Critics’ Picks

Yuri Palmin, Aul Housing Estate, 2017, ink-jet prints mounted on Dibond, 59 x 85''.

Yuri Palmin, Aul Housing Estate, 2017, ink-jet prints mounted on Dibond, 59 x 85''.


Yuri Palmin

Astana Contemporary Art Center
EXPO 2017
June 10–September 10, 2017

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a plethora of images have emerged that both decontextualize Soviet buildings as otherworldly objects and evoke the USSR’s demise through its architectural legacy in ruins. Yuri Palmin’s large-scale color photographs, which portray the bold Soviet buildings of Almaty, Kazakhstan, in faded blues and grays, avoid nostalgia. Instead, this work shows untidiness—the sort produced in and around buildings by real people as cities develop or disappear over time during Russia’s tumultuous transitions over the past half century.

Viewers can sink into details of Aul Housing Estate and Television Studios and Equipment Complex, both 2017, including the sinuous curves and orientalizing facade ornament that define architects’ formal experiments with precast concrete; the unregulated patchwork balcony extensions added in post-Soviet times; the patchy grass lawn littered with plaster fragments; and the now overcrowded parking lots, planned decades ago when far fewer residents owned cars.

The lifetime of Palmin’s subject matter is key, because this is a polemical exhibit. Though Almaty’s Soviet monuments largely avoided demolition while the Kazakh government created its new post-Soviet capital, Astana, the sites have since deteriorated. Given the buildings’ remoteness from Moscow (the Soviets’ architectural showpiece) and their peripheral status in scholarship, Palmin’s photographs will surely be essential to their future international reception. But using photography to foster civic memory and preserve architecture (think John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice or Eugène Atget in Paris) has a long and mixed history. Do we photograph buildings to save them from demolition or to archive them just before they disappear?