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Installation view of Irena Haiduk: REMASTER (2020) at Swiss Institute, New York (all photos by Anna Shteynshleyger, courtesy of Swiss Institute, unless otherwise stated)

In Stalinist Russia, the government perceived imagination as a dangerous tool for change that should be stifled among the general population. Writers with the greatest capacity to portray alternative realities were therefore censored the harshest. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) was one such writer. His plays were banned by Stalin and his life’s work, the novel Master and Margarita (1928–40), remained unpublished until long after his death. The Serbian-born artist Irena Haiduk has been reading and re-reading Master and Margarita since she was 13 years old, and it’s at the center of her exhibition REMASTER at the Swiss Institute.

The artist’s first institutional exhibition in New York, REMASTER continues Haiduk’s ongoing deconstruction of Bulgakov’s novel, begun in 2008. According to the press release, Haiduk’s exhibitions have doubled as film sets for different scenes from Master and Margarita since 2008, and several recordings and events take place during the run of the show.

Installation view of Irena Haiduk: REMASTER (2020) at Swiss Institute, New York

Installation view of Irena Haiduk: REMASTER (2020) at Swiss Institute, New York

At the Swiss Institute, two spaces from the novel are reconstructed. On the ground floor, one finds the Variety Theater, the set for a notorious decapitation in Bulgakov’s story. Haiduk creates an immersive space with an eerie atmosphere; the dim light slowly changes colors, as the slight movement of sheer white curtains implies an invisible presence. A sound piece plays in the background, an aural collage of cacophonous procession music, an audience cheering on the decapitation, and a cat purring. The latter points to the novel’s devil-like protagonist, Woland, who had a cat as his assistant.

Recreated on the second level is Apartment 50, a fictional location based on Bulgakov’s actual residence. This darkened room is filled with mirrors reflecting hues of purple and blue. In the corner, a reclining figure is fully covered by a waxy black sheet, but for hands holding a book. Even upon closer inspection, it is hard to tell if the figure is inanimate or alive, making the presence all the more uncanny.

Installation view of Irena Haiduk: REMASTER (2020) at Swiss Institute, New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Manuscripts don’t burn” has become a widely quoted line from Master and Margarita. It emphasizes that you cannot censor creativity. Haiduk materializes the fictional spaces Bulgakov described, imbuing them with her own imagination and, ultimately, creating the alternative realities Bulgakov’s Russian government so feared.

Irena Haiduk: REMASTER continues through March 22 at Swiss Institute (38 St. Marks Place, Manhattan).

Ksenia M. Soboleva

Ksenia M. Soboleva is a New York based writer and art historian specializing in queer art and culture, with a particular focus on lesbian visibility.

2 replies on “An Artist Finds Inspiration in a Novel Suppressed Under Stalin”

  1. stalin’s real “crime”? “..To abolish crises it is necessary to abolish capitalism ..basis of economic crises of overproduction ..If capitalism could adapt production not to the obtaining of the utmost profit but to the systematic improvement of the material conditions of the masses ..would not be capitalism..”: http://ciml.250x.com/archive/5classics/english/stalin_crisis/stalin_16th_congress_cpusb_excerpts.html

    “..all ..obsessional anti-communism ..dedication to fighting imaginary hordes of “Stalinists” ..right-wingers ..conservatives ..centrists ..liberals ..Trotskyists ..anarchists..”: http://skeptic.ca/Parenti_Left_Right.htm

    “..What is Communism? ..liberation of the ..class in society which lives ..from the sale of its labor ..existence depends on ..the vagaries of unbridled competition..”: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Engels

    “..USSR ..rich, secure, cultured and meaningful lives ..whole country ..to serve our interests ..didn’t realize what we had until we lost it ..recommend ..Harpal Brar’s book “Perestroika, the complete collapse of revisionism”..”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV2lTkCRrfI

    “..While Stalin led the USSR, Socialism advanced and Imperialism retreated.. What Stalin means to Me..”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0lENgiob_Q

    “..What if everything you think you know about Joseph Stalin isn’t true? ..Headof the Government Committee on the Declassification of KGB Archives, talks about the way that the US airforce bombed Soviet bases in 1950 – in reaction to Stalin’s power. But they didn’t stop until their mission was complete – that is the death of Stalin..”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppnj0rZKfqQ

  2. Actually, Stalin was quite indulgent with Bulgakov and commissioned plays from him, with a surprising amount of freedom given to the author to compose his works.

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