The virtual reality of the Russian avant-garde

Alpha Auer / El Lissitzky's "For the Voice", The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

History has a tendency to be a little ironic at times. Thirteen months ago, the United Kingdom and Russia issued a joint declaration that 2014 would be the bi-lateral UK-Russia Year of Culture. At the time they sat down to sign that agreement, little did Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and William Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom, would be facing one another across a quite different table and under less convivial circumstances in April 2014.

Not that the one should in any way negate or cancel the other. Rather the reverse, in fact. In the face of mounting political tensions, one would hope that the events staged in both the UK and in Russia as a part of the bi-lateral UK-Russia Year of Culture would stand as a reminder of each side’s humanity and the benefits of people of different nationalities looking beyond superficial national boundaries and collaborating with one another.

Bryn Oh / Vladimir Tatlin: Monument to the Third International, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Bryn Oh / Vladimir Tatlin: Monument to the Third International, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

And collaboration is very much the focal-point of one of the pieces selected by the British Council for display in Russia, and it is one that crosses not only the political divide, but also the digital divide as well.

The Golden Age of Russian Avant-Garde is a large-scale exhibition project, created especially for the main exhibition hall of Moscow’s Manege Museum by Peter Greenaway (UK) and Saskia Boddeke (Holland) supported by the British Council. The primary part of this exhibition opened in Moscow on April 15th, and will run through until May 18th, 2014, in an exhibition space totalling some 5,000 square metres – which is enormous by any standards. This multimedia installation will feature, in the words of the British Council:

Polyscreen installations made with the help of the most up-to-date projection, light and sound equipment. It will represent a new approach to the history of art, creating new visuals and new possibilities for learning about the world around us through images. Using polyscreens as an artistic method not only allows us to explore new aspects in paintings or sculptures: synchronised images, bound together by a single idea, create new architectonics, bringing another dimension to the exhibition. Combining film and painting, animation and 3D technology helps create a unified atmospheric work, drawing the viewer into the space of Russian avant-garde.

But this is more than a real-world exhibition. A major element of the piece exists not in the real-world, but in Second Life, at LEA8, to be precise.

It is here that Saskia Boddeke, perhaps better known to many of us as artist Rose Borchovski has brought together seven artists from around the world, each with the task of recreating a famous element of the Russian avant-garde movement, also known as Constructivism, in-world (and some in the real world as well), and which forms a part of the overall exhibition space, real and virtual.

Nessuno Myoo / Lubov Popova, the stage for Meyerhold's production of "The Magnanimous Cuckold", The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Nessuno Myoo / Lubov Popova, the stage for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s production of “The Magnanimous Cuckold”, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

A post-World War I development of Russian Futurism, Constructivism became a movement combining art and architecture as a means of illustrating and expressing the ideals of the socialist system. It encompassed artists, sculptors and designers such as Vladimir Tatlin, one of the pre-eminent Russian Futurists, Antoine Pevsner, Naum Gabo Liubov Popova, Alexander Vesnin, Aleksander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Vsevolod Meyerhold and the theorists Alexei Gan, Boris Arvatov and Osip Brik.

The SL exhibits are placed on multiple, interactive levels within a pseudo-industrial setting. Here direct re-interpretations of famous elements from the Constructivist movement – such as Bryn Oh’s representation of the never-built (at least in full size) Monument to the Third International by Tatlin (and also known  as “Tatlin’s Tower” and regarded as a key work of the movement) and Popova’s stage design for theatrical director / actor Vsevolod Meyerhold, recreated by Nessuno Myoo through to broader pieces drawn from within and beyond the Constructivist movement and presented in both 2D and 3D installations.

Alpha Auer /El Lissitzky's + V. Mayakovsky's "For the Voice", The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Alpha Auer /El Lissitzky’s + V. Mayakovsky’s “For the Voice”, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

A further cross-cultural element is evident in the SL installation. When exploring, you might come across avatars named AvanteGarde001 through AvanteGarde004. These are in fact controlled by visitors to the Manege Museum in Moscow, who are invited to extend their visit to the real-world pieces there into the realm of the virtual – and have been able to do so since the real-world exhibition opened.

Exploration of the SL exhibit space requires a reasonable amount of time – there is a lot to see; even the environment itself, designed by Bryn, makes a powerful statement. Not only does it frame the pieces on display and provides the means by which they can be explored, it also reflects the form and context of the Constructivist movement and the age they represented.

Eupalinos Ugajin / Yevgeny Zamiatine's "We", The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Eupalinos Ugajin / Yevgeny Zamiatine’s “We”, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

In terms of the pieces on display, each offers a unique view on the movement and / or the era. In this, I found Eupalinos Ugajin’s interpretation of We, Yevgeny Zamiatine’s dystopian novel particularly interesting, given its historical context. While the Constructivist movement celebrated and promoted the ideals of the socialist state, Zamiatine’s novel painted a far more negative image of socialism: that of a repressive police state. In doing so, it became the first work to be banned by the Soviet censorship board shortly after its publication.  The inclusion of a piece reflective of We is given greater depth when one considers the manner in which Constructivism itself was to be suppressed (and some of its proponents forced into exile or murdered) following Stalin’s rise to power and repressive leadership of the state machine.

Soror Nishi / Wassily Kandinsky's abstractions, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Soror Nishi / Wassily Kandinsky’s abstractions, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

However, perhaps the most remarkable piece  in the installation is Jo Ellsmere’s representation of V. Meyerhold’s biomechanics, a system he developed for training actors. This uses five beautifully scripted avatars moving in a series of synchronised movements which sees them move both as an individual unit, and as five unique elements of the whole, a slight syncopation to their movements giving them a time-lapsed grace which cannot easily be captured in still images and really has to be seen to be appreciated. There is much here that reaches beyond the immediacy of the installation and offers a lot of potential for synchronised movement in art and dance.

As one might expect, a piece of this magnitude, whether real or virtual, takes a huge amount of effort to bring together, and I am for one very glad that RL events didn’t result in either the real or the virtual aspects of this remarkable celebration from being derailed. This is not an exhibition to be missed  and if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the real-world elements at the Manege, I envy you.

Jo Ellsmere / Vsevolod Meyerhold "Biomechanics", The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8
Jo Ellsmere / Vsevolod Meyerhold “Biomechanics”, The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde, LEA8

Definitely one for the books – and kudos to all those involved. When visiting the LEA installation, don’t forget you can also pick-up one of several  (or all, if you like), avatars near the arrival point and make yourself a part of the exhibits offered for your delight and consideration. For my part, the LEA installation only presents one problem; such are the pieces on display here, that they each really deserve an individual review / exploration.

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