Recommended: International Spy Museum

When visiting the (American) nation’s capital, there’s a one stop shop to discover everything you never knew you wanted to know about espionage. Since 2002 the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC has been home to the largest collection of spycraft ever placed on public display.

Along winding corridors the museum takes a look at the long history of spying – Sun Tzu to Casanova, the Rosenbergs to cyberwarfare. The Cold War features prominently, including interviews with former KGB and CIA agents, interactive stories of daring missions, and ingenious top-secret gadgets such as a lipstick pistol, microdot cameras and a Bulgarian umbrella. Plus the Cold War takes central stage in two current exhibitions: Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains and Argo Uncovered.

Plans are underway for the museum to move to larger premises, but for the forseeable future it remains at 800 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.

The Trauma Art of Thailand’s Forgotten Massacre

A brutal but largely forgotten episode from recent Thai history has united several contemporary artists to produce a ‘trauma art’ to comment on the loss of collective memory.

The Thammasat University Massacre on 6 October 1976 was a shocking moment. The violence took place in the midst of an anti-communist crackdown in Bangkok, provoked by fears of a communist takeover following the recent Fall of Saigon. The national police collaborated with right-wing paramilitary groups to stage a premeditated attack on a university campus to quell dissent, as part of a plot to reinstate a military junta. By official count, the orgy of shooting, beating and rape left 46 people dead and 167 wounded. Unofficially, the episode is said to have ended over a hundred young lives. Of those that survived, about a thousand demonstrators were arrested, forced to parade naked and subjected to further violations in public.

Despite the viciousness of the attack on unarmed citizens, none of the perpetrators of the massacre have been brought to justice. The episode is largely airbrushed from history textbooks in Thailand and those making public comment on the event still risk state censorship.

The artistic response to the massacre gained pace in 1996 as public rememberance of the atrocity increased around its the 20th anniversary. At that time painter Vasan Sitthiket created his series Tulalai (Blue October). Recreating black and white photographic images of the massacre, the royal blue alludes to the tacit collaboration of the monarchy, while the dead are made sacred through the use of gold leaf, normally reserved for Buddhist sculptures. The upside-down title represents the skewed collective memory of the event.

Five years later, Manit Sriwanichpoom superimposed Neil Ulevich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the massacre with the ‘Pink Man’ (artist Sompong Tawee dressed in a bright pink suit) to represent a consumerist society that had forgotten its radical past. Yet despite these interventions, the massacre remains largely forgotten by Thai society.

This complex episode and its effect on Thai art has been explored fully by Sudarat Musikawong in the article ‘Art for October: Thai Cold War State Violence in Trauma Art‘ (2010).

Images: Top – Vasan Sitthiket, from the series Tulalai (Blue October), 1996. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas, 6 pieces, each 1.5 × 1.5 m. Courtesy the artist; Bottom – Manit Sriwanichpoom, Pisat si chomphu (Horror in Pink) No.2, 2001. Colour print, 120 x 174.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Exhibition of the Month: Monument to Cold War Victory

Although the most sustained and influential conflict of the twentieth century, the Cold War has no publicly-commissioned commemoration in the United States.

Two years ago, one artist took that fact as inspiration for a fascinating conceptual project. In November 2012 Yevgeniy Fiks, along with curator Stamatina Gregory, formed the Committee for Tacit History. In a nod to the 1952 competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, the Committee issued an international call for proposals for a ‘Monument to Cold War Victory’.

In April 2013 a group of Cold War art experts whittled down the 200 submissions to 17 finalists. For the next month, those shortlisted projects – featuring the work of artists from across the United States, Europe, Latin America and the former Soviet republics – are on display at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

While questioning the validity of public commissions and war memorials, Monument to Cold War Victory also challenges belief in that victory, as ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Edward Snowden’s revelations and recent sanctions against Russia reveal the ongoing impact of half a century of sustained ideological struggle.

Szabolcs KissPál, Hollywood Ten, 2014. Wallpaper, 108 x 161 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Youth Mao Zedong Statue

On 1 October 1949 Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Over the next half a century the country witnessed the trauma of the Great Leap Forward and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, and gradually progressed to become a superpower.

Although now a technologically-advantaged nation with a booming economy, the visual culture of Mao’s China continues to loom large in the Cold War era statuary and paintings that populate the country. Yet despite these residual artworks, in December 2009 many were surprised by the unveiling of the Youth Mao Zedong Statue on Orange Isle outside the city Changsha.

Standing 32 metres tall and constructed from 8,000 giant granite bricks, the monumental bust depicts Mao in 1925, when at age 32 he composed a poem about Changsha. The flattering portrait shows Mao with a long mane of windswept hair and in a heroic pose typical of socialist realism, looking with confident determination towards the country’s communist future.

The sculpture took 2 years to construct and cost about 35 million US dollars, funded by the local government. Professor Xie Liwen, a member of the creative team from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, recalled his ambition to create a work recognised for its uniqueness and artistry. Favourable comments have compared the statue to the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, although others have questioned the suitability of its construction in the modern China.

Youth Mao Zedong Statue, Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China, 2007–09.

Indonesia’s Banned Communist Art

In the early hours of 1 October 1965 a group of Indonesian army officers calling themselves the 30 September Movement assassinated six army generals. Unrest quickly spread across Jakarta as several thousand members of the Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to stage a coup d’état against President Sukarno. Due to poor planning by the rebels and the superior military strategy of Major General Suharto, the future president, by the end of the day the coup attempt had collapsed.

The reasons for the assassinations are still disputed, from claims it was an internal army affair led by junior officers resentful of the generals’ corruption, to conspiracy theories about CIA and MI6 collusion. However, official blame immediately fell on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the months that following, a violent anti-communist purge by the army resulted in the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists.

These events also brought an end to Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA), a communist art movement that was banned in the aftermath of the coup attempt. The group was founded in August 1950 by artists and writers keen to follow the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, and associated artists specialised in paintings highlighting the struggles of the Indonesian people. As the purge gained pace, members of LEKRA were killed or imprisoned for the controversial subject matter of their art. One such artist was Hendra Gunawan, who was released only in 1978.

Image: Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950. Oil on canvas, 94 x 140 cm. National Gallery, Singapore.

What & Where: Atomium

What: The Atomium
Where: Square de l’Atomium, B-1020 Brussels, Belgium

In northern Brussels a structure named ‘Europe’s most bizarre building’ is a permanent reminder of the Cold War’s utopian vision of the future. The Atomium was constructed for Expo 58, the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, and was originally intended only to survive the months of the Fair. But such was the popularity of this unusual part-building part-sculpture that over half a century later it remains the Belgian capital’s most popular tourist destination.

The 335ft-high stainless steel building was designed by engineer André Waterkeyn with architects André and Jean Polak. The shape represents a single molecule of iron magnified 165 billion times. Five of its nine spheres house permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, while the connecting tubes enclose escalators and staircases. The top provides a panoramic view where on a clear day visitors can see as far as Antwerp.

Built at the height of the Cold War, when scientific developments were at the forefront of confrontations between competing nations, the Atomium recalls the idealistic dreams of the Space Race and ambitions on both sides of the Iron Curtain for an ultra-modern and super-technological future.

Images: Exterior and interior of The Atomium, designed by André Waterkeyn, André Polak and Jean Polak, 1958. Photos courtesy Shed Expedition

Featured Artist: Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck

Venezuelan multimedia artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck has in recent years been bringing the Cold War back into contemporary galleries and international biennials. His eclectic installations incorporate historical documents, media sources and the work of other artists to dissect the role of power and propaganda in artistic narratives after World War II.

Balteo Yazbeck’s hybrid practice casts him at once as researcher, archivist, historian and curator. He has often teamed up with New York-based Iranian curator and art historican Media Farzin on a number of projects exploring America’s efforts to access oil reserves in Venezuela and Iran during the Cold War.

The duo’s 2009 exhibition Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect – named after a 1954 opinion piece published in the New York Times – brought together maps, photographs and replica artworks in a tale of international intrigue which placed Alexander Calder at the centre of US diplomacy in Latin America and the Middle East.

In 2013 one of Balteo Yazbeck’s latest projects, Chronoscope, was a highlight of the Cold War-themed Statue of Limitation exhibition in Dubai. This exciting and informative work proves that the Cold War remains a rich source of inspiration for contemporary artists.

Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin. Top – Didactic Panel for Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943 (detail); Bottom – Eames-Derivative (small version). From the series Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect, 2006–13. Courtesy the artists