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A Solitary Journey through the Russian Arctic

Evgenia Arbugaeva: Hyperborea - Stories from the Russian Arctic at The Photographers’ Gallery Curated by Grace Gabriele-Tighe (9 October 2020 - 24 January 2021) by Sara Quattrocchi Febles | 20 January 2021

The inability to touch people, the lack of social events, and the reduced number of interactions during the current circumstances have left many longing for some form of human contact more than ever. While interacting with others is part of human nature, it is important to find ways to value and even enjoy solitude during these moments. One artist that explores this topic is photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva in her current exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, Hyperborea - Stories from the Russian Arctic. Throughout her work, Arbugaeva explores the remote regions of her homeland in the Russian Arctic through her personal experience, leading her to be exhibited internationally and published by publications such as National Geographic and Time. In her current retrospective, she offers a personal narrative on four stories of the different people that live in four locations of the Russian Arctic through twenty-four photographs. Upon entering the room of the exhibition, the isolated atmosphere is instantly established; one is taken aback by the navy and black walls and the dim lights in which Arbugaeva’s photographs are just about discernible. Yet, even through the obscured environment, there is a clear trajectory one must follow, as highlighted through a map on the wall that delineates the journey Arbugaeva embarked on when photographing the Russian Arctic.

Evgenia Arbugaeva, Untitled 43 (Weather Man), 2013, chromogenic print, 35 x 52.5 cm, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (Photo: The Photographers’ Gallery)

The trip through the Arctic begins at a meteorological station in the Barents Sea, with six images of Weather Man, or Vyacheslav Korotki, the station’s chief. The images alternate between ones portraying Korotki and ones presenting his research materials and workspace. The way Arbugaeva focuses on singular objects such as a small model of a tower made of matches or the machinery Korotki uses invites viewers to imagine his personality and daily life. We also grasp a sense of Arbugaeva’s characteristic photographic style through this series. She creates a semi-surreal atmosphere through the highly contrasting cool-toned colours and the central spotlight present in most of the images, which is experienced through the image of the miniature tower, Untitled 43. Through its strong cast shadow, the model is transformed into a stage set where one could picture Korotki performing alone. While this might emphasize his solitude, the portrayal of the ocean’s stillness in Untitled 46 and Korotki’s soothing calmness in Untitled 41 create a sense of placidity that make his solitary life almost seem inviting.

Evgenia Arbugaeva, Untitled 67 (Kanin Nos), 2019-20, chromogenic print, 35 x 52.5 cm, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (Photo: The Photographers’ Gallery)

After visiting Korotki, the viewer of the exhibition meets Evgenia and Ivan, lighthouse keepers and meteorologists in Kanin Nos. Instead of following the same narrative structure as Weather Man, the Kanin Nos series follows a clear sequential storyline. The images of the series smoothly transition from portraying Evgenia in her house to depicting an empty landscape covered with snow and a pink-tinted sky. This slow transition from a landscape demarcating human presence to one without highlights a similar isolated life as Korotki’s. Yet, the lighter hues in the Kanin Nos photographs clearly contrast the darker images of Weather Man; while the darker hues express Korotki’s meditative tranquillity, the lighter colours present Evgenia’s and Ivan’s loving companionship. Their intimate relationship is heightened through the surreal atmosphere created by the pink snow and the milky ocean in Untitled 67. The empty landscape of the snow becomes one of a mystical, mysterious, and ethereal land where the viewer is tenderly encouraged to enter through the snow’s leading lines into the water.

Evgenia Arbugaeva. Untitled 76 (Dikson), 2019-20, chromogenic print, 50 x 75 cm, The Photographers’ Gallery, London (Photo: The Photographers’ Gallery)

Having gently moved through the Barents Sea and Kanin Nos, one arrives at Dikson, a clear juxtaposition from the previous locations, highlighted by the fact that its images are the only ones with a black wall as background. Yet, the blue and green luminescence of the aurora borealis in this series still maintain the mystical and surreal atmosphere present throughout Arbugaeva’s photography. In Dikson, Arbugaeva photographs an open piano, a pair of children’s shoes, and a snow-covered monument. The images of these abandoned objects make it clear that Dikson is a ghost town. This is especially evident through Untitled 76, which depicts a child’s pair of untied shoes and a school book with its pages open. The sharpness of each image captures every flake of the crystallized snow that has settled on these items after years of being untouched and abandoned. This visual texture makes the snow seem touchable, making the viewer shiver and be instantly transported to Dikson. Arbugaeva’s images capture the nostalgic feeling for a relatively near past, especially since Dikson used to be an important town in the Soviet Union as it was considered to be the capital of the Russian Arctic. The last series, Chukotka, depicts the far east region of the Russian Arctic and it is here that Arbugaeva portrays the most people, highlighting their temporality by dividing the past and the present. The first image of the series portrays a little girl gleefully dancing alone on a decorated stage, while the last image pictures a worried-looking old man sitting on a bed. Placing the image of the young girl and that of the old man at the ends of the series makes the viewer imagine that Arbugaeva’s photographs of walruses and other townspeople in the middle occupy the years in between this story. While there might be more living subjects portrayed in Chukotka, the empty and quiet environment that surrounds the figures highlights an aura of solitude. Each of Evgenia Arbugaeva’s stories presents a feeling of isolation in their own way, leaving the viewer with the desire to explore these real locations that are imagined as mystical lands. This desire to explore might feel all too familiar as we enter a third national lockdown yet by seeing Arbugaeva’s twenty-four photographs online, it is possible to get a sense of the meditative atmosphere created at The Photographers’ Gallery, intended for an audience that in normal circumstances, might want to find a small corner of solitude in the fast-paced centre of London or for one who might need to see for themselves the beauty that lies within a solitary world.


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