For many years, we have been accompanied by Michal Chelbin’s portraits of acrobats and by her reportages from Eastern Europe. In her new work, we encounter cadets in military boarding schools, matador students and young people in the Ukraine preparing for their graduation ball. It is all about dress codes, uniforms, traditions and about the identity of young adolescents. ‘How to Dance the Waltz’ is appearing this spring as an illustrated book at Damiani in parallel to the exhibition at ClampArt New York (15 April – 29 May 29, 2021 opening reception & book signing 17 April 2.00 – 7.00 p.m.).
CLAMPART: “The photographs in this body of work were shot at military boarding schools, prom ceremonies, and matador schools over the course of five years. The photographs explore the connection between youth, uniforms, and dress codes. The series examines the role of a young individual in a group who appears to be just another one of the same; the heightened traditional, sexualized roles of boys and girls that come with wearing a uniform; and the performance uniforms force upon young people, in general.
When talking about this series, Chelbin states that elements which appear in previous personal works of hers motivated the creation of this body of work. “First and foremost are the contrasts. While living a military life or being a young matador are associated with violence and cruelty, when I meet my subjects, I find many of them to be fragile and weak. While being in the military or being a matador is considered ‘manly’, I found many of my models to be gentle and feminine. I found the same in previous series I created when photographing wrestlers and prisoners. While we might consider these people violent or cruel, or the committers of crimes, they are also weak and vulnerable at the same time. This human contrast, the ability to be two different things at the same time, fascinates me.
“I am also attracted to glamorous or unique outfits – symbols of the “old world”, elements from a different era. From a distance, a boy dressed in a shiny, beautiful outfit, might almost appear as a superhero. But these outfits also appear in contrast to the defenseless gaze of the sitters. While, as a group, the uniforms make the subjects look identical, when in front of the camera, the personality and uniqueness of each person is revealed behind the outfits. The outfits or uniforms they wear are connected to another element which interests me, namely the component of ‘performance’. Young people in uniforms are expected to perform certain roles society has created, usually roles originally designed for adults. That was the case when I shot in military boarding schools for teenagers, and in circuses, and in a Jewish orthodox community. The young boys and girls are trained to perform a role, a role of preserving an old conservative practice. They do so with rituals and costumes, and this tension between the traditional and the modern interests me as well.”