The Work of Grief: "Mannequins" by Danila Tkachenko
Egor Sofronov

Danila Tkachenko "Mannequins"

Russia, Taymyr Autonomous Okrug, forced labor camp "Coal Stream"

One of the works nominated for this year's prestigious Kandinsky Prize for Russian art is Danila Tkachenko's series "Mannequins" - landscape art of Gulag sites, mainly in Yakutia. Egor Sofronov speaks about this work, turning landscape and conceptual photography into an instrument of memory.
The snow-covered hills and valleys are tranquillized by the stillness of a snowstorm, erasing the horizon: the reduced outlines of geology - rocks, elevations - become black and even blur into grey forgone films, overexpressed in the predominant white that fills the entire pictorial field. These landscapes are artificial, and whose nature the inhuman North is? If anything has a narrative beyond the formal perfection of staging, framing and post-processing, it works only as a barely evoked memory, excited by rounded repetitions and an allusive atmosphere of haunting, with no words or actors. The lens gazes at the coldest, most dangerous places in Eurasia: the camps in the Indigirka, Dzhugzhura (and from other northern dales - Taimyr, the Kola Peninsula, Magadan, Yamal, Norilsk). Nevertheless, the landscapes are not as they are: frame catches scattered black pyramids, manufactured elements, calculated in perspective construction with a pattern of intent. How to document death camps if they are thousands of kilometres away from populated areas and in the merciless harshness of eternal winter? Society turns away from such a reminder, making every effort to forget about labour camps as if cursed to repeat this route of self-denial?

Danila Tkachenko "Mannequins"

Russia, Murmansk Oblast, Kola forced labor camp, Building No. 509

The author of these photographs, Danila Tkachenko, explains his task as "mapping the unmapped": "I have been searching for the sites of former Gulag concentration camps and made my way there to place installations of mannequins covered in black cloth. These inaccessible places are usually not marked on maps in any way. Created images are placed in the landscape as it was remade by photography into the matrix of the documentary.

Documentary photography and the large-scale conceptual landscape tradition, licensed in post-Soviet Russia, imitated the Düsseldorf School as elsewhere in the world. This influential convention of photographic production established (in the context of German post-war modernism of the 1960s) large-scale views, organized into series according to the prescriptions of conceptual art, as a spectacular and socially reflective aesthetic. Finding its adherents in Russia from the late noughties - masters such as Alexander Gronsky and Max Scher - as if turning their backs on the Atlantis of the Soviet empire and its dying out informal tasteless sociality, relegated to survival, and therefore culturally/classically alienated, it captured architecture and folkways from a liberal perspective.

This view exoticized the post-communist condition as a critical difference characterizing society's incomplete transitivity (toward the bourgeois republic with its detached view of the individual, atomized from the eliminated commonality, isolated like more-than-human C-prints in rigorous baguettes) and thus the aesthetic sign value promised by the arithmetic of this difference. The photographic gaze of the technically superior and exorbitantly (as Kantian or, better, Lyotardian sublime, even techno-exalted) expensive Mamiya, Hasselblad, Leica or, at worst, the digital full matrix SLR corresponded to the modernizing, pro-Western aspiration of "modern art" into which the craft of the photographer - or no longer the craft, but the practice of the ambitioned Author - had migrated.

Danila Tkachenko "Mannequins"

Russia, the Republic of Sakha, Indigirskiy forced labor camp

Max Scher's practice is a distillation of this approach. His photographic series on vernacular development staggered into postcard views (2014) and then the photobook "Infrastructures" (2019, together with Sergey Novikov) developed it into a versatile, including written humanitarian, reflection on space and its politics.

The landscape art indeed served as a privileged genre, promising an inexhaustible resource, an expanse as vast as a sparsely populated map - even more than the portrait with its anthropological specificity: these were the parameters of the great photo, sought out externally as a testimony and as an aesthetic practice. Such were also some of the pedagogical attitudes of the Rodchenko School, which began to supply the art market with others mesmerized by him and enchanted by his bohemian group narcissism[2].. Sworn to devote their lives to art, Rodchenko's graduates became a prolific generation of authors making high-quality documentary photography based on expeditions and ethnographic collecting.
What was sought in these kinds of out-of-town trips was, as was the escapism of the 1960s and 1970s, an unalienated state of search, primary to the product: for Tkachenko, "the most valuable experience is the one I gain in the process of producing an artistic work, not its result." The aesthetic significance and social function of photography are primarily understood in this approach as a taxonomy of difference: spatial heterotopias, cultural others (more often endogenous, autochthonous rather than allogenic) - distant and other, presented to the homogenizing omnivorous and self-weary gaze of Metropolis.

One could say that by exoticizing the route, Tkachenko was working through his relationship to family history, in the pathography of roots or trauma, becoming increasingly common to the generation of meaning in art and in general: "I grew up among people who often travelled and took me with them. Dad is an esotericist who travelled all over the world for ritual practices in places far from civilization. Mom is a journalist; we were even captured once in the Georgian-Abkhazian war, where she covered the events."

Danila Tkachenko "Escape", 2013

Tkachenko shared this escapist aspiration with the pedagogy of the Rodchenko School in general and especially with the Valery Nistratov studio housed there when his diploma Escape (2013) with an ethnographic series of portraits of fugitives who refused civilization (just as inequality and dictatorship were tightening with the return of Putin to the Kremlin after the 2011-2012 protests) earned him fame and a World Press Photo nomination. The process of photographic labour, as it is cultivated in the Rodchenko school, is often tied to a tourist, expeditionary background, not just the camera and its articulation with the human body in already-defined conditions: these conditions are understood as the starting and ending point of observer and display, but the meaning is found outside, in geographic, landscape remoteness. The role model is Ansel Adams, with his donkey crossing the expanse of the undeveloped Southwest.

Interest in remote places is paramount to Tkachenko's practice. It was as if the photographer wanted to go farther and farther with each new series (first following the hermits in "Escape" [2013], then, in "Closed Territories" following the already deserted ruins of the materiality of an empire that had collapsed). It is how he was led to Yakutia, which in recent years has become alluring in its exoticism and its attempts to distance itself from it (also fueled by local cultural production). Thousands of kilometres to the east of Siberia for a European can no longer fit into the frame by themselves, and thus their unrepresentability is significant.

Distance for photographic objectification becomes an inwardly reflective relation - a technical apparatus of refraction or a self-seeking enlightened subject - and a literal spatial-geographical distance of remoteness, a search for inaccessible locations. Moreover, in Tkachenko's series "Closed Territories," "Monuments," and "Mannequins," distance also acquires a temporal dimension of the loss of history, of irretrievable ruins. The ruins of modernization: through Christianity under Tsarism in Monuments, industrialization under Communism in Closed Territories, and terror under Stalinism in Mannequins. These ruins are mourned, and the work of grief, their enfolding in the soul, serves the observer's retreat from what Martin Heidegger would call destiny. Sometimes grief had collided with its denial and exacerbation of loss, as when Tkachenko, for his Homeland series (2017), burned the ruins of the depopulated countryside, photographing the flames, which provoked a scandal in the conservative media [3].

Generalizing this work of grief to the experience of art in general, Tkachenko prioritizes the notion of distance: "The artistic experience for me consists in the acquisition of distance, both in the field of meaning and in the spatial plane. Changing the point of view... All this allowed me to take distance to live and look at it from different angles. However, the most crucial experience of distance for me was being lost in the Altai Mountains, where I spent a month without meeting people searching for food and trying to get to civilization.
his is not to say that distance implies simplification, direct transmission, immediacy, authorial expression. Not at all. Technically, Tkachenko's work, from "Closed Territories" to "Mannequins," is increasing - and unlike Nistratov or Scher - an extremely complexly constructed situation, albeit invisibly. We are not talking about an unmediated landscape, however, framed - but architecturally and performatively staged constructions in which the environment or the performers are malleable material, among others. For the series "Monuments" (2017), Tkachenko, along with an assistant, erected land-art envelopes for ruins; for "Experimental Field" (2017) mushroomed a cast of performers.

The frame for "Mannequins" holds black pyramids and small geometries embedded in the landscape to hint at the perspective speculative point of view subordinating the natural earth. At neither first nor second glance is it clear what they are: are they digital or materially placed objects? Are they drawn or imprinted? They certainly cannot belong to this place preceding the artist's intrusion. If imprinted, how was this whimsical, intentional composition constructed physically, on location? Their arbitrariness informs the images in a constructed, artificial way, denying them pure testimonial function of reverence, of recording. Rather than commemorative references, they are disturbing interventions.

Danila Tkachenko "Monuments", 2017

Strict control is built on distancing oneself from the actual shooting, on delegation: "I find it hard to call myself a photographer in the classical sense. I would not say I like to take pictures; my assistant often does it for me. Much more time and effort are taken by what is not in the frame: the expedition logistics of exploration, equipping and installation. The artist states its centrality to the creative process: "My practice is based on site-specific interventions in space. The main part of the work is research, exploring the context, gathering information, constructing an itinerary, finding fixers and assistants. This is followed by finding materials, organizing participants, researching presumptive locations, and resolving transportation issues. The final stage is travel, physical site preparation, creating the installation, waiting out the weather conditions, documentation, and cleanup. Most of my projects are done according to this scheme. The Mannequins project has extensive geography, covering much of the Russian north. I have been working on this project for over two years. At the same time, I was doing the Planetarium project, addressing abandoned towns in the far north. I researched former Gulag camps; they are not listed on maps and are in remote and inaccessible places. In order to get to the place, I outfitted a series of expeditions, enlisting the help of locals. They were mostly snowmobiles with trailers to transport materials for the installations. Transportation became the most costly part of producing the project. Once I was able to get to the locations, I would find a suitable place to install the installations, which consisted of light prefabricated mannequins covered with black cloth, arranging them in different orders. I made several approaches to the layouts to accomplish the photographic documentation. One of the challenges was the weather conditions. The wind needed not to be strong enough to blow the installations away, so sometimes we had to wait or return to the site again."

Mapping is inextricably intertwined with intervention. The anxiety of its violence is heightened by the fact that the invasion is carried out in the discourse of memory and the topos of the Gulag, what scholar Alexander Etkind called "crooked grief" from the obsession of the unmourned, the non-encounter with the irrationality of suicidal mass destruction [4]. The reference to the Gulag goes back at least to Heroes (2019), when Tkachenko borrowed from memorial NPOs the remains they discovered in large numbers in unmarked graves and photographed the bones painted in bright colours - an almost literal hauntology of the macabre, staging the sadism of the unacceptable. As with escapist movements, for the author, the history of political repression is linked to family history, extended from private experience into the public - into the ghostly ether of post-communism pervasive unquietness: "For me, the subject of the Gulag is personal, as it is for much of the population of post-Soviet countries. My family has repressed ancestors, as do many families. We know little about them because it was not customary to talk about them for fear of the authorities. This non-outspokenness brings fear back to the present day and permeates the post-Soviet space with hauntology.

In an interview with his regular critic Anna Komissarova, Tkachenko mentioned "Heroes" about the unburied that his work addresses the reproach left by their obsession[5].
How can the unburied from the past work in contemporary art? At least in two registers: on the one hand, reconciliation, giving the appearance of victims; on the other, mimesis of violence on a symbolic level, as a provocation of inhumanity. The first register in art and cultural production in general dominates, a remarkable example of which is Anastasia Vepreva's[6] graphic art and papier-mache; Tkachenko, in his characteristic mode of detached cruelty, chooses the second. Suppose the burning of the ruins in "Homeland" is an extreme expression of this negativist. In that case, nihilistic impulse - destruction, and "Heroes" with its painting in bright luminescence of human remains is irreverent, then in "Mannequins" this impulse is blunted, for it deals with the landscape and not the ghostly traces of people, their bodies, which here are transformed into icons, statistically insignificant figures, flashed into the ground, to soon vanish from it.
Not just adding to the discourse of memory, but transforming it from within can be a critical reflection on its relationship to imperialism - more simply, decolonization of memory is needed. The Gulag was both an industrial-scale terror against dissent and an imperialist complex of evictions, artificial hunger, the reclaiming of territory, the neutralization of difference, and the clearing of it for the Eurocentric politics of white supremacy. The task of this recognition is still just beginning to illuminate from behind the horizon of critical futurity the current aesthetic and literary efforts.

Danila Tkachenko "Mannequins"

Russia, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Severny forced labor camp

Siberia was colonised mainly back in the tsarist period as a vast prison, a place of exile, which was brought to industrial proportions under Stalinism. The actual colonial complementarity (or inherent core?) to the repressive-penitentiary attitude seems to be little comprehended. In this sense, Yakutia with its indigenous population appears as a marker, including the racial map of colonialism - non-white bodies reduced to the non-human. Black mannequins, merging with the snow, with nature, whose value has been relegated to extraction and waste.

Tkachenko, noting the memorable basis of the photographic medium, this "mirror with a memory," sees a role for it in mediating between memory and post-imperial becoming: "We are still not out of the imperial paradigm of centralised power, which cannot be a healthy construct in today's world. All this complicates the processes of decolonisation of consciousness at all levels. Photography is directly related to the tools of memory. Only through recognition of colonial trauma and its victims can processes of decolonisation take place.

What can photography suggest for reflecting on colonialism? One can begin to look - literally - for answers to this question in these works, in their labour-intensive mapping, research about, visits to places of memory.
1. Alexey Borisenok, Olga Sosnovskaya. The Former West and the New East // Art Journal No. 101 (2017).
2. Alexandra Novozhenova. School Art //, February 12, 2014.
3. "Every nation deserves not only its ruler, but also its artist" //, December 6, 2017.
I wondered, then, whether such a symptom of decay was being carried away too much by what Hal Foster called mimetic aggrandizement. As if by not giving a horizon of overcoming, the gesture of incineration might risk being homologous to universal decay and derzhimordian aberrations-so much so that it leaves no space for proper reflection on the value of provocation-for and in the name of what?
4. Alexander Etkind. Crooked Grief: the Memory of the Unburied. Translated from English by Vladimir Makarov. Moscow: New Literary Review, 2016.
5. Anna Komissarova. "There are bones left from the past - this is a fact, but whose bones they are - unclear": interview with Danila Tkachenko //, November 25, 2019.
6. I wrote about her commemorative work in Sure: It's all about weakness: about Anastasia Vepreva //, December 21, 2018.