Lyle Rexer, an essay from Galina Manikova´s catalogue from 2004
Moving Pictures (an extract)
Beyond Photography with Galina Manikova
Manikova, the reluctant Norwegian, the Russian outsider, knows that such a portrait cannot be coaxed from reality but first must be imagined, then evoked. I am thinking of many of her installations, but particularly “Climax Values” (2000) a painful and inclusive exhibition. Its rooms contained mirrors, photos on glass, videos, light, shadows, projected text - the sum total of woman’s psychic life at a moment of raw reflection. And that sum total of identity included the visitors who found themselves washed by her images. To display the evidence of things unseen requires transgressing the boundaries of photography. Moving pictures.
This form of photography, often exploited by Manikova, is the same one used to make industrial blueprints. Rauschenberg reduced the image of man and woman to blue icons, symbolic shapes, severed from any originating context. The surface material itself became an issue: why a bed sheet? A domestic metaphor, certainly. A host of experiments by other artists followed, all serving to explore the photograph’s polyglot nature, to play with its transparency and opacity. For many artists after Pop, this playing inevitably devolved into a deconstructive game, a political attack on photography’s putative objectivity and its cultural uses. The most familiar examples are Andy Warhol’s paintings and Richard Hamilton’s collage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”
But other artists genuinely sought to add to photography’s resonance. They recognized that a photograph acquires meaning not just from its subject but from its framing, process, and deployment. They intervened at all four levels. This is the task Manikova has taken up, and she is in brilliant company, with Argentina’s Graciela Sacco and France’s Christian Boltanski, among the most notable.
These artists are not photographers per se. For them photography represents a way of making images that can be marshaled in a broader investigation of reality. Of the three, Manikova is the least political, the most concerned with exploring individual identity, the most “expressionist,” a tendency that Pop artists thought photography would eliminate in favor of facts. Each of her projects can be looked at as an attempt to create metaphors for experience using photography. In her work, the photographic image becomes the reference point for what is common to us all, the meeting point of artist and audience. The exhibition “ID” (1993) comes to mind. Photography stands at the center of a multimedia experience of Manikova’s expressive world, one that combined painting, ceramics, and textiles. The walls were painted a la Van Gogh, emphasizing that the exhibition was a trip through an artist’s mind, not just another art show.
So I can well understand how Manikova’s projects tend to grow to include everything, if only to provoke more than a “yes” or a “no.” In that regard, her unfinished work “Shipwrecks,” begun in 1992 and abandoned in 1994 is one of her most fascinating. For one thing, it is her most conventionally photographic, being a series of images of ruined ships, along with interviews of people affected by wrecks. Yet such a conventional documentary role for photography proved inadequate to all she sought to convey — the starkness and danger of nature, the end of an oceangoing industrial empire, her own sense of severed linkages to her home country, not to mention the beauty of shapes and surfaces weathered by time. She photographed compulsively in black and white and color, hundreds of striking images close up and at a distance. Many of them can stand on their own as works of art. She conducted more interviews than she needed to. She printed images on silk, just for the shocking contrast between subject and material. She imagined and sketched out a museum of shipwrecks, which resembles the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. She is incapable of doing anything halfway, or of including less than everything, everything that lies outside the frame.
It is this restlessness, this impatience with the borders around seeing and expressing that makes Galina Manikova an artist whose progress it is necessary to follow. We want to know where she is, and where she is going next. Her pictures move because, artistically, emotionally, and spiritually, she moves. To know what it means to be alive, follow her.
(Lyle Rexer is a U.S.-based critic who writes on art and photography. He is the author of several books, including Photography's Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes. He contributes regularly to many publications including The New York Times, Art in America, Graphis and Metropolis. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York).