Olga Chernysheva, To Moscow, 2010, mixed-media installation, 32 5/8 x 49 1/8". From the series “To Moscow,” 2010.

Olga Chernysheva, To Moscow, 2010, mixed-media installation, 32 5/8 x 49 1/8". From the series “To Moscow,” 2010.

Olga Chernysheva

Olga Chernysheva, To Moscow, 2010, mixed-media installation, 32 5/8 x 49 1/8". From the series “To Moscow,” 2010.

The title of this show, “In the Middle of Things,” reflected that this is where you inescapably find yourself when looking at Olga Chernysheva’s art. But the “things” commanding our gaze and attention are rarely spectacular. “I work quite consciously with unimportant things,” the artist said in 2009, “always drawn to places where an event either has already happened or has not yet begun.” In this way, Chernysheva—who sees herself as a collector of impressions and images in a Baudelairean tradition—uses her camera to record expeditions through the urban landscape of post-Soviet Russia: street sweepers at work or rest, elderly women offering their wares, a young woman renting ice skates, a mother and child in a pedestrian underpass, subway station attendants, crystal chandeliers hung up and displayed for sale at improvised roadside stands because the now-privatized factories can offer their workers only payment in kind. Private and public spaces, quotidian rituals, shadow economies. Often the people appear hemmed in, as if trapped in their surroundings, and frequently seem somewhat lost, for instance, the young men from the former central Asian Soviet republics on the side of the road waiting for employment as laborers in the series “High Road #8,” 2007.

Chernysheva’s career began in the period of transformation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The show brought together well-known works—such as the videos Marmot, 1999; Tretjakova, 2002; and The Train, 2003—with others that have thus far been shown only rarely or not at all. It opened with previously unseen works from the series “Citizens,” 2009–, and “Movable Feast,” 2009–, watercolors that were created parallel to the artist’s photographic and film works, which subtly yet radically orchestrate Chernysheva’s characteristic tension between individual, collective, and context, using an extreme focus on the figures, and lots of empty space. On display opposite the watercolors and drawings was the video Untitled. Dedicated to Sengai, 2008, which can be read as a mise-en-scène of the early-twentieth-century Russian avant-garde transferred to the banality of a busy square. Placing these works so close together emphasized the continued significance of the two great traditions of Russian art, realism and Constructivism; at the same time, the juxtaposition of various media established an overall compositional principle for the show. The boundaries between subject and object, micro- and macrocosm, are rarely distinct in Chernysheva’s world—“Reality is psychological. Surrounding objects and atmospheres constantly provoke new dialogues,” she writes in her artist’s book Clippings (2011)—and the boundaries between the media and forms of presentation in this show appeared just as porous. The series “Guards,” 2009, photographs of security personnel whose omni-presence is a symptom of the increasing social tensions in Russia, was mounted directly on the wall like wallpaper, as if blending in with the architecture; the black-and-white photographs from the series “Moscow Area,” 2011, were presented as a slide show, giving the viewing a temporal rhythm; and the color photographs from “On the Sidelines,” 2010, were displayed as light boxes. According to curator Cosmin Costinas, this was Chernysheva playing with different degrees of presence, simultaneously giving the show formal density and lightness.

In her new series “To Moscow,” 2010, Chernysheva conjoins stasis and motion in the figures of the cross-country bus drivers who retrace migration routes as they journey to far-off destinations in Russia. Photographed at the wheel, through the windshield, these men resemble the subway station attendants in “On Duty,” 2007, watching from their tiny booths. Like the attendants, and despite the enormous distances they travel, the drivers seem trapped—at a standstill, though forever in motion.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.