WRO Art Center

Maria Gonchar asks

Dear Ben and Bruce,
I formulated my screening questions at WRO ART Center in written form.
Mussolini-Obelisk is still situated in the center of Foro Italico / Foro Mussolini in Rome and even was restored recently. Engelbert Dollfuss, one of the leaders of Austrofascism, has a very groomed grave in the Hietzing cemetery in Vienna. During the Ukrainian independence I have witnessed the process of restoration of monuments which was destroyed or was victims of October revolution’s iconoclasm, as for example “Catherine the Great and her companions – De Ribas, De Volan, Potemkin, Zubov” monument in Odessa, and these companions are an example of monstrous embezzlement during the Russian Empire, as well as Catherine the Great was also not so kind to Ukrainian people. Why the issue of soviet monuments and the issue of their presence in public space are still in big interest of western intelligentsia? In our post-soviet city perception soviet monuments don’t have inner power or inner energy at all, and only the external interventions or actions of vandalism sometimes animate the forgotten meanings. Is it only the question of “exotism” which can be brought to the countries with advanced economies, the “exotism” in the meaning of the Age of Discovery? These questions and this partial comparative example of the controversial historical figure’s monuments in public space I asked during the screening “Difference Screen” in Wro Art Center, Wroclaw, Poland, and I still try to find the answers.

Kind regards,

hi Maria its good to have your ‘screening questions in written form’ as I couldn’t hear what you were saying at WRO.

Several of the films shown by Difference Screen at WRO explore subjects relating to East Europe, the former Soviet Union, or further afield as in A Drone Wrapped up in Flying Carpets (2012) by Riaz Mehmood set in Afghanistan.

Two films in the roster include monuments: Lenine en pensant 2005 Sophie Nys (Belgium) and Hollywood 2004/2013 Daniel Brefin (Switzerland). Lenine en pensant is set in Ulan Ude, Siberia now a part of the Russian Federation. Hollywood was filmed in Kutaisi, Georgia after the country had seceded from the Soviet Union but before fast changing developments in the 21st century. Hollywood screened at WRO.

Maria Gonchar asks ‘Why the issue of soviet monuments and the issue of their presence in public space are still in big interest of western intelligentsia?’ an unexpected and stimulating question.

My immediate thought is the history they embody. Rather than consciously exploring the exotic I feel artists from different countries have often recorded their views and responses to places and events at specific times. Or, as with A Drone Wrapped up in Flying Carpets created a scenario appropriate to a time. There are many approaches in technique and subject.

Stalin’s statue is one of several elements in Hollywood, which set the context of the film. Many of these elements, including the statue and various slogans, have subsequently been removed in a massive makeover of parts of the city during Mikhail Sakaashvili’s term as president of Georgia.

Writing about his film Daniel Brefin considers the context and location of a former outdoor cinema with the recorded thoughts of passers by

“Kutaissi, a city in West Georgia, 13 years after the end of the Soviet period. The territory of a former open air cinema has been transformed into a church, the projection screen is still visible – a picture carrier that lost its pictures. Some are happy about the Lord’s house, others regret the loss of the cinema or wonder about the Stalin statue that was erected by a donator some years ago.
By the means of cinematically animated photography and interviews with passers-by, the film attempts to transmit an atmosphere of a certain ieu and to allow an approach to the dreams, hopes and fears of the local people.”

Interviews provide the narrative of the film. In one a Georgian man observes ‘Here is the monument to Stalin who was acknowledged as a genius. Behind it the toilet, beside it the church… Can someone tell me what this combination means? What can you call something like that?’

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 16.10.00
Hollywood Daniel Brefin

In another a woman says ‘I am a mother and an icon painter. You have already met my children. When they come to church they learn many good things: not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery. When I go out and leave my children at home I know that my nine year old daughter will turn on the television and see sex, murder and so on. You need television even less than the cinema. They are both the same. God will save man, not the cinema’.

Daniel Brefin’s film succeeds through the minutiae of conversation concerning the scene, the statue and the cinema.

The views expressed are those of ordinary Georgians after a difficult decade of post Soviet change. Ironically, in the opening conversation a cobbler says ‘I work here but I don’t make enough to support the family. Times were better with a cinema here. People would pass by on their way to the movies. There is no electricity here. For two or three months I haven’t had any electricity.’

In Lenine en pensant Sophie Nys documented the V.I. Lenin monument in Ulan Ude, Siberia. The monument is notable for being one of the largest heads ever made. Sophie had previously travelled through parts of the former Soviet Union and was drawn by the enormity of the head. As I remember in conversation with Sophie she had no clear outcome of how she might use the film footage taken on encountering the statue. To conjure Lenin’s thoughts she subsequently used fragments of a documented conversation between Lenin and Clara Zetkin considering the position of women in the communist regime. The film ends with the postscript “At Clara Zetkin’s urging Lenin established International Women’s Day as a holiday in 1922.”

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 16.27.16
Lenine en pensant Sophie Nys

In my travels through some former USSR countries in recent years I’ve noticed how the Soviet impact can still be felt. The name Ulan Ude means Red Ude. Ulaanbaatar the capital of Mongolia is not far away. I was there last year and discovered Ulaanbaatar is also a Soviet era name meaning Red Hero. Both names reflect the Soviet Union’s Communist ideology. It’s unclear to me why Mongolia continues with this name after the crimes, murders and devastation committed by the Soviet regime against Buddhist lamas, monks and monasteries. Ulaanbaatar was previously known internationally as Urga (Residence), surely a more suitable name for post Soviet Mongolia to return to.

Lenin and Stalin were huge figures of the 20th century. Icons of their time, they are now fragments of history. Once ever present, many of their statues have been removed or broken up since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Monuments to public figures and others signifying cultural values are often among the first to be destroyed when nations are at war or ideologies clash. In 330 BC Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis the city of Persians and the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

After Indian independence former statues of important public figures from the British Raj were taken down to be replaced by national heroes.

Maria Gonchar writes ‘In our post-soviet city perception soviet monuments don’t have inner power or inner energy at all, and only the external interventions or actions of vandalism sometimes animate the forgotten meanings.’

In England most public statues and monuments have become largely invisible over time. War memorials are the exception with annual days of remembrance. One monument did re-emerge briefly. In his work Villa Victoria at the Liverpool Biennial 2002 Tatsuro Bashi reanimated the monument to Queen Victoria in Derby Square by constructing a fully furnished and functioning hotel room and reception around the statue refocusing the forgotten monument and distant queen.


Villa Victoria Tatsuro Bashi

An unforgettable, Alice in Wonderland experience for those who were there.

Another iconic, huge and popular commemorative sculpture is Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North located at Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, NE England. Antony Gormley has written “The angel has three functions – firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears – a sculpture is an evolving thing.”


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