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Vicarious wallowing

"Arabat Spit/Healing Muds" by Sergiy Lebedynskyy 

Vicarious wallowing

The current show at Lumiere Photo's Spectrum Gallery offers Rochester audiences a rare glimpse at a photo movement presently unfolding on the other side of the world. "Arabat Spit/Healing Muds" is a set of deceptively contemporary images by young Ukrainian photographer Sergiy Lebedynskyy, which explores a public spa as a metaphor for his country's difficult navigation of its changing political and cultural terrain.

This exhibition marks the first solo showing of Lebedynskyy's work in the United States. The show's curator, Bruno Chalifour, met Lebedynskyy at a Paris exhibition last November. Chalifour says that Lebedynskyy was looking for opportunities to show his work, especially in the "Western" world. "The younger generation in Ukraine wants to turn toward the European Community rather than fall again under Moscow's control," he says. "At the time he took these pictures they wanted to get away from the corrupt Ukrainian regime in place and controlled by Putin."

Born in 1982, Lebedynskyy is old enough to recollect the fall of the USSR. As an adult witness to ongoing turmoil, his work explores the tension between the current cultural nostalgia amid political conflict.

Lebedynskyy is a founding member of the Shilo photo group, which was created in 2010 and is known for its critical view on the social processes in post-Soviet states. The Shilo group operates in the tradition of the Kharkiv School of Photography — a movement that emerged from Lebedynskyy's hometown and active since the 1970's. The movement is characterized by stark and often surreal images of a population adrift in the aftermath of a great shift.

The Arabat Spit is a narrow strip of land that separates a large and shallow system of saltwater lagoons from the Sea of Azov. Located between the Henichesk Strait to the north, and the northeastern shores of Crimea to the south, the spit was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in the past two decades slowly regained a use as a health resort and beach by Ukrainian and Russian lower-middle classes.

"The thermal spring and its muds are considered to have healing powers, and visitors come with their own sets of expectations from them," Lebedynskyy says.

He sees their return to folk healing as a metaphor for the current state of his country, which he describes as caught between nostalgia and apprehension about an uncertain future. But this return to the comfort of outdated folk traditions is not uncommon among those trampled by the forward march of modernity.

"With the emergence of deep financial discrepancies between people, some find refuge in old myths and recipes," Lebedynskyy says in his provided statement. "They resort to the timeless usage of mineral mud baths to heal their physical and possibly psychological ailments."

The artist means to portray the subjects as literally wallowing in nostalgia, but the tone of his examination is more compassionate than callous. A certain idyllic innocence is present among the naked children socializing, the frolicking dogs, and the cows lounging in the shade. Crystallized moments of fleeting beauty include a shot of a woman balancing herself gracefully in a threshold while rinsing her feet.

Though his subject matter is contemporary, Lebedynskyy's aesthetic is gritty with a vintage tenor, in part due to his choice in materials: a Soviet-made panoramic camera and outdated Soviet film and paper. A "Horizon" camera similar to the one Lebedynskyy used is present in the gallery.

The sweep of the swing lens captures people in various stages of undress, and bathers unselfconsciously enjoying the community or solitude that the place offers. The spa's popularity is showcased with crowded bodies squatting, kneeling, or laying in shallow water. Warm smiles surround an accordion player, elders receive physical therapy, and companions embrace.

There is a gentleness in the almost Photo Pictorialist tonalism on the aged paper. The process used makes each image a one-off, and this further infuses each photo with a certain preciousness.

Lebedynskyy's images show that beyond the mud, the healing quality these folks are seeking is serenity, comfort, and belongingness. But the dominant presence of bulldozers in some images — and the motionless, almost struck stare with which the subjects confront them — underscores their consciousness of their own stagnant state.

One image of two quietly-reflecting young women, perhaps pulled along by parents, is particularly resonant. For a time, we all grow up contained within the bubble of our parents' past; when we become aware of the rest of the world and its intricacies, the bubble can cause a suffocating conflict. We may look on sweetly, patiently, but our elders' nostalgia is not entirely our own.

Lebedynskyy holds a Ph.D. in engineering, and it makes sense that he would be focused on progress, and be frustrated by stasis. He left home to study in Germany, and returned a bit worldlier and self-conscious of that fact. He grew up within the ongoing climate of uncertainty and doesn't have a true comfort zone to sink into.

The real subject of Lebedynskyy's photography is neither the people found in the images nor the healing muds, or even their uneasy relationship with the future. More than anything, his collective work is a portrait of his own searching within this ambiguity. It's a yearning for definition.

In the series, "Euromaidan," Lebedynskyy and Shilo co-founder Vlad Krasnoshchok have most recently turned their lenses on the Kiev protests by Ukrainians against Putin's policy toward their country. Considering both bodies of work — "Euromaidan" and "Arabat Spit" — forms a fuller picture of Lebedynskyy's thesis.

The photographs "matched my nostalgic feelings about my homeland, stuck between the Soviet past and an uncertain present," he says. "Later I realized that by means of photography I was looking for self-identification."

A presentation, "On the Panoramic Format in Photography," will be given at Spectrum Gallery on Thursday, January 22, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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