Performing the Documentary

Performing the documentary
Elena Sorokina

In: Mutations: Perspectives on Photography (Paris Photo)
by Chantal Pontbriand (Editor)

For her project "Trees" (2009), Anastasia Khoroshilova invited drama students from the "Special art school for people with restricted physical abilities" in Moscow, asking them to improvise on the theme of "tree" in urban spaces. Their gestural mastery, finesse and expressiveness were then documented by the artist in well-framed, attentive-to-composition shots, her camera being interested in portraying the students as much as in their performances.

Until very recently, Khoroshilova has always worked with specific groups of people, sometimes deliberately invoking narrative stereotypes and cultural clichés. An orthodox monastery in Russia, a women's asylum in Germany or the workers of the Ural Heavy Machine Building Plant - all of them can be described as groups, communities or collectives with a different degree of individual involvement – from the conscious choice to a mere bad fate. Khoroshilova's subjects can be part of the new- and old-type communities coexisting in today's Russia. A Jewish school or an Orthodox cloister were ideologically impossible in Soviet times. And concurrently, the name of "Uralmash" built in the 1930s resonates today as an antiquated idea of the exalted stakhanovite collectivity. The artist's interest in communities relies on their dramatic current shifts: the end of Communism naturally meant the disintegration of its main ideological figure, the figure of “Soviet people” – defined as an ideal multinational community to come. What are the new collective affinities and who are the "people" today, she asks? A nation and its citizens, a mass, a crowd, another type of imaginary community? Looking at individuals first, Khoroshilova observes their ways to negotiate with a collective identity of their choice or fate.

This approach of Khoroshilova's has been described by Victor Misiano as "existential anthropology" – an exploration of individual experiences inside the socio-cultural forms, their habitude and their spontaneity. At the same time, photography remains for the artist a science of the particular, a meeting between psychology, literature and history in a documentary portrait. Often assuming a role of a "travelling photographer", the artist asks people if they want "a picture taken of them". Sometimes, she goes to people's homes, listens to their life stories, gaining a close and intimate familiarity with her possible "models" or "sitters". But their involvement in the production of image is more than just posing. As a matter of fact, Khoroshilova's "models" become her collaborators, consciously constructing their own representation in a mutual "creative effort" with the artist. We see, in other words, how her "models" choose to be seen; the "reality" and "fiction" of the image are constructed by them, and remain under shared control with the artist. At the Uralmash Plant, for example, the workers created entire compositions for the photographs, choosing a mise-en-scène, lighting, and the objects featured.

In some ways, Khoroshilova's approach is indebted to the 19th century movement of Peredvizhniki (Wanderers or Itinerants) – not to their heroic "national" legend, but their genuine interest in people and surroundings as much as their takes on "realism". Founded in 1870, "The Association of Travelling Art Exhibits", abbreviated as "Peredvizhniki", was an artist cooperative driven by the idea of “bringing art to people" and discovering this very "people" – one of the chief archetypes of the Russian art, in perpetual (re)-construction. This interest in models of contemporary realities is also characteristic for Khoroshilova's direct generational affiliation, the phenomenon called "postdiaspora". Far from being a homogenous movement, postdiaspora displays a specific duality of connection-separation with Russia as a subject of investigation. If the previous diasporic generation, of which Ilya Kabakov is the most renowned representative, was engaged in self-mythologization, facing problems of the representational identity, for the post-diaspora, to be or not to be a "Russian artist" was a matter of choice. Educated in the West, these artists had a wide spectrum of possibilities to design their "Russianness" – research it, perform it or invent it anew from the most eclectic parts available, or, as in Khoroshilova's case, to engage in "participant observation".

As an engaged observer, Khoroshilova captures people not by surprise but in a considered pose, self-aware and taking time to face the spectators' gaze. This calm, unhurried temporality of a good old studio photography – close to the pictorial in some ways - deeply opposes the momentariness of a reportage – hunting and catching the moment. For Khoroshilova, the main question is what happens before and after the image? How can an image be justified and what can an image do? Going, for example, to sites of conflict long after a tragedy had happened, she meets people left alone by the mainstream press, facing themselves and their traumatic memories. For the project "Old News" in Beslan - a place radically transformed by an unprecedented hostage taking tragedy in 2004, Khoroshiliva photographed women who lived both – the tragedy itself and the stress-time imposed by the media. Their portraits taken in 2010 are alien to both, photojournalism and the all too familiar psychologizing portraiture; the artist gives these women time to recover and redress in front of the camera, to be in charge of their own image, composed and self-possessed.

Always negotiating with her subjects the terms and conditions of "imaging" – the sense of disclosure and right to opacity – Khoroshilova can be seen among the artists trying to reinvent the documentary practice today. Avoiding any illustrations of concepts, she explores the space between the straight documentary and a staged tableau, and all the representational and performative complexity this space offers. But what ultimately remains is the collective effort in "making" an image, the agency of the sitter, the magic of his presence and the new sense of "realism" the work of Khoroshilova touches upon.