Communist History, Unclassified

By Kopenkina, Olga | Afterimage, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Communist History, Unclassified


Kopenkina, Olga, Afterimage


COMMUNIST GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY

BY YEVGENIY FIKS

COMMON ROOM 2

NEW YORK CITY

JANUARY 20-MARCH 7, 2008

In our receding political culture, any attempt to point out the alternative paths of history may be tagged as nostalgic. It is hard, however, to notice a melancholic reverie in "Communist Guide to New York City," a photographic project by Moscow-born, New York City-based artist Yevgeniy Fiks. The exhibition tackles the Communist movement in the United States using the technique of frontal laconic, photography practiced largely in the political "department" of conceptual art of the 1970s (works by Hans Haakc and Martha Rosler come to mind), Fiks's photographs of historical sites, which relate to the Communist movement in New York, do not suggest any subjectivism that one would likely expect from an artist with a post-Soviet background. They rather deal with the political psyche of the United States, which is shaped by the lack of historical memory and longing for the strong political movements that the country experienced in the past.

The "Guide" consists of more than seventy photographs highlighting New York's buildings and sites connected to the history of the CPUSA (Communist party USA) -its headquarters, magazines, prominent leaders' residencies, sites of rallies and demonstrations, as well as the court houses where the trials of "red suspects" took place in the 1940s and '50s. Since the time of the second "Red Scare," which culminated in the infamous trial of the Rosenbergs and their subsequent execution at Sing Sing prison in New York. Communists' activities and their influence in American political life has fallen into near obscurity, though myths about Leon Trotsky dining on the Lower East Side and "red diaper babies" have continued to circulate. Based on scrupulous research, "Communist Guide to New York City" outlines the city with a history that is literally invisible, for the buildings on the photographs feature little of Communist aesthetics. This presents (involuntarily) a stark contrast to the photographic series "Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-32"by Richard Pare (1977), which focuses on Soviet architecture built in the period when socialist construction in the USSR was especially intense and the architecture materialized the functionality of the Communist rule. (1) Marxism and class issues in U.S. are notable only in a few murals of the 1930s by Works Projects Administration painters, and surprisingly, in the building of the socialist Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, erected in 1912 and decorated by a bas relief of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and workers' unions leaders--a landmark that still evokes a bitter memory of class struggles and hopes of the past.

What is indeed seen in fiks's photographs turns out to be not the history of American Communism as such, but the sense of mutability of the American landscape--a quality so well documented by the entire tradition of American photography and described by Susan Sontag:

Americans feel the reality of their country to be so stupendous, and mutable, that it would be the rankest presumption to approach it in a classifying, scientific way. …

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