O'Reilly, Sally, Art Monthly
BFI Southbank Gallery London
1 October to 29 November
A pastoral church spire at dusk, the optimistic East Berlin radio tower, a redemptive MRI tunnel, a brimming bookshop, a dining hall full of jolly geriatrics, an attractive and diligent young working woman ... Deimantas Narkevicius's newly commissioned film, Into the Unknown, 2009, comprises a montage of image and audio that appears to describe a peaceful and productive society of fulfilled individuals. The footage comes from the ETV Collection, which describes itself as: 'the largest collection of productions from the former Soviet Union, Communist China, the European Eastern block, Chile and Cuba, which survives in Western Europe. It is the legacy of the work of Stanley Forman, one of the leading figures in the Communist Party of Great Britain.' . Narkevicius's selection of footage unhitches the imagery from its original usage--and in some cases from its audio so that we might reappraise just what it is that we are seeing and how we are interpreting it.
Into the Unknown focuses on everyday life in East Germany during the German Democratic Republic and appraises the mechanisms of archives as well as the sociopolitical situation that produced its content. With a broad experience of semiotics we can read fluently the signifiers of prosperity, productivity and tranquillity and, more importantly, we understand why these meanings were constructed in the first place. Socialist Realism, the mode of cultural production of the Soviet era that was devised and regulated by the state, is commonly regarded as propaganda that is inherently manipulative and restrictive of creative freedom. But while propaganda is most commonly associated with totalitarian regimes such as National Socialism and Soviet Communism, it has also been aligned with more stealthy forms of opinion forming, such as advertising and political campaigns within self-declared liberal democracies. Although this is mainly because of scepticism about capitalism's core processes and values, it is also the natural stretching of a word that etymologically, by way of 'propagation', is connected with mediating concepts such as dissemination, education and empowerment--the positive flipside of coercion, indoctrination and control.
The high ground of historical hindsight, then, offers us a view of Socialist Realism as instrumental to a totalitarian regime that proved corrupt and ultimately self-destructive, but a consideration of original intentions reveals more nuanced possibilities. …