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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Evgenia Arbugaeva: Hyperborea - Stories from the Russian Arctic

    As winter approaches and the days get shorter spare a thought for the individuals featured in Hyberborea: Stories from the Russian Arctic, a series of photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva currently on exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery. Of the subjects, some are indigenous to the remote and harsh environment (winter temperatures reaching -28 degrees Celsius) while others have moved to the Russian Arctic for research work.

    Arbugaeva, now based in London, hails from the region herself − from the derelict port town of Tiksi on the coast of the Laptev Sea − 4000kms from Moscow. The photographs displayed over level two of the gallery document the environment and life in the region, incorporating a narrative style based on a sense of nostalgia for her homeland. She remembers the sweeping, vast, empty landscapes of the Arctic. Hyperborea, in Greek Mythology is a halcyon land beyond the north wind (Boreas) where a race of gentle giants − Hyperboreans − live on fertile ground.

    Hyperborea consists of 4 chapters and each group of medium-large sized photographs, distinct in terms of their colours and atmosphere, depicts a different location in Russia’s extreme north. The exhibition begins with the Weatherman, telling the story of Slava, a meteorologist working in isolation at the Hodovarikha Meteorological Centre in the Barents Sea. The photographs taken in 2013 record the detail of Slava’s daily routine.

    In 2018-2019 Arbugaeva returned to 3 more remote outposts in the region, sponsored this time by National Geographic. She visited a lighthouse (one of the few left in the Arctic) in Kanin Nos at the edge of the world, on the Kanin Peninsula − 17 hours by snow mobile from the nearest village.

    There is a picture of the lighthouse beacon shining through a blizzard but its outline is barely visible. It has a spontaneity, giving us a glimpse of her first impressions of the location. In the corner of the photograph are 2 small figures struggling to reach the lighthouse through the powerful snowstorm.

    The Lighthouse Keepers is a portrait of meteorologists, Evgenia and Ivan, a young couple who live and work onsite. The picture is taken outdoors of them standing together with their dog Dragon surrounded by a seemingly endless snowy backdrop. The stark bright white of the snow illuminates the picture to great effect in the dimly-lit gallery space. Arbugaeva said the picture is like a wedding photograph with the lacy snow in the background. 

    The photograph highlights their co-dependence in this harsh environment. In case of an emergency the medical helicopter is unlikely to reach them in time. They walk everywhere together because Evgenia has nightmares about polar bears.

    Theirs is the only house for miles. Nonetheless, Evgenia has made a cosy home in the remote outpost and Arbugueva takes photographs of the interior. In Apples that travelled a long way she depicts three apples loosely wrapped up in newspaper and a glass jar holding silver cutlery on a small table covered with a crisp white table cloth and a crocheted over cloth. The apples are a gift from Arbugaeva to Evgenia and Ivan. They rely on canned or dried food and fresh produce is a luxury.

    The composition, formed of only a few objects looks like a still life painting and highlights the subtle contrasts in colour and texture. The pattern of the faded pale pink wallpaper is mirrored in the engraved silver cutlery, the scrunched up newspaper covering the apples is used to stop them from freezing lying on the flat table top. Here the bright green apples are elevated to orb-like, precious objects, adding substance and structure to the picture's fragile landscape.

    There is a photograph of Evgenia sitting on a chair in an empty room immersed in reading a book, with light streaming through a large window. The meditative atmosphere and pale yellow colours are reminiscent of a painting by Hammershoi except for the electric heater near her feet. 

    Arbugaeva travels to an abandoned Arctic port town of Dikson on an island near the Kara Sea. During the Soviet era it had 2,000 inhabitants and was hailed the capital of the Russian Arctic. But the population dwindled after the fall of the USSR in 1991.

    She walked around the now empty town with her camera wondering what to photograph under the deep black sky of the polar nights and afraid of random polar bears. But then the Aurora Borealis appeared lighting up the town for a few hours with a luminous, otherworldly glow. The pictures have a cinematic feel resembling an abandoned film-set, and a haunting atmosphere.

    Arbugaeva takes photographs of the Chukotka region in Eastern Russia. The Chukchi community has maintained traditions like hunting due to the regions isolated location. The Chukchi hunt for walrus and whale in line with annual international quotas.

    The Walrus is one of the more mysterious pictures in the exhibition. The picture was taken from inside a beach hut, and looking through an open doorway which acts as a portal onto a row of walruses basking in the polar summer daylight on the shoreline.

    The photograph might resemble an illustration from a children’s story book, but it captures an extraordinary phenomenon. According to Arbugaeva there were about 100 000 walruses lying on the coastline at that time, one the of the world’s biggest herds. They used to settle on ice floating in the Chukchi Sea. The ice has since melted away.

    Arbugaeva’s photographs and the stories they tell reveal how the actions of humans, in terms of politics and climate change, have affected the Russian Arctic; and how, despite the extreme weather conditions, the region with its quiet rhythms continues to appeal to some people.




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