Everywhere and Nowhere: Understanding Russian Constructivism through Aleksei Gan

Kristin Romberg, Gan’s Constructivism: Aesthetic Theory for an Embedded Modernism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), x + 297 pp.

With Gan’s Constructivism, Kristin Romberg demonstrates how to write about a figure who is at once central and marginal, everywhere and nowhere. Aleksei Gan’s contradictions, the stark contrasts between his ambitions and his absences, are manifold. He co-founded the First Working Group of Constructivists in 1921 and published Constructivism, the movement’s first theoretical treatise, in 1922, yet remains unmentioned in most histories. He commissioned Aleksandr Rodchenko to design costumes for a play that he never wrote. He directed the film Island of Young Pioneers (1924), all copies of which have been lost.

Gan’s work as an agitator and ideologue further complicates this picture. His influence as a political organizer, activist, and promoter of “mass action” is evident, yet such actions do not leave behind many material artifacts for the scholar to study. Moreover, Gan’s militant position as a self-declared “adversary of art” set him against Constructivism’s leading figures. In 1919 Rodchenko complained, “I am sick of Gan. He doesn’t know anything about art.” Such conflicts, Romberg points out, kept Gan from receiving due credit for shaping the movement (p. 56). They also further the perception that his work was incomprehensible even to his contemporaries, and hence cannot be intelligible to us.

book coverRomberg’s impressive book represents a significant contribution to the scholarly understanding of Gan. While it has been claimed that Gan was born in 1889, 1893, or 1895, Romberg points to five archival sources to indicate that he was born in 1887. Romberg’s correction of previous estimates makes Gan older than his Constructivist contemporaries. He would have been at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from roughly 1905–09, years that coincided with “the school’s most aesthetically and politically radical period” (p. 16), and thirty years old during the October Revolution and ensuing Civil War. He was especially active in the 1920s. After co-founding the First Working Group of Constructivists with Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova in 1921—an event Romberg reconstructs from Gan’s perspective in Chapter Two—Gan published Constructivism and edited the journals Kino-fot (1922–23) and Contemporary Architecture (1926–30). He was a founding member of October (1928–32), a collective of Constructivist artists that included Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, and Rodchenko. In contrast to the 1920s, the 1930s were years of adversity as Constructivism fell into disfavor and Gan suffered from alcoholism and ill health. It is believed that he separated from the documentary filmmaker Esfir Shub in 1934, and left for Khabarovsk with the promise of work in the same year, but little is known about his activity there. Following his arrest in 1941 for counterrevolutionary activity, he was executed in the southern Siberian city of Tomsk in 1942.

For Gan’s Constructivism, Romberg consulted materials in ten Russian state archives and numerous personal collections, as well as published sources, to reconstruct Gan’s career and reclaim for Gan what has been long attributed to others. Chapters One and Two revisit events—such as the mass action Gan helped to organize for May Day 1920, an event that was eventually scrapped—to demonstrate how Gan’s thinking enacted an “embedded aesthetics” that has largely been omitted from historical accounts of Constructivism. In Romberg’s reconstruction, the mass action emerges as an important counterexample to Nikolai Evreinov’s Storming of the Winter Palace, which is frequently cited as the performance that defined early Soviet agit-drama. From its plans, Romberg determines that the May Day mass action would have been “physically impossible to view […] in its entirety as a spectator” (p. 46). One would have to have moved with it, in effect becoming a participant: “The only possible relationship to the work was to be actively embedded within it” (p. 46).

“Embeddedness” is a term unspoken by Gan, but regularly used by Romberg to demonstrate how Gan positioned himself and his work. While Constructivism “is often characterized as an objective and rational aesthetic […] Gan’s thinking relied on precisely the opposite dynamic: an assumption of embeddedness in life’s stream, within the constantly shifting specificities of a particular time and place, rather than being ‘lifted above’ them” (p. 5). This embedded position informs all of Gan’s work, including his coining of the term tektonika, which draws on “usages evolving contemporaneously in the seemingly disparate fields of systems theory, geology, and architectural theory” to suggest that form is contingent on social relations as well as physical forces (p. 78). Having explicated Gan’s use of tektonika in Chapter Three, Romberg turns her attention to Gan’s treatise Constructivism in Chapter Four to address the Constructivist triad—faktura, tektonika, konstruktsiia—and its manifestation in Gan’s innovative graphic design and experimental typography.

In the introduction to her 2014 translation of Constructivism, Christina Lodder notes the irony that the first scholarly works devoted exclusively to Gan appeared in the 1990s, by which time the dream of the “communist utopia…for which [Gan] had worked so assiduously” had long passed.(Christina Lodder, “Introduction,” in Alexei Gan, Constructivism, trans. Christina Lodder (Barcelona: Editorial Tenov, 2014), ix.) Lodder implies that critical directions of the 1990s catalyzed and shaped the reception of Gan in that they identified the distinctiveness of his practice while reifying his marginal position within the history of Constructivism to the degree that it is commonplace to begin any discussion of Gan’s career by noting how little has been written about him.

Romberg makes the case for situating the study of Gan’s creative practice in the present: “The root difference between the present account and those formed in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union lies largely in experiencing the erosion of public institutions, such as the university and museum, and categories valued in Enlightenment discourses, such as science and truth, less as emancipatory critiques of conservative institutions than as neoliberal machinations to dismantle the public sphere” (p. 6). Gan, she argues, was fully aware of the strategic bargain he was making as he participated in the construction of the system in which he lived and worked. He did not idealize artistic freedom and autonomy, but “the freedom to make a collective choice about forms of unfreedom” (p. 8). Romberg identifies—and identifies with—Gan’s embedded constructivism. Embeddedness, as becomes evident early on, is the organizing principle for her scholarship: “Gan has been a minor character in constructivism’s story for decades, waiting for someone to have a reason to want to see through his eyes” (p. 15). To the extent that it is possible to see and think as Gan did—and Romberg acknowledges that “the reconstruction of his story has required a degree of speculation and imagination” (p. 15)—we encounter previously obscured ways of thinking, making, and doing. Romberg recovers the terms and practices Gan used to integrate Constructivist activity into everyday life. Just as importantly, she recognizes the need to explicate what was once tacit knowledge. As thick description, Gan’s Constructivismdiscloses what was self-evident to Gan, using a vocabulary that reveals how his activity functioned within the institutions, communities, and social relationships of his time, and more idealistically, shaped those institutions, communities, and relationships.

Romberg makes the case for Gan’s embeddedness on multiple fronts. In places she revises Lodder’s translation of Gan’s Constructivism to foreground his debts to Bogdanov’s The Science of Social Consciousness (pp. 66, 256). She proposes that Gan collaborated with Rodchenko on designing the iconic cover of Constructivism, previously attributed to Rodchenko alone (p. 265; fn. 21). Gan’s efforts to generate public debates about participation in production and engage working-class participants as coauthors in large-scale projects do not map onto a reception-based model. Romberg instead contextualizes Gan’s projects within contributions to labor policy. This becomes especially clear in Chapter Seven, in which she reconstructs Gan’s lost film Island of Young Pioneers. Romberg reveals that the film was produced in tandem with Vertov’s Kino-Eye and that Vertov and Gan were part of a commission that planned to “draw the proletariat into cinema work” (p. 214). Drawing on meager archival resources to produce a robust analysis, Romberg contrasts Vertov’s method—which “shunned subjective artistry, ceding agency to the camera”—with the “staginess” of Gan’s production, which employed Pioneers and workers as amateur actors. The two films, and the ensuing debate between the two directors, “critically juxtapose two ways of working with ‘nature’ or real people” (p. 223). Vertov maintained the position (or illusion) of objective observer, while Gan’s project was one of “collective self-development” (p. 230). For Romberg, Island of Young Pioneers and Gan’s oeuvre as a whole present an alternative to a world “divided into subjects and objects, masters and slaves, humans and nature” (p. 233). As she concludes, for Gan and those in his world, “Living in the communist city would feel neither like being stuck in the mud nor like hovering above but like carving out space for oneself as a constituent part of a tectonically connected whole world in flux” (p. 233).

Romberg’s corrections of previous scholarship and analyses of nonexistent artifacts are bold interventions, emerging from her assiduous research and thorough embeddedness in existing sources. We never doubt the validity of her reconstructions. But a substantive part of Gan’s story is that he did not always succeed in integrating his ideas or work into public life. In Chapter Five, “The Communist City: The Total Work of the Constructivist Object,” Romberg argues that the kiosks Gan designed for the distribution of books and periodicals resolved multiple challenges: they were mobile, intended for mass production, and assisted with the circulation of ideas in rural and urban space (pp. 156–64). Yet these kiosks, we finally learn, were “never produced as anything more than prototypes” (p. 165). As with the May Day mass action and the nonexistent play We, embedding the reader in Gan’s world entails embracing Gan’s, and Romberg’s, vision of what he intended and what might have been achieved. One often has the sense that one is reading Gan’s alternate history, a narrative buoyed by the potential for what might have been.

Toward the conclusion of her book Romberg describes an April 1928 photograph of participants in the conference of the Union of Contemporary Architects, in which Gan “seems out of step in his Civil War-era military jacket, more mascot than member” (p. 190). By this time, we realize that Gan has been out of step all along. When constraints cast a shadow on the narrative of possibilities, they appear in the form of tragedy (the death of his first wife, his multiple hospitalizations, his alcoholism). These experiences compound the difficulties that Gan encountered as an uncompromising defender of the ideological soundness of his ideas while failing to secure mainstream acceptance for them.

Among the most compelling moments of Gan’s Constructivism are those in which Romberg’s cogent arguments for Gan’s centrality are visibly at odds with the received history of Constructivism. Gan’s story, Romberg asserts, can be advanced only when we become thoroughly enmeshed in processes of illustrating how history is defined. Romberg’s book illuminates the past but is oriented toward the future. It exemplifies a participatory, rather than receptive, mode for critical writing. Most importantly, it recalibrates the reader’s assumptions about the history of Constructivism, who makes it, and how it can be written.

Lisa Ryoko Wakamiya
Lisa Ryoko Wakamiya is Associate Professor of Slavic and Courtesy Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. She writes on transnationalism, post-Soviet literature and film, and the intersections between narrative and material culture.