Michael Iofin :: Fine Art

  Letters from St. Petersburg
Viacheslav Kartsovnik, Ph.D
I shouldn’t like to call the works by Michael Iofin that make the series Letters form Petersburg still life, though all the signs of the genre (showing objects placed within a space) are apparently present.

However, to diagnose one genre or another is just a superficial approach. Much more important is seeing the inner sense of things, their emotional existence and, not least, for what sake those things appeared against the background of a darkened urban landscape. When the artist tries to talk using things for words, every picture turns into his monologue, into a message to the Epoch and the Man; hence the word Letters here in the title of the series is not a mere metaphor.
The sequence of subjects gives us a historical essay about a Petersburgian family whose life is represented by realities of the Past, so the hero of the artist’s works is the Time itself. This main character is absent or, rather, almost imperceptible only in two Letters, in the first and the last ones, where the course of events either didn’t commence yet or paused in suspense expecting the Unknown.

Between those half-empty worlds, hang poised the five central pictures: a chronology of our century, the private life with which the History imperiously meddled and which itself became the History. It is obvious how closely these Letters are tied with the Epoch: object absorbs the Time that created them and dissolves in it.

The world of the Russian Revolution and Civil War (which is the theme of the second work of the series) disgorges into the space of the urban landscape badges of Russian armies destroying each other, photographs of people who were to disappear somewhere in that cloven Universe, other attributes of the years that were slipping away never to return. This Letter is full of vagueness and dim forebodings.

The next work is concrete to highest degree and leaves no room for illusions: this is a world of nightmares, that of total Stalinist terror. The very flesh of things is contaminated, were it a pack of papirossy (brand of Russian cigarettes) with the map of the White Sea Canal on it, which was dug at the expense of thousands of camp prisoners lives, or a letter burnt in a hurry, or eyeglasses smashed by those known un-human beings, or a door-bell ripped savagely off the wall.
The fourth Letter brings us to the realities of World War II, but its atmosphere is more serene (less dim is the reason, perhaps), even though we see a symbol of the Leningrad Siege: placed on the sales of a chemist’s balance there is a scanty ration of bread which decided whether you would last another day; and even though the yellow Mahendavid of a Jewish Ghetto is stained with blood-red paint, whether it were the color of blood poured, or the symbol of another totalitarian power which stuck a Soviet camp prisoner’s ID number to that Yellow Star.

A war may be followed by peace, and cruelty by ambiguity. So the fifth picture shows us the famous Thaw of the Fifties. Attributes of those times are bull of hope, as delusive as it may seem: unsealed by the Great Funerals of the Great Tyrant, appear first letters from abroad, first tape records on non-censored songs, keys for the Nuclear Holocaust and a discharge certificate of a former camp prisoner, that long-waited one promising a normal life which had been by somebody known bereft; all that overshadowed by Kroushchev’s hand waving salute.

The context of the sixth Letter is much more ambiguous, for this is the world of the recentness. Here one can see the full-dress coat of the Chief of State as if borrowed form some farce properties. There, some Hinduism relic and the Christian Cross as symbols of spiritual strivings of the intellectuals of the Seventies. Next to them, some marks of the Western culture, as if from the other world which burst its way through the door that had been well battened down. And at least, a label of the Afghan olives, the only material captured during the "Unknown War". All that, put together, would have too strong a smell of absurd if within the space of the picture there weren’t something that withstands any ambiguity: from under a old typewriter shows a manuscript of an unfinished book; but, what is most important, for the first time during those long years, we can see a Live Face, a face that is not portrayed on the photographic paper; here the artist closely observes the thins he has found to engrave forever in his memory, because the memory is a best epoch.

Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning, as Psalms (30:5) put it. Within the space of the last Letter the table would seem empty if not that bluish souvenir photo (what are those people?). Have they already left the world of these things or come back to it for at least an instant?). Anyway, talking things instead of words is an age-old tradition of the European (and not only European, by the way) art. Contemplating a work by an ancient Flemish painter, a man of the present may not be aware that a dog is the symbol of faithfulness, and a mirror on a wall is the Eye of God. Every separate epoch addresses us talking its own language of signs cracked and decayed. So we read them trying to understand, whether we are no sailing towards the point where all times and things meet again.


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