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USSR Passport: Between Soviet Utopias and Post-Socialist Realities

 

Since its nineteenth century beginnings photography has functioned as an organisational tool for visually describing the world through groups, categories, communities, from people to plants and planets, in order to better understand the society, as well as to control it. Costumes and props were typically on hand in the photographer's arsenal, so that they could render portraits that recreated compositions from popular plays or paintings. The illusory universes created by photographers in their works resembled worlds that were known or could be imagined. The seeds for documentary, engaged photography were sowed at this time and at the beginning of the 20th century, and were further developed during the post-war period, when artists began to tackle social problems and political issues in a nuanced and evocative way. Making visual arguments through series of photographs taken over time, engaged photographers used experiential perspectives that embraced both objectivity and subjectivity, interpretation and information, art and journalism.

The Moldavian-born artist Tatiana Fiodorova also works in the aforementioned tradition, producing socially-oriented projects that facilitate critical and affective engagements with the recent past, bringing to light tensions between memory-work and historiography, as well as disjunctures between official histories and suppressed narratives. It is no coincidence that the artist has often turned to photography to accomplish her goals, as her projects reveal an attuned understanding of the medium's potential for reflection, related to the witnessing people and events, as well as to constant interplays between past and present. In a 2012 conceptual installation, "In Search of the Social Body of the Soviet Artist" she focused on the oeuvre of her father, Vasily Lefter, an artist who worked as a photographer, painter and designer in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. Fiodorova reassembled Lefter's pictures in an experiential way, amounting to a personal study in which she tried to come to terms with her father's situation as a Sovet-era artist. By critically staging Lefter's original works together with historical texts, interviews, photographs and reproductions, Fiodorova more generally brought to light the challenges of being an artist and the artists' role in her native country both then, in her father's past, as well as now, in her present.

In her more recent work from 2014, USSR Passport Fiodorova created a rich photographic album of portraits that straddles between documentary form and theatricality, between credible spaces and almost fantastic circumstances, while remaining grounded in the realities of post-Soviet Moldova and Eastern Europe in general. The work consists of photographic copies of Soviet passports, photo portraits of people holding Soviet passports from the unrecognised republic of Transnistria, as well as objects from that time, such as photographs, coins, medals, household decorations and toys, found in these people's apartments. The artist also included insightful testimonies from the people represented in the portraits about the Soviet period. As the artist explained, unlike Moldavian citizens, who have had to exchange their Soviet passports for new state IDs so that they could enjoy pensions, benefits, and voting rights, citizens of Transnistria were not obliged to give up theirs. Moreover, many people of this region still do not wish to part with their Soviet passports, which specifically mentions their Transnistrian citizenship and are indefinitely valid.

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Tatiana Fiodorova, USSR Passport, photography series, 2014

In the hands of Fiodorova, the portraits are not glamorous but realist, and the protagonists (most of them elderly women) do not look like the products of old-fashioned photojournalism that move one sweetly, and with sentiment. Rather the artists wants the viewer to grasp that the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are still palpable today, that this is not a group of Others, living far away, whose lives have been reduced to objects of commodified Soviet nostalgia and communist kitsch that is so popular in the West. Aesthetically, the portraits alternate between more informal snapshots and staged compositions. The artist's eye for symbolic details revealing the different states of mind of her sitters, are augmented by tight cropping and saturated colours that give the series a psychological and emotional intensity. For example, in one photograph a chestnut colour haired woman sits in her kitchen gazing straight at the camera lens with piercing blue eyes, while holding the photo-page of her passport, revealing a younger representation of herself in black and white. She wears a white blouse, a red jumper, a cream checkered vest and a white embroidered shawl around her shoulders, set against the white tiles of her kitchen wall. Similarly displayed as other portraits in the series, her photograph is mounted on a large reproduction of a blank passport page. It is displayed next to a bright red banner of a Komsomol group emblazoned with Lenin's portrait. These signifiers of a deposed Soviet Union, are resurrected as it were, as they are shown to continue to play a vital role in the lives of the community.

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Tatiana Fiodorova, USSR Passport, photography series, 2014

Fiodorova's photographs have a deeply reflective quality that distinguish its goals from the culture of instant consumption that prevails in her native Moldova and much of Eastern Europe today. The photographic portraits are arresting, yet their meaning(s) unfolds in time. Fiodorova captures snapshots of the personal histories of her protagonists intertwined with larger historical events, as well as their inner lives. Through discrete gestures, captured in the moment of recollection, the viewer gets a glimpse into the private existence of a group of people in a liminal space between East and West, the former Soviet Union and present-day Transnistria. The people in the portraits seem to be caught while standing on a temporal precipice, arrested in the moment before they present themselves to another - the photographer, the viewer, or some unknown authority figure - inviting us to move closer into their domestic interiors and respond to their personal stories.

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Tatiana Fiodorova, USSR Passport, photography series, 2014

While the photographs are strong enough to stand alone, Fiodorova weaves the portraits and different testimonies into a complex narrative, that slips from the past into the present and back. The artist uses her sitters, their props and their recollections to build a story from multiple angles in order to facilitate a richer understanding of the history of the region, that does not amount to either sweet nostalgia, or pure sentimentality. Rather, Fiodorova's series of photographs explore the subjective, historical and political facets of the community and their region, with greater nuance than could be achieved through single images. Her use of text and framing adds further dimension to her interpretive approach, in a fluid, experimental way, without fixing the narrative to one viewpoint, temporal frame or ideological reference. For example, recollections about meeting one's friends in the queues, standing to buy basic food items, such as bread and sugar, are interspersed with happy memories of a culture that encouraged sports during all seasons, and the excitement of receiving praises for a job well done at work. Some of the protagonists express regret over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when they could travel freely across countries that are now inaccessible to them. The USSR passport runs as a red thread through their stories and memories.

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Tatiana Fiodorova, USSR Passport, photography series, 2014

Fiodorova is part of a post-Soviet generation of artists in Eastern Europe whose body of work responds to the urgency of reevaluating recent Soviet history and the legacy of socialism since the revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Her projects, at the same time rooted in the personal and the collective, do not simply reproduce empty signifiers of this recent past, rather they activate visual codes and suppressed narratives in order to reclaim regional communities agency. "USSR Passport" reveals heterogeneous experiences of socialism in the region, while sidestepping stereotypical renderings of its history as a narrative of backwardness, repression and nostalgia. The work both analyses and questions official histories by collecting individual and collective narratives that have been neglected, and accomplishing a complex collective portrait of the region that acts as a present-day, active inquiry into vital historical processes of the 20th and 21st centuries, and their political consequences.

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: http://rci-rutgers.academia.edu/CorinaApostol Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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