Diana Markosian’s series Santa Barbara is a thing of questions and contrasts. Part-staged narrative, part-documentary project, the photographer worked with a casting director, a group of actors and a scriptwriter from the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara (which she watched while growing up) to reenact the final days of her family life in post-Soviet Russia, and the beginnings of her new life – with mum, without dad – in California. It leaves you wondering: what is real, trustworthy, certain? And what is fiction and fantasy?
It doesn’t strictly matter. Reconstructing her past in this way doesn’t feel out of place, for what are memories anyway if not imagined recollections of time gone by, skewed through the lens of half-remembered subjectivity?
“These images don’t feel like fiction to me. When I look at them, I see my family. Don’t get me wrong, I am not delusional, but it really feels that real to me,” Markosian tells CR. “I think [it was the same] for everyone who participated in this project. It’s something we didn’t expect, but in turn, we all came to be our characters.”
Markosian’s straddling of truth and fiction isn’t purely for the purposes of reenacting her early life experiences. It’s also an interrogation of the American dream: the image that is sold versus the reality that is more often lived.
The body of work, which encompasses photography and a narrative film, hinges upon Markosian’s mother, Svetlana – like all of the ‘characters’ in the series, played by an actor. In 1996, the ‘real’ Svetlana fled in the night with her two children in tow, boarding a plane to the US in search of new beginnings and met on the other side by an older man, Eli, whom she had met through a classified ad. Svetlana had viewed it all as the arrival to nowhere, with the hope of going somewhere.
It’s Svetlana that Markosian’s empathetic lens seeks to understand most of all, and the sacrifices she made to emigrate with her two children in search of a better life.
“I thought I could separate myself from the experiences I had as a child, and really take this on as a director. So much time had passed, yet once everyone was cast, and we travelled back to Santa Barbara, it was no longer a production,” the photographer explains. “I was processing things as I was learning about them. I referred to Gene as ‘Dad’ and Ani as ‘Mom.’ They called me ‘kid.’ The cast became my family; and for a split second, I had everyone back.”
Santa Barbara was initially presented in Markosian’s debut monograph published by Aperture last year, which brought together her contemporary, staged photographs, archival family photos and stills from the original TV series.
“I wanted the project to feel nuanced. I wanted to convey the complexity of my family’s story as best as I could,” Markosian says of the interplay between these different materials. “The staged photographs are fragments of my memory, the personal archive serves as evidence of that memory, and the TV show is the thread that I’ve used to create the narrative.”
The body of work is now going on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Markosian’s first solo exhibition in the US, where her film will be screened publicly for the first time.
“This is my first monograph, and my first solo show in America. I think it will be important for me to understand how my story relates to others. I wanted to create the space as immersive sets, so you could enter the Moscow apartment before arriving in America. Then there’s the film. It’s the first time it will be screened,” Markosian says.
“I am never really making work for myself, so I am curious if the work resonates with a broader audience,” she adds. “Will people feel my Mom’s pain? Will they understand the ultimate sacrifice she made for me? I don’t know, and that’s what makes this so exciting for me.”
Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara runs at SFMoma from July 3 – December 12; sfmoma.org