In 2009, Eric Lusito published a book after a long journey across the former communist countries: from those that were part of the Soviet Union to Mongolia or Germany. In After the Wall: Traces of the Soviet Empire, this French photographer (Paris, 1967) transported us from the collapse of the Soviet space race to the archaic antennas of a Kazakh communication system. From old coins (nowadays without change anywhere) to now invalid passports (nowadays with no exit anywhere). All in the strictest condition of uselessness, except in their arrangement as vintage fetishes of the ancient future.
The photographer recorded statues still standing or a “positive” graffiti of Mongolian socialism. Social buildings within an inexplicable urbanism or remains of barbed wire fences already transgressed, their original function as limits of displacement erased. The monument to a Zil truck and the vestiges of nuclear shelters.
Documents of the ruins of a disproportionate epic, these photographs function as a monument to the daily epic displayed by the humans who lived under those regimes. They are visual relics of a world whose inhabitants had also been intrigued by that enemy that today engulfs them while at the same time cannot help but exhibit them.
For Western photographers, the iconographic repertoire of the former Communist Bloc has been tempting. The masses have seduced Andreas Gursky and Charlie Crane. The Stasi archives have mesmerized Dani and Geo Fuchs. The ruins of the Soviet Empire, besides attracting Lusito, led Joan Fontcuberta to the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard, where he captured the ruins of an oil concession from the Nordic country to the USSR, and of whose enclave only the ruins of its iconography remained.
All of them ascribed to the genre I have called Eastern. And all of them thrown into an archeology whose results are putting together the great display of a system that, despite being dead and buried, does not cease to resurface before us “by other means”; in particular, the aesthetic ones.
To properly organize this puzzle, it is convenient to approach such exhaustive exhibitions as My Communism: Poster Exhibition (curated by Lux Xinghua), Alexander Deineka (Manuel Fontán), Dream Factory Communism, (Boris Groys), or The Red Cavalry: (Creation and Power in Soviet Russia. 1917-1945), projected by Rosa Ferré. From the extinct German Democratic Republic, both its design and photography have been compiled, as it is collected in DDR Design and in La sociedad cerrada: Fotografía artística en la RDA entre 1949 y 1989.
Let’s stop in Madrid in 2011. In that year, and in that city, Deineka was reborn at the Fundación Juan March, while La Casa Encendida was occupied by the culture produced in the USSR between 1917 and 1945. As if that were not enough, the year began with Russia as the protagonist of the Arco Fair. The city lived under the impact of a Russian-Soviet invasion, although it was not the abrupt incursion, along the Gran Vía, of the Red Army tanks. Nor was it the corollary of Stalin’s old ambition to consummate, down the Pyrenees, the conquest of the West.
This irruption comes from culture and in particular from art, which are welcomed in centers not at all suspicious of philo-communism. Spaces which, to be more precise, belong or owe their foundation —let alone their survival— to the banks and their financial scaffolding. Temples of culture that can afford to recover the Soviet aesthetics without interrupting the course of capitalism. Or at least, if it did, it would certainly not be because Alexander Deineka welcomes you at the Fundación March, or Gorki and Tatlin and Malevich and Rodchenko and Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetáieva and Ósip Mandelstam and Vladímir Maiakovski and Boris Pasternak or Isaak Bábel at La Casa Encendida.
In both buildings, the Western viewer of this 21st century will be able to confront the stylistic explosion that gave rise to socialist realism or constructivism. And thus calibrate an art that began trying to conquer an idea of the future and ended with an iron idea of the future conquering art. That same art that today, suppressed from its original circumstance, transmits us the bucolic world of that supposed society without conflicts that glided on a carpet (a really red one) towards an Edenic future. An art now detached from the totalitarian ideology that exalted, and also destroyed, many of its creators.
The questions of its time point to ours: What mechanisms make the System need art? Why does art need the System? How is it possible that intelligent and sensitive beings could sweeten Stalin? These questions are answered, in a different way, in these exhibitions that require a critical and not at all naive look at history and utopia, power and artists.
Thus, while some citizens of the West come to unravel the mechanisms of the Soviet world in the museums of Madrid, the Soviet inhabitants follow the opposite path and leave their site in the Arctic. On the one hand, the exhibition of a past that proclaimed itself as the future. On the other, the escape from that future that is now only portrayed as the past. Like a shadow that, in its eternal return, will end up being projected over and over again on the halls of any gallery in the West.
The choice of Russia as guest country at the Arco Fair in Madrid can also be read as another step in the exorcism of an old Western terror.
“The Russians are coming!”
This was a phrase that waved, cyclically, the threat lurking behind the Iron Curtain. But today, as before the barbarians —”The barbarians are coming!”— and then the Chinese —”The Chinese are coming!”— it turns out that the Russians will not come to us for the simple reason that they are already here.
Although they have not eaten our children, nor does it seem possible that among their preoccupations is the reintroduction of communism on a planetary scale.
And although no one saw the glamorous fauna of the art world fleeing in terror at their presence. Some were running, yes, but all of them in the direction of those promising markets that today emerge in the territories of the Other Side and has become a “white knight.”
It is not that Russian KGB Capitalism lacks shocking issues —uranium, mafias, the murder of journalists— it is that none of them seems to be of sufficient importance to prevent “normality” in the reception of that Russia that is rushing to the West to apply to us, twenty years later, our dose of shock therapy protected by the Realpolitik of neoliberalism.
With all these data in hand, it is not strange that 2011 was the year chosen by the Russian and Spanish governments to announce the imminent inauguration of the Russia House in Barcelona. Nor that Oleg Dou, Boris Groys or the AES+F collective would show their work in that city.
Twenty years after the end of the USSR, and in full anguish for the salvation of an art system always eager for new money, the problem is no longer that the Russians are coming, but the uncertainty of where we Westerners will end up.
* Fragment of the chapter “The Communist Exhibition”, part of The Manifest Communist, published in 2013 by Galaxia Gutenberg and recovered by Rialta Ediciones as part of La larga marca in 2021.