On ViewNew Galerie
September 13 – November 14, 2020
Attending the vernissage for RosTA in person both shocked and soothed, the show resembling a highly consumable piece of mass media, read hesitantly after we removed our masks in the early autumn sun. Hard and steely like the Soviet hammer and sickle, RosTA served danger, sex, agitprop; the denouement, gratis galette, and Nero d’Avola. The show’s title refers to “RosTA,” the acronym for the Russian Telegraph Agency (1918–1935), a Soviet state news agency that produced early propaganda posters called RosTA windows. These stenciled prints, designed by the most eminent artists of the time, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Dmitry Moor, dealt with contemporary political themes and were placed in shop windows for the predominantly illiterate public. (Mayakovsky was one of the first artists to ally himself with the Revolution, seeing “the political and artistic revolution in the years following 1917 as being one inextricable unit.”) RosTA, organized by Olivier Renaud-Clément pairs these “RosTA windows” with contemporary art.
The prelude to RosTA is Cady Noland’s sculptural torture device, Your Fucking Face (1993–94), a pillory with bonus holes for feet, placed in the center of the main gallery. A contemporary update of the medieval model, metal supersedes wood and the minimal device is sleek and Futurist whilst signifying its humiliating and painful function. It envisages the gallery as a city square, in which the punishment is on public display. Or perhaps the reverse occurs: the gallery uses the device behind closed doors, a private masochism fitting neatly with Noland’s writings (see “Towards a Metalanguage of Evil,” 1992) that coalesce the rise of free-market capitalism’s “entrepreneurial male” and the psychopathic personality.
While Noland’s pillory sets the tone for this exhibition of Bolshevik RosTA windows, made shortly before Stalin’s rise to power, art works by Fabio Mauri and Darja Bajagić pepper the gallery’s three rooms. We witness the pernicious power of images—be them still or moving—from the 1920s through the aughts and up to now. A formal evolution occurs through the works, evidencing that we never know from which visual well fascist ideology will spring up. Mauri’s work is particularly reminiscent of György Lukács’s notion that the dimensions of fascism “can occur, in any country at a particular phase of capitalism.” Mauri’s series of screens, Warum ein Gedanke einen Raum verpestet? Perché un pensiero intossica una stanza? (Why Does a Thought Infect a Room?) (1972), are blank canvases except for a small phrase on the bottom right of each that alludes to the terrors of WWII. For Mauri “the blank screen became a projection medium for the viewer’s thoughts, while suggesting to him that all the images he thought of were as if split off from the flow of the film industry and propaganda films.” In a smaller room in the cavernous basement is Mauri’s piece Senza ideologia (Without Ideology) (1975)—a propaganda film commissioned by the Stalinist authorities projected onto a metal pail filled with milk.
Bajagić’s selections from the “Ex Axes” series feature photo-transferred images on axes of women holding axes and wearing lingerie, sourced from a variety of web searches. Bajagić’s aesthetic is decadently macabre. While dually examining the proliferation of often violent images of young women, we see how, according to the show’s accompanying text, “pictures today are being circulated on social media, [and] they are also being displayed according to the filter bubble phenomenon where you see what your community is interested in.” The media suits the objects. The women are equally seductive and threatening as the axes that hang from the wall, seemingly ready for use, to be picked up off of their delicate mounts at a moment’s notice and thrown. The axes echo the Soviet use of the scythe, hammers, and other tools of working-class labor. The axe, in Bajagić’s case, is a utilitarian object-cum-erotic symbol. In Walls Sweat Images (2018) the woman’s bubblegum pink bra matches the handle of the axe that she holds between her cleavage, as if split apart by the tool she holds.
Piquant and sharp, RosTA, examines the narrow dichotomy between revolutionary movements and despotism; capitalism and fascism; art and propaganda. A cautionary tale or an augury, we are left to examine the history of totalitarianism along with its correspondent imagery.