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A Soviet-Era Kinetic Sculpture Designed to Improve Factory Life

Valdis Celms, "Positron" (1976), kinetic maquette of steel, paper, and wood (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs)
Valdis Celms, “Positron” (1976), kinetic maquette of steel, paper, and wood (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs)

The “Positron” (1976–77) by Latvian artist Valdis Celms operated a bit like a disco ball, flashing various colors of light as the goliath metal orb rotated. These patterns were intended to boost worker morale at the Ukrainian electronics factory for which it was designed, and never built. Different light programs would strobe for workdays, Sundays, holidays, and special celebrations. The idea of a better factory life through art reflected a  utopian spirit, with undercurrents of Soviet-era control.

The curious public art proposal is on view in Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. The exhibition features work from the 1960s to 80s by 20 “unofficial” Soviet Union-based artists. Many of these pieces, including the “Positron,” have rarely before been on view, if at all.

Valdis Celms, "View of Positron" (1977), ink and collaged photograph mounted on fiberboard (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs)
Valdis Celms, “View of Positron” (1977), ink and collaged photograph mounted on fiberboard (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs)

“Kinetic art is a fascinating example within the context of the Soviet Union, because it was not always valued by Soviet critics, who often relegated it to decorative art and design,” curator Ksenia Nouril, a doctoral candidate in art history at Rutgers, told Hyperallergic. “However, this actually worked for unofficial or nonconformist kinetic artists, who used the liminality of their medium to subtly subvert the Soviet regime, often taking part in official exhibitions or even commissions.”

Celms’s “Positron” is explored through one of its surviving models, which is made of a metal cage around a paper sphere, all of which is rotated by a hand crank. The object is accompanied by a collaged image of the structure in situ at the factory, and another visualizing its color patterns. It’s joined by examples of its kinetic art contemporaries, like fellow Latvian artist Jānis Borgs’s 1976 “Dynamic City,” a vision for an electrokinetic clock that would interact with a graphic mural in Riga.

Valdis Celms, "Positron" (1976), kinetic maquette of steel, paper, and wood (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs)
Valdis Celms, “Positron” (1976), kinetic maquette of steel, paper, and wood (courtesy Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia, photo by Peter Jacobs) (click to enlarge)

Both Celms and Borgs studied interior design and worked on urban development projects. While they visually celebrated the Soviet ideas of utopia, they also addressed its repressions, seeking to improve the often bleak conditions of daily life through art. Their work referenced the scientific advances of the age, including the nuclear arms race, and it is quite revealing that Celms named his sculpture after a positive electron that can emit radiation when unstable.

Prior to Dreamworlds and Catastrophes, the “Positron” materials underwent extensive conservation, with the collages cared for by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. Conservator Linda Nieuwenhuizen worked on the maquette.

“I was impressed by the ingenuity of the ‘Positron’ and how the artist constructed it, which is really phenomenal,” Nieuwenhuizen told Hyperallergic. “The mechanism is similar to a bicycle gear with a sprocket on each side that links to a chain, which is on a wheel that then allows the hemisphere to move. Both hemispheres move in tandem when one turns the hand crank. ”

It’s interesting to compare the “Positron” to work from the same era in the United States, such as the kinetic movement of light in the 1970s “Triforium” in Los Angeles (recently the subject of its own revival). While there was a certain amount of isolation for Soviet artists, there was still a global history of art and technology influencing various designs.

“In the case of Celms, his works could also be seen as early examples of environmental art, made at the same time as land art was bourgeoning in the United States and Western Europe,” Nouril stated. “However, instead of turning to nature, he turned to the urban environment.”

Celms, who is still based in Riga, never got to see if the “Positron” would really relax factory life. The visionary project, with its whirring lights and orrery-like structure, remains a fusion of art and technology in its conceptual form, a radical approach to using sculpture to impact everyday life.

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection continues through July 31 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey).

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