hyper-sexualized, incredibly powerful men or of almost always nude, sexually objectified women. Where are the other people? Where is the rest of Russia? Rudensky plays this narrative of material obsession, opulence and corruption with these two characters over and over again, interspersed with empty, desolate spaces. She claims to be offering a perspective on Russia that the Western world usually does not have access to, but I fail to see how this narrative differs from the one playing on our television screens. This summer, for example, Ukraine installed a new government that Russia refused to recognize. There were violent protests, an occupation by Russian forces and an ongoing struggle over the Crimean peninsula. The tragedies inherent to any conflict should be documented – and a battle over democracy and governance provides an excellent opportunity to photograph a broad spectrum of humanity and the space affected by a community, an opportunity that Rudensky avoided. Rudensky responds that she is not a “frontline photographer” but hopes that she injected some “observations about the current situation” in more subtle ways.

It seems that there must be a more complex story to tell and more characters to portray – for example, the stories of the persecuted LGBTQ youth in Russia; certainly their story is one of identity and “new post-soviet Russia.” The people that Rudensky photographs seem flat, one dimensional and stereotyped. She even chooses to cast them in that light. Pointing out one woman wearing a robe in a disheveled bedroom, she explains that although the subject is an old elementary school friend, she chose to photograph her in an ambiguous way to allow for more mysterious narratives – she could be a “sex worker” or a “spy.”

More interesting to me is Rudensky’s earlier, undergraduate collection. Titled “Bathhouse,” the photographs are black and white, instead of color, and they have a grainier, natural feel, as compared to the more recent polished, plastic color photographs. Rudensky took photos of women “who were not wealthy” in a traditional Russian bathhouse. Management discouraged documentation of the patrons, so Rudensky was forced to sneak in a small camera under her bathrobe and photograph her subjects quickly. As a result the photographs have a striking dynamism, a sense of a moment happening in real time, a sense of life that is lost in her more recent photography. The subjects are unaware of the camera, the moments in the bathhouse are incredibly intimate and naked and we, the viewers, are privileged enough to be actually watching life unfold in a very genuine way.

In her most recent work, Rudensky has become obsessed with the idea of “the camera being present” in photography – she cites the film Man with a Movie Camera as her chief inspiration and expresses a fascination with how people act when they are actively being photographed by a “participatory” photographer. Rudensky points out that she does not “ever claim to be a truth teller … art is a subjective experience.” My review is probably a reflection of that “subjective experience,” but it seems to me that in her early photographs, Rudensky documented life and people in a potent combinatorial style of tenderness and exhilaration – danger, the fear of being caught, voyeurism, framed photographs that contained a genuine affection for their subjects. Personally, I think Rudensky came very close to that “truth telling” in her early work, and it is that kind of photography of which I would like to see more.