Born in 1960, Serhii Bratkov graduated from a local arts school and Polytechnical Institute. He is a co-founder (together with Borys Mykhailov and Serhii Solonsky) of the art group, The Flying Squad.
1993 to 1997 – the gallery Updown was opened in Bratkov’s Kharkiv studio.
Since 2000 he has lived and worked in Moscow and Kharkiv. Like Mykhailov, Bratkov is one of the best-known Ukrainian artists.
Bratkov has participated in the most prestigious international art fairs: the Venice Biennial, where he represented Ukraine in 2005 and 2007; the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2002, and the Manifests in 2004. 2008 saw his retrospective at Winterthur Fotomuseum, Switzerland.
The exhibit named Ukraine, opened at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv on 23 January, comprises Bratkov’s most famous works of the last 15 years.
Interestingly, the artist can work with very different genres. His social works include a video about a deprived old lady, A Jar of Soup, and a series of photographs and a film, The Volcanoids, about people at a mud cure resort.
Among his stage photographs, two provocative series, dating back to the 1990s, will catch your eye, Children and Scary Stories . They both feature children playing different games. The kids in Children are playing adults: they wear adult makeup and clothes, assuming ambiguous poses.
This series caused a row at the time, and the artist was accused of pedophilia. However, children merely reflect the world of adults, copying it unconsciously and thus making us laugh.
As for Scary Stories, they illustrate the Soviet-time childrens’ school folklore, something along the lines of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark . The gruesome effect is intensified by a row of lockers with relevant contents, such as “brutally tortured” stuffed toys. Bratkov succeeded in conveying these “sadistic” plots with appropriate humor, thus creating something like Guignol, reflecting life outside the exhibit room.
Chikatilo’s Diary is another example of the same ghastly humor, an imitation of childhood notebooks of the notorious serial killer. It is absurd and horrible at the same time: the maniac seems like an ordinary philistine, “homo Sovieticus.”
The installation Balaklava Boldness (2009) is a black and white video showing teenage boys diving headfirst off a pier, perhaps to show off before some girls. Below, in the shadows of the exhibit room, dangerous pieces of ferroconcrete loom. It is a striking and tragic work.
Bratkov can also be just funny, as in the video composition The Nettles, in which the artist plays a vigilant cop on a collective farm where elite call girls are grown; a farmer proud of his eggplants; and “the singing rector” [Mykhailo Poplavsky, rector of the Institute of Culture, much criticized for his recent career as a pop singer – Ed .].
One of the wittiest exhibits is the Eurohotel, a full-amenities residence developed inside an old Zaporozhets car – an optimal solution to the problem of accommodating guests at the Euro 2012.
The photo series Ukraine shows the country, portraying surprising scenes, with its sloping soccer fields and insect-shaped swimming pools.
Bratkov’s lenses are not always flattering, but they are astute and precise. You may dislike his images of Ukraine and of all the post-Soviet reality, but you have to hand it to him: they are executed by a talented artist.
We had our conversation during the opening of the exhibit at the Pinchuk Art Centre.
Serhii, do you remember your first photograph?
“I can’t remember exactly what was in it. I only remember on what occasion it was taken. We were staying at our summer house, and I just wanted to show my grandma what I could do.”
Why your grandmother?
“Each summer I was sent to live in the country, where I spent time with her.”
Was she impressed?
“I don’t remember. I think it was her whom I first took a picture of.”
And when did you first realize that you were an artist?
“I think it was at an exhibit in Kharkiv, when I was a student. I exhibited my drawings right in the classroom. The first personal exhibit makes you certain that you are an artist.”
Did you have any external stimuli?
“Yes. It was responsibility. The choice of your own path gives you a feeling of responsibility, although its a responsibility to yourself, that this is something that you’re doing consciously.”
Later, you took part in a very interesting artistic association, The Flying Squad.
“Its history is as follows. Marta Kuzma, a project curator, arrived in Kharkiv in 1993 to search for talents to take part in an exhibit on board of the Slavutych. She invited me and Mykhailov. I had been painting, and Mykhailov was a photographer. As we were friends and came from the same city, we decided to try and work together.
“I think we executed three things for the Slavutych then, including The Box for Four Letters and Offering to the God of War. On our return to Kharkiv from the Crimea, together with Solonsky and Mykhailov’s wife, Victoria, we created The Flying Squad. Under that name we developed the project If I Were German.”
It’s surprising how different you are as artists. Did you influence one another?
“I guess we did. For example, Mykhailov had never used a camcorder, while I had a certain experience with it. I was greatly influenced by it.”
Since we are on the subject of influences: who did you learn from? Not only as a student.
“My most immediate influence was once again Mykhailov. Apart from that it was mostly some visual experience, from observing great exhibits. You learn the most by watching art.”
Can one speak of the Kharkiv school of photography?
“I’m not quite sure what you understand by that...”
Okay, let’s call it a trend, a current...
“We might perhaps speak of a Kharkiv trend in photography, mainly due to it being a social form of art. No other city was the site of so many photographs with social implications. Photography is mostly a middle class genre. Kharkiv was a relatively highly developed city, so social photography flourished there.”
What exactly do you mean by social photography?
“A social group’s view of itself. A critical view.”
At this exhibit I can’t help recalling your brightest series The Volcanoids – about people who practice self-treatment with the use of mud at the Sea of Azov.
“I always try to film such subjects without any emotions. However, the choice of the topic is crucial. Without a critical view of this fictitious mud treatment there wouldn’t have been any movie. Had I come there just as a delighted tourist, I would have gotten something quite different.”
How do you chose where to aim with your lense?
“Something must catch you. It has to be related to your mood or state. For example, being melancholic, you notice things that are extremely melancholic. However, you don’t focus on it too much. You think, okay, maybe, it’s not that important... You don’t feel like you need to prove or do something. It’s like sliding.
“I use a range-finding camcorder, and I virtually never focus the image. I do not concentrate. I just look at the picture. And I don’t use digital devices, as I don’t want to be distracted by viewing the material. Instead, I use an analog camera: take a shot and go on.”
“That’s right. And a sauntering consciousness, too.”
But you also use a camcorder a lot. Video calls for a different approach.
“Yes, it calls for an expressive movement or gesture, and one you have to make. This is what happened in Norway. I was flying to a little island, but the plane landed at a bigger one. What I saw were mountains, fjords, and thick fog coming down. The fog was shrouding a little cemetery. I look at this misty cloud, then look down, and see a trapdoor. I switched my camera to video mode and, almost instinctively, started dropping cigarettes from my pack through the trapdoor. Then I raised the camera from the dropping cigarettes and caught the picture – it looked like those dead were smoking, and their cigarette smoke took the shape of a huge cloud. I wouldn’t know how to do it...”
So, is video as serious as photography, or is it more of a game?
“It appears to be serious. There is a moment when photography gives way to video, you want to make something different. There are exhibits where everything is mixed together, played in a combination – objects, photography, videos – and thus a complete sensual environment is created.”
Would you consider yourself more of an artist or more of a photographer?
“These are two worlds which rarely overlap, perhaps only for several Western artists, such as Andreas Gursky. Overall, the world of photography is separated from actual art. It has its own fairs, institutions, and a system of grading involving chiaroscuro, composition, and quality of printing.
“I feel like an artist using photography as a tool. I have certainly been tempted to come back to painting, like our friends did after the 1990s, breaking away from the media. It would mean more money: this type of painting is just another bourgeois whore. I think I will continue doing what I do.”
This question is perhaps unavoidable in Ukraine: Why did you have to move to Moscow?
“It was more convenient in terms of work. Besides, in Kyiv I had no relatives, no family, and no connections. That’s why I chose Moscow.”
Your Moscow biography claims you worked for Playboy. How useful was that experience?
“It was an act of self-establishment. In commercial photography the technical component is crucial. Besides, it’s a venue for very diverse photographers. For me it was useful in the sense that there I would say to my colleagues, ‘Okay guys, I can also take flashy photos. You try and take trash!’ I learned a lot there.”
Speaking of art: you are best known for your projects of the 1990s, like the Children series. What can you tell us about those experiences?
“The Children were related to that time, and I am not the only one who succeeded in capturing it. There were several artists who tackled the childhood theme in the 1990s, and in the early 2000s it became very popular. Many would photograph children.
“As you will remember, the 1990s saw a rise in sexual liberties and widespread pornography. Now, pedophilia is a hot topic, and there are suspicious things going on in Artek [a public scandal involving some MPs and children from a well-known summer camp in the Crimea – Ed.]. Those were social gestures transformed via children.”
I think those photographs were also prompted by the crazy 1990s.
“Yes, each of them is a personal story. For me, the 1990s were a hard time, I even had to lease my apartment and live in my studio for a while. Next to my home there was an orphanage where foreigners would come to adopt children.
“It was the first time in my life that I’d visited an orphanage, and I was astonished. When there were blackouts, the children had to shower by candle light. That’s how it happened. Somehow you get involved, and then you just have to complete it.
“This is what happens with exhibits: there will be a country where you will go all the time, then somehow it’s over, and you find yourself in another country.”
Did the Children really scandalize the public?
“There was an uproar in Moscow. However, I should admit that at the time the media often wrote about art in Moscow, and it evoked a vivid interest. The series naturally shocked a great deal. This theme had never been addressed before. It was a time of total cynicism, pornography was sold at every newsstand, but the official culture would not admit the existence of such pictures.
“However, you should note that the children in my pictures were not naked. The trick was done with their gestures and expressions.”
I have noticed that many works are connected with physiology, violence – but at the same time there is a shade of impishness and a certain lack of seriousness.
“I strive for artiscism without excessive naturalism, for a certain conventionality. That is why I create an artificial barrier. By the way, the theme of what is physical may be the most important in Ukraine. Physical freedom is probably one of the gains of the Orange Revolution and all the years of independence.
“We see women who strip off their clothes in the summer, or guys who are not ashamed of unbuttoning their shirts all the way down to show off gold crosses on their bellies. Ukraine is terribly physical, and that’s why there is a lot of nude nature in the exhibits. It is a kind of identification of the nation through physicalness.”
Yet there is a considerable portion of irony in those images.
“Sure enough, there are levels which render them ambiguous, like combinations of various shots and images on walls. You want to create such an impression. You imagine all the pictures transforming one into another – it’s like playing solitaire. First I will make a layout in Moscow, then fill it out – and this is where everything changes.
“However, you can only reach such effects when you have lots of material. An artist should have many works to fill the space with. It gives you a kind of power.”
The new photo series Ukraine, can even be described as absurdly comic.
“It has a certain dramatic depth. At first it is lyrical, then people get involved, and this absurdity appears. It is a special effect.
“In reality, this happens everywhere, Russia included. You go to Donetsk and you can see that the countryside is great, I had never expected it to be so beautiful. Then you come nearer and see how it is all ruined by man.
“People turn their environment into a tragicomedy. I also think that people in Ukraine are more creative, they are more zestful, and there is an absurdity in all this construction, too.”
Yet your irony is not wicked. How do you manage to remain so good-natured while having to work with such difficult material?
“I don’t have a clue. It is perhaps some part of my personality. I wasn’t a great fan of Castaneda in my time, unlike so many of my generation, but I still stick to certain rules.
“When I check out of a hotel, I clean up everything after myself, trying to leave no traces at all. I understand that irony is akin to Churchill’s manner of wearing his top hat. In other words, irony in art or in life is a life-saving device. That is why I deliberately face it, not so much for myself as for my audience.”
What kind of response do you want to see in the audience?
“My last work, the Balaklava Boldness, involves boys jumping into water. My work is more on the intuitive side than on analytical. That’s why my intuition always prompts me to do something. For example, we will encounter various global catastrophes. It’s not a doomsday, but everyone is so full of greed, and everything is so cynical, that something is looming, and this danger is present somewhere.
“On the one hand, I would like to say that this pep, drive, and boldness are very important in our time. But on the other... there is danger waiting for us.
“I also have experienced it. A relation of mine was traveling by train to Adler and jumped off, just like that. He crashed into a post and died. It turns out that a lot of people die in such situations. So spectators would come, sit down, and weep.
“Photography is always related to memory. My goal was to speak about the future, and perhaps it worked because of this family memory.”
Do you remember any special moments, perhaps in the form of a bright impression, when you wish you had your camera with you?
“I always wish I had a camera with me. I always keep looking about. It keeps happening to me. The moment you switch off your device, you wish you hadn’t.
“In general, it’s hard to say that I wish I had photographed something. It’s rather that I wish I had thought about something. Or felt.”
Given unlimited financial possibilities, what would you do?
“I’ll tell you this much: should I be given an astronomic sum today to be able to do anything – I would go and give everything to Haiti, so people there might have homes.
“You see, there are things more important than art. The creation of a masterpiece isn’t the most important thing in life. Creation itself is the essence of living. Creation enables an artist to transcend his own humanity. To be something greater than you are. All the rest is nothing to be excited about.”