David Meskhi is a Berlin-based photographer but who was born in Tbilisi in 1979. In contrast to many photographers from the former USSR, his work does not look to contextualize itself within its history and geography. Instead, his photography conveys the complexity and intimacy of individuals shed to their basic nakedness. He makes the location and time of his subjects void by focusing upon the landscape of their bodies and how it interacts with natural elements such as rain, air, and soil, particularly in the series Miraculous Dwells in Still. It seems that the body almost serves as the stage for these elements to play out.
His work has been exhibited across Austria, Germany, Georgia, Israel, and Russia.
Images described as post-Soviet typically depict either the opulent or the poverty stricken, however there always appears to be an element of kitsch within it. There is a constant sense of mockery in the ineptitude that a population deprived of material possession now finds itself overwhelmed with it. Your work seems to avoid this. Your subjects express almost an ahistorical individuality. Do you want your work to be understood as post-Soviet?
Growing up in Georgia I did not realize that I was living in the post-Soviet world. Georgia was never very Soviet for me. In 1989, I was 10 years old and the Soviet Union was already on its way to complete collapse. However, I found this concept of “Post-Soviet” more of a European notion. You’re so right when you say that my work avoids being defined by geography or time. My work always tries to exist in a space beyond geopolitical borders.
There is an obvious emphasis placed upon the bodies of your subjects. Whether it is the light or the water, they almost serve to be the stage for different elements to display themselves openly. This runs in contrast to the ways in which dominant culture in Georgia looks to hide the body and repress sexual interactions. There is the humorous example of the chokha being used during the Olympic games. Do you think your work looks to subvert this repression of bodies in Georgia?
Georgia is still a young country with strong traditions but it is trying too hard to be cool. This chokha incident at the Olympics was an embarrassment to so many Georgians. Everyone hated that uniform.
As for my works, first of all my main subject is the physical body and its extremity, complexity, and beauty mixed with different concepts but not based in the post-Soviet. To answer your question, my work is about the body and bodies in the former Soviet Union sometimes, but it is not defined as politically.
Moving away from your artistic work, you have been living in Berlin for eight years now. Since leaving Tbilisi, the city has transformed into a fast growing tourist hotspot. Across the city, you see new infrastructure projects, hostels popping up, and a greater “international-ization” of the city. Do you feel like that Tbilisi is still your home? Or, have you lost the Tbilisi you left?
Tbilisi is changing and it’s happening so fast that sometimes it is even hard for me to tell if I’m in Tbilisi at all. The only thing that makes Tbilisi forever my home is my family and friends there. Many of my favourite buildings and gardens have been transformed into electrical beasts and also you just can’t paint over centuries-old buildings and call it reconstruction, but there are some new interesting places (sadly too few). I can not dismiss the new Tbilisi entirely however. And I wish there was a new exciting Tbilisi next to the beautiful, old one, but now I think the new is damaging the old.
As you obviously can see the Western world is under tremendous pressure and many of the truths that we held to be certain have collapsed. The advent of Donald Trump and Brexit have indicated a point of major transition within the Western world. You were raised in the former USSR and saw the years of tremendous upheaval with civil war, nationalist rhetoric of Gamsakhurdia, and the eventual overthrowing of the Shevernadze government. Do you see any parallels to what is occurring today in America and the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Honestly, I can say that my mind has an easy defensive mode where I simply don’t think about those matters. Politics has never been one of Georgia’s strengths and even less so at picking presidents, but sometimes there are no choices. I think there are parallels but many differences.
Interview by Ciaran Miqeladze, edited by Klemens Casey