If a tree falls in a forest and everyone is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This inversion of a well-known philosophical question about the perception of reality warrants consideration in light of recent events in eastern Europe. In Ukraine, there was a steady demolition of monuments to Vladimir Lenin since December 2013, when protests against former president Viktor Yanukovich reached a peak. Over the course of 2014, many of the Lenins fell in broad daylight in front of crowds bearing witness. Their demise was captured in countless photographs, videos and articles published worldwide. This Leninopad, or falling of Lenin, even reached Russia, where a statue of Lenin was desecrated in Volgograd on 27 October 2014. The Leninopad phenomenon is diligently catalogued online at Lenin Statues, a website that includes a long but not exclusive list of Lenins erected within and outside the former Soviet Union, as well as a detailed map charting the recent fallings in Ukraine. This website documents a monument that is also a type of memorial itself — commemorating not only the life and legacy of Lenin but also the dreams and realities of communism.
The destruction of monuments is not a radical gesture but a necessary part of the ebb and flow of history
The Leninopad must be viewed within the larger context of public memory markers, specifically within eastern Europe, as they provide a powerful means of rewriting the region’s already fragile historical narratives. However, the destruction of monuments is not a radical gesture but a necessary part of the ebb and flow of history. Monuments provide only a false sense of historical closure because, as Kirk Savage, an art historian specialising in the visual manifestations of public remembrance, says: “The world around a monument is never fixed.” Our world is constantly changing, and so too should our monuments.
Monument to Cold War Victory and The Lenin Museum, two recent exhibitions in New York City, address this issue. By manipulating the monument as a form, the works exhibited highlight previously untold, ignored, suppressed and unrecognised narratives that are crucial to gaining a better and more thorough understanding of Russia and the region today.
For one month in October 2014, Monument to Cold War Victory was open at 41 Cooper Gallery, part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art located in the East Village or Little Ukraine neighborhood of New York City. Yevgeniy Fiks and Stamatina Gregory organised the exhibition in their capacity as The Committee for Tacit History, a global curatorial think tank.
The exhibition realised an international open call for proposals to build a public monument to the Cold War anywhere in the United States
The exhibition realised a conceptual project which begun in November 2012 with an international open call for proposals to build a public monument to the Cold War anywhere within the United States without any budgetary or space restrictions. Fiks and Gregory were drawn to the idea because the prospect of a monument to a war that some claim has yet to end is highly contested and almost all previous efforts to erect such a monument in the United States have failed. The result of their efforts was very successful, as the works of 17 finalists chosen out of 200 submissions by a jury, including Susan Buck-Morss, Boris Groys, Vitaly Komar, Viktor Misiano and Nato Thompson, were exhibited in Monument to Cold War Victory.
Many of the works on view were naturally maquettes or plans for larger works to be realised at an unspecified time in the future. The miniature figures of the Camel Collective’s Cold War Vet Parade were a veritable Facebook of recognisable historical personages. While one easily identified Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev, or Laika the space dog, it was the plethora of anonymous faces of soldiers, victims and protestors that were striking and intriguing, as this work attempted to give voice to the voiceless. The parade also reconceptualised the form of the traditional static three-dimensional monument by turning it into a temporary performative action, a parade that would take place annually in Norfolk, Virginia and San Diego, California, two important military cities in the United States.
In A Monument to the Cold War (15 CPW), Aziz + Cucher envisioned a true-to-scale floor plan of the palatial apartment of Ekaterina Rybolovleva, daughter of Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, indented into New York’s Central Park. For the artists, this apartment, which Rybolovleva bought for $88m in 2012, is a symbol of a certain kind of Cold War victory seen in the outpouring of Russian money onto the open market since 1991. The brothers Dolsy and Kant Smith presented more than just a mockup in their The Clandestine Reading Room, which was dedicated to the history of state surveillance during the Cold War. The room functioned as an extension of the gallery as it was equipped with a computer, a library, informational panels, a projector and space for small lectures.
A mock-up for a new monument was in the form of a boat carrying Joseph Stalin, Henry Kissinger and Harry S. Truman
The most memorable works from the exhibition were the monuments that took on more traditional forms, because they reworked the representations and meanings of symbols from our shared historical vocabularies. Lisi Raskin presented a mock-up for a new monument entitled Untitled (Henry Kissinger is the Skipper), which was in the form of a boat carrying Joseph Stalin, Henry Kissinger and Harry S. Truman, three of the masterminds behind the Cold War and its propoganda. In its form, a proposal like Dread Scott’s Monumental Monument to Cold War Victory seemed to be the most realisable and adaptable to our own time. This neoclassical building engraved with the names of proxy wars fought between 1947 and 1991 could play host to a number of other conflicts fought or in progress over the recent years.
As ritual goes hand-in-hand with remembrance, and monuments along with memorials are often the centrepieces of ritualistic acts, the works in Monument to Cold War Victory proposed to change not only the landscape of our cultural heritage but also the routines of memory. How we remember and how we can change what is remembered was also the subject of Yevgeniy Fiks’ The Lenin Museum, a solo exhibition curated by Katherine Carl which ran from 20 November 2014 to 17 January 2015 at The James Gallery at The Graduate Center, City University of New York in Midtown Manhattan.
The exhibition addressed the spectre of Lenin as manifested in the Central Lenin Museum, which is today’s Moscow City Hall on Red Square, and other local sites. These buildings, squares, park benches, statues, and street corners were the subjects of yet another one of Fiks’ conceptual projects. He publicly christened these Pleshki Revolyutsii [Unofficial hangout spots of the revolution] as long, unspoken landmarks to gay cruising in a series of large, loosely-rendered paintings parroting the official style of Socialist Realism. Standing at the centre of the gallery were two life-size toilet stalls with a photograph of the former museum plastered across their doors. This work, Untitled (The Lenin Museum), commanded the viewer’s attention, inviting her to step inside, take a look around, and feel what it might have been like to live one’s life behind closed doors in a time and place where homosexuality, among other orientations and proclivities, was outlawed and punishable.
All of the works in this exhibition forced the viewer to think twice about the everyday and reminded her to take nothing seen for granted. As effortlessly as Fiks gave monumental status to a banal toilet stall, he was able to humanise a monument as in the work Memorial Plaques, a series of eleven 60x30cm polished white marble slabs crudely etched with barely visible text. This work shared with the viewer excerpts from the intimate confessions that could be found inside bathroom stalls or in dark corners around Moscow.
The works in The Lenin Museum re-engaged with the original promise of the communist cause
Fiks did not present these works to sensationalise or exceptionalise the history of homosexuality in the former Soviet Union, but used them to recuperate this history in the form of what art historian Sergiusz Michalski calls “counter-monuments”, which “register protest or disagreement with an untenable prime object” and “set a process of reflection in motion”. The works in The Lenin Museum critically re-engaged with the original promise of the communist cause — embodied in more than just Lenin’s decriminalisation of homosexuality after the 1917 Revolution — in honour of the many lives that have been lost or compromised in the face of injustice in and beyond Russia to this day.
On one hand, both Monument to Cold War Victory and The Lenin Museum called upon the viewer to suspend belief, as most, if not all, of these unsanctioned monuments will remain unrealised in the public space. On the other hand, the presentation of these works within the context of the museum or gallery should not go unnoticed, as it is in this sacred space that objects are preserved to serve as memories for future generations. It was the ancient Greek statesman Pericles who said that many unwritten yet veritable memorials are “graven not on stone but in the hearts of men” — infinite in number yet just as vital to our contemporary collective consciousness. It is through the works in these recent exhibitions, which meditated on the meaning and function of monuments today, that we learn to appreciate how something can be remembered in its absence as much as it is in its presence.