The war in the country’s eastern region, the shattered Maidan movement, the post-Soviet autocracy are not the subjects of Zielony’s pictures. And yet they are. Once again portraying a youth culture between marginalization and avant-garde, the artist uncovers the echoes of the post-Maidan era in Kyiv’s techno scene. At dusk and until the break of dawn, between parks and clubs, the daily routines of Kyiv’s queer techno family trace the outlines of a world of emotional resistance, solidarity, and sincere affection in a cultural underground where, for a while, the young LGBTQI community charts its own lives.
“Maskirovka” is the title Zielony chose for his project, which made its public debut at the Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, in 2017. The term does double duty, designating a situation that is common to the club and the frontline. “Maskirovka” is the Russian practice of spreading deception and disinformation as part of a military operation; it was key to the occupation of Crimea and, later, the deliberate confusion over the identities of the actors in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The various political camps that came together in the Maidan movement likewise employed masquerade and techniques of deception and the obfuscation of identity. Masks protected against tear gas and allowed protesters to occupy symbolic spaces and attract media attention without fully revealing who they were.
Masks and disguises also figure in the parties where the unremitting flow of the rave carries the play of identities beyond the conventions of the outside world toward destinations unknown. What emerges in Zielony’s photographs is the travesty of an entire historical moment. Zielony has never been a documentarist in the classical sense, instead seeking to create images that limn a place where people present themselves to the camera as the protagonists of a desultory narrative of self-determination. In his pictures from Kyiv, distant overtones of the undeclared hybrid war mar this narrative. And the colors of the nightly gatherings are sheer; the real concern over what may come when dawn gives way to daylight shows through, but so does a faint vision of social utopia.
Zielony’s photographs are too realist to be no more than images; too painterly to be truthful; too circumspect to encroach on his protagonists’ innermost lives; too suffused with a sense of solidarity with them to keep their distance. His is the participant observation of a photographer who endows the medium with reality without insisting on documentary standing. Setting aside the stories about Ukraine disseminated by Eastern and Western media pursuing their various agendas, Zielony proposes his own version, based on weeks spent tracking down the genuinely telling detail and recording numerous voices and faces that make for a far-from-uniform panorama of the political and social upheavals since 2014. What he finds in the techno scene is a progressive community, a rising generation that objects to the new and old antagonisms tearing the country apart, to nationalism and neoliberalism, to social and sexual convention.
In addition to the forty-two photographs in the “Maskirovka” series, his stay in Kyiv resulted in an animated film for which Zielony assembled 5,400 individual images from his camera. Pictures from the club, from the street, from Maidan and the many news reports about Kyiv and the action on the frontline, captured on television screens. The film is divided into two visual planes for its entire duration, alternating between them five times per second. Intercutting the memory of pictures that have only just faded away with new ones pressing in on the viewer, the stroboscopic flickering image weaves a nervous quilt of short-lived impressions. It is the culmination of Tobias Zielony’s contemporary narrative on the many-faced reality of Ukraine today and the conflicting claims of diverse actors struggling to occupy the country’s contested symbolic and political space and dominate its representation. Pictures, suggestions, masquerade are part and parcel of war. And, no less importantly, of peaceful resistance.