poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 15, 2011

The Soviet Arts Experience in Chicago.

Filed under: Chicago,Culture: Russia — poemless @ 1:30 PM

If you have the misfortune to be following me on neither Twitter (because you know a time-suck when you see one) nor Facebook (because I’ve unfriended you), you will have missed my recent proclamation:

I am not Russian.

I’ll give you a moment to digest the news and gather yourselves.

Ready? OK.

As some of you may know, our fine city of Chicago is currently playing host to a 16-month long festival of Soviet arts. I was born in neither Russia nor Chicago, but harbor a deep appreciation for both places and devote much of this blog to their various charms and neuroses, some charms and neuroses which have over time become my own. So I would be remiss if I were not to acknowledge a Soviet arts festival being held in Chicago. Being held at my place of employment even. I had planned to actually, you know, see some of the current or upcoming exhibits before writing about them, because anyone can google and you’re all here seeking my infinite wisdom. Unfortunately my wisdom is rather finite in the realm of time-management; I am a chronic procrastinator and may very well not even make it to an Art Institute show until its last day. Or at all. Not much help writing a review of anything after the fact is there? Well, one can’t exactly have an informed opinion about something one’s not even seen (and that goes for having an informed opinion about Midnight in Paris if you walked out after the first few minutes, ahem…) So no wisdom, no reviews. Just some good ol’ пиар.


“An unprecedented collaboration showcasing works by artists of the Soviet Union
In one of the largest collaborative artistic efforts across Chicago, twenty-six of the city’s prominent arts institutions will join together in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to present The Soviet Arts Experience, a 16-month-long showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union.

From the poignant string quartets and symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich to stunning, hand-painted WWII propaganda posters, and from the grand orchestral and ballet music of Sergei Prokofiev to the political satire of Evgeny Shvarts, The Soviet Arts Experience will take patrons behind the Iron Curtain to explore its essence through the creative work of its visual artists, choreographers, composers, and dramatists.

The Soviet Arts Experience is spearheaded by the University of Chicago Presents (UCP), the University’s professional presenting organization. The Soviet Arts Experience sponsors include The University of Chicago, The University of Chicago Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Illinois Arts Council, and The Women’s Board of the University of Chicago.”

Yes, druz’ia, the institution that gave the world Milton Friedman is now celebrating Soviet propaganda. In case you were on the look out for that fourth horseman. Anyway, here’s a short list of some of the current goings on:

I. UofC SCRC: “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary: Children’s books and graphic art.”

Image from Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

“Two of the most striking manifestations of Soviet image culture were the children’s book and the poster. Both of these media testify to the alliance between experimental aesthetics and radical socialist ideology that held tenuously from the 1917 revolutions to the mid-1930s and defined the look of Soviet civilization. The children’s books and posters featured in “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” allow us to relate this new image culture to the formation of new social and cultural identities under the watchful eye of a powerful and oppressive state. They cover a crucial period, from the beginning of Stalin’s Great Breakthrough in 1928 to the re-construction and re-grouping that followed the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called World War II. As these works show vividly, there was no ideologically neutral space in the rich and vibrant world of the Soviet imagination. By the same token, though, there was no zone of Soviet life free of the image.

“Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” is drawn entirely from the collections of the University of Chicago Library. The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at the University of Chicago houses a large collection of over 400 Soviet children’s books published between 1927 and 1948, with the majority dated 1930-1935. This collection, the provenance of which is not known, is supplemented by a small but fascinating group of Soviet children’s books from 1930-1931 acquired by the Library as part of the R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company Training Department Library, where they were used in the company’s distinguished apprentice program for printers.”

That’s right. Bit of a matter that, not knowing the provenance… Never mind, it is a collection which, if not exactly rare in subject, is certainly so in volume and context. Do take a bit of time to click through the web exhibit. It’s terribly informative and downright overwhelming in its sheer number of visual materials scanned for your perusal. Some have asked, and no, I did not have a direct role in organizing this exhibit. Most of the pieces were acquired well before my arrival. And to be honest, it is not a particularly engaging topic for me. I did not even enjoy American children’s books as an American child. Not to mention that repetition is an asset when it comes to brainwashing little children, but not so much when it comes to what you have to look at for 8 hours a day. I do get a kick of the outright propagandist and defiantly optimistic style of early Soviet aesthetics, as well as the historical creepiness factor. But as a Russian professor of mine once noted, when it comes to theory based art, the theory is usually more interesting than the art. Last night as I sat looking through a friend’s collection of old Melodiia children’s records from the 1970’s I was, though enamoured both of their artifactual value and of this person’s existence in my life, not moved to listen to them or anything. … But I did learn of Russian Pinnochio, Buratino.

If you are in the area, you can check out the exhibit of Soviet Children’s books in our super snazzy new exhibition space! from August 22 – December 30, 2011 at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

If you are on campus to check out the Soviet children’s books exhibit, the Smart Museum of Art will also be presenting several exhibits as part of the Soviet Arts Experience showcase:

II. Smart Museum: “Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard.”

“This intimate exhibition offers a rare glimpse at the experimental creative processes that generated iconic Soviet propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring works by Gustav Klucis and Valentina Kulagina, it traces classic compositions from preparatory drawings and collage studies to approved designs to posters and other mass-produced print material.”

III. Smart Mueum: “Vision and Communism.”

Viktor Koretsky. Ne Boltai Collection. Image from Smart Museum of Art.

“In captivating images of survival and suffering, the postwar artist and designer Viktor Koretsky (1909–1998) articulated a Communist vision of the world utterly unlike that of conventional propaganda.

Designed to create an emotional connection between Soviet citizens and others around the globe, Koretsky’s posters heralded the multiculturalism of Benetton and MTV, while offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism. Vision and Communism offers a striking new interpretation of visual communication in the U.S.S.R. and beyond.”

You know me, I am all about offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism… I do recommend these shows simply because they are at a small, free, intimate, unpretentious little museum that doubles as a nice place for coffee or lunch while on campus. I believe “accessible” is the word.

The shows run respectively from August 30, 2011 – January 22, 2012 and September 29, 2011 – January 22, 2012 at the Smart Museum of Art.

Smart Museum of Art.

Perhaps the most anticipated exhibition of the Soviet Arts Experience is now taking place at the Art Institute of Chicago. On the one hand, you’ll not have to hike all the way down to Hyde freaking Park to see it. On the other hand, you will have to pay to do so (with a few exceptions but I’m so not going into the convoluted admissions policies and passes of the Art Institute here.) On the other, it’s probably worth it. And you should have that third hand looked at…

IV. Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945.”

A. Rachevskii. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

“Seventy years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a group of artists and writers in Moscow joined forces under the auspices of the TASS News Agency to help reassure and rouse the Soviet citizenry by producing large-scale posters—TASS Windows. Despite the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin, creativity flourished among these diverse artists and writers as they attempted to find purpose while working in and for a totalitarian state. Producing a poster design for nearly every day of the war with a labor-intensive technical virtuosity previously unheard of in poster production, these artists committed themselves to the defense of the motherland. In collaboration with the Ne boltai! Collection of 20th-century propaganda, Windows on the War marks the first time these enormous handmade posters have been displayed in the United States since World War II, bringing to the fore many Soviet artists little known in this country.”

Oh, it gets better:

“In 1997, 26 tightly wrapped brown paper parcels were discovered deep in a storage area for the Department of Prints and Drawings. Their presence was a mystery, their contents a puzzle. [Whew - SCRC wasn't alone...] As conservators and curators carefully worked to open the envelopes, they were surprised and intrigued to find that they contained 50-year-old monumental posters created by TASS, the Soviet Union’s news agency. The idea for a major exhibition began to take shape.

Impressively large—between five and ten feet tall—and striking in the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium—some demanded 60 to 70 different stencils and color divisions—these posters were originally sent abroad, including to the Art Institute, to serve as international cultural “ambassadors” and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union, a partner of the United States and Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. In Windows on the War, the posters will be presented both as unique historical objects and as works of art that demonstrate how the preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and aesthetic means to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, marking a major chapter in the history of design and propaganda.

For most of the 20th century, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union hovered between uneasy alliance and outright hostility. The period addressed by this exhibition—the years 1941–45—represents a fleeting moment when the nations were joined in a purposeful bond, a coalition attested to repeatedly in the posters of the TASS studio. This spirit of cooperation was short-lived, however; as early as 1945, an “iron curtain” began to descend between East and West, the seeds of which had been stealthily germinating throughout the war years. By the end of 1946, it was clear that the wartime alliance against Fascism would be supplanted by old allegiances and enemies in a budding “cold” war. Likewise, images of camaraderie from the World War II era were quickly buried, and iconographies of fear and suspicion, with their roots in the prewar decades, reemerged.

While the focus of Windows on the War is primarily on the 157 posters on display, viewers will also find their rich historical and cultural context revealed through photographs and documentary material illuminating the visual culture of US–USSR relations before and during the war.”

Some examples:

Artist Unknown. Private collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

Vladimir Ivanovich Ladiagin, Osip Iakovlevich Kolychev. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

After the Kukryniksy. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

In fact, of the many themes featured in this exhibit, the most immediately compelling for me, who is not so very into war paraphernalia, are the illustrated reminders, as simplistic and hyperbolic as Cold War or current propaganda, of the common goal of the US and Russia during World War II. Never one threatened by romanticism or naivete, the cynical, complicated and pragmatic relationship between our countries for that brief period was at least an admission of interdependence. Our two “evil empires” have indeed shown the ability to support one another despite our mutual tendencies to be arrogant, stubborn and prisoners of our own ideology. I know my crusade to make these two nations understand and appreciate one another makes some people positively nauseous. That it takes something like Nazis to force us to try makes me positively nauseous…

Windows on the War: Themes.
Windows on the War: Artists.
Windows on the War: Writers.

The exhibition of Soviet TASS Posters runs from July 31–October 23, 2011 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago.

If you are in or near Chicago and enjoy reading this blog, I do recommend checking out at least one of these events. And do not not go out of spite because you felt you were deliberately mislead into believing I am Russian and therefore you bought me drinks or said something nice to me but it turns out I am just Irish and French and Cherokee and god knows what else (just between us, I think there may be some Chukchi in there) so fuck you, poemless. Don’t be like that. Go see some bad art and great propaganda and get a history lesson and support our local cultural institutions and give a shit about something before you die.

If you are in Russia, you must think I am just thoroughly incomprehensible and obsessive. Can’t imagine why anyone would mistake me for, you know…

Peace out, friends.

Let’s not wait for Nazis next time, ok?

Artist Unknown. Cellini Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

August 5, 2011

The Cab Ride.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:14 PM

I don’t take cabs.

I can perhaps count on both hands how many times I have taken a cab in the decade plus I have lived in Chicago. Sprained ankle. Nice dinner with his parents visiting from out of town. Running very late in a brutal downpour. Waiting for the bus for a half hour in dangerous sub-zero temperatures. Sleep-deprived splurges on the last leg home of long journeys elsewhere…

When I was little I would watch movies set in Manhattan and dream of growing up and hailing cabs that would whisk me through bustling city canyons, without me thinking twice about budgets or traffic. These fierce yellow birds would swerve off their courses, swoop by, pick me up, take me to the very important place I was headed, drop me off, and continue on their crazed yet intensely purposeful mission to pick up and drop off the beautiful and remarkable people of the world. Like worker bees buzzing about currying human nectar. Without the nature and country crap.

I don’t even know how to hail a cab with any grace.

I own a CTA pass. I walk. I walk a lot. Even if I had all the money in the universe, I’d walk. I live in a city where I’ll never see everything anyway and there is so much to see. A person can’t properly look at anything from the backseat of a car. Looking takes time. And I’m surrounded by people and places and things demanding that I look. That I stop. That I feel and smell and hear and experience. In a cab, one looks at the meter, the time, the light that isn’t turning green; one feels their thighs stick to the grimy vinyl seat; one hears cryptic orders barked over a radio or a driver’s depressing cellphone conversation with his wife; one smells exhaust – both of the car an that of its driver’s existence. If memory is so closely linked to scent, how can you have any good memories from the back of a smelly cab? Frankly it all seems too stressful and hardly worth it. Getting into cab is an admission of defeat in my universe. Not only have I failed to find a more aesthetically gratifying way to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, I’ve also given someone else the responsibility for my safe arrival. And paid handsomely.

I do take public transport. “Aesthetically gratifying” it is not. But the routes are never a surprise, I pay a flat fee in advance and know precisely what to expect, even if that means knowing to expect the bus to be 20 minutes late. Once on a train or bus, I can read leisurely, sleep, change my mind mid-route about where I’d like to go, exit of my own volition. I’m prone to claustrophobia and especially appreciative of that last part. And even trains and buses must be walked to. There is no calling them to come and get you. You actually have to make some effort, which forces you to assess your priorities. There is a certain resourcefulness and independence about it all that is appealing and comfortable; it builds confidence, is democratic and reliable, this lifestyle I have. I am rather fond of it. I could go the rest of my life and never get in another car… We do things for so long, create a narrative of who we are and who we are not. They are beautiful stories. Like those Manhattan movies. And often about as realistic.

One day a cab pulled up in front of my apartment.

I had not rang for a cab. I had nowhere to go. And wherever I might need to be in the future I could get there on my own thank you very much. But when the cab swerved a few lanes over in my direction and opened the door, I got in. Maybe I was rather fond of the man behind the wheel too. Maybe I’d hailed it like a mythical siren. Maybe I’d heard too many Irish faerie tales of the cóiste bodhar and Russian anecdotes about black Volgas and I was in the mood for a little danger, or maybe just the kind of fun you can always find a way to justify on long hot summer nights. Maybe it was nice to have a person drive you around for awhile. After all, it would probably be just a quick cruise around the block. Neither of us had packed for a road trip.

I’m venturing to guess that most people know where they’re going when they slide into the back seat of a cab. They may not be able to give directions, they may know a name but not an address, they may have never before been to where they are going, but if absolutely no other information is imparted upon embarking upon a cab ride, a destination is. It’s practically a requirement, a prerequisite before one can enroll in “How to take a cab 101.” Cabs are not for joy rides or road trips or sight-seeing. Cabs are for people who actually have some expectation of where they’d like to go and how long it will take to get there. I slid into a cab having no destination, no expectation of where I’d like to go or how long it would take to get there. But then, I’d slid into the front seat…

I let the cabbie do all the driving.

Aside from the small matter of having no clue where the hell I wanted to go, and uhm, he being the cabdriver, I also don’t drive. I can’t drive. I am a terrible driver. My track record is not encouraging. I failed my driver’s test on the first try. I could handle cruise control on a freeway, sure, but any complicated maneuvering, like backing out of a driveway or parking or turning corners inevitably produced in me a full blown panic attack, and it’s a damn miracle no lives were lost as a result of my sheer incompetence. The world is safer without me on the road, I’ll tell you that. The last thing I want is to hurt anyone. I can’t drive. I should not drive. So I don’t. … We do things for so long, create a narrative of who we are and who we are not. What we can and cannot do. The truth is I am afraid to drive; I am terrified of being behind the wheel. It all began with those traumatic horror movies they show you at an impressionable age with scenes of mangled corpses draped across the dashboard and hood of a sedan, flesh coated in the glass that used to be the windshield, of young lovers who went to prom with the rest of their lives ahead of them and came home in body bags, of their weeping inconsolable parents, of the gore and pain and suffering. That is just WAY TOO much responsibility. I can barely take care of myself. I can’t sign up for that. I mean, technically I can drive. I have good eyes, the capacity for learning new skills, a modicum of coordination … legs. There are people without legs even who drive. I have a driver’s license too. The fact is nothing stops me from operating a motor vehicle except overwhelming fear. And an equally intense loathing of American car culture. But that doesn’t really contribute to this story I’m telling, so forget I mentioned it.

Two people with no destination and no agenda are in the same cab, going in the same direction, together. The ride is scarier, more potentially dangerous and lasts longer than I anticipated. We go over the speed limit and down streets not on maps and across bumpy terrain. “And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues. You know feeling good was good enough for me…” If freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, I began to relax my grip on freedom. But maybe it’s good now and then to have something left to lose. Like your sense of adventure. Like happiness. Like somebody who makes you forget you hate everything or cab rides. No matter where this road takes us, I am having a grand time getting there…

Cabs are not for joy rides or road trips or sight-seeing. Cabs are for people who actually have some expectation of where they’d like to go and how long it will take to get there. Cab rides require a modicum of trust between the driver and the passenger, yes, but you’re not in that car to make friends. Cab rides are awkward and intimate and sometimes intense but beyond an agreement to hold up one’s end of the bargain and not harm the other party, there are no obligations. Cab rides are transactional and finite by nature. Eventually everyone has to pay and get out. People only ride around blissfully forever together in fairy tales, and on ridiculous ponies, not in Checker Cabs. So as inexplicably as the cab driver had pulled up to my curb and opened its door, inviting me in, it slammed on the brakes, opened its door and told me I needed to get out. And I paid. More handsomely than I would have liked to, reinforcing every foul opinion I ever had of cab rides.

The next morning I got up and went for a walk.

We do things for so long, create a narrative of who we are and who we are not. They are beautiful stories. Like this one, with its tidy ending. But stories are for writing and life is for living, and reality is a hell of a lot more interesting than beautiful stories.

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