Where life and dreams are as one
Nostalgia to some is a feeling leading to sadness, a yearning for the past accompanied with regrets. American writer Michael Chabon defines it rather as a straight connection with the past: “is the emotional experience – always momentary, always fragile of having what you lost or never had. (…) It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is restored.” Evgenia Arbugaeva, a Russian photographer, born in the small town of Tiksi has undertake the task of, if not restoring, at least rendering visible the almost vanished beauty of the world. Her projects, Amani, Tiksi, Weather Man and Mammoth Hunters explore the relation between man and nature accentuating the latter’s force.
Whether it is an abandoned laboratory in the forest of Amani in Tanzania or the splendorous Russian Arctic, Evgenia’s photographs position isolated or abandoned geographical regions in our radar: “I realize that my work (…) contributes to a certain preservation of, or allows to have some information about the place because most of the places where I go, there is no much information about them.” What we thought lost, what we ignored becomes existent and while she unravels the marvels of magical places frozen in time, the spectator learns that present and future are in reality commingled temporalities. In her most recent series Amani, Arbugaeva portrays an abandoned laboratory in the jungle of Amani, in Tanzania. Although abandoned by the scientific community after the country’s independence during the 60’s, the last keeper of the building, John Mganga preserves it zealously. Isolated by the forest and the neighboring natural reserve, the laboratory is struck in a limbo working as a memento from the golden years.
Chabon’s definition of nostalgia reverberates in the photographer’s images as they don’t relinquish the past but construct bridges interconnecting as well as questioning what we consider to be modernity. Old furniture and the laboratory’s shabby equipment contributes to the picture’s atmosphere soliciting the spectator’s imagination to recreate the rest of the photographic decor: “I ask myself this question, why I keep going to places struck in the limbo, struck between two worlds? I think this space of memory is very interesting for the artist because it’s so open for interpretation, that’s what really excites me”.
Her series Weather Man offers a similar stylistic device, Arbugaeva photographed the character’s measuring apparatuses underlining with this simple gesture the cleavage between today’s technology and that used by Weather Man. Objects metamorphose through the artist’s lens into taciturn accomplices conferring to the vernacular the ability to speak.
Analogous to furniture or gadgets, landscape communicates an unspoken message disclosing yet other components of her character’s personality. Quietness and reverie are conveyed in her series Tiksi, where a young girl from the region joyously plays in the Russian tundra, unfolding before our gaze her inner universe. Moreover, the artist’s approach mimics the methodology adopted by filmmakers associated with the “cinéma vérité” where the camera is acknowledged by the person filmed or photographed. Unlike other documentary sous genres, cinéma vérité envisions and permits the director to participate in the field experience, he is not there to purely contemplate, he’s a catalyst triggering action and emotional responses.
Arbugaeva follows this same precepts for she establishes a relationship with the people she photographs, her lyrical images externalize an internal feeling and are palpable imprints of the connection she shares with her protagonists. Her series Mammoth Hunters is probably the most “objective” one, as it illustrates an article for National Geographic. Yet, even within her journalistic production her aesthetics prevail with dreams and fantasy permeating her images. An example to this is a photograph of a mammoth hunter asleep in his tent, an image of a mammoth decorates the ceiling evoking what might be part of his sleeping universe. In the end “it’s not about photography”, as Arbugaeva stated in a recent conversation we held over the phone, it’s more about life and human relations. Beyond solely documenting what she sees, the photographer’s essence fill her clichés thereby unraveling her own doubts and psyche: “every time I photograph I try to figure out who I am, as many photographers do”. The power of Arbugaeva’s images lies in her ability to express in the blink of an eye what she and her character feel, the intangible and inexplicable become visible as affection materializes in her photographs.
But what is real and what belongs to the realm of dreams? The problem of truth is indirectly posed in each photograph taken by the artist; nonetheless her intention isn’t the pursuit of ultimate objectivity rather the opposite: Arbugaeva’s captivating images question the structure of the world. In a society colonized by reason and practical thinking, her images propound an alternative existence in which dreams hold a leading role. Life’s futilities have no room in Arbugaeva’s work, she focuses on philosophical questions urging her spectators to interrogate themselves. In this respect, light can be considered as a metaphor of the mental activity occurring in her protagonists mind, such as in the series Weather Man where we see a portrait of this character looking blissfully into the void. When looking at the subtle lightning in this photographs, it is impossible not to think of Vermeer’s paintings, both artistic practices favouring contrast over harmony.
“What is life? a tale that is told; what is life? a frenzy extreme”, such were the words of the Spanish author Calderon de la Barca to poetically analyze the difference between dreams and life. In the writer’s universe, such as in Evgenia’s, the two are interwoven together and merge as one.