Sculpture for Soviet ‘Domestic Enemy Number One’

For two weeks in November 1988, Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov visited the United States. It was a triumphant moment near the end of the life of a man who both pioneered nuclear technology and campaigned to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Drawing by John Alcorn, 1973.

From 1948, Andrei Sakharov had participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project, going on to mastermind the development of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. As he and his team tested and perfected the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov began to question the morality of his work. Realising the potential devastating repercussions of the technology he had created, Sakharov spoke out against politicians who threatened to use these weapons to escalate the Cold War. His principled stand brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities and attracted the hostile attention of the KGB. By the late 1960s, Sakharov’s activism resulted in him losing his security access, after which time he became more openly dissident, backing calls for nuclear disarmament as well as democratic government and the release of political prisoners. Denounced at home and fêted abroad, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, while the KGB described him as “Domestic Enemy Number One”.

Finally, Sakharov was arrested in 1980 after attending public protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the next six years he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. During this time, he was twice hospitalised and force fed after hunger strikes he undertook to secure medical treatment in the United States for his wife. In 1984, the US Congress sought to apply pressure on the Soviet government by voting to rename an area outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza. (Earlier this year, the move inspired activists to likewise install street signs outside the Russian Embassy renaming the area Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after the assassinated opposition leader.) Finally, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Soviet society, Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in 1986. Three years later, he died of natural causes.

Sculpture in Sakharov Square, Yerevan by Tigran Arzumanyan, 2001.

Andrei Sakharov is now commemorated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. In 2001, the first bust of Sakharov was installed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in a square renamed in his honour. The location was an expression of gratitude for Sakharov’s efforts to raise awareness about pogroms against Armenian communities in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1980s. Sakharov’s appearance in this neo-classical sculpture by Tigran Arzumanyan resembles a Greek philosopher or Roman senator.

Sculpture on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC by Peter Shapiro, 2002.

In contrast, a contemporaneous bronze bust of Sakharov in the US capital of Washington, DC shows Sakharov with closed eyes and head in hands. The sculpture is ambiguous in its portrayal, perhaps showing Sakharov the scientist, deep in thought on the edge of a breakthrough, or Sakharov the activist, ruminating on the threat of nuclear weapons or the many injustices about which he spoke out. With the hands entirely supporting his head, which appears disembodied, Sakharov becomes a ghostly figure, whose concerns remain just as valid in the present day. The statue was gifted to Russia House by Russian-American sculptor Peter Shapiro in April 2002, to celebrate Congress’s decision to posthumously honour Sakharov with citizenship of the United States. At the time on its dedication, Russia House was still the headquarters of a society for US-Russian cooperation, but Sakharov’s bust has remained in place since the building has been reimagined as a popular restaurant.

Sculpture in Academician Sakharov Square, St Petersburg by Levon Lazarev, 2003.

In 2003, the first monument to Sakharov was erected in his home country. Although born and living most of his life in Moscow, a square near St Petersburg State University, already renamed in his honour in 1996, was the site for this honour. The ten-and-a-half foot high sculpture is by Levon Lazarev, well-known for creating monuments around St Petersburg. However, the decision to erect the statue was criticised by the late Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow and a high-profile human rights activist in her own right. Bonner’s belief that Putin’s Russia had failed her husband proved to be prescient. In recent years the Sakharov Center in Moscow, founded by Bonner in 1996 to preserve his legacy, has been targeted by vigilantes for hosting events in support of LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, and fined for failing to declare itself a “foreign agent” after it provided the venue for the lying-in-state of Boris Nemtsov.

Sculpture in Muzeon Park of Arts, Moscow by Grigory Pototsky, 2008.

Despite the Moscow city authorities claiming since 2002 that the Russian capital would soon receive its own sculpture of the Nobel laureate, so far Sakharov is only honoured in his home town by a motorway renamed after him in 1990, which has become the site of opposition marches. However, in 2008, a statue of Sakharov by Russian sculptor Grigory Pototsky was placed in the Muzeon Park of Arts – formerly known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes to hold the toppled figures of the Soviet regime, and now a popular recreation area that has been augmented with a wider array of artworks. Sakharov’s effigy is placed opposite that of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who approved his exile. Yet the scientist does not look at him but rather sits back with his face towards the sky, with an expression both serene and defiant.

Painting Through the Berlin Wall

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“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

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On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

Painting the Iranian Nuclear Threat

American Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz recently made headlines in the New York Times with a new series of collages crafted in response to the perceived nuclear threat posed against Israel by Iran. The painter and printmaker, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1999 and works out of the Jerusalem Print Workshop, recently exhibiting the works at the city’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art as part of a larger exhibition of her work entitled Threatened Beauty.

The cheerful appearance of the painted medallions belies their menacing subject matter. Fordow’s Underground refers to Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment plant and below the ornate flowers and bright blue sky men in turbans are shown operating machinery. In other works the dreamy, swirling landscapes and seascapes gradually reveal sinister objects and figures, demonstrating the artist’s personal fears.

Taking inspiration from the decorative traditions of the Islamic world, in particular the intricate designs of Persian carpets and the lush visions in Persian miniatures, Arnovitz has actively sought to subvert these alluring visual legacies by manipulating them to reflect the current political turmoil in the Middle East. While other works in Arnovitz’s recent exhibition dealt with the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, the theme of nuclear threat was at its heart. The artist is a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and she claims she would like to hang her work “on the walls of Congress” and force the US president to “look at this every night before he goes to bed”.

Reflecting on the benefit of using art as a form of political propaganda, Arnovitz says: “It’s so much easier to get your message out there with art, because you’re not standing in front of a microphone and banging people over the head. Art is quieter, art gets under your skin more.”

Images: Andi Arnovitz, Fordow’s Underground, 2014. Mixed media on paper, 56.5 × 56.5 cm.

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: Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America

Throughout August the Shiva Gallery at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice continues to bear witness to the political violence that blighted Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s. Its current exhibition highlights artistic responses to the brutality of Pinochet’s Chile and military dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

In paintings, photographs, installations and video work artist-activists including Juan Carlos Caceres, Rodrigo Rojas De Négri, Iván Navarro and Julio Le Parc bravely sought to raise awareness of human rights violations and to subvert the imposing machinery of repression. Some would pay with their freedom, others with their lives.

Despite the uncomfortable imagery and subject matter, this exhibition is an important opportunity to discover more about a part of Cold War history too often overlooked in Western accounts, perhaps due to the West’s support for many of the regimes in the interests of containing communism.

Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America remains at the Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY until 12 September 2014.

Image: Juan Carlos Caceres, Santiago, Chile, 1986.

Featured Artist: Keith Haring

Keith Haring2A recent exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris highlighted the significance of Keith Haring as ‘a subversive, militant Pop icon’. The American artist used his apparently infantile and comic images of stick men and barking dogs to engage with challenging political themes as he campaigned tirelessly for social justice and the freedom of the individual.

Imbued with the street culture of 1980s’ New York, Haring’s paintings often expressed the dominant concerns of the Cold War, such as the threat of nuclear war, the preponderance of mass media and the dangers of rampant capitalism. The artist-activist was also an outspoken critic of racism, homophobia, drug use and ecocide. Towards the end of the 1980s Haring’s output became increasingly fixated on the theme of AIDS, before he sadly succumbed to the disease in 1990 at only 31 years of age.

From his subway sketches to his mural on the Berlin Wall, Haring frequently used the public space to deliver his messages. His energetic and humorous style and commitment to the democratisation of art continue to inspire new generations of politically-active street artists.

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Images: © Keith Haring Foundation