Boris Mikhaïlov, witness critical of Ukraine

The artist Boris Mikhaïlov, born in 1938, was still in shorts when he understood the danger of images and their subversive potential. He grew up in Kharkiv, when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. “I was in kindergarten, says the photographer met in Paris. My mother had wrapped my breakfast in a sheet of newspaper. Of course, there was a picture of Stalin and other leaders. The fat from my sandwich had run down Stalin’s face. Children immediately went to denounce me as an “enemy”! Fortunately, the teacher was smart and there were no consequences. But this denunciation marked me. »

In the work he has developed since the 1960s, Boris Mikhaïlov seems to have learned this bitter lesson well. The rich retrospective dedicated to him by the European House of Photography (MEP), in Paris, in about twenty series and nearly 800 images, aligns photos that describe reality as much as they put it at a distance. Of life in Ukraine, under the USSR and after, Mikhailov’s photos offer an ironic and distorted reflection. « I made a triangle with three elements: beauty, imperative and dread », abstract the photographer with the little goatee, always accompanied by his wife and collaborator Vita.

The course of the MEP, very educational, gives the necessary keys to decipher this singular and grating work, which slaloms – and sometimes skids – between the documentary, the conceptual approach and the performance.

Bonded negatives

You can’t escape your childhood, and perhaps the memory of the superimposed portrait of Stalin inspired Boris Mikhaïlov to create one of his most beautiful series: Yesterday’s Sandwich (1966-1968). To the sound of soaring music from the album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), by Pink Floyd, absurd and strange images are projected onto the wall. This hypnotic work was born by accident, when the negligent photographer threw two color negatives on his bed that stuck together. Fascinated by the result, the artist combined photos of all kinds, street scenes, nudes or portraits to create disturbing collages with surreal accents. A naked body cracks, changed into a statue; a giant hand emerges from the ruins; peacock feathers stick out from a pair of buttocks; a face cries black tears – they are actually pantyhose drying on a wire.

From the heavy visual straitjacket reigning at the time, Boris Mikhaïlov made his palette, playing with the rules with mischief, turning the language of propaganda against it

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