Mariya Ustymenko’s newest zine, Fear of Disappearance, has a distinct weight to it. It’s a sense that comes across even before picking it up. This implied weight, created through the use of a metallic silver paper for its cover mimicking a metal sheet, sets in motion a physical and emotional response to the work. The tone is given a bit of context by the opening introductory question, “How can the anxiety of change be visually expressed?” While what exactly is changing is not yet clear, through the use of subtle design elements the viewer is given a sense that whatever comes next will not be light.
Using a personal perspective, the viewer is guided through an urban environment that is both familiar and ambiguous. The imagery is primarily of items and scenes that Ustymenko has observed in this space, most often through the guise of subtle abstraction. An omniscient pothole or a rusted out mechanical device keeps their form within this visual language, yet a sense of past conflict is evoked from them as the photographer highlights their flaws. People are also present, as they are seen meandering through this space and even appear to be engulfed by it at times.
The different imagery is able to flow together due to the attention to detail in how the images were printed and handled, forming an aesthetic of heavily dark black-and-white images. This last element is what fully forms the visual language Ustymenko is operating under and allows for the full picture of what is being examined to take shape: gentrification effects on individuals and the surrounding environment.
An image of a woman’s figure, cast in shadows indistinguishable between her own and that of this environment, takes on a new meaning in this context. The product of disappearing is seen and, through the visual imagery and clues laid forth, it’s not a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, it also seems that this change is inevitable as images of newly constructed office buildings and high-rise apartments can be seen reflected in the windows of older structures. This tension amounts to our characters also being caught in this change. The third-to-last spread shows two women in the act of slowly disappearing, implied through the use of slight light leaking of the images, placing a metaphorical final nail in the coffin. The story ends as one woman looms in the environment and the other leaves, removing the familiarity once felt and leaving only ambiguity.
If there is a fault, it is that the agenda set forth by Ustymenko can be seen as heavy-handed at times. A parked car covered in either paint or bird droppings, while an acute metaphor for things going to shit, is a slight interruption from the emotional tone being evoked. The too literal and definiteness of the image is what doesn’t seem to work, as this different visual language does not resonate with the question first posed. This though is a rare occurrence, as the rest of the elements in play help move the work back towards the interpretive, where it tends to shine.
Fear of Disappearance starts and ends with a question. While the first is literally asked, the second is more introspective and unique for each viewer finishing the publication. This second question is the product of experiencing and interpreting this visual sense of anxiety and change. The answer may seem mottled, but the question itself cannot be answered in such black-and-white terms. Through the looseness of the series, the universality and complexity of such an emotion is equated and felt by the viewer, leaving them pondering their own role and place within this environment.
Published July 15, 2015 - for Empty Stretch