CAMBRIDGE — Hard as it is to make the weight of history visible, it’s so much more so to show its absence. In her rather astonishing show “Imagined Communities,” Mila Teshaieva manages to do both. It runs through Feb. 28 at the MIT Museum.
Teshaieva is the latest in an impressive roster of contemporary European photographers brought to the museum by MIT’s Gary Van Zante, who curated the show. Others have included Joël Tettamanti (Swiss), Ulrich Wüst (German), and Patrick Tourneboeuf (French). Now based in Berlin, Teshaieva was born in Ukraine, in 1974. This means she’s old enough to remember the Soviet Union — to have been formed by it — yet not so old as to have been deformed by it.
She has as a kind of birthright an awareness of the strange burdens that history can impose. Even more striking, she has an awareness of the weightlessness — social, cultural, even moral — that can come of those burdens being nowhere present: the unmoored state that is a perpetual present tense.
Teshaieva investigates what such a condition might look like in “Promising Waters.” It’s one of three photo essays in the show. The other two examine the past refusing to release its grip on the present. “Sorry, Not Sorry,” set in Ukraine, offers the past as atmosphere: choking, oppressive, yet somehow sustaining and oddly lyrical. “Unfamiliar Memory,” set in the former Yugoslavia, records the past as anchor, something that both weighs down and, again, is weirdly sustaining. In both cases, history functions as a form of identity.
“Promising Waters” shows scenes in several former Soviet republics situated in and around the Caspian Sea. What scenes they are: visions of a modernization that seeks to ignore the past when not outright eradicating it. A museum of science in Turkmenistan looks unaccountably retro. A spa worker in Kazakhstan poses in front of the mud she uses on clients; it’s spread out on a bed. Murals like something out of “Miami Vice” flank a trolley seen off in the distance in Azerbaijan.
Everything feels blank and slightly out of kilter — sometimes more than slightly — the visual equivalent of jokes without punchlines. The soft, mildly muzzy colors almost make the photographs look like pastels. This adds to a sense of unreality that can seem almost magical at times, but magical in a pained, drained way. Each image could be a screenshot of a freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped fairy tale. There’s this slightly underwater feeling to them: as if the pictures were transliterated from a foreign visual alphabet. Is there such a thing as pictorial Cyrillic?
The extensive captions add to the effect. They at once tether the images and loft them into a rhetorical realm where the straightforward and fantastic cross-dress. Next to a picture of trucks seen across a stretch of water we read, “For decades, countries bordering the Caspian Sea could not agree if the body of water was a lake or a sea.”
Instead of sense of place Teshaieva offers a sense of displacement: a sort of placid madness. This deadpan weirdness is like William Eggleston on Quaaludes by the banks of the Caspian. That’s meant as a compliment to Eggleston and Teshaieva both. Yet where he’s all about details, she offers a context. The consistent horizontality of the photographs give them a frieze-like quality.
The presentation of the photographs is the same in all three series: grayish wooden frames (ash?), no mattes. The lack of mattes matters. Mattes, even more than frames, are to a photograph as plinths are to statues. They set off, literally, and elevate, figuratively. Their absence lends the images a modesty, almost makes them seem inviting — but only almost.
Clarity doesn’t interest Teshaieva. Nor should it, as clarity is impossible to attain here, whether intellectually — morally — emotionally — politically — certainly not historically. That’s equally true of the Ukrainian and Balkan photographs. Clearly by the same photographer, they nonetheless markedly differ from those in “Promising Waters.”
The Ukrainian images manage to be both lyrical and unsettling. A vertex of fire burns at the cleft of a bare tree in a snowy field. That’s lyrical, if also a bit unsettling. The caption is “Commemoration of unknown burial place for my grandfather.” That’s lyrical in a different way and much more unsettling. Like that one, these photographs enact or evoke family memories, many having to do with the trauma of war, ethnic strife, and Soviet rule. The air of fundamental incongruity is there in the series title: “Unfamiliar Memory.” What could be more be familiar than memory? Except that’s not so with memories one wants to keep at a distance.
The photographs in “Sorry, Not Sorry” — a title with a deeply disturbring resonance in relation to what happened in the former Yugloslavia in the 1990s — are relatively straightforward as those in the other series are not. They show commemorations of events from the terrible fighting during that decade (explicitly public commemorations, as opposed to the private one in that Ukrainian image) or they show sites from today where atrocities occurred then. Straightforward enough visually, they’re anything but that considered under the aspect of act and memory.
IMAGINED COMMUNITIES: Photographs by Mila Teshaieva
At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Feb. 28. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.