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Green and Unpleasant: The Grim Romance of Moscow's Suburbs

In capturing remorseless and dystopian landscapes, Alexander Gronsky’s Pastoral unveils the fine line between the charm of the unkempt and the resolutely trashed

Dominating a wall in London’s National Gallery is Seurat’s celebrated painting Bathers at Asnières, with its scene of a Parisian suburb in the 1880s. On a bank of the River Seine the bathers snatch some leisure in a sprawling industrialised city, whose smoking chimneys punctuate the skyline. This painting might seem like a precursor of Alexander Gronsky’s book Pastoral, but Gronsky’s photos of the fringes of Moscow have little of Seurat’s harmony and repose, for the ragged landscape they depict is often raw and edgy. The book rewards study because, intentionally or not, and despite its title, it questions the current tendency to romanticise such sites and automatically endorse their neglect.

Born in Estonia, Gronsky is in his early thirties and now based in Latvia. His previous work includes an impressive study of China, Mountains and Waters, in which the mist and cloud that pervade the photos allude to traditional Chinese painting but the subject matter is contemporary: new housing, infrastructure, construction. For this latest project, Pastoral, Gronsky has explored the suburbs around Moscow to present more than 60 photos that, like Seurat, focus on recreation, with buildings as the backdrop.

Though partly screened by trees at times, the city is continually in sight, primarily in the form of high-rise housing blocks and power plants. Whether because of the way in which they were planned or the way that Gronsky has photographed them, there seems to be scant space between some of the blocks, creating the illusion of a continuous wall and accentuating the crassness of the design. Remorseless and almost dystopian, they look like places to escape from, not relax in.

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Mar’ino

Gronsky shows little public provision for escape and recreation in the vicinity of these blocks − not even a football pitch. The people in his photographs are making the best they can of their immediate area, appropriating it for picnics, sunbathing and surrogate adventure playgrounds. Just a few metres from a railway line, a family are having a barbecue and, with a touching regard for ceremony in an unpropitious setting, they have brought along a table and spread a tablecloth on it. Most of all, these suburban Muscovites love to go bathing, whether in a river dwarfed by concrete bridges or a pool in a former quarry. But whereas in Seurat’s painting the bathers are centre stage, they are just bit-part players in Gronsky’s photos − always at a distance. Throughout the book Gronsky maintains an air of detachment, dispersing our attention from the people to the landscapes they momentarily inhabit.

He has captured those landscapes in all seasons, so bare branches and melting snow in one image give way to lush foliage in the next. One spread juxtaposes a summertime view in Sviblovo with a close equivalent in Strogino, and with their flowering weeds and shades of green they could both be a corner of an English meadow, as if the book’s title Pastoral was not primarily ironic. What distinguishes them from almost all the other photos in the book is the absence of litter − all those bits of resilient plastic and corroding metal that persist while the seasons change. Elsewhere in Gronsky’s images a shed or an abandoned car slowly moulders, while mysterious fires burn in the gathering night.

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Mytishchi

The book’s brief introductory essay by professor of Russian and Slavic Studies Mikhail Iampolski is a mixed blessing, detouring into sonorous phrases from philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (‘pure visibility without the object’, whatever that means). So a better guide to Gronsky’s photographs is Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book Edgelands (Jonathan Cape, 2011), a dossier on these kind of sites. Farley and Roberts highlight the appealing diversity of edgelands, as opposed to high-street homogeneity; the ‘collage of time’ they represent, unlike the freeze-frame preferred by the heritage industry; and the licence they give to individual choice − the path that cuts through a patch of wasteland, not the one prescribed by the planners.

Both of the authors are poets, perhaps discernible from their description of an edgeland pond: ‘The water is bottle green, and its margins are endlessly intriguing to the eye … It is a pond rich in detail, a Pre-Raphaelite vision with the focus now screwed tight and sharp, now scrimmed and soft, touched with the colours of wild flowers in the summer months.’ This passage encapsulates the spirit of their book. Farley and Roberts aren’t blind to detritus and bleakness, but for them these marginal sites are primarily ‘places of possibility, mystery, beauty’.

In an online interview (www.lensculture.com) Gronsky is not quite so affirmative as this, but says: ‘I always enjoy these borderline undefined areas.’ Keeping his equipment to a minimum (‘so I looked more like a mushroom gatherer than a photographer’), he aimed to portray these Moscow margins ‘in a very sweet romantic way’, but otherwise didn’t have an agenda − it’s left to us to conclude what is good, bad or indifferent.

So here’s a conclusion. I would never underestimate the value of these Moscow edgelands as an antidote to shopping malls, CCTV and parks that look great as graphics but are soulless when made. But however fond one is of the unkempt, the neglected and the undesigned, there’s a point at which the landscape is simply trashed, and some of these Moscow sites approach it.

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Mar’ino

Pastoral: Moscow Suburbs

Author: Alexander Gronsky

Publisher: Contrasto

Price: £30

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