THE 20TH CENTURY
from Soviet Man to Dolly the Sheep; some thoughts on the Cyborg Shadow
> Gillian McIver
Modern Photography, Photomontage and Film
Presentation House Gallery
November 3 to December 16, 2001
curated by Steven Yates
The Uncanny, Experiments in Cyborg Culture
Vancouver Art Gallery
Feb 9 - May 26, 2002
Curated by Bruce Grenville
1900: the new century marches in time to the drumbeat of modernism and, in less than two decades, the world changes completely. In 1905, for the first time in history, an Asian power decisively beats a European one in war. In 1914 huge armies tear up the old rural landscape of north Europe, ploughing back into the earth the seeds of a new era of mass warfare, mass culture and the overarching hegemony of the machine. Out of the steaming ruins of war the old system fades, the corrupt leisure class gives way to the ascendancy of labour. Over the next decades, the world is held in thrall to the assembly-line, the flickering cinema image, atomic weapons, televised "reality" and the blue glare of the computer screen - all of these mechanistic marvels created by machinery or by applying the principles of the machine to the human.
1917: the Russian Revolution attempts to create a new Man, not organically but systematically by application of Reason and the methods of the machine. The Bolsheviks' mission is moulding the Proletarian Master, the Worker, out of the mud-caked, servile broken-backed wretch of tsarism. And there's only one mould.
Aleksandr Rodchenko, himself the grandson of a serf, chooses early to apply the principles of science and engineering to art. He aligns himself with Russian Futurists and Constructivists, such as Tatlin, Popova and Vertov. Turning away from drawing and painting in favour of photography he seeks to capture the new era, the remade Soviet Human, through new techniques, new use of perspective, and new technologies - including film collaborations with Dziga Vertov. He imbues mechanistic subject matter with a glowing near-human tactile quality, and takes his portraits - of poets, Pioneers, workers - with the kind of close-up detail and angular heroic perspectives he also uses for innovations in architecture. But even here, he finds ambiguity in the equation between man and machine as equal partners in the great Soviet future.
Rodchenko's innovative techniques have been so aped that it comes as something of a shock to see them here, in Steven Yates's carefully-compiled exhibition at Presentation House Gallery, as flawless old silver-gelatin prints, their heavy paper gently yellowing, and realise "this is the real thing; this is the man who had the vision." And we see that for the first decade the vision is so ebullient, so celebratory - something we forget when we review the history of that revolutionary time. Yes he is also the one who, in perhaps his finest portrait, looks deep into Mayakovsky's eyes, revealing the profound truth which then only the poet knew: all here is illusion.
The New Dawn of socialism captured and created by Rodchenko's camera eye flowers for a few years then slides into decay amid factionalism and intrigue, the death or exile of its brightest stars, and the inexorable rise of Stalinism - a tendency, not just the rule of Josef Stalin. By the mid-1930's, as the first of the gulags were being built, Rodchenko -- harassed, fearful, forbidden to work on official projects -- gives up photography and, like Malevich before him, retreats in the end to painting safe, figurative, pretty, fantasy scenes, finding refuge in the most innocent reaches of the imagination.
Critic Osip Brik, 1924
generation face robot, 2000
Hara/Kobayashi Labs, Science University of Tokyo
Words: Gillian McIver
Time: 11.3.01 - 5.26.02