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Soviet Utopian Past in the Critical Present: Power and Architecture

12/10/2016
Molly Hankwitz

The exhibition Power and Architecture was created for viewing across several months in a particular sequence. Part 1 focused on Utopia and Modernity (12 June – 3 July), Part 2 on Dead spaces and Ruins, (July 4 – August 10), Part 3 on Citizen activated space — Museum of Skateboarding,(11 August – 11 September), and Part 4 on The afterlives of Modernity — shared values and routines, (15 September – 9 October). A conference held in June – The Centre Cannot Hold? –led by important scholars Michał Murawski (SSEES, UCL) and Jonathan Bach (New School, New York) served to frame the cultural, political, economic ramifications of “centrality and monumentality in 20th century cities” with thought from prominent researchers, architects and artists. Power and Architecture concluded this October as the Calvert 22 Foundation partners with innovative architecture, design and engineering collectives Assemble (UK), Museum of Architecture (UK) and reSITE (CZ) and an Urban Research Mobility Lab connects London with Prague by asking the question: how does migration and mobility in cities affect the experience of the urban environment? A curated series of reports, essays and photo stories further explored the themes of Power and Architecture in the online Calvert Journal available through the gallery website.

Calvert 22 is a gallery devoted to contemporary Eastern European and Russian art. They presented this exhibition as “a season on utopian public space and the quest for new national identities across the post-Soviet world.” I arrived at the gallery, a Californian artist, coincidentally just as I’d read comments from Lev Manovich about the young intelligensia of post-Soviet Russia. Thus, when thinking about the exhibition, I was also thinking about the new global mobile class and the impact of Putin’s Russia upon a new generation.

Power and Architecture is a fascinating collection of research into contemporary art, films, and research about post-Soviet urban identity and the positioning of artists therein. Obviously once communist societies have experienced dramatic change since the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of Soviet Russia, and rise of Putin to power. Curators used multiple cultural lenses with which to pry open a critical “western” eye on the aftermath of the Soviet era and invited exploration of cultural narratives about the “post-Soviet” city. The exhibit, particularly in certain places, looked at ideas which appear to have disappeared or become outmoded as a means of aesthetic and political communication. There was an air of longing and self-reflection towards Russian identity when experiencing the work. The Russian people have something to reckon with; a revolutionary utopia which once was, but which is no more and which has left them with the traces of an almost empire,- although to call communist Russian an empire seems to obscure the politics of the revolutionary element-. These juxtapositions were in essence the heart of the show which explored the Soviet Union as constructed space. This ”location” then functions as a backdrop to present-day national identity and urban design emerges in the portrait of a “post-Soviet” society with its own futuristic ideas as well as in the lingering relics of Soviet intentions.

Soviet Painting in Disrepair From Eric Lusito’s “Traces of the Soviet Empire”

Power and Architecture falls on the heels of  Calvert 22’s very successful Red Africa program which examined the cultural, economic and social geography between Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and related countries during the Cold War. The Eastern European art historical and social trend of the last thirty years labelled ‘self-historicization’ –or the self-conscious effort  for Eastern European and Russian artists to articulate, archive, and collect their own history, is exercised throughout the exhibit itself designed in series of presentations directed at the problem of “historical understanding” of history. The post-Soviet city and utopian public space was used as a critical framework from which to position contemporary space, identity and the intent of the exhibiting artists. The Soviet Union has fallen, but who or how is its revising and re-examination taking place?

Part 2 which dealt with “dead spaces”, the architectural ruins of empty cities, military bases, technologial infrastructure and cavernous, open landscapes at once modern and moribund seemed to suggest that retrospective analysis of utopia could only be a well-conceived guess at what was or might have been. This Part was a sojourn into the life of Soviet artifacts both remaindered in their historical trajectory and as a convincing backdrop to a pervasive contemporary ambivalence. Danila Tkachenko’s “Restricted Areas” for instance, was a series of photographs documenting relics of the military build up of the Soviet Union only to be found on abandoned, snow-covered sites in the frozen tundra. Oversized photographs of personal ID cards from unknown persons presumably found amidst Soviet architectural rubble, large format, richly-detailed color photographs of crumbling rooms, weather-worn, orphaned Soviet-era paintings, and peeling, once colorful murals inside Soviet military bases and institutions form an historic record of obvious and shocking lack of preservation of Soviet art and architecture as Russian history. Artists participating in Dead spaces and ruins were Vahram Aghasyan, Anton Ginzburg, and Eric Lusito. 

To say that this work engaged narratives which imbue modern mythologies of “utopia” with certain ideas, or contained evidence of the self-conscious effort to bring post-Soviet identity into the picture is an understatement. ‘Utopian’ ideas’ exhibited, situated in urbanism and public space, were the self-conscious investigation of old or familiar‘ or “statist” (maybe) viewpoints on public identity and gave curious attention to questions of truth, experience, voice and historic preservation found in documentary discourse. Self-historicization was apparent in Russian artist Kirill Savchenkov’s Museum of Skateboarding, a mixed media installation, which was its own entire Part 3. Savchenkov’s piece talked about the activation of public space by young people and about skateboarding as a means through which to reflect upon the post-Soviet residential suburbs of Moscow. This work suggests how certain  architectural  interventions  or  objects contain meaning and can even be accessed differently or more significantly through subculture. It alluded to tropes in notions of “world” or global “utopia” which translate across seemingly disparate spaces and identities such as Californian and post-Soviet/Soviet Russia. Moreover, this reading of public space as accessed and interpreted by youth is a powerful concept about notions of history and who it belongs to.

Still from Ginzburg’s Hyperborea (2011)

In Part 4 (on through Oct. 9) the urban poetics of the post-Soviet city are further contextualized by looking more closely at modernity and everyday life. The afterlives of Modernity — shared values and routines. This Part concluded the exhibit with four artists, Aikaterini Gegisian, Donald Weber, Dmytrij Wulffius, and Ogino Knauss, who examine the “afterlife” of the utopian endeavor, especially the search for new national identity. This theme is provocative to be sure, given the current political contest in the Ukraine and Russia’s role in Syrian conflicts. The curators write:

Across  the  former  Soviet  Union  there  are  a  series  of  architectural  and  physical  nostalgias  connecting citizens who share the same socialist history – Part 4 of the programme reflects on these shared values and routines for citizens today.”

I asked myself the question—how does art tie societies together through processes of change? Aikaterini Gegesian’s film, “My Pink City” offers a portrait of a post-Soviet Yeravan in transition and depicts the militarisation of public space and the gendered divisions within the city. In many instances, Russian government has pushed for laws “designed to rid Ukraine’s public spaces of communist relics. Their destruction proclaims a deep desire to change the cultural narrative.” In Part 2 many documentary photographs of “dead” Soviet relics are a poignant record, and politically at odds with ideas at play in contemporary Russian national consciousness. It is a record which rightfully belongs to the Russian and Ukrainian people and which makes this show more meaningful when thought of as the struggle to preserve the past for the future.“Monumental Propaganda”, a series by Donald Weber documenting sites where Soviet monuments stood and the empty pedestals remain, speaks to exactly this. Dmytrij Wulffius’ “Traces on Concrete” is a series of photographs taken from 2009 and 2013 of his own hometown, Yalta in Crimea, which also explore its architectural landscape from the perspective of modern youth. “Re:centering Periphery: Post Socialist Triplicities” by Ogino Knauss is a fascinating examination of post-socialist history in Berlin, Belgrade, and Moscow, three cities in which modernity triggered profound utopianism towards the “radical transformation of the everyday.” The piece looks at “what is left of the architectural vision in the cities and what this legacy leaves to citizens”.  

http://www.danilatkachenko.com/projects/restricted-areas/
Submarine from Danila Tkachenko’s “Restricted Areas”.

Power and Architecture aimed at a present-day coming to terms with a particular Russian existence now broken into segments and pieces. It focused profoundly on the precarity and erasure of history which plagues 21st century thought on so many levels.The real and the fake, the true and false, the meanings of  “Soviet utopian vision” and its presence in time in architectural and artistic form. Without quite melding together as what that vision was in the political sense, the show formed a quasi-science fictional narrative and interpretation; a history of place, both real and imagined; promised and denied.

Central to the visual collection and comprehension of these ideas was, curiously, the strategy of the archive where the act of collection takes place and where the borders and edges of history are possible. By focusing upon the urban environment of the Soviet Union now past, Power and Architecture asked  us to consider ‘what modernity is” in this context. If it is machine aesthetics as James Bridle (2011) suggests, then which machines have contributed and how do we use this modern aesthetic position on technology to examine a past?  If it is the new aesthetic to be looking at old relics with a different lens, then what intellectual “spin” is constructed? For whom, how, and for what? Maybe modernity is all of these—a presence of unprecedented scale in terms of cities, and the sky and the water. How do we see this totality now? How did they see it then?

Modernity did come upon Eastern Europe and Russia, arguably in similar and dissimilar ways to how it was absorbed in the west. Power and Architecture re-examined the Soviet epoch, through what artists are seeing and thinking about what has remained. It seemed expressed as a brute emergence of a set of ideas which, because they were collective, revolutionary, technological, shaped and still shape Russian consciousness, but as a past.  How the past is preserved or ingested  is again a compelling idea on the power-struggles for “history” which take place in modern times. Power and Architecture elucidated key features of this new era of global subjectivity and societal change through creative lenses of the recent past.

1 Author Acknowledgement: Thank you to Paul Brown and Wendy Mills for sharing this exhibition.

2 Info: Power and ArchitectureCalvert 22, London UK http://calvert22.org/power-and-architecture Curated by Programme Manager Will Strong and Creative Director Ekow Eshun

3 Images: From Eric Lusito's "Traces of the Soviet Empire" Still from Anton Ginzburg's "Hyperbolea" (2001), video. Submarine from Danila Tkachenko's "Restricted Areas".

4 References: Bridle, James. (2011) The New Aesthetic: Waving at the Machines.

1 Author Acknowledgement: Thank you to Paul Brown and Wendy Mills for sharing this exhibition.

2 Info: Power and ArchitectureCalvert 22, London UK http://calvert22.org/power-and-architecture Curated by Programme Manager Will Strong and Creative Director Ekow Eshun

3 Images: From Eric Lusito's "Traces of the Soviet Empire" Still from Anton Ginzburg's "Hyperbolea" (2001), video. Submarine from Danila Tkachenko's "Restricted Areas".

4 References: Bridle, James. (2011) The New Aesthetic: Waving at the Machines.