Arts & Culture

Boym turns chance errors into chancy art

4 min read

Svetlana Boym leads a double life. Her faculty Web page identifies her as the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Professor of Comparative Literature. She is the author of several scholarly books and teaches courses with titles like “Memory and Modernity” and “Russian Culture from Revolution to Perestroika.”

But alongside her academic existence another life has flourished, that of an artist. Since graduate school, she has experimented with film, theater, and photography, and has even written a novel (“Ninochka,” 2003). The two lives have remained separate, until now.

Boym’s photography exhibition “Nostalgic Technologies,” at the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), reveals many of the same themes that have informed her scholarly work, but here she approaches them in a very different way.

“There are the same obsessions here as in my book on nostalgia, but they’re not illustrations. I could never take a picture if I started with a concept. This is a different way of looking at the world.”

The book to which Boym refers is “The Future of Nostalgia” (2001), a meditation on an emotion that she contends has afflicted many of her fellow Russians, including Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. As an artist, she finds memory and nostalgia to be a powerful theme as well, but, paradoxically, the digital technology she uses to express those ideas looks forward rather than back.

Boym embraces the arsenal of tools that the digital revolution has placed in her hands, although it is often through the misuse of those tools that she achieves her greatest artistic success. Considering herself “technologically impaired,” Boym has found that some of her most satisfying creations have come about through mistakes.

Impatiently pulling digital prints out of the color printer, for example – something the user’s manual no doubt warns against – has resulted in interesting smears and distortions, and she has consequently adopted this strategy as a deliberate technique.

The same can be said for an intriguing series of prints she calls “Leaving Leningrad.” These semi-abstract, watercolor-like cityscapes resulted when her printer ran out of black ink and she decided to go ahead and print the photos anyway.

In another work, “Leaving Sarajevo,” reproduced in the exhibition as a giant silkscreen print, an apartment building appears to be burning or exploding. While the building was shelled during the protracted siege of the 1990s, this is no war photograph. Rather, it is a simple snapshot taken after hostilities had ended, which Boym then rephotographed after a bit of dandelion fluff has fallen onto it. It is the accidental juxtaposition of photo and seedpod that creates the impression of violence.

Another of Boym’s discoveries occurred when she inadvertently used the “multiburst” mode on her digital camera to take a family photograph. When she reviewed the results on the camera screen she was surprised to find her mother’s mouth moving. What she had done was take a series of photos over a 16-second period.

Boym has since employed the multiburst mode to artistic effect, notably in a piece called “Not Working.” While writing a scholarly article on her computer, she noticed how gazing through a glass of water distorted the words on the screen. She grabbed her camera and captured the fun-house effect in a 16-second sequence.

“I call it the ordinary marvelous,” she said. “It’s an image of the distracted gaze – distracted from what you thought you were doing. It’s a detour from writing, but into another form of thinking.”

Boym’s exhibition is the first to occupy the concourse-level gallery of 1730 Cambridge St., one of the twin nutmeg-colored buildings that now house CGIS. The exhibition was funded by the office of the Associate Provost for Arts and Culture and curated by Jose Falconi, a fellow photographer and a graduate student in Romance Languages.