Between 1st July and 29th August 2021, the National Museum of Modern Art is premiering works by one of the most famous contemporary Russian photographers – Sergei Borisov. Although it cannot be called a retrospective in the strict sense of the word, The Body against the System exhibition – authored by the director of the National Museum of Modern Art, Branko Franceschi – not only provides an overview of the development of Sergei Borisov’s visual language through both a thematic and chronological presentation of his works, but also portrays the ambiance of the alternative arts scene in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the cultural centres of Russia, as well as that of everyday life covering the period from the time of the Soviet Union to the present day. The photographs of this chronicler of Soviet-Russian history, born in 1947 in Moscow, mirror the distinctive features of the different periods of history. Viewers will, accordingly, be able to absorb the atmosphere of the collapse of the Soviet Union through a series of scenes, and discover the roots of the selfie culture.
Nudes and street photography, through which Sergei Borisov’s unique photographic language intensely conveys a sense of irony and protest that were typical of the Perestroika period, are the backbone of the exhibition. Published in famous magazines, such as Le Monde, The Face, Tempo, Actuel, Interview and Photo, Borisov’s photographs – widely acclaimed and praised for their aesthetic quality – provided the European public with information about the rapid changes taking place in Russia.
The peculiarity of Sergei Borisov’s visual language is his love of Moscow, its architecture and perspectives. A pompous, grand city, its river promenades and monuments – it all serves as an important aspect of meaning in Borisov’s photography. Architectural elements, complex compositional constructions within his photographs, and playing with both perspective and light are in an aesthetic dialogue with the protagonists, which lends his photographs a certain feeling of special sensuality. The next common component in the figurative expression of his photographs is the sphere of the sky which Borisov uses as a metaphor. Behind the splendid backdrops of such photographs as Confession, Masha on the Chimney and Flying, we do not immediately notice the inner state of his subjects who seem to rise above their personal dramas. (…) Catherine Borissoff
This exhibition Body vs. the System presents 62 black-and-white photographs with Sergei’s central motif of the human body in an urban environment or in his studio. Although he is known in Russia as a portrait photographer of pop stars, these often-unconventional images, for the most part, are not the subject of this exhibition because in our Western-oriented popular culture these artists are completely unknown to us. Russian colleagues will point out that in the 1980s, he ran his studio earned by working for Melodiya and named Studio 50A, as an informal gallery and a centre of alternative culture that, in terms of the decadent habits and famous guests, was a counterpart to Studio 54 in New York. My first association related to the social aspect of Borisov’s project was Andy Warhol’s Factory from the 1960s and 1970s since the Studio 50A was not just about entertainment. By including the local social elite, creativity that was promoted in Borisov’s studio treated the narrow-minded social values subversively. In fact, what we know of Soviet society during the 1980s it must have been regarded as scandalous and obscene. From our perspective Borisov has actually demonstrated that the size of the city’s population inevitably has a liberating effect on individuals, so the parade of social eccentricities is a phenomenon that is inescapable in milieus that millions of people gravitate to, regardless of the rigid political context. Thus, the protagonists of his photographs and party-goers are equally transvestites, the most famous of whom is St. Petersburg’s Marylin Monroe, young women and men who will pose for his celebrated nudes, as well as eccentric rock, pop and theatre stars or his visual artist friends. For that matter, the portrait of Andrew Warhola is also present in one of Sergei’s photographs on display. Studio 50A was the space of freedom, and the fundamental manifestation of freedom in rigid systems, which we also know something about, is the naked human body as a starting point and a destination, a physical and spiritual boundary of individuality. (…) Branko Franceschi, director of the National Muesum of Modern Art and curator of the exhibition, Excerpt from the foreword from the exhibition catalogue
Translated by: Ana Janković
From the exhibition set-up. Foto Tanja Tevih © Nacionalni muzej moderne umjetnosti, Zagreb