The University Record, November 9, 1992

Russian artists suggest alternative uses for political monuments

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

A neon sign above Lenin’s tomb could flash useful information bulletins for Russian citizens, as well as brighten up the monument. Miniature sculptures of the leader of the Russian revolution lend themselves to household uses, such as candleholders, to serve “an enlightened people.”

Russian emigre artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid proposed such “practical uses of ideology” in their Oct. 30 lecture, “What Is to be Done with Monumental Propaganda,” the concluding session of the conference “Utopian Revisions: Nationalism and Civil Society in Eastern Europe,” sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities. While other visiting scholars discussed the effect communism’s fall had on societies, Komar and Melamid focused on the fate of the many marble and granite heroes erected by Soviet regimes.

The former Soviet government complimented this “witty and dangerous duo” by destroying some of their work, noted James A. Winn, director of the Institute. Now American citizens, the artists have exhibited their work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum.

Under the guise of concerned art historians, Komar and Melamid applied broad strokes of satire to the somber subjects of political and artistic oppression. Illustrating their lecture with “official government slides,” the artists/comics discussed a sampling of the massive statues that were supposed to command awed respect from the Soviet citizenry.

“The Russian people work history like sculptors work their glaze,” Komar said. “We grew up surrounded by these figures. Every bank and railroad station had a bust of Stalin or Lenin or Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Secret Police.”

The slides showed the omnipresence of these images throughout Russia and the many official motifs favored by Russian leaders. One slide showed a statue of Lenin, his coat billowing “as he faces the winds of history,” commented Komar. “In this one, he is taking off his coat. . . here, we have Lenin the dreamer. . . Lenin is a planet in the solar system. Notice that his head is larger than the Earth.”

Next to communist heroes, large defense equipment was the favorite monument subject of Soviet leaders. “Notice that most of the tanks in these slides are numbered, but never past three,” said Melamid. “Any number larger than three was secret.”

Melamid drew the audience’s attention to characteristics that distinguished the official government slides from their own. “The government slides all turn pink,” he said. (In fact, they did have a pinkish tinge.) The artists also pointed to happy-looking citizens looking reverently up at the statues. “This is the Soviet version of McDonald’s advertising,” Komar said.

But the dismantling of communism has negated the relevance of these “fantastic and strange” symbols of Soviet power. The artists expressed dismay at the inglorious destruction of these treasures “not as the Russian troops demolished Nazi monuments, but with professional hands, working within the bureaucratic order.”

The monuments should be preserved as a history lesson, “to remind people what communism really was,” Komar said. To that end, the artists invited proposals—written or sketched—for preserving Soviet monuments by finding practical uses for them.

The artists offered a few of their own inspirations. A neon sign for Lenin’s tomb has limitless possibilities, Komar said, such as displaying weather reports, commercials or even poetry. An even more ambitious scheme would ship Stalin’s body to a New York discotheque, to be surrounded by flashing lights as an object of celebration. Komar foresees no difficulty in obtaining the body “since it is supposed to belong to the people.”

Komar and Melamid guaranteed, tongue-in-cheek, that all such proposals would be displayed in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow. To facilitate the effort, Winn agreed to accept proposals at the Institute for the Humanities and forward them to the artists.