The Shock of the Posthumous: Vladimir Syomin's Caucasus Project (Reflections on Documentary Practices and Soviet History)
Originally published in Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory: Photo-related Works from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, Rutgers University Press, 2004, pp. 207-218.
Experience…is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious.
In recent years, Vladimir Syomin has gained recognition for his lorn, plaintive photographs of the Russian countryside—pictures that represent an important accomplishment of late and post-Soviet documentary photography. This work earned Syomin the prestigious W. Eugene Smith award in documentary photography in 1995, and it is this work that has been published and exhibited widely in the United States, Europe and Russia. Less well known are Syomin's pictures from the trans-Caucasus regions of the former Soviet Union, a sprawling, exploratory collection of photographs made in the outer reaches of the Soviet empire, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing through the mid 1990s. In this essay I wish to consider Syomin's Caucasus work on its own terms, to recover it as a project and as a set of photographic initiatives. Admittedly this effort involves a certain license on my part, insofar as Syomin has not publicly shown this work as a discrete portfolio. Considered on its own, however, the project ranks among a number of notable photographic works undertaken in the last two decades—projects by Josef Koudelka, Bill Burke, Gilles Peress, Lise Sarfati, Fazal Sheikh and Mikael Levin, to name a few—that use direct observational photography in non-deictic ways to address issues of historical memory.
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The thick description of Soviet Russian daily life that underlies Syomin's experience in the Caucasus is beyond the scope of this essay; it will have to suffice to say that everyday experience in Soviet Russia was in various ways linked to and grounded in a baseline reality, not just failed state planning and ideological intolerance, but the succession of events that resulted in the loss of tens of millions of Soviet Russians: revolution, collectivization, famine, the gulag system, world war. (In this light the collapse of the Soviet Union and the painful adaptation to the dictates of the globalist market economy read as one more sacrifice in a succession of sacrifices.) By the 1970s, when Syomin began his Caucasus work, daily life was marked by ossification in the realms of politics, the economy and culture, notwithstanding the Soviet system's considerable achievements. The upshot was not only a predilection toward cultural forms that defied suffering and repressed grief through the repetition of themes of endurance and destiny, but also what might be called a crisis of self-reference, a cultural malaise close to what Octavio Paz calls expulsion from the present, "the search for the present [which] is neither the pursuit of an earthly paradise nor that of a timeless eternity, [but] the search for a real reality."
What greeted Syomin in the Caucasus was the possibility of using observational photography to describe an historical subject, namely the accumulated impact of Soviet experience, which was a subject both invisible (literally speaking) and elusive because traumatic and largely repressed. The Caucasus presented Syomin not just with non-Russian lifeways, but in them something like the negative space of Soviet Russian consciousness—the experience of his own historical consciousness peremptorily severed from the things and events of daily life. This severance, in Syomin's hands, became an opportunity, a point of departure for photographic observation. The distance and the apartness of the Caucasus permitted an effort to limn cultural difference for recognition of the self-displacing nature of Soviet historical memory, for occasions when shuttered historical awareness breaks into consciousness. It is for this reason that the Caucasus emerges in Syomin's pictures as a place materially complex, and an eventful place, but a place announcing a certain emptiness that resonated with, and so could be made to freight the historical consciousness of a Soviet Russian. It emerges as a place displaced, as it were, of Soviet Russian memory—a realm of Soviet otherness whose very alterity invited recognition of a "real reality."
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Insofar as Syomin's broad aim is recognize the traumatized historical consciousness of a dying empire, his task is precisely to make himself vulnerable to pain, to work creatively with what Walter Benjamin terms "the shock experience," to find form for the catharsis denied Soviet Russian consciousness as it formed in relation to an ongoing shock experience that modulated through decades. The task is almost promethean: to pry open Soviet Russian historical memory immured against the shock of death, memory formed precisely to protect itself from death, precisely to buttress national consciousness against the tides of grief. Syomin's task involves intuiting and receiving energies that trace grief held below the surface, allowing these energies to be "parried by consciousness," to use Benjamin's phrase.
Benjamin's observations about the relationship between photography and the shock experience illuminate much about Syomin's aims, and the moment in which Syomin attempts to realize them. Benjamin observes that "the camera [gives] the moment a posthumous shock." For Benjamin, the "posthumous" aspect of photographs refers to their capacity to return to us a fragment of a life-world from the past, to sustain the attribute of existence in what we understand to have vanished. In Benjamin's thinking, the posthumous is also a key term in the formation of the historical, in that history for Benjamin is always coded with its own disappearance. As Eduardo Cadava writes, history for Benjamin begins in the crisis of forgetting and non-recognition, and so exists by definition as something "always on the verge of disappearing, without disappearing." To speak of the historical in and of itself, for Benjamin, is to speak of something "infinite in every direction and unfulfilled in every instant," something that comes to recognition at specific times, namely in moments of danger when historical meaning is in crisis. This time of coming-to-recognition occurs for Benjamin when a mutually implicated past and present together acquire presence as historical "experience," and validate particular subject positions that would receive this experience. Benjamin explains this coming-to-recognition variously as a "crystallization" and a "constellation" of tensions that otherwise exist in a fluid dialectic. Notably, he also appeals to images in general, and photographs in particular as a spatial metaphor to explain the ways the ways "chronological movement is grasped and analyzed." "The photographic image" writes Benjamin, "is dialectics at a standstill."
Syomin's sensibility is strikingly reminiscent of Benjamin, with certain modifications. For Syomin, the presence of the posthumous is not so much an ineluctable property of photographs as an accomplishment to which they might aspire. Working precisely at a moment in which the meaning of accumulated Soviet historical experience begged recognition—historical experience that itself signified a perpetual deferral, an ongoing crisis of meaning—Syomin's pictures strive to afflict the present, as it were, with the shock of the posthumous. Syomin's work positions its viewers to glimpse the impact of the deferral of grief. His pictures work to name the halted formations that signify halted culture, halted tradition, halted time. They work to enter the viewer upon a process of associative thinking that leads to moments that dwell in the experience of loss inexplicably and partially retrieved. The Caucasus photographs accomplish this recondite naming through an active sense of journeying precisely in an outer and "other" realm of the Soviet empire. Attending to what is unexplained and unforeseen, they attempt to recuperate the present for the sake of memory, without submitting the present to a recuperative end that would make the task of generating memory redundant or sterile. What the Caucasus photographs impart neither reifies nor explains away death. The pictures represent ties to the seen world, and through that world, to worlds on the near side of bereavement.
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