Olga Bubich on directions of the photographer’s and his protagonist’s eyes and temptations of plain hashtags

Yury Gudkov was born in Leningrad, in 1990. Since 2014 – a student of «FotoDepartament» educational programs. In 2015 took part in group exhibitions «Common Imaginary» («FotoDepartament» Gallery, St.Petersburg), International Festival of Photography «Photoparade in Uglich», «Brownian Motion Experiments», (Moscow, the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow). The book «Keep an Eye on What You See» was shortlisted at «Unseen Dummy Award 2015» in Amsterdam.

Those who attended the exhibition «Brownian Motion Experiments», which recently took place in the Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow, could pay their attention to an uneasy project made by an author from St. Petersburg, Yury Gudkov. In the photographs from the series «Keep an Eye on What You See» an apathetic man was constantly present with his back turned to the audience, his eyes staring at the deserted city seen from the window. Who and why organized this surveillance? Should we accept Yury’s provocation and start to «keep our eye on» what this man was looking at? And what, in this case, should we get ready for? Art critic Olga Bubich studies the direction of the photographer’s and his protagonist’s eyes.

Yury Gudkov

In the world, the photographic medium has long gone beyond the mere reality documentation extending into the areas where a decade ago few would have welcomed it. Photographers who work on the platform of «FotoDepartament» in St. Petersburg are consistent in making projects which intervene the scope of philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and even physics ignoring art critics’ accusations in political apathy and escapism. The project «Keep an Eye on What You See» made by Yury Gudkov, a graduate of this year’s educational course, belongs to the list of recent interventions of this kind. And if in the December exhibition «Brownian Motion Experiments» the author could only lightly tickle his indifferent spectators’ intellect with his witty puzzles, a much broader statement is present as a part of his solo exhibition. Since January, 29th 2016 «Keep an Eye on What You See» is shown in the halls of “Fligel” art space – the venue «FotoDepartament» uses as its headquarters.

It is not by chance that we name the project «Keep an Eye on What You See» an intellectual puzzle. The images that can also be seen in the eponymous book highly praised at the prestigious contest «Unseen Dummy Award» in Amsterdam are simple and at the same time open for interpretations. In many of them there is a bored elderly man who is looking at the window. Who is he? What is he looking at? Is he waiting for anything to happen? And, which is most interesting to understand, why does he trigger so much interest in us? This first, most obvious group of questions is only the top of the iceberg Yury makes his viewers crash.

Yury Gudkov

A closer look at the series makes us think about the nature of the very act of seeing. The fact that the project presents us the gaze’s starting points – the gazes that belong to the protagonist who stands at the window, to the photographer and to us [viewers] – discloses three practices of looking, which, in fact, the whole body of work is devoted to.

The results of the first practice of looking are present in the actual visual part of the project. An unfamiliar man is standing at the window staring at something. His gaze can be directed at the city, the sky, trees or wires. As Yury himself admits, to have a central message of the project understood neither the photographer nor the viewers need to possess any concrete information on who this man is and what makes him special for the author. Additional biographic data only risk drawing us away from the image-archetype. This man is a symbol of «homo videt», of a person who constantly faces a choice of the observation object, to understand what underlies this choice is not always possible.       

The second gaze in the project «Keep an Eye on What You See», if to take it literally, belongs to the photographer himself whose presence is implicitly felt all the time. But it would be more correct to define his role as that of the observer – in a broader sense, as someone who is always present behind the protagonist’s back, trying to follow the direction of his gaze and justify the choice of an object for scrutiny. The observer in the intellectual game of the St. Petersburg photographer is someone far more serious than the photographer who shoots the project and monitors the nameless hero. And these surveillance games in practice turn out to be not as safe as they might initially seem.

It is this type of gaze presented in Yury Gudkov’s project that gives a voice to the problem European researchers and experts in the field of human rights have been continually addressing since the late 2000s. It deals with the problem of the rapid growth in the number of CCTV cameras installed both by public and private structures in various places from shopping malls to residential buildings entrances and offices. They explain the need for constant surveillance as an effective way to solve the problem of security, the question about actual legality of such actions is not posed. And a city dweller of the early XXI century, frightened by terrorist attacks and banditry and constantly immersed in the propaganda of the discourse of power and «invisible enemy close by» consciously agrees to make concessions in the area of his or her legitimate rights to privacy. Thus, «Big brother» bravely enters our daily life and becomes a familiar part of the reality. In our turn, we put up with its invisible and ubiquitous proximity behind our backs.

Yury Gudkov

We can further reflect on more subtle manipulations of the all-seeing eye of the invisible observer if we take the example of the sphere of the Internet and social networks where we constantly voluntarily leave our digital traces and thus turning the private into public. But the project under consideration does not touch directly upon this side of the issue.

And finally, the third gaze. In Yury Gudkov’s puzzle it belongs to each of us. Here we are having come to the exhibition to see the photos. We are looking through a paper or an electronic version of the book. We are still (possibly a bit perplexed or with a healthy twist of suspicion) reading this text reflecting on what has been said in it. Just like with the situation of the gaze that belongs to the project protagonist, our seeing practice is also connected with the act of choice. The choice of whether to accept what we have seen, whether we agree with the author, whether we see what we prefer to see or maybe even choose not to have this choice made.

Yury Gudkov recalls various strategies and reactions shown by the viewers when encountering the project during the presentation at the «Unseen» fair and the festival «Photoparade» in the Russian city of Uglich:

«Someone would come up to the stand where the short-list was displayed, open the book at a random page and go through it quickly with one finger. Others would closely scrutinize it smiling. In Uglich the reactions also varied a lot: from silent misunderstanding (I clearly remember a question: “Is your project about what a man is looking at from the window?”) to rather enthusiastic and very positive ones, when the reviewer got really immersed into the material and discovered in it some new unexpected interpretations».

Is it important for the author to be understood correctly and understood at all? Can we talk about the «correctness» of perception of contemporary art and conceptual photography? These questions naturally arise from the project «Keep an Eye on What You See» and reveal another layer of important issues. First of all, it is the problem of perception of conceptual photography in our region, the viewers’ readiness of not only to pose questions, but also be able to hear an answer or to formulate their own one.

Yury Gudkov

The difficulty lies in the temptation to mark all what remains unclear with plain hashtags, to name all that seems new and strange «highly intellectual», «esthetic» and «non-critical». To replace the role of the viewer who possesses individual (sensitive or intellectual) optics that allows a probability of errors or a room for improvement, as well as the existence of other points of view with the role of the viewer as a judge, a know-all viewer, a viewer who recognizes only one single (and correct) perspective.

This is how the author of the project «Keep an Eye on What You See» comments on this problem:

«For me it is important to be understood. But to be understandable – not always. It is important to bring my message to the viewer, without having to modify the language I use in constructing my statement.

I am sure contemporary photography is always open for interpretations and it demands of the viewers to have not some definite background or special knowledge, but rather an interest and enthusiasm to coin one’s own interpretation. And it seems to me that most authors and the community as a whole are open to dialogue with the viewer. And we do continue to speak about our readiness publicly. The problem lies in the mutual willingness to take part in this dialogue. And this is that not only photographers, but also viewers must have».

Thus, Yury Gudkov’s project seems extremely vital and promising both in relation to the study of synthesis of photography and philosophy and in the more «mundane» aspect. «Keep an Eye on What You See» is an elegant critical statement that invites to dialogue. But is the protagonist who is closely followed by contemporary photographers actually ready to finally turn his face to the conceptual authors’ community and take part in the dialogue?

Yury Gudkov’s exhibition «Keep an Eye on What You See»
since January, 29 till March, 16, 2016
at «FotoDepartament»
St.Petersburg, Vosstaniya Str, 24 / 2
nd yard, ground floor / «Fligel» art space

© Bleek Magazine. Text: Olga Bubich. All the images: Yuri Gudkov.