Michal Chelbin: Swans and Sailboats | CLAMP, New York City

BY Jake Romm, May 1, 2023

I am skeptical of portraiture as revelation. Scars and bruises and wrinkles and the curve of a mouth may attest to a person’s history, but only obliquely. Indeed, the portraits in Michal Chelbin’s Sailboats and Swans (on view through May 6) – of inmates incarcerated across seven prisons in Russia and Ukraine drawn from her 2012 monograph of the same name – are more expressive of the conditions and the fact of incarceration than anything about the incarcerated themselves. 

Certainly there is ethical value in seeing these images – testaments, above all, to the existence of those whom society has warehoused away. And in this sense, Chelbin proves to be a deft portraitist, a masterful manipulator of color and shadow and depth of field. Blocks of color frequently form from the blurriness and darkness of the inmates’ garments and their shadows cast upon the walls behind their weathered faces. The dreamy greens, blues, and pinks of the backgrounds give the work a languid beauty – an intentional contrast with the subject matter. Just look at the magnificent tonal gradations that Chelbin creates across Ira (Sentenced for Theft): Women’s Prison (2009) – black, forest green, periwinkle – and then at Ira’s face, her pale bright skin, her distant stare one of resignation or dream-haze. The ambiguity of the composition refuses to impose a narrative upon the sitter.

©Michal Chelbin, Ira (Sentenced for Theft): Women’s Prison, Ukraine, 2009. Courtesy the artist and CLAMP

The exhibition thrives on these contrasts, layering them atop one another. As you enter the gallery, you notice that the sexes are strictly segregated – on one wall of the gallery are the women, on the other, the men. As Chelbin tells it, the prisons for the men and the boys were hell on earth, the prisons for the women and girls were “almost a haven.” And indeed, the men’s side has a distinctly heightened air of menace relative to the women’s.

Compare the two group shots. In Young Prisoners 2 (2009), a group of seven young girls stand in uniform in what could easily be mistaken for a public park. Their socks are pink and green and purple, their stares and poses are assured. One can sense a kind of social dynamic at play from the positioning, both relative to the camera and to one another. The girl front and center dominates the shot and emanates a confidence absent from the girl next to her holding her arm. The tall girl positioned alone in the back right, the farthest from the camera, a picture of adolescent isolation.

©Michal Chelbin, Young Prisoners 2, 2009. Courtesy the artist and CLAMP

In Young Prisoners: Juvenile Prison for Boys (2009), the positioning of the subjects is similar, but the mood could not be more different. Instead of the idyllic green space, the boys stand on a dilapidated pavement yard. The three boys closest to the camera are all curling their fingers into fists. The boy in the center appears to be moving towards Chelbin, and the boy on the right – who will appear again as one of the more interesting subjects of an individual portrait – is almost making a “come here” motion with the two fingers he is using to hold his cigarette. Notice as well the difference in the uniforms. Unlike the girls’ uniforms, there is almost no variation. The harshness of the boys’ gazes and the latent violence in their stances attests to the horror of their surroundings, but again, the truth we are given is nothing more (and nothing less) than the truth of the violence of incarceration.

Speaking of violence, it bears mentioning that these photographs were made across Ukraine and Russia, two countries that have been engaged in a brutal war of aggression launched by Russia for over a year now. We cannot separate the fact of incarceration from the war – societies that lock up and brutalize their youth have a habit of releasing that violence outwards as well. Reports have emerged of Russia conscripting prisoners into the military in exchange for a commutation of their sentences or the promise of medication for HIV. Young Prisoners; Juvenile Prison for Boys was taken in Russia and the boy with the cigarette, Sergey, was sentenced for murder. One wonders if he has now been sent to kill again.