09 November 2017 - 19 November 2017

Our fears exaggerate the threats that exist in reality – that is the nature of this reflex. It would be all right if everyone had to handle only personal fears depending on the possibilities of their mind. But today’s world ended up in the trap of mass fears which push even civilized societies to social degradation, voluntary rejection of seemingly universal principles and freedoms. Thus, democracy is turning into democratorship, which only superficially resembles expression of the will of people, but is actually capable of legitimizing the authorities’ sharp turn towards authoritarian, xenophobic, obscurantist decisions.

The world has evidently entered the phase of civilizational perturbation comparable to the turning point of Renaissance or the industrial revolution of XIX century. New technologies bring about the die-away of a whole range of professions familiar to people, social networks make us transparent for authorities, corporations and each other, catastrophically changing the notion of privacy and ethics in general. The change is unavoidable, unstoppable, but it will be frightening to anyone born in the pre-Internet age – people have the tendency to view happiness as repetition of familiar things. Change being familiar is the bonus of new people, those who learn to use gadgets from the cradle.

Roman Mikhailov’s project Fears records our today’s state, generalizing the personal and the social in grotesque images. He creates brutal, highly formalistic landscapes on canvasses and paper in the a la prima technique, typical of Soviet art academies, which taught to fill the space with paint quickly and pastously – government order was always urgent. On top, the artist places outline images of people, running or lying down, with spray paint, as if on the run, like street art rowdies. The main storyline – a person running away from an insect, in terror of getting stung. Without the outlines, the works recording the horizon of the landscape remind of state flags – the symbol of borders which are becoming increasingly more closed despite the professed visa-free regimes. This fear and, sometimes, the real threat, chase some people to cross those borders while making others want to build an impenetrable wall on them. 

We do not see how the threat of insectoid aggression comes to life. We only see the escape from it, the expectation of misery. Mykhailov also uses the technique of suspense in the video featuring a dog lost in a dark entrance hall. The animal’s fear initially evokes aggression – the desire to destroy the object of danger. Later – a torrent of movement, the need to flee. Apathy, stuporous state represent the utmost dejection caused by fear. Rejection of one’s own will. This image reminds the condition of a person in a society which allowed to deny natural personal rights for one’s own peace of mind. A dog is a gregarious animal. And everyone who joins a pack gets fleas. 

They say redheads are more sensitive to tenderness and pain than others. Roman Mikhailov has red hair. Maybe that is why he imbues the material with such sensuality in his works. Burning layers of paper with a torch, leaving the edges of paintings ragged, stapling them mercilessly to gallery walls. He understands that trauma is the inevitable companion of any development, any transformation. That every new experience is traumatizing. He refuses to stigmatize or demonize trauma.

In the Lavra gallery space, filled with cold hospital-like light, which gives it the uninviting emptiness of a government garage, which was located there in the USSR times, Mikhailov wears out the viewers with a tautological, overpowering comic strip about characters who, knocked down by the artist, run away from fear. Obtrusive repetitiveness is a characteristic feature of any phobia. The hall of more delicately sized drawings draws attention from sensations to observation, suggests thinking of the interaction of color combinations and signs. It is followed by animal hopelessness of the video in the dark, after which the return to bright images of those fearful runaways allows to leave emotions and visceral conditions behind and enjoy the works esthetically. Which actually has a lot more to do with our mind than people usually think.

Thus, reflecting on threats and fears, through the modern language of imagery, Roman Mikhailov reminds us of Goya’s maxim: “Sleep of reason produces monsters.”


Konstantin Doroshenko