Q&A with artist Yevgeniy Fiks about “The Lenin Museum”
by Michael Dola
“The Lenin Museum,” an exhibit of works by the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, is on view at the CUNY Grad Center’s James Gallery in New York City through January 17th, 2015. In the program guide to “The Lenin Museum,” Fiks states that his show “commemorates the emancipatory promise of the Russian Revolution and mourns the fates of the post-1934 queer Soviet subjects, who were reduced to expressing their sexuality in the toilets of Lenin Museum in Moscow between the 1940s-1980s, while drawing conceptual connections to the unstable predicament of the LGBTQI community in present-day Russia.” Since the show went up in mid-November, a new law was passed in Russia that bans transgendered people from driving. This comes in the context of earlier laws that have targeted non-cisgendered people throughout the country. These attacks from the Russian government lend a tragic timeliness and urgency to the work of Fiks, who answered a few questions about his current show.
Michael Dola: In an interview with Bookforum on the release of your book Moscow, which features photographs of former gay cruising sites in Moscow called pleshkas, you stated that the project “is also about the limits or failure of photography.” I wonder if you are making a similar indictment about the limits or failure of painting with the 9 pleshka oil paintings on view in “The Lenin Museum?” Or perhaps you would draw the boundary around the tradition you were professionally trained in, that of socialist realism, as being primarily complicit in the “forced invisibility of the queer Soviet subject.”
Yevgeniy Fiks: Yes, I think my “Pleshkas of the Revolution” paintings are definitely also about the failure and limits of painting, and specifically the failure of late-Soviet mainstream painting to represent Soviet gay and lesbian experience, or any minoritarian experience for that matter. This art form pretended to be universal, general, all-encompassing. But in practice, it was severely lacking in its self-proclaimed universality–it could only achieve universality through rendering inconvenient margins invisible. So, these paintings are an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Soviet painting to finally represent Soviet-era queer invisibility, without, however, breaking with the tradition of Socialist Realist painting.
MD: While your work investigates the layers of meaning that have accrued onto Soviet aesthetics and iconography, the actual writing of Lenin has been an important element of at least four of your projects thus far, “Lenin for your Library,” “Reading Lenin With Corporations,” “Monitoring Lenin’s Sales on Amazon.com“ and now with the installation at the physical center of “The Lenin Museum,” a museum facade on the doors of two bathroom stalls that features hand-scrawled quotes of Lenin that were employed by Cold War hawk Nathan Leites, writing for the Rand Corporation in 1951. So that between Lenin and the viewer is the mediation of various elements of the American ruling class, from what Marx might call “prizefighters for capital” (in Leites’ case, as a sociologist rather than economist), to Fortune 500 companies, to white collar workers in the Financial District of NYC who may or may not be especially ideological who are participating in a reading group about Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. If there is a possible theme running through each these, could it be of a desire (and subsequent frustration of that desire) to have Lenin speak for himself in what you refer to as our post-utopian moment?
Yevgeniy Fiks: I think I try to tackle Lenin from different directions. One very important one is to allow Lenin to speak for himself, as you rightly noted. I’m interested in Lenin as a thinker, Lenin as a symbol, Lenin as a provocation, Lenin as a tangible “grandfatherly” figure (who defined, whether we like it or not, for Soviets of my generation a certain code of ethics), and so on. So, there are multiple Lenins, ranging from nostalgic to radical and all of them are not only part of our post-utopian present, but also of the past and of futurity that is “not yet here.”
MD: The Cyrillic nail etchings into large marble slabs that comprise your series “Memorial Plaques” recall popular representations of the improvised writing prisoners might do in cells, whether serving to count days spent in jail or leaving something else visible for others who will come later. It is also evocative of post-Ed Koch era NYC subway graffiti writing, both in the visual form and in a historical context of repressive erasure of human expression. After the introduction of specially coated train cars and increased cleaning efforts, the only illegal writing one might see anymore is done with etching acid, which creates a faint, ghostly echo of what was once a uniquely colorful and (literally) moving work of art. Can you give some background information as to where and when these words that express such deep disillusionment and cynicism come from? Did you draw on any discernible tradition of Soviet-era graffiti writing, if there was such a thing pre-1991?
Yevgeniy Fiks: Wow, what an illuminating New York history reference that you just described–I had no idea. Thank you! This series of marble plaques refers to the practice by Soviet-era gay men to write in pen or better to nail etch their phone numbers and sometimes also their names and even short messages on walls of bathroom stalls for the purpose of connecting with or finding a sex partner. Of something like “I’m here on Wednesdays from 5-6 pm.” This was, basically, a type of gay Soviet-era personals, one can say. Since there were no publications of gays in the Soviet Union, not even in samizdat, these etchings were a way for Soviet gays to contact one another. Of course, writings in pen/pencils can be easily erased, but nail etchings would stay on for a longer period of time. The texts that I used for these plaques came from different sources–some were published, some anonymous–but they all are recollections of Soviet-era gays, in which they talk about their sexuality in the context of Soviet history, communism, or even specifically of Lenin.
MD: Anatoly is a work of imaginative envisioning where a handful of contemporary LGBT Russians who appear in an interview-format film speculate about the biographical details of the the all but unknown lover of British-born Soviet spy Guy Burgess. You have mentioned elsewhere that your intention was to “animate him into a subject,” effectively liberating Anatoly from being a simple prop or appendage of his famous partner. In the nearby glass vitrine not only did you include his electrician’s tools signifying his working class status, but also his sheet music and hand accordion, giving us some sense as to his fuller humanity. In the course of Stalinist counterrevolution, what Marx foresaw as the “all-rounded” individual who unifies mental and manual abilities would be replaced with the Stakhonovite type of a New Soviet Man who produces efficiently at breakneck speed. In this sense I think the vitrine, and indeed the whole show, is a site of mourning, for not only the Soviet-era queer subject but an entire “society in which the full and free development of every individual is the ruling principle” (Marx).
Yevgeniy Fiks: Yes, you are absolutely correct. And thank you for noticing objects in the Anatoly vitrine. This project is a mourning for the promise of universal liberation and the all-rounded Soviet subject, which was never realized. The revolution failed on multiple fronts. It failed Anatoly as a working class person, it also failed him as a gay man. Attempting to see Anatoly as a three-dimensional individual, with a social class, sexuality, creativity, and so on is what this project is all about.
MD: The tragedy in Harry Whyte’s 1934 letter to Stalin, in which he asks “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” which you had an actor read at the show, is obvious in one sense, but also tells us something about the alignment of internal concerns between the opposing poles of capital. It is interesting that Whyte refers twice in his letter to (Western) capitalism’s need for cannon fodder and a reserve army of labor as a reason for its own attempts to repress homosexuality, ban abortion and restrict reproductive rights for women. Writing some 14 years later, Raya Dunayevskaya noted:
“Ever since the outbreak of World War II the Kremlin bureaucracy has tried to raise per capita production through the institution of what it has dared to call ‘socialist emulation.’ This new competition between factories has supplemented Stakhanovism, or competition between individual workers. The totalitarian bureaucracy is attempting to make the maximum speed of production of an individual Stakhanovite into the norm for all workers, factory by factory. This has only deepened the conflict between the Stalinist regime and the Russian masses. The need arose for a new ideology to discipline the Russian proletariat. The attempt to undermine and falsify every tenet of Marxism was the result.”
Whyte’s letter is evidence that the need to discipline the Russian proletariat long preceded WWII, and that appeals to the arguments of Lenin and Engels in his letter were bound to fall on deaf ears. What is your intention in both publishing this 80-year old letter and “activating” it via performance?
Yevgeniy Fiks: I was in shock when I found Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin. For someone who grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1970-80s, where homosexuality was totally considered as pathologies and seemingly had no political dimension, seeing that only 40 years earlier the question of homosexually was discussed within the Communist Party as a social and political issue and not only as medical or criminal, was stunning to me. It just seemed completely utopian. To write such a letter to Stalin, to pose this question as a Communist to a Communist. Nobody in her right mind would ever think of sending such a letter to Brezhnev in the 1960s, for example. But in 1934, such a question apparently could have been posed. It tells us that before 1934, there must have been still a certain climate in the Soviet Union where issues of sexuality could still have been discussed.
One of the reasons it’s important to go back to this letter and reactivate it today, is that it shows us that even in the history of Soviet Union, state homophobia was not something natural and organic, but rather politically constructed and instrumentalized. This gives us a frame of reference through which to consider the current construction of political homophobia and transphobia in present-day Russia and elsewhere.