Olga Chernysheva and the Politics of the Panorama

Olga Chernysheva often says that she is interested in the motif of the “round” and the “spherical,” but she also talks about her interest in the “shapeless.” How can one reconcile these two? Isn’t the sphere the most perfect and self-contained of forms? In fact, this is exactly how one wants to describe the huge, planet-like cookies on one of her early paintings, or the self-sufficient spheres of anonymous knit hats on her later photographs. But no. In fact, the sphere is formless. Or, to be more precise, it is beyond the problematic of form if one looks at it as a cavity from within.

In general, many aspects of Russian art both classical and contemporary become more understandable if one departs from the hypothesis that this art does not actually see forms or formal categories, but that it apprehends spaces whose language it speaks. There have been periods in Russian art in which this difference has been ascribed a moral meaning, in which everything that was “spatial” seemed more ethical than things that were “flat” or “reduced.” But in fact, there is more to it. Chernysheva, for instance, is interested in spatial structures in their geopolitical, social, and historical senses.

Many of these structures represent the spatial expression of Soviet society’s ruins, but some of them also follow the dictate of the new times. In her video “Marmot,” a demonstration flows past like a river with swampy shores, along which all kinds of strange creatures get stuck in the mud; in “Train,” a train figures as a clear image for a path through life; in “The Anonymous,” a view from afar becomes an element of social tracking of marginals, while “March” shows a contemporary advertising parade, which is going nowhere, and simply marching in place. Her most recent piece depicts a close, ring-like panorama. At first glance, this appears as painting (the project seems to consist of a series of individual canvases), but it is actually based on moving images. The project is connected to the spatial structure of the “Circular Kinopanorama” at the Exhibition of Economic Achievements (VDNKh). In this sense, each painting is actually a fragment of a broken circle, which it continues to trace.

The Circular Kinopanorama movie theater was opened in 1959, only a year after Walt Disney demonstrated an analogous technology at the World’s Fair in Brussels. Actually, Disney wasn’t the first to discover this technology. The 360º panorama had first appeared around the time of the French Revolution as a painterly attraction, though it soon began to bore its spectators. By the late 19th century, this led to the emergence of the idea to paint over all panoramas with white and to project slides onto them in order to create the illusion of motion (in a hot-air balloon, for example). This technology was successful, at least to a degree, but not for long: only a few years later, the arriving train of the Lumiere brothers overran the audience, which forgot about all of these panoramas for nearly a century.Cf. Stephan Ottermann. The Panorama. History of a Mass Medium. New York: Zone Books, 1996.  In 1958, Disney employed the technology of a circular 16 mm multi-projection, but again, this was less successful than expected, perhaps in part because it was eclipsed by the launch of the Russian sputnik.

At the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958, the USSR was only just returning to the international community after a break for the darkest period of its history. Of course, the international community was only just recovering itself; the last event of comparable scale had taken place at the Paris fair in 1936. In Brussels, the Soviets showed the sputnik, which had literally only just been launched into orbit on October 4th 1957. It was understood as the next step after the avant-garde’s cosmic projects of the 1920s, thus confirming the Soviet Union’s universalistic aspirations.

At this point, the Soviet aesthetic was picking up the threads of many forgotten cosmological ideas of the 1920s, one of which was the identification of the USSR with a sphere. In 1920, in the work of El Lissitzky, the white sphere (or circle) still figured as a symbol for a previous whole now split by the red wedge. Yet with the end of the Civil War and the strengthening of the Trotskyite idea of the USSR as a realized mini-cell of the world revolution, many artists begin to imagine the “red” world in a spherical form. The sphere first appears in Leonidov’s project of the “Lenin Institute” (1927), which includes a spherical amphitheater with a transparent cupola. In 1928, Lissitzky and Meyerhold collaborated on a stage design for Sergei Tretyakov’s play “I Want a Baby!” in which they fashioned the theater in the form of an amphitheater. (Incidentally, this design included plans for the simultaneous projection of films along its perimeter.) For Lenin, both cinema and circus belong to the most important forms of art. But in the early Stalin era, the circus prevailed.

For Eisenstein, writing in 1929, art was “an arena that had suddenly become a circus, a hippodrome, a meeting, an arena for a unified collective outburst, a pulsation of unified interest”.S. Eisenstein. Perspectives. – S. Eisenstein. Selected works in 6 volumes, Vol. 2, Moscow 1964, p. 40.  This is not simply a mass spectacle, potentiallytotalitarian in structure,Cf. Vilem Flusser. Kommunikologie. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1998, p. 27f.  but a dialogue between audience and stage, constantly rotating democratically, changing places. This is something one can see quite well in the key scene of the film “Circus” (1936), made by the director Grigory Aleksandrov and the artist Sergei Luchishkin, both of whom had been involved in the Russian avant-garde. At the time, rounded contours were interpreted as communist in principle: according to the ideas of the constructivist “disurbanist” architect Mikhail Okhitovich in the early 1930s, right angles in urban planning as well as post-and-beam constructions in architecture originated in the private ownership of land. They needed to be replaced by curvilinear designs, by round buildings, concave walls, and plastic furniture with curving contours.S. Khan-Magomedov. The Architecture of the Soviet Avant-garde. Moscow, Stroiizdat, 1996, p. 634.

Such were the last ideas of the Russian avant-garde before the Second World War. In the early 1960s, not only the de-Stalinized USSR but humanity as a whole thirsted for an epoch of new modernism and new democracy that might have soaked up the Soviet experience. The Eastern and Western blocs (each of which felt themselves to be a local cosmos of sorts) now competed to reach new levels of democracy and the ability to unify people through common ideas. In the West, affordable curved plastic furniture was already on sale, as was the hula-hoop, whose sales peaked in 1958, by the way.

Under such conditions, it was inevitable that circular multi-projections would interest the Soviets. Within less than a year, Professor Evsej Goldovsky, considered the father of Soviet film science, had found a way to perfect the American technology by using 35 mm film. Soon, a cinema-in-the-round, called the “Circular Kinopanorama”, was constructed at the VDNKh exhibition grounds. Topped by a cone-like structure, it housed 22 synchronized movie projectors arranged in two tiers. The points of connection between these frames were concealed by black stripes. Using a ring of cameras mounted on a moveable rig, special panorama films were made on the themes of tourism and recreation (in the USSR). These films are still shown today.

Soon, circular movie theaters based on the Soviet project were built in Prague and Tokyo, and, by 1963, in London. Incidentally, the Circlorama in Piccadilly Circus folded within a year, though there is actually a special website made by people who still remember how they visited the Circlorama or how they worked there (which they write about with even more enthusiasm). In the West, this expensive technology never really caught on. No matter how much the spectator craned his neck, she or he only got half of the projection for her or his money, frustrating her or his desire and leading to irritation.

In 1967, the French showed a compromise variant in Montreal, namely a film on a concave wall. Yet at the next World’s Fair at Osaka in 1970, all the fame went to the American IMAX technology. Even if this was a monoprojection, it was very precise and still holds an international monopoly over visual attractions of this sort. Incidentally, the USSR showed the work of the NEP group at Osaka, a city on the inner surface of a sphere.

Thus, the circular kinopanorama remained a deeply Soviet phenomenon. Even if it was no more profitable in the USSR than elsewhere, it was not closed down (and is still in operation today). This is not only because the argument of the market was null and void, but also because the aesthetic argument against it did not apply.

First of all, unlike his or her Western counterpart, the Soviet spectator could see with the back of his or her head. As we know, the development of this capacity was quite a serious artistic project, pushed forward byMikhail Matyushin, one of the leaders of the Russian avant-garde. In the USSR, the spectator was understood as a collective, a combination of gazes that were not all the same, but multidimensional, democratic, and dialectical thanks to their multiplicity. This type of three-eyed vision is precisely what El Lissitzky captured on his famous poster for the Russian Exhibition in Zurich 1929. And since each film camera, and correspondingly, each movie projector represents the human eye, multi-projections became the symbolic form for communism’s collective gaze. It goes without saying that this was a counterbalance to the West’s primary symbolic form (Panofsky’s use of Cassirer’s term), namely a monocular linear perspective, a mono-projection in its medial variant. Incidentally, Chernysheva’s photographic portraits of knitted hats, taken from the back, are directly connected with this motif of the “seeing sphere” (in analogy to the thinking reed).

Second of all, the visual was not actually considered as the main register of perceiving reality under Communism. One was meant to feel the fullness of the circular panorama with one’s back, and even with the back of one’s neighbor, and not to see it with one’s own eyes. In the late 1920s, the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov developed a project of a “dream sonata,” an educational human domicile that was supposed to affect all organs of perception aside from the eyes. A form of ownership, vision is something bourgeois, as is the unmoving panorama, which the spectator looks upon as an owner (the birth of the static panorama actually corresponds to the victory of the bourgeois revolution in Western Europe). As we know, the Soviet human being traverses his spanless motherland as if he or she were its owner:Trans. note: Here, the author is paraphrasing the second verse of the song Shiroka strana moya rodnaya (1936) by Isaac Dunayevsky. The song was written for the movie “The Circus” (see above). “Shiroka strana moya rodnaya” quickly became an informal anthem to complement “The Internationale,” which was eventually replaced by the familiar Stalinist national anthem in 1944. For recordings of this song, see http://www.hymn.ru/index-en.html experienced dynamically and tactile in nature, this spatial feeling lay at the base of the Soviet aesthetic. This is precisely why the Soviet spectator was not supposed to feel any discomfort at all in missing half of the film: this type of frustration would have been the frustrated desire toward ownership, to which the inhabitants of the Soviet world were immune. The display was not meant to provoke an appetite toward ownership; instead, it was meant to make its beholders want to share and experience it together.

This is why the moving multi-projection was supposed to become a symbolic form in which each person was meant to be an active participant observer instead of a static spectator. By the way, this also explains the significant fact that the circular panorama’s visitor was meant to stand instead of sitting down, which meant that he or she was immediately placed into a public and not a quasi-domestic space as is a traditional movie theater. At the same time, the circular form did not only negate the capitalist type of property or the passive capitalist spectator, but also capitalist history and linear time as a whole. Timelessness and paradise were already immanent; the momentous struggle was followed by repose; socialism in one country had already been built; there were no threats to the Soviet Union. This is why such a complex machine for the production of ideological space could be used to project the innocent images of tourism (within the bounds of the USSR), the friendship of peoples, and vacations on the beach.

All of this is quite reminiscent of contemporary video installations, which – as the reader will probablyhave noted – the circular kinopanorama prefigured to a degree. Today, the spectator is also forced to stand in darkness, sometimes even for a long time, to intensively look at something with multiple screens, some of which are behind his or her back (though fully circular installations are still quite rare). He or she tolerates this frustration so that the artist might successfully show in how far the images do not belong to the spectator, in how far the laws of market are not in operation here, in how far they are not supposed to operate. And all of this is often done with the help of images that are quite commercial and even beautiful, something about tourism and beaches, in other words.

But what happened when this circular Soviet space beyond history founds itself thrown back into linear historical time, when the collective vision fell apart? Has the motion of the “communist” multi-dimensional, multi-medial panorama collapsed into the “bourgeois” mono-focal, monomedial “picture in oil on canvas” forever?

Not quite, or at least not in the work of Olga Chernysheva. For almost twenty years, she has consistently been undermining this mono-medial quality. She always integrates painting or pictures into her pieces as a certain horizon, though she never allows this painting or picture to become self-evident. Instead, Chernysheva moves through the “grey zones” where media meet, where the status of the image needs to be redefined every time around. Such redefinitions include painting-sculptures (piles of canvases, put together as objects in the form of layered cakes, as in her pieces from the early 1990s), painting-photographs (pictures painted from reproductions in books, as in her early “confectionary” series), painting-video (video images of static paintings, as in the film “Tretyakovka”), water-color-video (“Steamboat Dionysus”, a film that begins and ends with the static frame of a watercolor drawing), or now, paintings as the ruins of the spatial experience.

A naïve spectator might say that Chernysheva’s images depict the films of the circular kinopanorama’s in the moment of their breakdown, when their frames have stopped. According to the logic of things, they would have to then begin to melt in their projector, so that we actually face a requiem. A less naïve viewer would say that what we have here is an archeology of the collective gaze, which we can no longer read as something collective since we lack the necessary lenses. The panorama has been fractured into separate visions or apparitions, into personal points of view (which is actually how people now look at the Soviet past, each in his or her own way). It has been subdivided and privatized quite clumsily, sown back together with all-too-obvious seams. What does humanism mean in the course of this privatization? Is it a return to the individual’s personality? Or does each of these images simply snatch its piece from a whole that has been miraculously preserved?

Here, much depends on the further fate of these images in the future. Now exhibited for the first time in the form of a unified spatial construction, an installation, they will probably later be dispersed and sold off one by one. The artist does not want this to happen, but then again, she is ready for the advent of economic reality. The extent to which they will be able to hold their circle may depend on the paintings themselves, but it also depends on how strong the magical force of the circular kinopanorama was to begin with. In this sense, Chernysheva’s panorama is an experiment of sorts.

Translated from Russian by David Riff

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