The Visualisation of Memory
In her series 17 Sommer, Russian photographer Svetlana Biryukova explores her personal memories as single fragments, where subtle and intimate moments assume greater importance than major events.
More than a decade after having been in her grandmother’s village, in Russia, for the last time, Svetlana Biryukova still had vivid images of it – she described it as “a place where vast meadows meet a drunken river; where religion meets superstition; where a flying glowing soul and mermaids exist.”
She had spent the first 17 summers of her life there, and the place was somehow stuck in her mind in the forms of scattered scenes. A photography student at the time, she made it the theme of her graduation project, embarking on a personal investigation of memory. Songs, tales, objects, feelings… what remains from past experiences, and what triggers them?
After returning to the village, she realised that the answer was not in the place itself, but rather in her intuition. And this, especially since most memories are based on the utter superstition surrounding local culture. “Superstition is everywhere. The picture of the bird for instance echoes the fact that a bird in the house means death.” Symbolism is the red thread behind the work, regardless of the viewer being familiar or not to the mythology of the flying souls, to the lullaby about the wolf or to the Orthodox Christian rituals.
“This is not a documentary project, but rather a very personal work and a reflection. There is no text or captions for this purpose, because it’s important that people find something for themselves. They should not think about my story, but about their own feelings”, Biryukova insists.
After all, we all have in our own minds stories of oranges offered for Christmas, of rolling in the grass until we are too dizzy to roll anymore, and of grandma’s healing recipes or methods, functioning no matter how outdated they may seem. The minimalism of the images enables each of us to appropriate the memory as our own – each focuses on a very recognisable element, with no disturbing background giving geographical or personal context. “I wanted to isolate each thing from its environment because I wanted each picture to be a fragment, like memory itself”, Biryukova explains.
A deep melancholy shines through the series, reinforced by a certain anachronism – the melancholy that Marcel Proust encompassed in a madeleine, a simple thing that we know we should not experience other than in thoughts if we don’t want to risk being disappointed and losing it forever.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.