Georges Perec, in common with blocked writers and bookish adolescents everywhere, kept a journal in which he recorded his dreams. Disdaining the jumble-sale symbolism beloved of the self-taught dream interpreter, he instead sought to transform these fractured collages of memory and desire into sketches for possible stories. In transcribing his visions he supplied them with an elementary narrative structure, developing rather than closing down the fictional possibilities offered up to the writer by the curious leaps and branching associations of dream logic. In November 1970, to take one example, Perec dreams that
a cluster of cops in capes gathers in a large esplanade … I am naked, or only in my underwear … At one point, I run … Later, J. and I are driving. We are circling a movie theatre. A huge animated advertisement advertises an erotic film: two neon silhouettes, a man and a woman, in all sorts of positions (implying permutation and recurrence) … etc.
These scattered, sketched scenes — with their noirish cinematography of police and pornography, flight and shame, neon and night — exemplify how a skeleton plot can be extrapolated from tone, form from content. The reader fills in the lacunae, developing from these ambivalent snatches a narrative that would make sense of the prevailing atmosphere. Why is the dreamer naked in the esplanade? What connects him to the driver, J.? Why are they circling the movie theatre? Each time I read the dream I find new answers to these questions, conceive of fresh connections that would link these fragmented episodes.
The work of Christina Abdeeva inspires in its viewers the same impulse to narrativise. Her Nocturnes — as the title suggests, these are photographs of and about the night — strike me as impressionistic accounts of decisive moments in a grander story of which we, the audience, are denied knowledge. This sense of exclusion, of being witness to events not intended for our eyes, is a factor in the disquieting, double-edged voyeurism that is one characteristic of my experience of her photography.
In one typically unsettling example a woman stands naked beneath a long colonnade, at the end of which is a curved passage recalling a theatre’s proscenium arch. Up the column to her right creeps the photographer’s elongated silhouette, the shadow of her raised camera suggesting a second perspective on her body, an audience. A bruised purple sky looms over one half of the divided image, set off by two green flashes of lamp-lit foliage. The woman is back on her heels, head bowed, knee cocked, seeming neither frightened nor alert despite her ostensible vulnerability. Behind her, barely visible at the very top left corner of the frame, are three elevated, illuminated windows angled to the scene in front of us. Is the woman being watched? By which I mean, is she being watched by someone other than me?
Even unpopulated landscapes are invested with a sense of presence that renders them uncanny. An isolated, leafless tree at dusk is illuminated by a powerful beam of orange light, the source of which is just out of shot. The tapering triangle described by the light across the grass suggests the headlights of a car from which a second person must, presumably, be watching the same scene from a different angle to that afforded to me. In another strangely-proportioned composition a Hitchcock blonde clasps a thin white hand to her throat, drawing a black coat up tight to frame her pale face. She leans against a plinth that supports a large, neoclassical statue of a seated woman that faces away from the camera, shielding the blonde from a serried rank of industrial spotlights that seem trained upon the monument. The real spectacle here is the statue; the girl — out of focus, half-cropped from the frame — appears as hidden, fugitive, peripheral. We feel again that we are seeing the scenario from only one possible angle, as if watching a play from beneath the boards.
Windows — a recurring motif — function here not as portals into other worlds but as reminders that we are not the only witnesses, and indeed that we ourselves are being watched. Among the most powerful of Abdeeva’s Nocturnes are those that literalise that sense of doubling, mirroring. Several diptychs in the series place a figure, often shot in close-up, in apposition with a scene or object. Each image serves as a constitutive other to its neighbour, so we drag associations across the vertical divide that separates them.
Thus a long-limbed, half-dressed girl in heavy chiaroscuro pulls her hair around the nape of her bare neck, as if it to expose it to the camera; beside her an intermittently-illuminated, featureless tower block climbs menacingly into the sky. Beyond the purely formalist combination of forms, the juxtaposition of human vulnerability and faceless corporate power modify our reaction to both. The theatricality that is a feature of Abdeeva’s practice is much in evidence in these diptychs, as in the pairing of a super close-up portrait of a woman’s face, whose typically ambiguous expression might imply pain or climax, with an empty but illuminated stage. In the most explicit of the images, a girl’s bare torso is counterpointed with a split grapefruit, its flesh exposed to the camera.
These photographs, then, operate as networks of symbols and scenes whose precise arrangement remains obscure to us. Women — vulnerable, undressed — seem to be at the centre of systems over which they may or may not exercise control. The camera’s perspective is in many cases only one of several, reinforcing the sense that we are being supplied with glimpses into a world rather than a comprehensive account of it. Landscapes and buildings are haunted by people we cannot see. The viewer of these images feels herself to be adrift in a benighted land, an experience equal parts threatening, thrilling and liberating.
Want more stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here:
More from Photography
See Russia’s Far East wilderness through the eyes of the people trying to save it
One photographer’s inspiring search for sisterhood in Uzbekistan