FotoFocus gifts our region a chance to view 50+ exhibitions of photographic and lens-based art every two years. Some have been curated by FotoFocus (2014’s Biennial by Kevin Moore) and all have been vetted and supported by the organization. While it can be difficult to interpret the online schedule and determine a game plan for viewing, FotoFocus offers an opportunity to consider the astonishing number of ways artists see the same world from behind their own private lenses.
The Reed Gallery at University of Cincinnati’s DAAP presented The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus. Photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen became fascinated when Sochi, Russia was named as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. They were committed to the practice of “slow journalism” and employed it to document the region leading up to the games. They, and others, considered the selection of Sochi for the winter games an astonishment. For starters, Sochi, known as the Caucasian Riviera, is a subtropical beach town on the Black Sea. Hornstra and van Bruggen wrote, “never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the event than Sochi. Just twenty kilometres away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya.”
Thus they set out to chronicle the complexities of a country in flux and in 2007 began a series of repeated visits to Sochi and the region around it. In 2013 they were denied visas to re-enter Russia, ending the project abruptly. One has to imagine that this required a fast re-think of the narrative itself: If you can’t show Sochi during and after the games, what then is the story?
Despite the blow, the team moved on to produce a beautiful, narrative website, an award-winning 392-page book, prints, portfolios, and other items with their design collaborators Kummer and Herrman. Many of the items, now sold out, were gifts to crowdsourcing funders.
The exhibition at the Reed Gallery features two levels of story. There are sections of ephemera and candid photos from van Bruggen and Hornstra’s travels, illustrating the joys and challenges of their time in the region, from friendships made to multiple detainments and arrests. These sections are not uninteresting but it was challenging to find the narrative throughline.
The majority of the exhibition consists of photojournalistic portraits, interiors and landscapes on large newsprint sheets, organized into regional or thematic sections. These appear as though a well-designed, oversized newspaper has been disassembled and organized for exhibition. Gallery Director Aaron Cowan explained this is precisely what was provided to him. You can see text bleeding through the image from the reverse side of the paper. It is not disruptive and instead reminds that at the heart of this exhibit is journalism. Each of these photo sections is interrupted with a large, traditionally framed color photograph, bringing both focus and contrast of the glamour and glitz of the promised Winter Games to the gritty reality of a war-torn, complicated region.
There are many beautiful and haunting images: an injured boy sits in an antiquated bath at one of the Sochi sanatoriums; a decorated soldier stares down the camera next to the coffin he is building for himself: he is tired; grass grows in a dazzling interior; the fearful and wounded victims of human rights violations brave the camera’s gaze. I viewed the exhibition in less than an hour. It would have been easily possible to spend a half day or more trying to make sense of Sochi. Even with the guidance of these two impeccable storytellers, you quickly understand how little we can understand and that even repeated visits to the same place are likely to reveal smaller and smaller Russian nesting dolls vs. any semblance of “truth.”
I asked Cowan about how specific the installation instructions were for this particular exhibition and he explained that there was little direction to how the “story” of the Sochi Project was to be interpreted. Perhaps the fact that van Bruggen and Hornstra were unable to document the Winter Games themselves demanded that they deconstruct the narrative vs. reconstructing a false truth in the name of journalism, slow or otherwise. We are left with more questions than answers. In a time when most news outlets play fast and loose with facts, truth and opinion, it makes sense that we put the inquiry itself into the hands of artists.