The Russian-Germans portrayed by Thiessen, whose ancestors had emigrated for more than two and a half centuries, were a minority in the Russian territories. They preserved their cultural heritage, festivals, songs, memories, language in parts. Their great-great grandsons have remained a minority, this time in Germany, because they have preserved parts of Russian culture, language, festivals and rituals. Life in a different culture does not leave anybody untouched. Ira Thiessen has made these traces visible in her works in an original way. For many months, the photographer approached her protagonists, researched them, conducted conversations, and immersed herself in peoples lives and habits. Nevertheless, the works are not portraits with a documentary claim, but rather an artistic examination of both the theme of culture and identity, as well as the theme of staging and documentation. Thiessen was able to convince her protagonists to be able to portray her in her private space, in poses of their own choosing, oscillating between clichs, homesickness and irony. As a reference to the staging, a curtain was specially made for each situation, a small stage, located in the world of the portrayed, the place where they feel at home and are allowed to be as they are and who they are: Wanderers between the worlds. As different as the portraits may be, they sometimes emphasize conflict, sometimes cultural richness, sometimes the memory of one or more lost homelands, as an artistic concept.
Jury, Art Prize Photography 2017
As a continuous intervention through this, the recurring cloth contributes to equalizing the relations between lens and object, so that the series of pictures is also formed with the way the images are staged. The individuality of the portrayed person thus literally comes to the fore, while the overall view gains exactly the distance that a motif demands in order to become a polyvalent image. What do you see then? Late repatriates? Russians? Germans? The internal scanning of our judgement apparatus immediately begins to buzz. On each of these portraits of official Germans we first consider the hidden Russian. So the photographs point directly at us, more perceptibly than is otherwise the case with pictures. We notice that at first glance we know that the young lady does not look German. We didnt have to read her name first: ALJONUSHKA, the Russian diminutive of Aljona. We know it because we have concrete ideas about what a Russian or Ukrainian looks like, even if these ideas are pure clichés. The thinking only begins when we begin to ask ourselves why the portrayed woman has positioned herself, that is, whether she wanted to confirm our expectations. She wears hanging braids like the beautiful Wassillissa in the Russian fairytale film, she shines from a high-necked, kimono-like silk dress whose ornamental folklore points more to the steppes of Siberia than to a pedestrian zone in Neukölln. If we have that, it is only a small quarrel to not only recognize the other by its costume, but to perceive it in its depth as an incompetence. A little jolt is only necessary to arrive at the first glance: The other is always the foreign. This is where the photographs develop their explosive power. Determining the foreign is no longer innocent. An indeterminate feeling of diffenrence sinks to the level of a political category. The foreign becomes twinned with the prediction of farewell catastrophes, they are called refugee crisis, migrant rush, admission quota, right to follow, repopulation, alienation, or loss of identity. If we discover the foreign, the statement no longer belongs to us, if we react to resentment with good intentions and integrative knitting. Aljonushka, who is German for blood, family history and everyday language, admits that the camera lens before her eyes, but good reasons for the more recent origin of her individual present, which has its roots in Russia. As an assimilated person with a Berlin neighbourhood identity, she would meet the demands of immigration policy, but become unrecognisable to herself. The magic of this picture series is that it draws attention to this dead point. She shows people of different ages and sexes with all the insignia of their lives today, which, if we find it homely or not, is the right life. The fact that his signs touch on questions of origin raises further questions: What would come to light if we were prepared to take part in such a production?
Michael Freitag, art historian, museum director,
Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt, Lyonel-Feininger-Galerie. Museum of Graphic Arts