Facing the Monument: Facing the Future

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Facing the Monument: Facing the Future

11 March 2015 | By Bazarov

‘Chto Delat?’ ‘What is to be done?’

This phrase echoes through recent Russian history, and was adopted in 2003 by a workgroup of artists and writers in St Petersburg with the aim of redefining the foundations of cultural practice in post-Soviet society.

Stimulated by the GRAD lab project, a new platform in London exploring arts and the built environment, Bazarov has revisited some scenes from his brief visit to Vienna in May 2014. In the most conspicuous possible position, at the head of the Schwartzenbergplatz adjoining Vienna’s famous ‘Ring’, two monumental constructions faced up to each other in a bold dialectic of commemoration and confrontation, immortality and impermanence, created as part of the Wiener Festwochen.

The Soviet War Memorial (Heldendenkmal der Roten Armee) was erected in 1945 following the capture of Vienna under Stalin’s orders, as a colossal geopolitical statement that was also a shrine to 17,000 Soviet soldiers lost in the battle for Vienna. A colonnade, a fountain, and the crowning figure of a soldier with a submachine gun and holding a Soviet flag define the aggressive solemnity of the work. Always controversial, given the license shown by liberating Soviet soldiers, the Memorial was visited by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007 to show gratitude to the city for having saved the structure from demolition.

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The unknown Soviet soldier stands today above the traffic of Westernised, consumerist Vienna, a hubristic symbol of triumph and possession or a calculated affront according to the viewer’s cultural and political persuasion.

For a brief perio hubris met nemesis, in the form of a temporary installation by Chto Delat. Face to Face with the Monument, a participatory and crudely assembled artistic ‘event’, was designed to challenge the memorialization and tacit endorsement of war as a political instrument. In garish mimicry of Soviet red, a helmeted androgynous figure raises a fist in the direction, and in the exact axis, of the Memorial. Her shield carries not a coat of arms but a pack of wolves, The rakish transience of Face to Face, with its handwritten texts and DIY materials, is a parody of the classical forms opposite, of the columns and statuary and cast metal fonts that commemorate the Soviet presence.

In common with the GRAD lab project, changing artistic displays, performances, lectures and workshops were part of the Face to Face artistic programme. Such fleetness of foot perhaps seemed the only way to challenge the changeless solidity of the Memorial, which has, nevertheless, been defaced in common with Soviet-era monuments in many cities of Eastern Europe.

Some have argued that Soviet monuments should be preserved as reminders of the extent of the Russian sacrifice in the defeat of Hitler’s Nazism, which proposed the colonialisation and eventual elimination of the Slavic peoples.

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In many parts of the former Soviet Union, however, monuments have been toppled or defaced. These structures, in their material solidity, challenge the freedoms now enjoyed from the Baltics to Bulgaria, even if they perhaps provide some residual reassurance to Russian speaking citizens of the post-Soviet states. In Tallinn, in 2007, riots between Russian and Estonian speakers were provoked by the removal of a Red Army memorial. And in Kirkeness, on Norway’s border with Russia, Bazarov has observed respectful tributes being paid to another such monument.

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Strangely, the vibrant construction of Chto Delat in Vienna, and its mighty Soviet partner, created a momentary unity which was as transient as it was unexpected, at least to this observer. A dance, in the city of the waltz, between the pleasures of impermanence and the solidity of duty, perhaps. The privilege of a summer of self-expression versus a command to retake and retain at any cost. Neither work seemed to me to be diminished by the confrontation, and the fountains played as if for participants on both sides of Europe’s enduring cultural fracture line.

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Beneath the encircling colonnade, young people of who knows what nationality, in this most liminal of cities, enjoyed a picnic, apparently oblivious both to the commemorative Cyrillic lettering in gold above their heads and to the graffiti slogans providing a theatrical backdrop to their lunch. For the young there is always a future, and Chto Delat, in their strident and irreverent Viennese installation, seem perhaps to prepare the way. 

All images courtesy of Bazarov, February 2015