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Examining the enigma of Siberia

The photographic exhibit "Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined" at the Weisman Art Museum


Quick! Name something that exists and does not exist.

Siberian Federal District, Geographic Russian Siberia, and      Siberia according to western sources and in historical use.
Siberian Federal District, Geographic Russian Siberia, and Siberia according to western sources and in historical use.
Sergey Prokhudin-Gorskii, "Bashkir Switchman on Trans-Siberian Railway. Near Town of Ust Katav on Yuryzan River," 1912.

Aside from “Schrödinger’s cat,” the nearest thing may be Siberia in the popular imagination. In “Travels in SiberiaIan Frazier says of the area which comprises one-twelfth of the Earth’s land surface that there is “officially no political or territorial entity that has Siberia as its name.”

That sense of enigma pervades the new photography exhibit “Siberia: Imagined and Reimagined” that opened February 1, 2014 and runs through May 18, 2014 at the Weisman Art Museum. For the Soviets, the eastern vistas of Siberia represented “economic and environmental riches, but also exile and punishment” according to the Exhibit’s commentary. Among contemporary Russians, “Siberia evokes opportunity but also melancholy and foreclosure.”

For example, Rasul Mesyagutov‘s photos of energetic gold prospectors clash with his images of labor camp workers digging in the Kolyma Mountain gold mines. A Sergey Maximishin’s photo shows a happy couple strolling in the midst of the bustling city of Yekaterinburg (where the Czar and his family were executed). Compare that to Alexander Gronsky’s vision of a man sunbathing alone on a rooftop in Vladivostok harbor which typifies the isolation and population density of the region.

Part of these mixed perceptions result from the artists’ approaches toward the camera. If they toed the Communist Party line, their realist photos extolled the virtues of Soviet commerce and industry. More rebellious artists like Vasily Shumkov revealed a “different truth” as in his photograph of the grave markers of a Russian uranium mine prison camp located in an area the native Evenki people call “the place where reindeer sicken.”

Snapshots paired with photos of the American West provide an instructive analog in one gallery. In one photo, a stereotypical American cowboy clenches a scalpel handle between his teeth while castrating a calf. In another, Andre Sharpan captures a Siberian native respectfully toting the head of a reindeer on his back after skinning it. Photos of aqua and cobalt blue ponds disguise the pollution lying below the surface of the mine tailings in both worlds. Each photo reveals the toll taming both lands has taken in human lives and suffering.

By turns amusing, ironic, and sad, these photos expose the misery, beauty and joy of the paradox that is Siberia. Their attendant commentaries may oversell the ecological and cultural subtexts on occasion, but as a whole, this unforgettable collection of photos underscores the enigma of the land that is “at once there, and not there.”

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