Artist: Natalka Diachenko
In her exhibition Out of Sight, Natalka Diachenko confronts the viewer with photographs of mostly deserted places, areas, and landscapes that alternate between the familiar and the alien. Her images deal with public, non-private space; they often depict disparate, overlooked locations, one might even speak of non-places. They are predominantly “de-economized” locations that appear to be disengaged from functioning structures. Light, wind, water (sea) become recognizable as independent forces that counteract, overgrow, and permeate their urban surrounds. The artist, however, is not concerned with a kind of ruin-romanticism, but with the intersection between place/landscape and life, between the urban and the natural. Diachenko searches for personal histories in these locations, but also for collective narratives and evocations. Only in a broader sense does she delve into the (official) history of the places and areas. Accordingly, the real and the imaginary do not form de facto counterparts, but function instead as interrelated fields that define and influence each other.
In first viewing Natalka Diachenko’s images, you have the impression that she works with documentary photography. From this perspective, Out of Sight presents the viewer with a selection of large-format, analogue photographs depicting actual locations, specifically places in Ukraine before the outbreak of war in February 2022. In the years before this, Diachenko traveled extensively throughout Ukraine, taking photographs using old, often long-expired film material. When the war broke out, Diachenko stayed for three months in one of the live-work studio spaces organized spontaneously by AIR – Artist-in-Residence Niederösterreich for five Ukrainian artists in March. Diachenko brought with her to Austria all of her still undeveloped film rolls from previous years. The photographs were shot during peacetime but many of the depicted locations are currently threatened, if not occupied or destroyed.
From a documentary viewpoint, Diachenko’s photographs focus on location and architecture, more precisely on the often-subtle differences between Ukrainian and Soviet cultural heritage, which can be discerned, for example, in architectural design languages, but also in urban planning developments, i.e. the economization and instrumentalization of areas and landscape.
Out of Sight confronts viewers with a heterogeneous selection of six large-format photographs as well as a wall-spanning photograph comprising three vertical strips of images that Diachenko selected from a large volume of negatives she brought with her. The imagery presents different places and areas in Ukraine, which, apart from a few color images, were taken with old black and white film. Aberrations in color and exposure, as well as dust and scratches on the film or lens, are integral to her image aesthetic.
Reading the series of images from left to right, Diachenko transports the viewer in the first and third images to the surrounds of Kinburn Spit, a vast national park on the Black Sea near Kherson. The first photograph shows a man standing on the beach, apparently staring absurdly at a nearby tree with his back to the sea. The strangely static protagonist in the image, framed between two palm trees, functions as a kind of broken-romantic viewer who “opens” the series of images on display by anticipating their reading from left to right. The third image, in color, is the exception to the other black and white images in the exhibition. Here the view turns from the beach to the countryside; visible is a seemingly almost idyllic meadow landscape—a result of the discoloration of the film material—which takes on an oppressiveness against the backdrop of current war events. This natural reservoir, an otherwise important recreational area for Ukrainians, was occupied during the war, badly damaged, and has since been littered with mines, making it no longer accessible.
In the second and fourth images in the series, the artist takes the viewer near to where she once lived in Kyiv. Depicted is the Start Olympic Stadium, opened in 1923, which—itself shrouded in myth—rises from the past into the present as a quasi-political symbol. Visible in the background are typical prefabricated buildings from the 1960s and 70s, juxtaposed with newer buildings. Their “building culture,” however, is no longer based on a central, formerly socio-politically utopian idea, but one that follows purely commercial interests instead. In many places across Ukraine, this kind of economization of urban space not only destroys and displaces historical heritage in the form of architecture, but also landscape (undeveloped areas, meadows, trees).
In another image in the series, viewers find themselves in a village called Nove (New) Zalissya on the outskirts of Kyiv. The high-contrast photograph depicts public gymnastics equipment in somber relief, whose rawness is suggestive of torture devices when viewed against the backdrop of current events. The location itself, like many of Diachenko’s other settings, has historical resonance and is inscribed with multiple meanings: Nove Zalissya—it is where the family of Russian opposition politician and system critic Alexei Navalny is from—was built after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster specifically to relocate residents of the contaminated zone. The place functions therefore as a kind of involuntary memorial, ultimately also alluding to efforts to overwrite or erase that misfortune.
The wall-spanning, black-and-white photo consisting of three strips of images installed on the far wall of the exhibition space, confronts the viewer predominantly with a non-image, a loss of visibility. The artist has chosen the first negative at the beginning of the roll; the left third of the image is completely overexposed. The pictorial void functions as a metaphor for the loss of pictorial (archival) documentation or, more generally, for gaps in memory per se.
The immersive effect of the image almost creates in viewers the feeling of being physically transported to a lively area of Kyiv, where several movie theaters and a large park are located—an entertainment hub for local residents. Visible is a typical 1960s prefab apartment building, standing directly alongside the oldest tree in Ukraine, a 300-year-old oak. Diachenko subtly juxtaposes the poles of man/nature, urban space/natural space, with all their inherent contradictions. As an almost sculptural presence, the architectural protagonist / apartment building displays the characteristic stylistic features of its time and thus resembles a kind of mnemic container. The exterior walls—clad with tile- or Ethernit-like paneling, a seemingly impersonal sign of the time from today’s perspective—butt up against vertically staggered satellite dishes, which, even if somewhat drab, allude to the distinctiveness of the residents’ individual “cells.”
Beyond this essentially documentary interpretation—a depicting of places and regions, an observing and critiquing of economic upheavals and how they are politicized—Diachenko’s imagery is ultimately also ambiguous in nature. Even her visual language—working with old film material—creates a kind of temporal paradox. One views the world through “defective” image material, which makes even new things, like late-model cars, look like they have been transported back in time. The viewer has to play an active role in decoding the temporal semantics of the imagery. The first black and white image of the series, for instance, demands a more careful look to see that the boat lying on the beach is actually a pedal boat fabricated out of cheap plastic, of the kind seen at tourist stalls only in recent years. Diachenko’s visual language subtly creates a temporal-mnemic dispositif that does not simply show and depict, but instead intertwines various layers of time in unsettling ways.
Natalka Diachenko is not an artist in a classical, academic sense, but, with a background in photojournalism, she found her own way into the field of art, of non-instrumental or non-functional photography. Diachenko is a “traveling artist,” she seeks out her own, even physically based, relationship to what she sees, to place and to history. Travelling, walking, also local manifestations of life, are integral to how she understands place, time, and history. Her aesthetic practice is the antithesis of an art based solely on ideas or research, instead it is a way of proceeding, doing, even being in a given place, in time. Diachenko’s questioning of how she relates to space or place is not only articulated in kinaesthetic experience, but also in explicitly mental and mnemic ways, and thus also investigates dimensions of memory and—individual as well as collective—remembrance.
Diachenko’s work cannot be reduced to mere urbanist-modernist, cultural-anthropological research. The artist searches specifically and attentively for ways in which the individual (experience/being) and the collective (memory/history) are intertwined. Her imagery questions forms of reciprocity between histories (myths and narratives) and the history of such places that would simply get lost in a purely documentary notion of “capturing” the past.
Relative to the history of ideas, Diachenko’s photographic practice involves the interplay of two philosophical topoi or categories: place (space) and image, and their relationship to one another. The photographic location and its image do not simply correspond to each other here, they are often in contradiction, in a relationship of mutual evocation. One might come away at first with the impression that Diachenko seeks out non-places in the sense of neglected, abandoned places or areas. But actually the opposite is the case. Diachenko is looking to explore traces of activity and existence (life) in places that often appear disparate. She understands them as anthropological places per se, ones shaped by people, both in their complexity and in how they change.
For Diachenko, the concept of heterotopia (Michel Foucault) is more relevant than the concept of non-place (Marc Augé), a place without identity and human traces. Moreover, while heterotopia is characterized by the situating and superimposing of several locations in one place (such as the cinema), Diachenko's superimposition and intertwining of temporal layers represents a special kind of heterotopia as outlined by Foucault in Of Other Spaces: a heterochrony, a simultaneity of different times. Heterochrony, such as a museum or library, situates different times in one place and makes them accessible. Diachenko’s images confront the viewer as heterochronic spaces of interference, where not only real images, like those of past and current layers, are interrelated but also imaginary and remembered ones.
In Diachenko’s work, the dialectic of place and image ultimately leads to the questioning of place and its representation, that is the way in which place presents itself. Does it reference something else in the sense of a symbol? Is it more of a representation and, like the Stadion Start referenced above, does it stand for a certain system, political idea, or order? Or is it more autonomous in nature, revealing itself more out of its very being? For Diachenko, in the conflict between representation and self-presentation, the individual location alternates between the myths and histories it evokes and its “public,” historically coded image. The artist, however, is not striving for an either/or, that is either a purely individual way of seeing or a more canonical one. She is not at all concerned with a question of truth, she prefers instead to keep the various, often ambiguous evocations and interpretations deliberately in abeyance.
For Diachenko, the image is itself a temporal dispostif. It structures, relates, and also makes what is seen visible in a certain way. The images function as semi-permeable time capsules, inwardly highly micro-narrative, almost personal, outwardly amenable to historicizing, even politicizing interpretation. But they always constitute an appeal, even a summons for the viewer to determine where they stand. In the end, it becomes apparent that place and image cannot be strictly separated in Diachenko’s work. In essence, their pictorial quality results from an aesthetic approach that is bound up with travel, with the experience of being in a location and with one’s own relationship to the place. Entering into this relationship is not a given, either for the artist or for the viewer of her images, but it is always a cognitive as well as mental process. Seen in this way, the places are not simply real; rather, they themselves always appear as inner, mental constructs. Accordingly, the relationship to these places is never something that is fixed, or that simply exists, since the relational is itself mutable and subject to change over time. Diachenko’s images thus reveal themselves to be more temporal-ontological than precarious, because of the locations or their status, because of their mnemonic-precarious, changeable character.
The individual locations, these heterochronies that alternate between the abstract and the concrete in Diachenko’s work, challenge the viewer to formulate ever new ways of relating to what they see. The past does not form a closed counterpart to the present, but is constituted from observation, from thinking and perceiving in the here and now. Diachenko’s photographs strive for subtle forms of polysemy and mnemic ambiguity. The artist seeks to let the images “speak” in their own, highly nonverbal way. This aspect of contradiction and ambiguity is almost an intentional quality that reflects a central idea of freedom in Diachenko’s work and seeks to achieve a way of seeing beyond one’s own as well as external forms of instrumentalization.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith