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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Boris Mikhailov: A Retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art

Boris Mikhailov first became a photographer when he got fired from his engineering job, after the KGB found nude pictures of his wife. Nudity was banned in the Soviet Union, of any type or style, because according to communism, art and society must be repressed. But Mikhailov did not adhere to this; in his early works, the human form prevails, and in his later works it comes out in more subtle ways. His exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) spans four decades and includes 26 series.

The Institute of Contemporary Art is nestled in a very small space in Back Bay, on Boylston Street, on the block before Mass. Ave. Since it is so small, it has to close in order to remove and install shows, and coupled with the fact that attendance has increased 50 percent in the past five years, the next ICA opening will be in 2006. Ground-breaking was held on September 15, 2004, and it is the first new Boston art museum in the last 100 years.

Upon entering the gallery, the first exhibit to capture the eye is “Superimpositions.” The photographer took pictures and developed them with other pictures superimposed on top. The result has a Kafkaesque, surreal quality. There is one piece of a little girl turned sideways, and she appears to have a penis. There are other photographs of female nudes juxtaposed along with odd items, such as plates and cartoons.

The series “On the Ground” was shot in 1991 in Kharkov with a waist-height panoramic camera, and developed in sepia tone. The photographs in the series depict the poverty and bleakness of everyday life in that region. The sequence “At Dusk,” produced in blue tones, shows an even more desperate scene. People just lay on the streets, out of desperation and hunger. Mikhailov said of the time, “It reminded me of what the American Depression must have been like.”

The photographer moved to Berlin in 1998, and in order to learn about his new country and the west in general, he watched a lot of television, and also photographed it. The result is the series “TV Mania.” One sees the sight of a wall covered with photographs of everything from cooking shows, to sports, to Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. Mikhailov says, “I see an attempt to shroud my ignorance visually. I am trying to find in visual images things that are comprehensible to me and others.”

In “Case History,” Mikhailov depicts the homeless population that developed in Kharkov. He said that when he returned from Berlin, everything was beautiful and developed, but the homelessness shocked him. The series raises ethical questions, such as, is it right to take advantage of people by taking pictures of them, even if they are paid? Mikhailov stated that some of the most horrific moments in Russian history went undocumented because the government did not allow certain things to be photographed, and therefore history was air brushed. He uses the camera as a means of social commentary to unveil reality to the masses.

The ICA is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday noon to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12. It is also free every Thursday after 5 p.m. The Boris Mikhailov exhibit will run through January 2, 2005.