Avoiding either apologia or condemnation, both of these exhibitions try to understand the unending desire to transform the quotidianby Owen Hatherley / December 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Inside the Tate Modern’s two current exhibitions, which opened for the anniversary of what the Soviets used to call the Great October Proletarian Socialist Revolution, are images of two studios.
One of them is seen in a short film about the late British designer David King—his collection of Soviet posters, photographs, books and banners, which forms the basis of Red Star Over Russia: a Revolution in Visual Culture, 1905-1955. King, a committed Trotskyist who also worked on the Sunday Times, shows us around the studio and its immense stash of slogan-bedecked ephemera. The root of his collecting enthusiasm was, he tells us, his interest in “heavyweight left-wing politics.”
The other is the installation The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, originally created in the studio of Russian children’s book illustrator Ilya Kabakov in 1985, and now part of the other Tate exhibition Ilya and Emilia Kabakov—Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future, about the (still working) Conceptualist married couple, who have produced a series of installations first in the Soviet Union, and then in major galleries worldwide since the 1990s. It’s a small room, which you glimpse between planks nailed to the entrance. Like King’s studio, it is covered in Soviet posters, but from a much later, less sexy era—clunky 1970s graphics of spaceships and concrete panels. In the middle of the room, above the bed, is a catapult, and there’s a hole in the roof.
If King’s studio shows a western communist trying to understand a socialist experiment that went horribly wrong, Ilya Kabakov’s narrates a tall tale about an ordinary Russian either trying to escape the revolution’s grim consequences, or taking its stated promise of a cosmic communism seriously. Instead of waiting for the future, Kabakov’s Man Who Flew Into Space is taking off into it himself.
The tension between these two exhibitions—one mostly on the well-known revolution-to-terror cycle of 1917-37; and the other mostly on the much less understood stagnation-to-collapse cycle of 1968-1991—makes them the most interesting of the absurd number of 1917 anniversary shows held in British museums and art galleries in 2017. They’ve included—to mention only the blockbusters—the Royal Academy’s rich but hectoring Revolution; the Design Museum’s showcase of architectural dreams in Imagine Moscow; and the British Library’s Russian Revolution, little more than a three-dimensional A Level history textbook. But most of these shows were less about the revolution itself than something happening alongside it: the art movement known as Constructivism.
The visuals and ideas the Constructivists came up with, first in painting and theatre, then in posters, book designs and films, have defined how we have seen the revolution ever since: the tilted angles; the use of “dialectical” montage; the geometric polygons floating through space; the stark Cyrillic fonts; the cropped photographs of young men and women glaring heroically into the future.
The Constructivists intended to abolish “art” altogether, in the sense of individual geniuses producing unique (and saleable) artefacts, in favour of a world of mass production and diffused creation, where everybody and nobody would be an artist. Every work of theirs in an art museum is, according to their ideals, a measure of their defeat.
What happened next, Socialist Realism, seldom gets seen in western museums. In both of these Tate shows, even the one supposed to cover the 1930s, it is a phantom, commented on more than displayed—which is odd given that Socialist Realism entailed a return to the western artistic canon, based on a warped interpretation of the Renaissance.
Many museums leap many decades from the Constructivists to a later generation that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s—the Moscow Conceptualists (such as the Kabakovs) who sidestepped the straightforward propaganda of both Constructivism and Socialist Realism, in favour of complex, ambiguous games with language, space, art history and biography.
Although Red Star Over Russia does display paintings, it draws mainly on a collection of mass produced objects, which were never intended to be unique. King’s collection is interesting especially for his accumulation of destroyed drafts, retouched images and different versions of the same poster or photograph. One room concentrates on the work of Constructivist couples like Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers, and the lesser-known Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina. Here, you can watch the ideas of Constructivism morph and shift as the Party line zig-zags. Kulagina’s poster designs combine painting and photography: in her 1905—Path to October (1929), she audaciously collages abstracted paintings of insurgent workers, photos of a real revolt and the outline of a Tsar’s tumbling crown, enlisting them into a sharply-organised single image of revolutionary fervour.
Most of the posters here are for the Five Year Plan of 1928-32, the period that more than any other created the actual existing Soviet Union: enormous economic growth, comparable in the last hundred years only to Japan and China, achieved at the cost of catastrophic famine, appalling working conditions and poor quality goods.
Artists were great enthusiasts for the era of what was called “socialist construction,” seeing it as the time when their utopian ideas might get the chance to be fulfilled. Klutsis’s 1928 photomontage designs for the Spartakiada sports festival are classic Constructivism—thrilling, spacious compositions full of exuberance and hope.
By the time the Plan had run its course, the power in Klutsis’s imagery had become brutally sledgehammer-like, with the quintessential image of Great Men and interminable masses in Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933). Alongside, we’re shown Klutsis’s workings: a drawing for a poster celebrating the Moscow Metro with a photo of the leader collaged over it. The illusion isn’t complete: out of scale, Stalin looks like a moustachioed Sphinx. In the exhibition, this sketch is displayed alongside images of more mundane, underhand forms of montage, as in the “before and after” shots of Party meetings and “disappeared” leaders, which King collected in his pivotal book The Commissar Vanishes.
The next time we see Klutsis, it’s in a secret police photo. As a one-time sympathiser with Trotsky’s Left Opposition and a Latvian, he was doubly at risk in the Great Terror of 1936-38. The photo is one of several NKVD mugshots laid out across a table. Defeated workers, intellectuals and famous leaders, glowering, staring or gazing. These are taken from King’s book Ordinary Citizens, where he pointed out that the reason for the intensity of the prisoners’ expressions is the long exposures of the cheap cameras used by the secret police, giving them just enough time to think about their fate, and that of the revolution for which they had fought.
It’s a kind of technological determinism the Constructivists themselves might have appreciated. This is not to say it’s just desserts for the arrested artists, the manipulators of images themselves destroyed by Stalin, the greatest manipulator of them all. Rather, their work aimed to make obvious the mechanisms behind the creation of the power they nevertheless supported. But this ambiguity was never likely to last.
The work in Red Star Over Russia is meant to be public—for streets, cinemas, bookshops, newspapers, mass meetings. By necessity, much of the painting and sculpture in the Kabakov show comes from the private sphere. Soviet Conceptual artists seldom did public exhibitions. One of their earliest and most famous, the 1974 “Bulldozer Exhibition,” staged in a park in the Moscow housing estate where most of the artists lived, was destroyed by the police—hence the name. But if they made their work for their own circle, they were left undisturbed; especially as none of them was a political dissident and most had day jobs.
Tellingly, they were often children’s book illustrators, an area where creative freedom was far greater than in official art. The Kabakovs’s USSR is full of clammy interiors, 1970s flowery wallpaper, hermetic jokes, oblique stories and the distinctively alien texture of a society uninterested in making desirable consumer goods. Their ability to recreate this feeling in the big expensive space of a contemporary art museum is impressive.
Both exhibitions show the importance of language working alongside images. For both Constructivists and Conceptualists, to be called “didactic” was a compliment. The Kabakovs’s art is notoriously wordy, but with a light touch deriving from Ilya’s work as a children’s illustrator: both the style and content of works like Ten Characters, presented in here as giant books for visitors to leaf through, are distinctively dreamy and childlike.
Accordingly, the Tate have translated the texts. The curators of Red Star Over Russia don’t do the same for their exhibits, which is unfortunate. For instance they don’t tell you that Boris Silkin’s simple and iconic poster Join the Red Cavalry! is in Ukrainian, not Russian. Though the amount of posters written in Turkic languages like Uzbek or Azeri indicate the geographic scope.
One of the most striking juxtapositions in Red Star is two versions of Nina Vatolina’s famous wartime poster Fascism: the Most Evil Enemy of Women, based on a vivid, arresting painting. One is the often parodied poster we know; the other has text in Azeri (which, in the interim, has started to use Cyrillic script), and the face has been changed, given the thick eyebrows and strong nose of a Turkic woman. She no longer looks straight at the viewer, but into the distance.
I wonder if the 1920s-40s posters and books are untranslated because of a fear that too many words would slow the visitor down. Different senses of time are crucial to the differences between these two eras. Like a fast-cut film, the works of Klutsis and Kulagina are a rush of skilfully condensed ideas, information and imagery, exciting no matter how unnerving you may find their politics. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s work slows everything down to the ponderous crawl of a Brezhnev speech, a frustrating density that forces you to linger. The slow pace is encapsulated in Ilya’s 1983 painting By December 25 in Our District…, where a half-constructed housing estate is shown perpetually unfinished. The couple’s installation Labyrinth (1990) features Ilya’s mother’s typed autobiography, a grim working-class Jewish life in 20th-century Ukraine, where she struggles stoically through bigotry, misogyny, poverty and war. These reminiscences are joined by his uncle’s photographs of Ukraine and Moscow and affixed on to panels of grimy, sweaty wallpaper. To read and decipher every panel, even with the translations, could take an hour. It’s the pace of quotidian history, not of revolution—complicated, painful, pointless.
Labyrinth is the most harrowing and moving of the Kabakovs’s usually playful works. But to see these installations—as does, say, the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones—as testimonies about the “hell” of the USSR, would be to miss the point. One installation, The Toilet (1992), depicts people living in latrines. When it was first shown in Germany, Ilya was amused to be asked whether people really lived in toilets in the USSR. “Eighty per cent,” he replied wryly; “100 per cent since perestroika.” When it comes to interpreting the art of this propaganda state, we can still be made to believe just about anything.
Rather than just telling us about themselves and their worlds, the couple obsess both about the texture of the mundane, and about a seemingly eternal dream for something beyond it, whether that’s the promise of Communism, the promise of transcendence, the escape into the cosmos or eternal life. For them, “the idea of the end of utopia is itself utopian,” so in later work like How to Meet an Angel (2002), the parodically transcendent imagery is Christian rather than Communist. The fact remains, though, that only the Soviets tried to make that leap in reality, into a transformed everyday life. Avoiding either apologia or condemnation, both of these exhibitions try to understand that unending desire.