v5.7 / Looking Lightly on the Necks of Unbroken Flowers with Lena Oganesyan

To appreciate Russian photographer Lena Oganesyan’s series Nebbia Dream, you don’t need 20/20 vision. In fact, you may feel, when trying to tell face from flower, as if you were pressed against an optometrist’s phoropter (that great spider-eyed machine facing a lettered pyramid). Change the lens as much you like, the murkiness remains between you and the picture.

“Nebbia” means fog in Italian, derived in turn from the Latin “nebula,” a cloud or mist. Situated against the word “dream,” nebbia might even sound redundant, a dream being no less hazy than a cloud.

But hold those two notions side by side: the physical mist (nebbia) and the mist of the mind (dream). This is precisely where Oganesyan’s photographs ask us to look. Not, I think, to figure out what’s there. What’s there isn’t really that difficult to discern: a woman, a dried lotus pod. And in any case, when does art ever concern itself with what’s actually there? 

I think it has more to do with looking beyond the instant, the diamond-like singularity of it, for a vague but enduring enthrallment in the abstract. In the poem that inspired Oganesyan’s series—Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy” (to Marina Tsvetayeva)—Rilke writes:

How they flower on May winds! From the midst of Ever,
Where you breathe and sense, the instant shuts them out.

Rilke, at this point in the poem, is talking about the perseverance of “lovers” over loss, a subject easily extended beyond the romantic symbolism of the flower to a state of attraction between the photograph and the viewer, which is to say, a moment I can see—a moment I am utterly enchanted by—but can never live in. Live in the moment, our Headspace gurus tell us. But the mantra only rewards the effort. The achievement is for gorgons and grecian urns.

Maybe that sounds too conclusive, too final. I don’t mean it to sound that way. I’m looking at Oganesyan’s images as I write. I see the lotus and the nude, the sacred and the profane, the sea and the earth, the figure and the flower. And if there’s something more to discover in the instant’s elusive black box, no matter; my ignorance remains a complete and perfect bliss. 

—Collier Brown

Selection from Lena Oganesyan’s Nebbia Dream Series & Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy” (To Marina Tsvetayeva) translated by A.S. Kline.

Oh the losses in All, Marina, the falling stars!
We can’t add to it, wherever we hurl ourselves
To whatever star! All is already a part of the whole.
So even when we fall, the sacred sum’s not lessened.
Whoever’s given to feeling falls to the source and is healed
Is it all a game, equal exchange, displacement,

Nowhere a name, nowhere natural achievement?
Waves, Marina, we’re sea! Depths, Marina, we’re sky.
Earth, Marina, we’re earth, a thousand times Spring,
Like larks an outpouring of song hurls to the unseen.
We begin as joy: it already utterly exceeds us:
Suddenly our weight bows the song down to lament.

But then: lament? Isn’t that a younger, deeper joy.
Even the gods of the deep wish to be praised, Marina.
Gods are so innocent they wait for praise like children.
Praising, dear one, let’s be generous with praise.
Nothing is ours. We set our hands lightly on the necks
Of unbroken flowers. I saw it at Kom Ombo, on the Nile:

Thus, Marina, those kings offered up gifts they renounced.
As angels mark the doors of those to be saved,
We touch this and that, seemingly tender.
Ah how far off already, ah how careless, Marina,
Even in our innermost pretences. Signposts that’s all.
This gentle commerce, when it no longer suffers

One of our kind, seizes them in its grasp, takes
Its revenge and kills. That it has power to kill
Was clear to all from its delicacy and restraint
And from the strange force that alters us
From living ones to survivors. Non-being. Do you
Remember how often blind command dragged us

Through the icy ante-room of birth . . . dragged: us? A body
With eyes under countless eyelids, refusing. Dragged
That heart, a whole race, set down in us. Dragged
To the goal of migratory birds the flock, the form of our
Imminent change. Lovers, Marina, weren’t, are not
Permitted to know utter destruction. Must be as if new.

Only their grave is old, only their grave remembers,
Darkens under the sobbing tree, remembers it all.
Only their grave sinks: they are supple as reeds:
What bends them too far, weaves them richly in garlands.
How they flower on May winds! From the midst of Ever,
Where you breathe and sense, the instant shuts them out.

(O how I comprehend you, feminine flower on the same
Undying stalk. How strongly I scatter myself
Into the night air that will soon reach you.) The gods
Long ago learnt how to simulate halves. We, drawn into
That orbit, filled ourselves out like the orb of the moon.
Even in times of waning, even in weeks of change
Nothing could ever again help us to richness, but our
Own solitary passage over the unsleeping landscape.

Follow Lena Oganesyan on Instagram, and check out more of her work at elenaoganesyan.ru