This year’s Biennale (2015) came together under the title All the World’s Futures, a title which could well have included almost anything without a problem. But the work that most attracted my attention was not about a ‘future future’, but about a future that has already passed: the future of the world as communist. I probably considered myself communist when I was young, without having much understanding of what that meant. I had not read Marx, but I didn’t think I needed to. For me, ‘being communist’ was more of a warm rebellious sentiment, fuelled by a disquiet over Western capitalist societies, imperialism, the Vietnam War and the ubiquitous men-in-suits. That wasn’t an uncommon position. The great failed experiment of the 20th century may now be over, but its effects continue to be felt in the lives of the millions who lived it.
The works that take us back there are An Archaeologist’s Collection by Russian Grisha Bruskin, an installation in a disused church in Cannaregio; and Museum, the work of Lithuanian, Dainius Liškevičius, in the Lithuanian Pavilion in Palazzo Zenobio in Dorsoduro. An archaeological site and a museum: communism as the distant past.
The garden of the Palazzo Zenobio is one of the quietest places in Venice. Whenever I go there, it is usually empty. On this occasion there is no-one in the garden and no visitors to the Lithuanian Pavilion. Inside, two men are immersed in a discussion about art: an American professor and, (I am guessing), a young Lithuanian artist. They are speaking in English, but I don’t listen to them, and they take no notice of me.
In Museum, Dainius Liškevičius has assembled a collection of diverse pieces: a large painting, a short film, videos and drawings in cartoon style, juxtaposed with everyday objects from the Soviet period. Together, they create a ‘museum’ that is both historical and personal. The individual experience and society: ‘autobiographical narratives merge with collective memory in a history loop’.
In part, Museum is dedicated to certain Lithuanians who protested against Soviet Occupation, in particular Bronius Miagis, who in 1985 destroyed Rembrandt’s Danaë in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad with a knife and a bottle of sulphuric acid. Liškevičius re-reads and rehabilitates this act of Miagis, deeming it not an act of vandalism, but an act of protest, an important moment in Lithuanian collective memory of Soviet Occupation.
There is an obvious contrast between the autobiographical narratives and the personal objects — that are human and sentimental — and the photos and models of Soviet housing blocks, that are at once banal and oppressive. I am attracted by the simplicity of Liškevičius’ personal items but also fascinated by the images of the period, the Soviet housing, the signs, the everyday objects. They allow me to imagine being part of that society, to imagine the anguish of that everyday living.
Back out in the garden of Palazzo Zenobio, there are visitors arriving, but they don’t remain long. I pull out my journal and begin to write…the contrast between the tranquility of the garden and the history inside. Bertolt Brecht, himself a Marxist, once wrote that the way to defeat tyranny is to outlive it. But I have to ask: how many outlive tyranny? And what does it mean ‘to outlive’ something? Do you outlive the effects?
The church of Santa Caterina, now disused and stripped of all ornament, lies on a tranquil canal in Cannaregio, a few steps from the Campo dei Gesuiti. Grisha Bruskin’s An Archaeologist’s Collection consists of sculptures that appear to be from antiquity. They are broken, weathered away, some in scattered pieces. The sculptures are installed on a huge bed of sand, walkways cross the site, and the lighting is so dim, that it takes some minutes for the eyes to adjust to see anything at all. It is, for all the world, an archaeological site, except that the objects are not from antiquity but are ‘antiquities’ from the former Soviet Union. Figures of the Soviet soldier, courageous and incorruptible, and the young Soviet woman, beautiful, strong and proud. Now, they have weathered away, they are lying in pieces. At either end of the church, silent videos show pages of Das Kapital in different languages. Arabic, Portuguese, Vietnamese: this was an ideology ‘for everyone’.
Foto: Luigi Penello
The first time I visited the site, I walked through the installation completely alone. The effect on me was physical. It was like I was discovering the truth of a dark moment in history, a moment, that before, I had understood only superficially. It was totally disconcerting.
Past but not past. An attempt by the artist to put the experience of Soviet society into the distant past? The observation of how quickly and totally the Soviet Union had collapsed? A reminder that the experience of Soviet society will always be part of European history? All of these and more. For me, this art speaks of the tyranny of ideology, the tyranny of idealism, something we have always had to live with.
This is not the first time I have been so drawn to art from former Soviet Bloc countries, particularly art that deals with the experience of living in a communist society. In part, I am (grimly?) fascinated by this period, because it is so far from my own experience. But there’s also this: so many works in the Biennale purport to deal with ‘the big questions’, but in most cases the artists are not speaking from experience. Their understanding comes across as abstracted, removed, ‘academic’ almost. They seem curiously untouched by the subject of their own work. Standing in front of their works, I remain untouched, too.
An Archaeologist’s Collection had already been exhibited in various galleries around the world before its installation for the Venice Biennale.