On the one hand, works in David Linger’s “Narratives in Porcelain” on view at Meridian Gallery evoke a vision of Russia that is straight David Lean — all bare birch trees, troikas, fur hats and snow-swept promenades.
The fuzzy black-and-white underglaze prints on translucent porcelain, made from photographs Linger took on a trip to Moscow in 1969, depict the romantic, melancholic vision of the Slavic world embraced in poetry, song and historically whitewashed cinema.
On the other hand, Linger manipulates the images, repeating them in varying degrees of sharpness, homing in on an unsuspecting face, stamping the images with Cyrillic letters like in some bureaucratic code (but which is in fact gibberish).
This complicates the effect: as a result of the manipulations, otherwise quaint scenes take on the more sinister tone of surveillance records.
The people captured in the midst of their random tasks suddenly appear to be the subjects of secret monitoring, and their neutral facial expressions, to be hiding something.
Several panels are embossed with text, which is actually a fictional story written in English.
One can regard the images straight-on without ever noticing the words, which are struck in such low-relief as to be barely visible, and then only when examined up close and at a slight angle, so the electric gallery lights create thin shadows along the grooves of the letters.
While the stories are available on the author’s website, their power lay not in the narrative, which is more young-adult-fiction than Solzhenitsyn.
Given what is known of the Soviet government’s tactics during that era, the fact that people were being watched, and closely, by a government willing to annihilate both citizens and any printed trace of them, the effect is chilling.
But the revelation is in the vantage point from which we consider the images, artful simulacra of an older, analog version of something increasingly troubling in recent years.
Society is ever more “plugged in”; in many major cities, little public space escapes security cameras. More and more of what people do online is watched, recorded and interpreted by entities who use the information in ways people cannot control except by opting out entirely — which, in this age of social networking, may seem like a willing exit into nonpersonhood.
That may seem like a new phenomenon, and perhaps the technological apparatus is new. But what “Narratives in Porcelain” recalls is that the phenomenon itself is as old as the knowledge that to watch, unwatched, is to have power over those you’re watching — whether the instruments are cutting-edge digital technology or blurry black-and-white photos and a paintbrush.
IF YOU GO
Narratives in Porcelain
Where: Meridian Gallery, 535 Powell St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Nov. 26
Contact: (415) 398-7229, www.meridiangallery.org