From Russia With Love

What is fact and what is fiction? A tired question comes alive in Diana Markosian’s ‘Santa Barbara.’

I like artists who aren’t afraid to swirlie viewers’ heads in the rank waters of existential disquiet. I particularly like photographers who aren’t afraid to force questions of truth onto a medium defined by objectivity. These are the reasons I love Diana Markosian. In Santa Barbara, on view at SFMOMA through Dec. 12, Markosian proves herself as a savvy storyteller working in the modern tradition of narrative-based women photographers like Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle, who studiously play in the grey area between reality and fiction as a means of exploring self-identity.

Sherman’s late-’70s series Untitled Film Stills consisted of Sherman posing herself in costume for black and white photographs evoking classic Hollywood tropes — provocative sex symbol, damsel in distress — speaking to the limited, misogynist, representations of women in cinema. For her 1999 series, Double Game, Calle recreated fictional works of art made by a character in Paul Auster’s 1992 novel Leviathan — a character based on Calle in the first place. Maybe it’s my joint background in photography and literature that makes me appreciate the indefinite subjectivity of every story; maybe it would be impossible not to appreciate the risky thrill of a fictionalized family history when Markosian does it this well.

Santa Barbara shares its title with a soap opera that aired in the U.S. from 1984-1993, one of the few American TV shows broadcast in Russia at the time. The romantic American Dream the show portrayed inspired Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, to flee the collapsing Soviet Union as a mail order bride in 1996, relocating to Santa Barbara with a 7-year-old Diana and Diana’s brother, David. Santa Barbara is Markosian’s attempt to understand this event — and its fallout — from her mother’s perspective. The cinematic result consists of a 15-minute film and several staged photographs, in which Markosian recreates scenes from her mother’s life and her own early childhood using a cast of professional actors.

Opening with the title card of the original Santa Barbara, Markosian’s film splices together staged scenes, real home video footage, voice-over audio of phone calls between Markosian and Svetlana, and a video interview between Svetlana and Ana Imnadze, the actress who plays her. The staged scenes follow Imnadze’s Svetlana and her children from a cramped apartment in Moscow to the palatial California home of Svetlana’s decrepit buyer, Eli (Gene Jones), where misgivings soon begin to plague Svetlana as she attempts to integrate into American family life. The narrative nails the soap opera tone, and no surprise: the script-writer is Emmy Award winner Lynda Myles, one of the screenwriters for the original Santa Barbara.

The photographs, all from 2019, are a mix stills from the film and other, unscreened, moments of the story. The Arrival, shows Svetlana and her children standing with their backs to the viewer at the end of a red carpet which has been rolled out across the desert floor, the family verging on literal new horizons. My Parents Together Apart and The Argument bookend the exhibition. The former shows Markosian’s parents separated by a wall in their Moscow apartment, each gazing despondently into space while a young Diana stares into the TV set; in the latter, Eli and Svetlana sit on opposite sides of their bed, Diana curled between them. The photographs are supplemented with framed letters written by the real Eli during his correspondence with Svetlana prior to her leaving Moscow, and a small, vintage television set plays clips from the original Santa Barbara. The photographs offer sustained reflection on key moments of the story, while Eli’s letters and the TV clips add context for the events Markosian has restaged, showing how the imaginary influenced reality from the start: the Eli of letters literally purports to be a prince living in a fairy-tale land, a narrative mirrored in the TV show’s exaggerated melodrama; the staged photographs evidence that that the truth is far from this invented reality. Markosian’s point: life is a story.

At one point in the film, during the voice-over conversation between mother and daughter, Markosian asks Svetlana if she feels their “life is like a soap opera.” Svetlana responds, “It’s life.” This indiscriminate acceptance of the blur between fantasy and reality raises the question: What narratives must we invent and believe about ourselves in order to become the people we want to be, or to escape the people we already are? In this way, Svetlana’s story is already the story of an actress, long before Imnadze takes up the role; the story of a woman reinventing herself in order to survive. In an early scene, Markosian’s father calls Svetlana “Sveta;” toward the end of the film, Svetlana’s American metamorphosis complete, Eli calls her “Lana.” Her identity has split cleanly in two.

The real Svetlana appears still to be a woman divided. In the interview with Imnadze, she refers to feeling “betrayed by my country and my husband,” and leaving Russia in order to give Markosian and her brother the chance to lead better lives. But Svetlana opens up to Imnadze in a way she can’t — or won’t — with her daughter. In the voice-over, Svetlana questions her daughter’s motivations in producing the exhibition, to which the artist explains that she is trying to understand her mother. “You need to love me,” Svetlana reproaches, refusing to offer explanations. “I don’t need understanding.”

By leaning into, rather than shying away from, these contradictions, and pushing the question of what is true and what isn’t, Markosian suggests that love is not a product of understanding but of accepting uncertainty and trying in spite of it. I loved Markosian’s Santa Barbara: I loved that it made me work to understand it; I loved that the story made me reflect on my own insecurities and questions about self-identity. The mark of a great work of fiction is its capacity to transcend the invented in order to shift our perspectives of the lives we lead: the stories we tell ourselves.

‘Santa Barbara’
Diana Markosian
Through Dec. 12

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