“You walk through a great city,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘Salon de 1859’, “and your eyes are drawn upwards … for in the public squares at the corners of crossroads, motionless characters, taller than those who pass by at their feet, relate to you in a silent language high legends of glory, of war, of knowledge, of suffering … The stone phantom seizes you for a few instants and orders you, in the name of the past, to think of things which are not of this world. This is the divine role of sculpture.”
Statues and monuments to the great and the good are erected at a time when their subject’s currency runs high. Yet over time their signalling power can lose strength and eventually reach a condition of inconspicuousness. Today most people barely look up and register public art and monuments. But sometimes conditions can change and disrupt the collective public gaze, and sculptures and monuments – their primary function never to signify aesthetic merit – start to signal different messages. Such themes are explored in the final exhibition of Calvert 22’s four-part Power and Architecture season, which draws to a close on 9 October.
In The afterlives of Modernity – shared values and routines four artists consider what happens to the fragments of Soviet utopian endeavour, and to the quest for new national identities. What effect do architectural and monumental structures, designed by one regime and inherited by another, have on the people who live with their legacy? Across the former Soviet Union there were thousands of architectural and physical monuments and sculptures erected to signify one thing, yet through the thickening of time they’ve accrued new and different meanings. Donald Weber’s work addresses this phenomenon by examining a very current and pressing issue: the war in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government responded to the Russian-backed invasion by implementing a series of laws designed to excise all communist relics from public spaces in Ukraine’s cities. Monumental Propaganda is a series of photographs Weber made that depict the remnants of places where numerous ‘Lenins’ once stood but have now been removed. The removal and destruction by Ukrainian governments speaks to a profound and desperate desire to re-cast history.
Weber has been living and travelling in Ukraine for the past 12 years; during the course of making these photographs, he spoke to locals and heard their stories and conflicting views. In Kurortne, Kharkovskaya Oblast, Weber met two young men, who sauntered up to him to find out what he was doing. “You’re either Ukrainian or a traitor,” they told him. Their ideological view was unambiguous: “Only Ukrainians should be allowed to live here! Fuck Lenin! He fucked our village and fucked our farms, Look around this miserable place! Who did this? Lenin!” But doesn’t the act of physically dismantling one potent symbol of an ideology, merely make room for a new one to fill its place?
In Brovakri, a small village on the shores of the Dnipro just off the main highway on the way to Kyiv, a Lenin is hiding amongst the pine trees, obscured from view. The locals do not want outsiders to know that Lenin’s still at home on his pedestal – as they’ve flagrantly contravened Ukrainian law. Weber, with his camera and kit, is confronted: “Have you come to break our Lenin? This is our history. He’s a part of who we are”! Weber eventually gets his shot of Lenin nestling in the pine trees, obscured, after an interview with the local village leader, who asks him deadpan “Are you making history?”
Weber’s images are the most interesting and provocative in the exhibition. Plinths and pedestals emptied of their charges, assume a greater potency as they become highly contested sites of politics and of history. The very urge to destroy statues paradoxically accentuates their power: a cloak of invisibility gained over decades is torn away and in its place is revealed a new message – enshrined by a conspicuous absence.
Aikaterini Gegesian’s film My Pink City attempts to address how public space is redefined through external forces such as privatisation and capitalism, and re-used through independent culture and recreation. The film, a 48-minute collage that includes black and white film and still images, offers a portrait of Yerevan adapting to a post-Soviet world and depicts the militarisation of public space and gender divisions within the city.
The two other artists in this exhibition are Dmytrij Wulffius’ and Ogino Knauss. Dmytrij Wulffius’ series, Traces on Concrete, is an exploration of the utopian architectural landscape of the post-Soviet world, but from the perspective of modern youth; the artist photographed his hometown of Yalta in Crimea over a period of years. Re:centering Periphery: Post Socialist Triplicities by Ogino Knauss documents the post-socialist backgrounds of Berlin, Belgrade and Moscow, exploring what’s left of the architectural vision in the cities and what this legacy has given to citizens.
Power and Architecture is Calvert 22’s season exploring utopian public space, running between June and October this year, and is proving to be a thoughtful and potent series of exhibitions. ___________________________________________________________________
The afterlives of Modernity, the 4th and final part of Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture series, runs until 9 October 2016 at the Calvert 22 Foundation.