In his recent exhibition, “Balaklavsky Drive,”â?¯Sergey Bratkov presented a video and photographs that, taken together, suggest a new type of hero for today’s Russia. The artist seems to have turned to images from his Soviet childhood for inspiration, specifically photos of camping and other outdoorsy activities popular in the ’70s in magazines such as Ogonek,the Russian equivalent of Life magazine.
Over the past decade, the Ukrainian-born, Moscow-based artist has exhibited his documentary-style photographs throughout Europe. They are often portraits of young children exploring “forbidden” behaviors such as smoking cigarettes or sniffing glue. Photographer Boris Mikhailov, with whom Bratkov studied, introduced him to this kind of antihero with his own photographs of the destitute of the post-Sovietâ?¯economy.
Bratkov departed from that gritty reality in his latest exhibition. Here, his subjects fused the strength and courage of knights from Russian epic literature, the dashing modernity of today’s pro-Western Russians and a vision of masculinity reminiscent of a Calvin Klein ad. Hisâ?¯looping black-and-white video installation Balaklavsky Drive (all works 2009) documents a group of five lean, clean-cut teenage boys jumping, one after another, from a pier into the ocean. According to press materials, they are at the Black Sea port of Balaklava, the site of a historic Russian military victory during the Crimean War. Bratkovâ?¯celebrates male bravado by showing the boys fearlessly leaping into water that is, according to the artist’s statement, dangerously filled with maritime debris.
With the video projected high on the wall, the viewer had to climb onto a tall wooden platform to view it straight on, as if adopting the boys’ adventurous attitude. Several concrete and rebar constructions were installed on the gallery floor below the video image to evoke the warship wreckage under the water’s surface. The wistful tones of the Ukrainian pop-rock band Zveri (Animals)â?¯filled the gallery with a song that features the line “This is all fun for you.”â?¯The boys’ hairstyles and clothes recall the 1970s—the decade of Bratkov’s own childhood—and by shooting in black and white, the artist conveys both nostalgia and a certain timelessness.
Five color photographs document other daredevil stunts by young Russians, as specified in press materials. In one, a group of young men joyride on top of a Range Rover on the Ukrainian steppe. In another, a woman bungee-jumps over a reservoir next to an enormous power plant near Balaklava. Her outfit, a simple summer dress, highlights her fearlessness.â?¯These intrepid youths are put forth as models for living in Russia’s often muddled present.
Photo: View of Sergey Bratkov’s exhibition “Balaklavsky Drive,” 2009; at Regina.