On a day last week, just which day I no longer remember, but it was a rainy day, to be sure, and cold -- I was bundled in a scarf, and Briullov had on his woolen cap, and Joyce’s ghost is dictating that I should put in another hyphen right about here – we set off to see part of the 3rd Moscow Biennale, located on the grounds of Winzavod [Soviet term – “wine factory” from vino and zavod. The acronym and the shortening were the word-coining tools of the era: NARKOMTIAZhPROM is probably my favorite].
If you can navigate through to the correct section, Briullov talks about most of the stuff we saw at his website, if you’re inclined to see.
I’m just going to talk about one exhibit, although it is the only exhibit at Winzavod to be featured in the popular arts journal Afisha as one of the top five exhibits in the city right now. Ladies and not-ladies, may I present Aleksandr Brodsky’s “The Night Before The Attack” [ «Ночь перед выступлением» Александра Бродского]
This gallery is located in the old wine cellar, deep underground, and the descent builds into the suspense of anticipation. The stairwell treads go round, those entering the gallery go down, until finally, on the bottom landing, one enters a large hall, lit only in part by bright fluorescent lights. There are a few tents of a see-through fabric, small sculptures huddled within, and circular “campfire” units whir within the depths.
No matter which route one takes, the light quickly dissolves into omnipresent and omnipotent darkness. The height of the walls is just barely seen in the gloom; reflective tape marks uneven ground that would otherwise be unseeable. All is darkness, except for the timid light of green and orange and yellow of the statues’ campfires.
In the words of the exhibit description available, Brodsky wanted to emphasize his favorite and most important themes (he is a famous artist and architect; he has work simultaneously on display at the Tretiakovsky Gallery, etc…):
the instable balance between comfort and entropy, the blurry boundary between the concept of a building and its physical form.In this he surely succeeded; to enter and to examine the exhibit is to participate in it. One immediately begins to feel a deep, emotional understanding – perhaps never fully articulated – a dialectic of attack-umbrage, power-weakness, knowledge-fear. At certain points throughout the black abyss one can climb onto a viewing platform and pretend to be as Napoleon over the camp, Kutuzov before Paris. The more time spent in the darkness, the longer and harder the glances at the little soldiers in their tents – surely that one didn’t just move? Has a one shown the signs of being unsettled, as the viewers have themselves become?
Those statues are mass-produced, huddled forms, abstract – garden gnome variants on the Chinese terracotta army – and looking over them I wondered if they were meant to be fokusy for a magic trick, or if the association with their Chinese cousins was accidental – were the soldiers of a Russian army or an invading force? Is the feeling of foreboding within the deep that of a soldier before the bombs’ shrieking, or of the villager before the slaughter?
I can’t answer that. I can only pose more questions. Why do those things that seem to be “the best” at evoking an emotional response, those that are winning competitions (like Ukraine’s Got Talent) and are lauded as the exhibits to see around town (like this) all return to the question of war, to total war, to the undeniable presentiment that everything is going to be destroyed?
It’s a question to continue to ponder, even in my own work, because the architecture of post-war Stalinism was meant to uplift the soul. Prof F., I recall, once mused: “It seems all of the nations most greatly affected by the war, including the Germans, and the Russians, and the Japanese, returned to the deepest communal memories and traditions to deal with their grief.” Post-war architecture returned to the Deep Architecture of folk and popular history, and would catapult the Soviet survivors of the war out of the darkness, into the svetloe budushchee.
Did that return to folk architecture fail so horribly that what I’m witnessing, this preoccupation with war and destruction (I touch upon another source in an upcoming review of the 2008 Russky-Buker Award-Winning Novel, Bibliotekar’), is all an extension of the fear remaining from World War II? It doesn’t seem that it could be from the Cold War; after all, in that conflict there were at least two sides, and I don’t imagine the American populace as scared of a fabled Soviet doomsday device in Siberia as the Russians were petrified of Bush’s ridiculous strategy of Czech missiles directed over Moscow skies.
What is keeping the threat of imminent and total destruction so present in creative Russians’ minds? Why has total war and total victimization trumped all other mode of artistic expression? Is it possible to tell a narrative without returning to that war? How can one move past it? “Never forgive, never forget” – but always to remember, without interruption, is neither healthy nor behooving.