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Sadness Inspires

Liina Soosaar (2/2017)

Liina Soosaar writes on the Estonian debut exhibition of internationally renowned photographic artist, Alexander Gronsky.



18. IV–27. V 2017
Gallery Noorus

In April and May this year, pictures from the series "Pastoral I" (2009–2012), "Pastoral II" (2008–2011) and "Reconstruction" (2013–2017) by Moscow-based photographic artist Alexander Gronsky were exhibited in the basement gallery at Noorus in Tartu. Gronsky, whose Estonian origin is often mentioned, was born in 1980 in Tallinn to Russian-Ukrainian parents who still live in Tallinn. However, like many other creative young people, Gronsky has long left his home country with no intention of returning. There is no reason for that; life is happening elsewhere.*

With his pastoral photographs of Moscow's suburbs, we are presented with a familiar scene of how mass housing can become intertwined with burgeoning nature, just as Le Corbusier had predicted. The future of Paris has been fully realised in Moscow (and elsewhere). The photographer has said that he feels confident in an environment like that; he just belongs there, to those grotesque landscapes, otherwise feeling that he does not actually belong anywhere. He shows us the poetic beauty of those environments. The photographs might seem like random snaps but they are full of detail – we can see grimaces, objects, poses, colours, we can see the light fall and feel the wind blow.

Gronsky's art begins the moment he steps outside. His photographs are the snaps of a lonely wanderer, and they are of places where there seems to be nothing to look at. But this is what makes them beautiful. That which is unconventionally beautiful. Only sad and desolate; the buildings seem to have disappeared amongst the woods while the people appear even more lost. As saturated splashes of colour, they float in bushes, on wastelands, amongst cranes – just as if on a construction site where their paths, resembling animal trails, pass.

In relation to his "Pastoral" series, Sven Vabar's collection of essays, "Mitte-Tartu" (Non-Tartu, Tartu: Topofon, 2012), comes to mind with its strange stories of how the places where cities meet the fields nourish creativity. Mati Unt's novel "Sügisball" (Autumn Ball, Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1979) about the districts of residential tower blocks in Tallinn, where "there is a person in every one of those damned boxes who wants to be happy". Moscow's suburbs are much larger in scale, but just as inspiring. Sadness inspires.

One might think that the "Reconstruction" series is like the production of a war film, but what is confusing is the fact that Gronsky has not captured them as a production photographer. We see people dressed as combatants, with regular civilians watching the "game", and that is misleading. It is all paradoxical, as further observation reveals that we are seeing some kind of military training in those same districts of apartment blocks. In this case, the "remake" is what becomes strange and where the dislocation is created by the environment, the periphery, which is the city's barricade, the future battlefield.

The two series are both characterised by a picturesqueness. The photographs in the "Pastoral" series are reminiscent of Impressionist scenes of picnics, but the result of enjoying those idle moments and activities in scenic meadows is the apocalyptic dumping ground of the 21st century, the backyard of the city where the majority of the urbanised population live (just like Lasnamäe, which houses 27% of Tallinn's citizens). However, the photographed motifs still seem romantic. The reconstructed "carnage" re-enacts war paintings from the soviet period: we see the shooters and the fallen, we see emotions that are so genuine in their presentation.

One more aspect is apparent in the "Pastoral" series – the angle at which the photographs have been taken; in many cases this is from above our heads, which means they have been taken from above. Whether using a drone or captured in another way, they still describe the photographer's position – viewing things from afar, high above like an overview, but at the same time they offer a new point of view for those watching. We could also see the photographer as being somewhat separated and distant – he is not a part of the landscape or the people; his wish is to look down on the world from above.

Gronsky has named Paul Graham, a US photographer born in 1964 and who has British roots, as one of his role models. Indeed, the similarity is especially apparent in Gronsky's recent work; for example, in "Schema I" (2014–2017). Just like Graham, Gronsky uses time dislocation in his work. To that end, Gronsky photographs the same place at different times and with that, he captures how time has passed. What the eye is able to catch is an enjoyable trick – we do not feel the time that has passed but we are able to capture it, and thus become aware of it. Time is a photographer's means of expression – a tool he uses for his work.

Gronsky acts like Graham, whose intention is to make people "see" – to see what we have become immune to, what we do not notice anymore. With Graham, as well, we do not see the instant the frame is taken in his photographs, that unique moment. In his photographs, we are presented with an endless workday; it is so ordinary that most of the time, we do not notice it. However, when an ordinary moment has been captured, printed out using a large format and exhibited in a gallery, that moment starts to speak to us. That is Graham's intention – to show us what we cannot "see" anymore.

Capturing life and its environment or "the stage" is always important, also in personal life. For example, the exhibition of photographs by Maxim Mjödov (born in 1983) opened in Draakon Gallery in April this year and portraying Lasnamäe, his childhood playground. However, he does this in a completely different way from Gronsky with "his" Moscow. Mjödov is more personal and directed: we see more details rather than a general view, and with that, we are told a story, which we then have to assemble in our minds…

Gronsky's purposeful and directed work has so far been successful. At the beginning of his creative life, he won amateur photographic competitions, and after winning awards like World Press Photo and Aperture Portfolio Prize, galleries all over the world have wanted to add his series of photographs to their sales rooms. It is then more remarkable that a tiny portion of his work is finally also in Estonia and that Gronsky considers his country of origin important.


* The author of this article interviewed Alexander Gronsky in summer 2016 for the 39th expedition of the Estonian Academy of Arts; read more in the spring edition of the photography magazine Positiiv (28/2017).


Liina Soosaar studied photography at Tartu Art College. She is a student of architecture and urban design at the Estonian Academy of Arts.



Alexander Gronsky The Edge

Alexander Gronsky
The Edge
series of 31 color photographs
Courtesy of the artist

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