*** THE VOICE OF A FISH ***
Exhibition of Black and White Art Photography
by ELENA AGAFONOVA from St.Petersburg.
WHEN: Tue 7th – Mon 13th May
OPENING TIMES: Tue-Sat 10am-6pm; Sun 12:30pm-6pm; Mon 13th May closes at 12 noon.
WHERE: Changing Spaces Gallery, 6-16 King Street, Cambridge CB1 1NL
With any queries please contact Anna Basca on firstname.lastname@example.org
THOSE FANCIFUL BRANCHES OF THE PHOTOGRAPHY EVOLUTION: SURREALISM OR MYSTICAL REALISM?
Contemporary art photography has at least one distinguished advantage over its elder cousins such as painting as the universe of photography still has powerful potential for further development. One of the elements of this potential is the immense information-carrying capacity of photographic images which are used only episodically and another is the immense scope for creativity and adventures into unknown worlds.
Time and again Elena Agafonova surprises viewers with seemingly strange and somewhat weird images. The exhibition is an account of the artist’s recent trip to England.
Take this landmark work from the Essex series and we can see a medieval Gothic church, most probably Anglican. The building appears derelict and abandoned, probably home to ghosts, as per English Gothic tradition. The very setting of the scene, with its Gothic architecture, helps the viewer get into the mystical and romantic mood. But that’s only the background of the image and frankly, just a mere trifle compared with what’s going on in the foreground. There, on the lawn in front of the church, is a fish of unimaginable proportions, as if it has just landed from the space or another, far worse place. Though we obviously realise that a fish can’t be larger than a house and it is just a photographic trick, our emotional and visual perception keeps trying – and eventually succeeds – in persuading us that the fish’s enormous size is absolutely credible. Let’s see how this effect has been achieved.
Agafonova has a penchant for strong and sturdy compositions. In this shot, the fish is leaning on the bottom of the frame, spanning from corner to corner, with the outline of its back suggesting rolling hills, a distinctive feature of the English landscape. Compared to the church, the fish looks massive, tricking the viewer’s vision into believing that it is crushingly heavy. No amount of force will ever shift it. However, the photographer clearly finds that this hill like quality alone is not enough! The curve of its back together with the sloping gables set two other compositional axes, the diagonals which form a cross and thus ‘anchor’ the whole composition. The resulting composition is not just stable but absolutely unshakable and solid creating the indisputable authenticity of the scene. Such is the magic of the composition.
The fish is a reoccurring theme in this series. Appearing in many shots, it seems to be searching for something. So exactly what is this fish? Well, the obvious answer is it’s a bream, unusually large for its own species. Dead, smoked, dried – it seems that there is no life left in it at all. Yet we don‘t really want to believe that. Is that because the body beneath the scales seems too taut, the gaze too animated and full of curiosity, and the facial expression too sarcastic, almost spiteful?
There are other characters in this series which are no less engrossing than the fish. For instance, the dog. It is a guard dog, overall quite the Baskerville-like hound. In fact, it is a sculpture but it is more tempting to call it ‘a stone dog’ rather than a ‘sculpture of a dog’. So remarkable is this character that Agafonova dedicated to it a whole photograph, perhaps one of the best in the series. The dog sits on its pedestal and with intense concentration looking at something beyond our view, at some invisible things happening ahead, in the wasteland. Even from the back, we gather a sense that this dog remembers so much. The clashing of the swords of knights in armour, the loud, colourful celebrations, the corpses of plague victims, the never ending wars, the public executions and the peasant weddings and so much more…
Just like the fish, it is difficult to say whether the dog is dead or alive.
And here, the bream and the dog are together, and are joined by a third companion, a graveyard angel who is clearly a kindred spirit to them both. On another photograph we see the fish lying on an enormous branch, gazing at the dry, dead bark the texture of which resembles that of the fish.
Gradually, throughout the series, Agafonova shows us a peculiar, fanciful and fascinating form of being, a mysteries existence between the world of the living and the world of the dead where lifeless objects are allowed to live as if they were alive. It finally becomes apparent exactly what the bream in the pictures is looking for –which is companions to share this odd and frankly speaking, tragic form of being. Of course, this form exists only in the in the framed perspective of photographic reality but is it not the point of photography to create a parallel universe which a viewer can explore?
Despite a certain whimsicality of the series, the images do not appear as some bizarre dream or fantasy, instead they are totally convincing and authentic which is a clear sign of artistic health.
The English are known to tolerate eccentricity, even to admire it. When Elena Agofonova walked into a pub and demanded two pints of beer, this went largely unnoticed. Even when she pulled an enormous dried fish from her bag and placed it on the table, no one batted an eye. Only when it transpired that the second pint was meant for the fish – who turned out to be not a snack but instead a drinking companion – the whole pub started to stare shamelessly. And only when a camera emerged from the bag and the bream, with its beer, suddenly turned into a model, the onlookers began to treat the events before them as some free show. The English adore eccentrics.
When one comes across something never seen before, it is almost impossible to resist linking the new idea or phenomenon with something well known, so it is understandable that some of the reviewers started talking about surrealism. However, it is probably more accurate to define Elena Agafonova’s art as mystical realism although this term so far has been reserved only for literature. Anyway, while slapping labels is not terribly helpful, anyone is welcome to guess and wonder.