Promise of Recovery, Katherine Turczan’s most recent photographic series, encompasses portraits, landscapes and architectural images of the Crimean Peninsula. For generations this region, on the southern tip of Ukraine along the northern shore of the Black Sea, has been a refuge where Russian and Ukrainian workers spent summers vacationing and convalescing at local sanatoria. Promise of Recovery is also a diagnosis and a look into the future based on an evaluation of the present. Included in the phrase is a notion of transformation, that is, recovery as a process of healing and end to suffering. But most importantly, there is something optimistic in the Promise of Recovery.
Adolescence: Optimism & Transformation
Turczan’s portraits of young boys and girls from the Crimea possess a charismatic calm, and project a confidence and presence that belies their teenage years. It is easy to appreciate the rapport that Turczan has established with her subjects, how she draws us to their gaze, and transmits the lingering warmth she has so carefully captured. On the cusp of adulthood, these adolescents are about to grow into their changing bodies. In their faces, Turczan sees a future that is gently reconfigured and mapped onto the wider implications for the Ukrainian nation emerging through its own growing pains.
Responding to international criticism of rampant voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing after Ukraine’s 2003 Presidential election a non-violent protest called the Orange Revolution occupied Kiev’s Independence square. The Revolution and ensuing reforms threw into relief the tension underlying Ukraine’s past and future. It also revealed the polarization of the population between opposing political platforms: on the one hand, those that hold on to the Soviet past; on the other hand, reformers drawn to the economic potential promised by the European Union. Visiting the Crimea shortly after the election, Turczan paid particular attention to these events and how they marked a transition point for the country. Where youth and adulthood are more of less stable states of being, adolescence is only defined insofar as it exists in proximity to some thing else. These young personalities draw our attention their changing bodies and development, but Turczan telescopes theses notion of transformation outward onto the regions continued recovery from the process of political and cultural change.
Turczan’s optimism is accentuated by the photograph’s consistent lighting and temperature. In Serghei & Kitten, slivers of light dance and glow on the ground while the planes of red-orange tones radiate an ambient warmth to the edges of and beyond the frame; these colors are felt as well as seen. At the center of this are Serghei’s eyes. They re-center and hold us in place-but his looking is also a listening. His gaze meets ours in a dialogue that creates a conversation between him and us. As a photographer, Turczan is acutely observant of personality and character but she does more than focus on an act of looking. She is an intent listener and her work tempers a moment of conversation between the audience and her subject.
Sanatoria: Recovering Possibility
Turczan’s work is also in dialogue with the buildings, landscape, and history of the Crimean Peninsula. A graffiti-covered rotunda, titled Pavilion, overlooks the Black Sea from a picturesque outcropping. The plaster columns are chipped and scarred from years of harsh weather and neglect, but it is still possible to read through the ruins and imagine when the pavilion was white and new. The photographs of medical facilities explore the slow process of decay and disrepair: layers of paint peel off the walls, husks of buildings stand eerily empty and fecund greenery grows untrimmed. Turczan’s photos of these and other buildings possess a ruined beauty that evokes a link to the Crimea’s past.
In engaging with history Turczan very carefully avoids a nostalgic gloss of a glorified past. Instead, she sees an interesting inversion of architecture and the body. The sanatoria of he Crimea that provides treatment to so many for so long have aged and withered. Turczan captures the conspicuous presence of Lenin’s statue in an empty public square and reveals it for what it has become: a monument to a political voice that no longer has an audience. These monuments, as reminders of the past, recall another time that is no longer accessible but is, nonetheless, commingled with the Crimean present.
During my discussions with Turczan about Promise of Recovery, we talked about where Ukraine is located. Geographically, Ukraine is a country wedged on the border between Western Europe and the former Soviet Union. Turczan gestures subtly towards this liminal geography in the fashion choices of her adolescent subjects. Emblazoned with French and English works like Love and Je t’aime, this clothing points to an identification with Western European culture. Again, these youth are agents for a betweenness, displaying the regional tensions between East and West.
For Turczan, whose family is Ukrainian, Ukraine is more than a specific country that she has been visiting and photographing for the past 15 years. Ukraine and the Crimea are places that are linked to stories told by her parents and memories from her childhood. To Turczan her photographs explore layers of the Crimean cultural contact with her personal history. This concept of place exit irrespective of mapped geographical boundaries. While the Crimea is a specific region in a specific country, Turczan’s images make no claims for knowing it. Instead, the Crimea is a place that is constantly changing, coming-into-being.
Turczan’s Promise of Recovery observes a process of transformation by meshing the aftermath of recent Ukrainian history with an extended look at Crimean Sanatoria and their communities. In paying particular attention to the future, her work makes room for dialogue amidst the confluence of people, place and history. It asks us to question our own claims to place while also considering change. Promise of Recovery is a fascinating metaphor for a healing body that is not about restitution or making things as they once were. After all healing is generative. Turczan’s Crimea is a body in recovery that in its very recuperation gestures toward possibility what is not yet there but what could be.
Katherine Turczan: Promise of Recovery. Franklin Art Works. June 10 - July 29, 2006.