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Review/Art; The Greening of Russia: Recycling Lenin Statues
September 3, 1993

What to do with all those statues of Lenin and Stalin in Russia now that the Revolution has gone out of style? That's the question that the artist-team Komar and Melamid, internal dissidents turned American residents, began asking themselves when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. "Monumental Propaganda" is their answer.

Or more accurately, answers, since this unusual group show, sponsored by Independent Curators Inc. and installed in the Courtyard Gallery of the World Financial Center, is very much a collaboration. Komar and Melamid invited 150 artists from the United States, Russia, Canada and Europe to submit proposals for disposing of the thousands of public sculptures in the former Soviet Union that await destruction because their political message is obsolete. Some responses -- texts, drawings, collages and photographs -- say good riddance, others find ways to give old icons new meanings. Together they constitute the exhibition.

The curators' own proposal, more elaborately realized than the others, sets the prevailing tone. In a letter to the Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, Komar and Melamid suggest that Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow be preserved but changed. Once its occupant has been reinterred elsewhere, they suggest, fit the building with a running electronic message board carrying Lenin's name on certain days and on others have current news stories, weather reports, even poetry and Bible quotations. A wooden mock-up of the tomb with its moving sign in place is on view and, like much of the work by these artists, it has the flavor of a rueful joke: the advertising device that makes the tomb user friendly also turns it into a metaphor, as the letter to Mr. Yeltsin explains, for the "vanity of all utopias."

Many other proposals also mix levity and seriousness, though in proportions that are sometimes hard to gauge. A few artists seem to give a nod of approval to the ideological art in question. Thomas Lawson, for example, proposes that busts of Lenin be made into drinking fountains to provide "sustenance directly from the fountainhead of revolutionary wisdom," while, a bit more ambiguously, Laurence Warshaw, using a nonsculptural image, redesigns a Haagan-Dazs ice cream bar logo to read "Lenin-Da" ("Lenin-Yes").

By contrast, in a straightforward illustrational drawing, the Russian artist Vladimir Nekrasov suggests that all Russian sculptural propaganda be placed in a line from Stalingrad, now called Volgograd, straight into the Gulf of Finland, thereby "expelling Communism back to the West, from whence it came," and Igor Chelkovsky recommends bringing the figures together in one place to create a theme park of "political criminals."

Other solutions tend to be less severe. A photo-collage by the American artist Les Levine also proposes a park, but one for children, in which toppled statues are benches. The same absurdist practicality lies behind ideas by Mark Tansey and Susan Hoetzel. Mr. Tansey's collage titled "Cocktail Party" offers a pyramid of broken heads of Hitler, Washington, Constantine and Lenin, making further destruction redundant. Ms. Hoetzel's "Fall-Proof Monument" proposes that existing statues have their faces replaced with video monitors, which could be reprogrammed to accommodate each new political regime.

Finally, some proposals are gently poetic. Petah Coyne suggests melting metal statues and casting 10,000 small onion-shaped domes topped with candles and hanging them from churches and synagogues throughout Russia, connoting a renewed spirituality. Liselot van der Heijden, in a lovely collage, places a tiny photograph of a schoolgirl, her hand covering her mouth in suppressed laughter, on an immense stone sculpure base.

Joseph Kosuth also suggests that bases be preserved, saying that they, rather than the figures of Lenin, represent the true, individualistic "abstract" work of the Soviet artists. Unfortunately, Mr. Kosuth's contribution, however well intentioned, smacks of an in-joke cleverness that marks a fair amount of the other work as well. It grows tedious over the course of a large show, especially one in which visual rewards are relatively few and one-liners are the rule.

Still, the show has much to enjoy. Proposals by artists like Buky Schwartz, Lolita Romanova and Dominique Blain offer agreeable combinations of the zany and the sensible, and the impact of all the work is much enhanced by the striking installation, which was designed by two New York architects, Mojdeh Baratloo and Clifton Balch. They have transformed the Courtyard Gallery's awkward balcony exhibition space into a subtle exercise in Constructivist chic, with stark red walls, black columns and 26 plain, horizontal wooden display cases for the proposals.

The cases are supported on bases made of upside-down plaster busts of Stalin -- a nice touch -- but even this example of monumental propaganda turned on its head is outshone by the simple fact of the show's appearance in the World Financial Center, a monument for which Lenin himself would certainly have offered a strongly worded proposal or two.

"Monumental Propaganda" remains at the World Financial Center, Courtyard Gallery, 220 Vesey Street, through Oct. 3.

View this review in the New York Times’ TimeMachine.