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Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, 2017 was a year rife with crises and controversies that cast 1917’s legacy as both strikingly familiar and impossibly remote. Alongside a rising tide of authoritarianism and Russia again donning the mantle of American adversary (with the charges led this time not by red-baiting conservatives, but by Democrats and liberal pundits seeking to remedy an election gone terribly wrong), alongside the ongoing fight for women’s rights and civil rights, for equal pay and a living wage, the twentieth century hardly seems to have come and gone, its passage marked instead by a return to its defining struggles. And yet, as communitarianism has replaced communism as the dominant ideology of the radical left, and distrust in government unites both ends of the political spectrum, the revolutionary ethos of 1917, with its rallying cry, “All power to the Soviets!” seems like a world utterly removed from our own.
Amid this turbulence, Revolution Every Day harnesses communism’s tarnished appeal—if only in the space of the museum and while also admitting its contradictions. Doing so is no easy task, and that the exhibition achieves this without lapsing into heavy-handed didacticism or nostalgia, is itself noteworthy. This is not to say that didactic or nostalgic artworks are omitted or such sentiments overlooked. On the contrary, large-scale posters by Mariia Bri-Bein, Gustav Klutsis, Valentina Kulagina, Nataliia Pinus, and many others are generally instructional in their portrayal of postrevolutionary life, while short films by Olga Chernysheva, such as March (2005) and Marmot (1999), depict anachronistic Soviet-era rituals and ephemera that betray a frustrated longing and confused eclecticism often attributed to art of the post-socialist years. Where such themes have come to be expected in an exhibition that foregrounds art’s relationship to socialism across the twentieth century, Revolution Every Day is unique in how it allows for and challenges these and other tenets—be it Soviet art’s unwavering didacticism or post-socialist art’s melancholic indeterminacy.
In the exhibition catalogue, which has no page numbers and was fashioned to resemble a daily tear-off calendar ubiquitous during the Soviet era, curators Robert Bird, Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill underscore this objective as well as their frustration with lingering stereotypes and cynicisms. As viewers of art today, “we think we know how to respond to the Russian Revolution itself, as a long and failed experiment. Revolution Every Day tinkers with this certainty.” For a show with over seventy artworks spanning five decades, the verb “tinker” is perhaps too modest. However, if one considers tinkering as akin to repairing, perfecting, or playing, the term suggests as much the exhibition’s lightheartedness, echoed in the gallery’s pastel-colored walls or the laughter of aviator Marina Raskova during outtakes of Dziga Vertov’s 1938 film The Three Heroines, as it does the show’s more somber tone, laden with consequence and potential born of the promise of revolutionary communism turned Stalinist bureaucracy and terror.
Revolution Every Day’s curatorial framing and catalogue design elicit such multifaceted accounts at almost every turn. For instance, Aleksandr Deineka’s Work, Build, and Don’t Whine! (1933) and Vera Gitsevich’s For the Park of Culture and Recreation (1932)—the former depicting a female discus thrower and the latter promoting physical fitness and leisure—are displayed alongside a text by Osip Brik satirizing the inefficiencies of these proletarian parks and mainstays of new Soviet life. Brik mocks an advertisement that claims, “for 50 kopecks everyone can get skates and skate the rink for an entire hour, 60 minutes.” “Brilliant,” he remarks, “now let’s try and skate.”
The battle at the cashier for a ticket for skates: 15 minutes.
The battle at the booth for skates: 15 minutes.
Forcing the thick laces through the skates’ tiny lace holes: 15 minutes.
The battle for checking one’s shoes: 15 minutes.
More earnestly, Kulagina’s Women Workers and Shock Workers, Strengthen the Shock Brigades (1931) captures women, liberated from the drudgery of domestic life, absorbed in challenging factory work. Excerpts from the artist’s diary, however, published at length in the catalogue, complicate such representations as they attest to inequalities between men and women and to the artist’s struggle to reconcile a coterie of personas, expectations, and desires at odds with the image of woman as liberated worker or revolutionary artist, and all too familiar to women still today.
“He [Klutsis, the artist’s husband] wants everything to be in order. . . . We need soap—there is none and I’m not good at washing. . . . He demands that good works be made for the exhibition. But once you start painting, the room gets messy and dirty. . . . I’m not working at all and I think I’m becoming such a narrow-minded, vulgar philistine. Mostly thinking about soap, laundry, and my husband; least of all about painting.”
While these and other examples certainly fit the bill, the artwork I find most striking in its capacity to challenge what the curators describe as “ready-made responses” to Soviet art is Klutsis’s Let’s Give Millions of Qualified Workers to 518 New Factories and Plants (1931). The artist’s design, depicting the advances of industrialization and the first five-year plan, is not itself exceptional. But placed perpendicular to the gallery wall, the poster’s front and back are made visible inviting viewers to examine Klutsis’s depiction of workers and factories together with the poster’s verso side, repurposed due to paper shortages into the wartime diary of the artist’s mother-in-law, Mariia Kulagina. Written years after Klutsis, a victim of Stalin’s purges, was arrested and executed, the diary is testament to scarcity, hunger, and extreme deprivation. By revealing both sides of the poster, the exhibition underscores how these contradictory accounts coexisted, with each attesting to a singular understanding of a history irreducible to either narrative alone.
Revolution Every Day thus demonstrates how the demands of October—equality, a living wage, an end to working class exploitation—galvanized artists and seemed exhilaratingly within reach, if only for a short while. And yet, within the same breath, it underscores the disconnect between such aspirations and their disastrous shortcomings in the years to come. By permitting such unresolved complexities, the exhibition avoids reducing the former to the latter and casting the political desires of artists as always already misguided in light of history’s more nefarious turns. Instead it accomplishes the simple thing that’s so difficult to do: it takes as seriously the aspirations of revolutionary art and politics as it does its consequences.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that initial reviews of Revolution Every Day sidelined how carefully it keeps this tension intact, focusing instead on its whimsical lightheartedness or expressing dismay at casting the revolution as anything but catastrophic. Doing so, I think, overlooks the exhibition’s significance by relegating its politics to quirky eccentricities or reactionary shortsightedness. By giving credence to artists’ enthusiasm for communism while also permitting their concerns and frustrations, the exhibition invites viewers to grapple with artworks, experiences, and ideas that confound hasty judgments of categorical failure or artistic naïveté. In place of such limited accounts, and at the heels of this centennial rife with disaffection, Revolution Every Day foregrounds Soviet art’s often volatile yet earnest commitment to revolutionary politics and considers whether it might still be of value today.
Rather than leaving this difficult question unanswered, artworks by Anri Sala and Cauleen Smith respond in the affirmative. In the film Intervista (1998), Sala goes to lengths to decode a video of his mother delivering a Communist Youth speech years prior, and to which the audiotape has long since gone missing. When Sala succeeds in translating her words through the work of lip-readers, his mother is first shocked by her rhetoric espousing the virtues of Marxism-Leninism. “It’s all gibberish,” she exclaims. But when asked whether she believed in communism, she concedes, “that all men would be equal without oppression or exploitation. It still has a nice ring to it. I often ask myself those same questions. Where does compromise with power and one’s self begin, and rebellion end?” In Intervista, communism’s difficult legacy and the question of one’s political vigilance remain unsettled but never foreclosed upon in much the same way as they did for artists grappling with the disappointments of Stalinism. This connection to experiences of communism in the postrevolutionary years is also central to Three Songs about Liberation (2017) by Smith, the title a direct reference to Vertov’s Three Songs about Lenin (1934/1938), also in the exhibition. Unlike Sala’s mother, Smith is less tentative about her politics and uses the film as a platform to convey stories of exploitation and oppression and to call for political action. In the film’s final moments, a character proclaims: “Speeches is alright but you might as well be asleep if you have just speeches. . . . We got to organize.”
Revolution Every Day reminds viewers that when it comes to revolutionary politics, art often occupies an impossible position as the tenacity with which it stokes the momentum and organization needed to transform society and its institutions can just as easily engender results that undercut its ambitions. If the alternative, however, is to temper such ambitions and limit what art and politics can demand in favor of mitigating undesirable outcomes, then the exhibition demonstrates that doing so should give us pause as it cedes something of value in both. At worst, it strips art and politics of its exuberance and conviction in favor of circumspection that has turned into political cynicism and scorn. If 2017 demonstrated anything, it’s that the political left’s tepid enthusiasms and hedged bets have done little to stave off the twin tides of far-right nationalism and creeping authoritarianism. In the wake of this difficult year, Revolution Every Day is testament to the value of art’s political vigilance, to the complications it yields, and to why it might be necessary once again to champion art that is unabashedly, inextricably political; art that demands revolution every day.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago