Art

A Soviet Monument’s Enduring Power Over Russian Artists

Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky, "Mosfilm" (2014) (© Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov)
Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky, “Mosfilm” (2014) (© Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov, all images courtesy Moscow Manege unless indicated otherwise)

MOSCOW — The kinds of memories that our museums and monuments trigger are never about remembering the past as much as they are about imagining the future. “The Fast and the Slow” (2012), a video work by Russian artist Shifra Kazhdan featured in Worker and Kolkoz Woman. Personal Case at the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman Museum, is set in a park in Moscow where sculptures have been abandoned after being removed from city squares since the collapse of the Soviet Union, creating an accidental museum-cum-theme park. In this surreal setting lies dormant the last radical utopia of the Western world, one that culminated in the death of millions in the Gulag. In the video, Kazhdan recalls a story from 1985 in which space researchers discovered a planet full of sculptures; with the help of a time machine they found out that these sculptures were the inhabitants of the planet, but were living at a different pace. Such tales of science fiction were the most popular official literature during the Soviet Union and a cultural phenomenon that enabled a whole imaginary of the future manifested in academic science, civil engineering projects, and the space program.

Vera Mukhina's "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" atop the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman Museum in Moscow (photo by Clay Gilliland, via Wikimedia Commons)
Vera Mukhina’s “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” atop the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman Museum in Moscow (photo by Clay Gilliland, via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman Museum opened in 2010 (it’s part of Manege Moscow, an association of state museums and exhibition halls spread throughout the city) and is housed in the building at the foot of the eponymous 1937 sculpture by Vera Mukhina, one of the most prominent Soviet sculptors. Unlike the sculptures featured in Kazhdan’s video, Mukhina’s did not only survive the collapse of the USSR, but is one the greatest documents of the grand style of Soviet art, a study in the grand beginning and eventual fate of the Soviet imagination. When, in 1935, the Soviet Union was invited to participate in the Paris World Expo of 1937, the architect Boris Iofan won the bid to design the national pavilion. He envisioned it crowned with the symbol of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle. In a closed competition between established artists, Mukhina was selected and developed this 80-foot-tall sculpture, which was built and subsequently installed in Paris atop the USSR’s expo pavilion in May 1937.

The importance of “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” in the art history of modern Russia cannot be overemphasized. Mukhina took her inspiration from classical and neo-classical works, setting the tone for a whole generation of artists. Her sculpture became a de facto manifesto of Soviet art, but its influence dwindled in the 1960s with the emergence of Soviet Pop art and a whole new satirical canon. In addition to extensive archival materials, Personal Case includes a number of contemporary works that reflect the sculpture’s enduring power. The painting “Mosfilm” (2014), by the duo Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky, focuses on the pop icon of “Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman” when it became the logo of the legendary film studio Mosfilm in 1947. Framed in gold, the painting appeals satirically to the new Russian wealth. Yuri Shabelnikov and Yuri Khorovsky’s painting from the series The End (2006–07) also references the sculpture as the opening image of all movies shot at Mosfilm and its centrality to Soviet pop culture. Art Group ZIP’s miniature parody sculpture made of industrial materials, from 2013, takes a meta-historical view of the towering monument. A famous work by Alexander Kosolapov, the ironic sculpture “Mickey and Minnie” (2004), parodies “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” while addressing the internal dichotomies of competing ideologies and their durability.

Model of Boris Iofan's USSR pavilion for the 1937 World Expo (click to enlarge)
Model of Boris Iofan’s USSR pavilion for the 1937 World Expo (click to enlarge)

The exhibition documents the monument’s history in full, including in photographs by Sergey Borisov. It was transported back to Moscow in 1939 and installed at the entrance of the VDNKh center, where it now stands. “Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman” survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, but fell into a state of nearly total disrepair. After a campaign was launched it was finally dismantled for restoration in 2003 and reinstalled in 2009. Personal Case includes elements from the original armature of the monument and a clever, minimalist sound installation by Anna Shestakova commissioned especially for the exhibition. The audio piece merges industrial sounds with the welding noise heard by the workers at the welding plant, underlining the groundbreaking technological advances that realizing Mukhina’s vision required.

However, all this history this isn’t the true weight of Personal Case. The exhibition is a meticulously investigated field of theory and practice, extending across four floors and presenting works by over 20 artists alongside historical pieces by Mukhina, Iofan, and the contemporaneous sculptor, Georgy Motovilov. Curators Andrey Parshikov and Vera Trakhtenberg spent six months putting together this map of the modern and contemporary mood in Russia through the lens of one its most important sculptors, exploring along the way the fantasies of the Soviet Union, their reflections in everyday life both during and since its collapse, and the moment of transition between the grand Soviet style and the Sots art out of which contemporary art in Russia — as a resistance movement — was born.

Timur Novikov’s series Lost Ideals of Happy Childhood (2000) presents the living reality of Communism, as it was artificially recreated in summer camps for children, through documentation of the camps’ sculptures and lavish decorations set against the brutal reality of everyday socialism and its ideology. These sculptures, commissioned by the state, were largely destroyed in the post-Soviet period. Alongside and in sharp contrast to Novikov’s series, Yuri Avvakumov’s “Domino” (2008) exists in two temporalities simultaneously. It focuses on the construction of Lenin’s Mausoleum in 1924 and the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, using the metaphor of falling dominoes. Avvakumov built a model of Lenin’s Mausoleum with rhinestone-encrusted dominoes, symbolizing both memory and its impermanence, suggesting a sort of lyrical irony to the end of a lustrous empire. In such works the exhibition reflects a shift from utopia to melancholy.

Installation view with Yuri Avvakumov’s “Domino” (2008) in the foreground
Installation view of ‘The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Personal Case’ with Yuri Avvakumov’s “Domino” (2008) in the foreground

Some of Personal Case’s most interesting contemporary art is on the museum’s third floor and showcases Russia’s younger conceptual painters, like Alexandra Paperno. Her series, On the Sleeping Arrangements in the Sixth Five-Year Plan (2012), depicts the total subjugation of the self under socialism to eliminate any possible surplus of space from living quarters and, in theory, make housing more universally accessible. Paperno’s diagrams for packing more people into tiny rooms contrasts sharply with the grand proportions of monuments like Mukhina’s, in which human scale is completely broken. This disjuncture is also evident in the delicate paintings of Natalia Vitsina, which depict the icons, elements, and symbols of totalitarian art as a catalogue of objects. In Vitsina’s work you can admire the transition between different periods in Russian art, all the way to the present moment, charged with the anxieties of globalization but still largely defined by the immediacy of their immediate, post-Soviet context.

Personal Case is a very local and internally conceived exhibition that nevertheless articulates a very far-reaching question, perhaps the general question of contemporary practices: what have we done with the future? One would never think of going back into the Soviet Union to look for hope or answers about the future — totalitarian states have never known a good future — but it remains crucial to internalize different pasts and different futures, fluctuating through the possibilities of the real and now. This exhibition offers a powerful analytical model for the study of historical interruptions.

However, the show is also quite difficult to navigate, and a critical publication to accompany it and serve as a theoretical guide would have helped immensely. It is an exhibition produced for a truly local public, and it may eventually occupy a much larger place in the history of the monument and the museum — a smaller, permanent exhibition will be curated out of the current show and displayed on the first floor of the museum beginning in March. The original sculpture, on top of the museum building and perfectly renovated, remains defiant and mesmerizing. The sight of Mukhina’s work is a keen reminder that the dreams and expectations about the future — rather than memories of the past — may still animate the body politic toward a different world. But the sculpture of the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” also offers this warning: a different world does not necessarily mean a good or better one.

An element from the original structure of Vera Mukhina's "The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" (photo by Vadim Frolov)
An element from the original structure of Vera Mukhina’s “The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” (photo by Vadim Frolov)

The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Personal Case continues at the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman Museum (pr-t. Mira, 123Б, Moscow, Russia) through February 28.

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