Star City: The Future Under Communism

Pawel Althamer, Goshka Macuga, Aleksandra Mir, Robert Kusmirowski, Deimantas Narkevicius, Micol Assael, Otolith Group, Jane and Louise Wilson, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, David Maljkovic, Julius Koller, Diango Hernandez, Tobias Putrih, Malincoska & Tomaszewski, Stano Filko
Curated by Alex Farquharson and Lukasz Ronduda

Star City considers how the future was experienced and imagined under communism during
the Cold War. It does so mainly through the works of a generation of leading artists who grew up within the Soviet sphere of influence, but who became artists after its demise. They are shown alongside important figures of the Central and East European avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s (Filko, Kabakov and Koller). That era dominates much of the contemporary work as well – references to now obsolete technology of that era, its science fiction and its space programme abound – because, arguably, this was the last time people living in Warsaw Pact countries believed in the future. That belief was tied to an abiding conviction that Soviet-style communism would one day deliver on its promise of a utopian
society, and that present day struggles and privations were necessary steps towards a
prosperous, egalitarian society. Since then, this dream has been dismantled, both by the repressive measures of communist regimes, particularly in their decline, and as a consequence of the dramatic, often chaotic and disillusioning transformation towards neoliberal capitalist democracy. Ronduda writes: “After the Prague Spring of 1968, and as the Brezhnev era developed (1964-82), the belief that communism would win the future became impossible; instead of inventing new ways of thinking about the future, the USSR began stealing futures from the West, using the secret service (IBM technology, for example). Cybernetics, which became influential in the Soviet bloc, was only deployed in the administrative interests of the authoritarian state.” For these artists, the future isn’t simply to be recollected, it requires excavation, like a ruin, since the post-communist condition is marked by amnesia with respect to its immediate
past. In many instances this archaeological work is as much an existential and autobiographical quest as it is a political and sociological investigation; history is passed through subjective, sometimes ironic and melancholic, perspectives that make no simple distinctions between individual and collective experience.
The exhibition will inevitably be viewed differently east and west of Europe’s former
ideological divide. In Britain, representations of the future as imagined under communism
are both familiar and unfamiliar. The references to cosmonauts and old, bulky computers
belong to our image-bank of the time, yet the mood and meaning of the imagery from the
former East differs from what how they are perceived in the West. East of the Iron Curtain,
science fiction was regarded as a particularly philosophical artistic genre (the novels of
Stanislaw Lem being the outstanding example), a means by which the perfection of tomorrow could be imagined from the standpoint of the imperfections of the day, and writers and filmmakers could propose new ways of living, that were implicitly critical of the political here and now, while evading state censorship; masters of the genre in the West, on the other hand, were stymied by its association with spectacular, low-brow entertainment.

During the Warsaw Pact, the future served both as a destination and a means of escape from the present. Boris Groys suggests that the colonization of space had spiritual associations in the Russian collective unconscious, and that these were carried over from pre-Revolutionary esoteric strands of communist thinking (e.g. the Cosmists), subsequently repressed by Bolshevist dialectical materialism. Groys suggests that the Soviet regime harnessed this yearning in their spectacular celebrations of the triumphs of its space programme: hence the almost religious personality cults that were consciously developed
around its super heroes: Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut to orbit the Earth in 1961, and
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in Space, 1963. This is echoed in the exhibition by
Aleksandra Mir’s collages that combine Catholic and space race imagery, and by Tomaszewski’s Mother Earth Sister Moon, a 300 square metre sculpture of Tereshkova as Space Age goddess.

The exhibition has both a double temporality (communist and post-communist) and a dual
geopolitical perspective (NATO and Warsaw Pact). Some of the central and east European artists now live in western Europe or North America, while other participants come from western Europe (Otolith Group, the Wilson twins) who have adopted the vantage point of the former ideological adversary to reverse perspectives on these futures that have now past. Otolith Group, whose members are Ghanaian and Indian and live in London, complicate matters further by triangulating the Cold War legacy by drawing connections to the Third World Non-Aligned Movement (specifically the Second and Third World interface between India and the Soviet Union). Diango Hernandez’s evocations of the rusting ideological edifices of Cuba are reminders that the Soviet sphere of influence once stretched to the USA’s tropical backyard, with almost apocalyptic consequences. By identifying spectres of Soviet future-pasts, the exhibition implicitly casts doubt on the inevitability and universality of capitalist democracy, and with it the idea that history has mended.

Alex Farquharson