Tag Archives: communist legacy

Engineers of the Soul (New York City)

Инженеры человеческих душ

October 23 – December 4, 2010

Postmasters Gallery
459 West 19th Street, NYC

Opening reception: Saturday, October 23,  6-8 pm

A show about communism and artists’ relationship to power with:

Chto Delat? (What is to be Done?)
Yevgeniy Fiks
Rainer Ganahl
Lu Xiangyou
Yuri Shalamoff
Wang Jianwei

This time it’s personal.

For better or worse Tamas Banovich and I are children of Communism, having grown up in Hungary and Poland respectively. We have always wanted to organize an exhibition that brings together Communism’s past, present, and future and shows artists’ ongoing relationships to power and ideology as they negotiate the treacherous zones of propaganda and dissent.

The moment seems right. With growing political extremism at both ends of the spectrum, Communism is on our collective radar. Since the fall of the Soviet block in the early nineties, we have thought of Communism as the past, yet there are millions of people who are still living under communist regimes and many more who live with its consequences and legacies.

“Engineers of the Soul” is a cross-generational show of artists from Russia and China and a citizen of the world, Rainer Ganahl.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the emerging communist system recognized the power and usefulness of the arts to disseminate the new ideology. Lenin assigned a central role to the creative avant-garde; artists and intellectuals were granted a privileged position within the social order—as long as they obeyed, of course.

The phrase “Engineers of the Soul” was originally used by Stalin during his meeting with the Soviet writers:“The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.” (Joseph Stalin, Speech at home of Maxim Gorky, 26 October 1932). It was then taken up by Andrei Zhdanov and developed into the idea of ‘Socialist realism.’ The term is still used extensively in the People’s Republic of China to refer to the teaching profession.

the past

Two groups of historical photographs by Lu Xiangyou and Yuri Shalamoff form a symmetrical base for the exhibition. The trenches of propaganda were always located in the media (newspapers and film); photographers were deployed at the front lines of war and peace to deliver a message through their images. The photographs in the show are the real deal—rare, authentic documents, representing the leaders of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Both photographers are unique documentarists operating in close proximity to the “party elite” (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) from the era of “humanization” of the leaders.

Both Yuri Shalamoff and Lu Xiangyou were thrown into the whirlwind of history at a young age. Yuri, a teenage veteran of Second World War, started his career in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and by 1960 worked for the Soviet daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. His photographs became the public image of the leaders of the regime, symbols of the state’s power, and the official chronicle of history (or the chronicle of official history). These were modern times: successive air-brushings of out-of-favor-politicians were replaced with the daily barrage of carefully manicured information delivered via the image. Most of Shalamoff’s negatives were confiscated by the KBG when he immigrated to the US in 1974. The ones that survived are poignant documents of this time.

Lu Xiangyou, who died in 2007, was born into an illiterate peasant family in 1928. By the age of 20 he was an important war correspondent for the People’s Liberation Army and, a few years later, the photographer for the People’s Daily and Chinese News Service. He was assigned as the official photographer of Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and later Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun. The images you see in the show ARE the true representation of the times. In Mr. Lu’s pictures, the transition from the cult of personality into the era of  ‘humanized’ collective leadership is apparent, particularly in the shifting representations of Mao, Deng, and others.

the present (three versions)

Yevgeniy Fiks is deeply involved in researching communist threads present in our contemporary environment. One of communism’s achievements was to make the absurd seem normal. Every year on February 16, the birthday of the “Dear Leader” of North Korea Kim Jong Il, there is a “Kimjongilia Festival” dedicated to a specially bred red begonia that flowers on this important day. According to North Korean sources, the flower symbolizes wisdom, love, justice, and peace. Fiks’s series of paintings of Kimjongilia celebrate the flower itself to focus attention on the extreme manifestations of the personal cult.

Addressing the repression of the history of the Left, Fiks will present a one time lecture/performance “Communist Tour of MoMA (the off-site lecture)” at Postmasters on November 20, at 6.30 pm. Yevgeniy will guide us through the revered temple of bourgeois art and paint the rooms pink. Fiks augments the MoMA tour-map with a layer revealing a historical aspect not usually represented on museum tours: the influence of Marxist ideology on progressive artists of the early twentieth century and their communist affiliations. Does it change our view of these works? Should it?

Wang Jianwei is a conceptual and performance artist known for his large-scale multimedia installations and videos. Wang’s recent project, “Hostage,” plugs into contemporary Chinese reality with a grand staged spectacle rooted in Chinese SocReal opera. In the choreographed, almost silent performance, the video unfolds a story of harmonious, isolated community – a perfect mechanism suddenly being shaken and destroyed by progress. We don’t know where it will end or what will replace it – the question is not answered. The camera alternately surveils the “walled” community and acts as the eye of a narrator/referee intent not to miss the nuances of the action.

“The Tower: a Songspiel” is the latest in a series of ‘”songspiels” — Brechtian musical theater video projects — by Chto Delat? (What is to be Done?), an artists collective based in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The singing video performance – a sort of “spectacle of the people for the people” — wrestles with the reality of contemporary, post-communist Russia. It tells the story of a bitter wrangling over the energy giant Gasprom’s plan to build a skyscraper into the otherwise carefully managed horizontal cityscape of St. Petersburg. The actors representing the powerful—the businessman, the Mafioso, the politician, the orthodox priest, the art dealer, and the favorite artist—are in a dialogue with the choir of ordinary people. Meant to be a straightforward, painfully accurate representation of the contemporary Russian condition, it sometimes sounds surprisingly familiar to, say, our Ground Zero saga? The script is based on research into public documents and media material about the actual ongoing debate.

the future

The tenets of communist doctrine and Diamat (dialectic materialism) are not widely understood today. In the US, the word communism is used almost as loosely as Nazism. People’s ignorance is exploited as the word is used as an insult or to instill fear. Rainer Ganahl’s video “I hate You Karl Marx” projects the current China-phobia into the future. It is 2045, Berlin…. Berlin, China. The strangely endearing rant of a young Chinese-speaking German woman directed at a statue of Marx induces a nervous smile: you want to laugh but you don’t want to appear nervous and scared. It even makes Rainer nervous.

Enjoy the show.
Magdalena Sawon and Tamas Banovich


Postmasters Gallery, located at 459 West 19th Street between 9th Avenue and 10th Avenue, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 – 6 pm.

Please contact Magdalena Sawon or Paulina Bebecka with questions and image requests:  postmasters@thing.net


Photo credits: Yuri Shamaloff, Nikita and Castro, 1963/2010, black and white print, 20 x 24.5 inches; Lu Xiangyou, Deng Xiaoping swimming in Dalian Bangzhui Island, 1983/2006, color photograph, 20 x 24 inches; Yevgeniy Fiks, Kimjonlilias a.k.a. “Flower Paintings” no.6, 2008, oil on canvas, 48x 48 inches; Rainer Ganahl, I Hate Karl Marx, 2010, video, 5 min 43 sec, video still.

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Communisms’ Afterlives (Brussels)

Saturday, 13 February 2010, 15:00 – 18:00
Av. Van Volxemlaan 354, Brussels


Yevgeniy Fiks, Song of Russia no. 17, 2005-2007. Oil on canvas, 36 x 48″

A conference curated by Elena Sorokina and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez for The Public School. With contributions from Adrian Rifkin, Marko Stamenkovic, Oxana Timofeeva, Grant Watson.

Through a series of polemic dialogues, we would like to trace different generations of intellectuals (artists, curators, philosophers, art historians) from the former East and West of Europe that deal with “shades of red,” the afterlives of Communism and its (un)expected turning points in its most recent philosophical and artistic reception following the financial and, more generally, post-Fordist crisis.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, communism as idea, image or problem has been regarded as “outmoded, absurd, deplorable or criminal, depending on the case.” Today, it is often presented by the mainstream media as a parenthesis of history, an aberration of the 20th century, as “a completely forgotten word, only to be identified with a lost experience.” Although the communist hypotheses of previous eras may no longer be valid, their histories, narratives and key notions have never ceased to spark attention and inform recent discussions such as the communal versus the common, and material versus immaterial property, to name just a few. Perceived from a greater distance today, communism has re-emerged as a topic for investigation in artistic and exhibition production, that reflects it in diverse ways, addressing the relevance of the term today or inviting provocative comparisons with the present.

This seminar aims at presenting various works that recast ideas related to communism and revisit it as a complex and diverse arena of political and aesthetic attitudes, which varied between nations, communities and historical periods. By no means does the seminar intends to take a nostalgic tour through the past decades, but rather seeks to address the topic through concrete art and exhibition projects realized recently. All of them are trying to deconstruct the idea of monolith, still very present in today’s reception, and to recuperate various episodes, stories and notably, the “communist apocrypha” — texts, music, visual production — which have never been part of the established ideological canon, and whose intellectual patterns shed new light on what the contemporary uses of the notion of communism might be. Instead of treating communism as pure political abstraction, the projects presented by the seminar deal with concepts, events and/or particular personalities related to communism and its history which have survived the Bildersturm of the recent past and can be artistically reactivated.

The conference is part of The Public School Brussels, a permanent project by the curatorial collective Komplot.

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