Hyperborea: Love, Solitude And Walruses In The Russian Arctic

Hyperborea by Evgenia Arbugaeva ★★★★★

Hyperborea: Love, Solitude And Walruses In The Russian Arctic Hyperborea by Evgenia Arbugaeva 5
From the Chukotka series: © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Image courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery.

Here, have a rushed article that we didn't plan to write when we grabbed a last-minute ticket for Hyperborea — an article purely to say that this show, this quiet, single room of works by Evgenia Arbugaeva charting wide emptinesses and small, intimate moments of the Russian Arctic, is the loveliest show we've seen in ages.

Of the two exhibitions wrapped in the one ticket, the Sunil Gupta retrospective's been getting more attention: billed as the bigger draw, and covering two floors to Hyperborea's one. It could be great. We wouldn't know, skirting past it at the start, there for walrus photography and only walrus photography. We don't ever make it back upstairs, but we regret nothing.

The photography we'd seen online looked like a bleak fairytale, all deeply-textured darknesses and frost clinging to human debris. But they're infinitely more beautiful glowing in the gallery's lighting and seen in their sequences, the detail in each photo richer and more compelling —  down to the fur at the edges of a man's boots, and his forehead wrinkling as he leans it against his hands, and the frost forming on a kid's shoes left in the snow, and the dusty earth underneath the walruses — than you'd ever be able to tell here.

From the Kanin Nos series: © Evgenia Arbugаeva. Image courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery.

There's probably something you could say about why the stories Arbugaeva's telling here — about solitude. Or the fragile tininess of people in an unforgiving world. Or the feeling of having come to the end of human roads — hit so powerfully right now, with a pandemic biting at the edges of every thought and plan. But there's also the tenderness of a couple holding hands together against an endless stretch of ice, and a man's cat leaning quietly against his leg, and the play of light over a wooden floor, and small apples wrapped carefully in newspaper: things that are cherished, as well as the things that are abandoned.

'In the North, nobody does small talk', Arbugaeva says, talking about the silence of the Russian Arctic in her podcast, '... because there's no reason, because every word you say is supposed to mean something.' Same goes for this show, where nothing's wasted, and everything is beautiful.

Evgenia Arbugaeva: Hyperborea - Stories from the Russian Arctic is at The Photographers' Gallery till 31 May 2021. You can listen to Arbugaeva talk about six of the works in the exhibition at the Arctic Stories Podcast here.

Last Updated 05 May 2021