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The young fishmonger asks if she can keep her own face during the procedure to transform her into a tzarevna, a tzar’s daughter. „Why?” responds the Mistress of Ceremonies with the coldness of a casting show moderator: „It is so boring, it’s like having no face at all.” This is followed by a short, absurd session at a mechanical device, which forcefully hurls powder, circles of rouge, standard eyebrows and much too much lipstick onto her face.

Russian photo-artist and director Uldus Bakhtiozina uses irony to dismantle female ideals of beauty in her satirical tale, and visual wit in her tale of image creation showing great pleasure in extravagance and accessories while at the same time she lets it collapse. This mixture of magic and mischief already comes across in the English-language international title of her snappy 70-minute feature film debut: DOCH RYBAKA is ambiguous; it can refer either to the standardisation or scaling of norms toward the image of a (Russian) princess, or to a princess that scales something, such as a fish.

Parcourse of tests

This unglamorous activity introduces the metamorphosing journey around which everything in DOCH RYBAKA revolves. At a slightly rundown fish stand at a desolate freight port, Polina (Alina Korol) works together with Seraphima (Seraphima Soloviova). Polina complains of insomnia and worries about her brother who has disappeared. And as things go in fairy tales and dreams, she is given two puzzling items: Seraphima gives her lucky golden earrings in the shape of a fish, and a witchlike regular customer gives her tea that is supposed to transform her sleep „into a fairy tale“. And that evening it happens: Polina is standing at her kitchen table with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, somewhat melancholy as she works on a pike–scrape, scrape. Apathetically, she abruptly stops. One sip of the tea that is suddenly also advertised in the old Cathode-ray tube television and she already starts sinking into a deep sleep on the sofa.

While it has in any case not been clear up to this point what time frame Polina lives in, from this point on different eras start to merge. Unexpectedly we have joined the heroine in a labyrinth of stuffy Soviet-era offices with green walls and brown panelling, directed by a creaking radio guide and a popular Russian fairy tale figure, an evil yet charming princess named Adygea (Victoria Lisovskaya) dressed in snakeskin boots. Our heroine completes a parcourse of tests, at the end of which she should face an „elegant death“ and become truly princesslike. She is initially protected by her talisman, but promptly loses it.

The story of a poor girl who turns into a princess wrapped in gold and silver is to a certain degree the director’s own story; at least Uldus Bakhtiozina suggests this, half in earnest, half in jest. Born in Leningrad in 1986 and half-Tatar, as she emphasises, she is herself a fisher’s daughter. She studied political science and graphic design, and was trained in street photography. Socialised by fairy tale adaptations from the Soviet era, which gave the ancient stories new, system-compatible overlays, Bakhtiozina at some point came upon the ideas of the mythologist Vladimir Propp and the archetype theory of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. These regimes–Christian, Communist, Capitalist, respectively–all appropriated and adapted old fairy tales for their own purposes, but unchanging constants remain. Those who know and recognise this pattern and its variants might manage more easily to question the narrative that they create for themselves. In London, where Uldus Bakhtiozina financed her studies with obviously rather frustrating jobs as a waitress and where friends got on her nerves with their Russian clichés, it helped her to imagine that she was simply playing a role in a film. That is how she started her photographic oeuvre: with „ironic self-portraits“. She holds up cardboard signs playing with stereotypes, declaring „I love vodka“ or claiming that all Russian women want to get married („Marry me, I need a visa.“).

What could potentially be disgusting often shimmers in the most beautiful splendour.

DOCH RYBAKA combines fairy tale aspects with the autobiographical, creating a web of motifs and atmospheres that already made Bakhtiozina’s photography distinct. Starting with her provocatively eye-catching selfies–always taken with an analogue camera–she soon developed her mystifying, elaborate style of craftsmanship that at first glance brings Matthew Barney or Alexander McQueen to mind, yet possesses her unmistakeable fingerprint: She calls it „Tatar Baroque“. Based on the pomp still lifes and portraits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, taking up bouffant robes complete with kokoshnik, a traditional ornate Russian headdress for women, she stages her models in alienating situations, cloaked in self-designed and self-made costumes defined by the strong symbolic colours of gold, green, white and red. In her „Russ Land“ photo series, for example, a woman called a „productive housekeeper“ puts raw meat through a meat grinder and instead of chopped meat, gold tinsel comes out. What could potentially be disgusting often shimmers in the most beautiful splendour, and that which is splendid turns into something latently repulsive. But sometimes corny puns lead the way to associations: The anabolic „iron man“ can quickly become an „ironing man“, with „irony“ serving literally as the bridge.

Bakhtiozina, who grew up in a Christian-Muslim-Jewish family said that ”being different isn’t easy, especially in Russia.” In 2014, in the first of her two TED talks, she also claimed that „Irony is the key!” At that time she was the first ever Russian speaker at a TED conference (in 2017 she spoke there again). Also in 2014, the BBC declared her among the one hundred women changing the world for the better; and in 2016, Vogue Italy named her the Best Young Fashion Photographer. Her works have been exhibited around the world, and museums and galleries have added works of hers to their collections, such as the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It is rather amazing how faithful the artist remains to herself, even in her work for fashion labels, where she frequently designs everything herself, from make-up to costumes to the sets. In her choreography of handbags or dresses, the figures seem to be at the end of an inexplicable event. In apartments with outmoded furnishings, heavy rugs and old cabinets, they hold clocks the size of a baby in their arms, fiddling with dial telephones or pale grapes, grotesque masses of pearl necklaces hanging from their necks down to the floor. Colour and materiality often seem fermented and old, yet in an eerie way also intact. As if in a nightmare, the rooms are warped through the fisheye lens. Things don’t fit or are fixed half dead/half alive in aspic or ice. The women (and a few men) assume bizarre stances, standing on their head or appearing twisted. Even the seasons go haywire: What claims to be summer does not correspond to the images of the Siberian winter. The clothing fits, but body parts slip and slide. Romping about circus-like, some people have no head, three legs or are Siamese twins.

Documenting Dreams

Bakhtiozina says that her task is to create situations for her models that give them the experience of „being someone else“. She captures them precisely at the moment „when they believe they are someone else entirely“. None of the photographs are digitally manipulated. Everything we see must „take place in reality“. She says she is a documentary photographer „in a different sense“: „I document dreams.“ In the most bewitching images, the models become figures situated between self-awareness  and a loss of self: They lie in dark water as if dreaming with their eyes wide open and foreign hands touch them, whether friendly or to pester. Large white moths are like silken tiaras decorating a girl with matte white hair. Those are the legendary „rivers of milk“ spoken of in Russian fairy tales. The impact of these pictures is not limited to the wit or philological commentary that Bakhtiozina offers. They are narrative palimpsests, permeated layer upon layer by the story of each of her models, whom she refers to as „survivors“. Taking inspiration from a painting by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (ca. 1533–1588), for example, she transformed a terminally ill young woman into a proud warrior. Bakhtiozina caused quite a sensation in her debut at London’s Royal Opera House in 2019 as costume and make-up designer and style supervisor for the ballet Aisha and Abhaya. This piece also deals with stranded survivors.

Uldus Bakhtiozina often casts her models–and she too slips into various roles–from her own milieu; they are people with „an interesting story”, she explained in her 2014 TED talk. Smoothly consistent, the eventfulness of her photographic work leads to a moving image and a film narrative about one’s „own face“. Bakhtiozina’s photographic cosmos is less about protecting boundaries of identity than about unfolding them; about the tension between traditional patterns and longing for uniqueness that must be endured again and again. She tells of the creative ego that does not insist on representing itself, but can always also be someone else.

DOCH RYBAKA begins and ends in the open, at the harbour. At a fish stand, in a timeless non-place where strange odours and dialogues waft like sunken or future epochs. As in fairy tales one finds the unexpected, perhaps even that which is lost.


Cosima Lutz lives in Berlin and works as film critic for various print and online media.

Translation: Allison Brown

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