Venice Biennale Highlight #1: Albanian Trilogy

To celebrate the relaunch of ESPIONART, the Cold War art blog, this week presents a series of Cold War related highlights from the 56th Venice Biennale, open now until 22 November 2015.

Top of the list is the artist Armando Lulaj’s exhibition at the Albanian Pavilion in Arsenale, entitled Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems. Curated by Marco Scotini, the exhibition presents three recent films by Lulaj charting extraordinary episodes from Albania’s Cold War history and the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

The most eye-catching piece in the exhibition focuses upon an unlikely victim of Hoxha’s regime. As the leader became increasingly fearful of an attack by the USSR following the disintegration of Soviet-Albanian relations in the early 1960s, the Albanian navy responded to the sighting of what they believed to be an enemy submarine by launching a missile at it. The unfortunate target turned out instead to be a whale, and its skeleton is now held in the Museum of Natural History in Tirana. The skeleton is temporarily on loan to the exhibition in Venice, and alongside it the film It Wears as It Grows (2011) presents this unfortunate animal’s remains as a representation of the damage of Hoxha’s regime.

Another passer-by who came a cropper in Hoxha’s Albania was US Air Force pilot Major Howard J. Curran. After entering Albanian airspace in December 1957, Curran was forced to land in the country and was only released after two weeks of interrogation. The film Recapitulation (2015) explores the less favourable history of his aircraft, which was moved to an Albanian castle that had been reimagined as the country’s Weapons Museum. There it remains to this day with the label “American Spy Plane?”, the question mark added in 2009 in an attempt to appease the United States.

Hoxha’s increasingly unpredictable paranoia left an indelible mark on Albania, most obviously in the form of his programme of “bunkerisation” that continues to pockmark the surface of the country. The last film in the exhibition, NEVER (2012), focuses on another monumental leftover from the communist leader’s 40-year reign. In 1968 the Albanian People’s Army led hundreds of young people in spelling out ENVER in enormous painted white stones on the side of the Shpirag mountain, over a distance of approximately 36,000 square metres. After the end of Hoxha’s regime in the early 1990s attempts were made to remove the stones, but napalm and military machinery failed to erase the offending letters. NEVER documents the state of the installation in 2012, as the persistent activity of local villagers together with the natural effects of the shifting terrain, vegetation, and the elements have gradually morphed the dictator’s first name into the English word NEVER.

As well as the whale skeleton, Lulaj’s three films are accompanied by further archival material to present a fascinatingly rich, disturbing and yet surprisingly playful historical account of the Hoxha years.

Top – Installation shot of Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems by Armando Lulaj at the Venice Biennale, 2015; Bottom – screen shot from NEVER by Armando Lulaj, 2012.

Featured Artist: Stefan Constantinescu

The Romanian Revolution from 16 to 27 December 1989 swept Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and brought an end to 42 years of communist rule. While 25 years have now passed since that tumultuous fortnight a number of Romanian artists continue to explore their country’s struggles in the aftermath of revolution. Once such artist is Ştefan Constantinescu.

Born in Bucharest in 1968, Constantinescu experienced first hand the daily grind of life during Ceaușescu’s regime. He trained as a painter but has since worked predominantly in film. Much of Constantinescu’s work is autobiographical, such as his darkly ironic pop-up book The Golden Age for Children. The book interweaves text and photos from the artist’s biography with historical details of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Romania under Ceaușescu.

In one of his video projects – The Last Analog Revolution, a Memory Box – Constantinescu also led other artists in combining their personal experiences with episodes from Cold War history. The project brought together works by artists from Eastern and Western Europe to explore how technological developments in the twentieth century was both a catalyst for revolution and a means of uniting the divided continent.

Between 2009 and 2010 Constantinescu used his training as a painter to create a series of 22 paintings entitled An Infinite Blue. The artist appropriated the Soviet artistic style of Socialist Realism, which was also mandatory in communist Romania, and sourced content from propaganda images produced in the 1960s. In these canvases Constantinescu sought to convey the nostalgia felt by many Romanians for the pre-revolutionary era which they retrospectively regard as a time of economic stability and superior quality of life.

You can read more about how Romanian artists including Ştefan Constantinescu and Adrian Ghenie have confronted their country’s difficult past and present in the article Remnants: Socialist Realism in Contemporary Romanian Painting.

Images by Ştefan Constantinescu, courtesy the artist. Top – The Golden Age for Children, pop-up book, 2008. Bottom – Biology Laboratory, oil on canvas, 2009–10.

Exhibition of the Month: Beyond Zero

For the rest of this month, the dreams of the Soviet space programme are alive in London. In the exhibition Beyond Zero the Calvert 22 gallery explores how Russian artists have been inspired by man’s evolving engagement with the cosmos.

The works featured in the exhibition date from the 1930s to the present day, showing how artists have continued to challenge the conventions of time and space. In immersive and site-specific installations contemporary artists comment on the poetic power of the moon and the mythical nature of sunlight and stars to deliver a series of illuminating experiences.

And at the end of the tour you can relax on beanbags while watching Pavel Klushantsev’s two sci-fi documentaries, Road to the Stars (1957) and The Moon (1965), pre-empting Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas in their utopian visions of a zero-gravity future.

Image: Pavel Klushantsev, The Moon, 1965, still. Courtesy of Gosfilmofond, St Petersburg.

Featured Artist: Sean Snyder

Sean Snyder is a contemporary American artist living and working in Berlin, Kiev and Tokyo. Acclaimed for his unique ‘research-based’ art, Snyder works predominantly in film and video to explore the role of images in the global circulation of (dis)information.

This fascination has repeatedly led him to engage with the politics of images produced during the Cold War. Using montages and cut ups of content drawn from official news channels to clandestine websites, Snyder challenges our understanding of what we see by questioning the lines between truth and propaganda, transparency and manipulation.

Some of Snyder’s recent Cold War themed artworks have included Exhibition (2008) which reappropriates footage from a 1965 Soviet documentary about an art exhibition in eastern Ukraine; Two Oblique Representations of a Given Place (Pyongyang) (2001–4) which juxtaposes screens showing official footage celebrating the technological advances of Pyongyang with a tourist-filmed video that gives an altogether more eerie view of the North Korean capital; Afghanistan, circa 1985 (2008–9) which captures the strange banality of war using footage shot by soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania (2001) which recounts the bizarre role of the American TV series Dallas in bringing down the USSR.

Snyder’s work is informative, compelling and unsettling, as we are confronted by our susceptibility to the wealth of images we are exposed to on a daily basis.

For a more in-depth account of Sean Snyder’s work, read Stranger than Fiction on Frieze.

Images: Sean Snyder. Top – Exhibition, 2008 (video still); Bottom – Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania, 2001 (video still). Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Lisson Gallery, London; and Galerie Neu, Berlin.

Recommended: Kiss Kiss Kill Kill

KKKK Film Poster 2A scantily-clad femme fatale, a pristinely-coiffed hero, and an array of imaginatively-evil baddies. Throw in some guns and gadgets and you have the perfect recipe for a spy thriller.

Kiss Kiss Kill Kill is a multidimensional project dedicated to preserving and sharing the graphic art and forgotten spy films of Cold War Europe. Amassed by creator and curator Richard Rhys Davies, the collection now runs to over 6,000 items, including original artwork, posters, lobby cards and stills.

From the formative 1950s through the golden age of the 1960s and into the nihilistic 1970s, the familiar iconography of the spy thriller is ever present. Yet although often comical and easily parodied, the phenomenon is nevertheless an accessible way to understand a complex political and cultural moment in world history, making Kiss Kiss Kill Kill an important resource.

KKKK HeaderWhile a touring exhibition of posters from the archive recently closed in Leeds, the exhibition catalogue contains reproductions of over 100 posters, digitally-restored to their former psychedelic glory. The collection is set to grow even larger, as efforts are made to track down obscure pieces from former Communist countries, South America and South-East Asia. Further exhibitions and publications are planned as new work is acquired, so keep an eye on the website for plenty more to come.

Image (top): Poster for Rapporto Fuller, base Stoccolma (Fuller Report, Base Stockholm), Italian, 1968, dir. Sergio Grieco.

Exhibition of the Month: Damage Control

The spectre of Cold War looms large in the Hirshhorn’s latest exhibition, Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. The start date of its chronology points to an initial focus on the trauma of destruction in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and anxieties about the strange new world that rose from its ashes. Initial feelings of panic in the face of human fragility, when faced with documentary evidence of nuclear destruction at the exhibition’s entrance,  dissipate as artists gradually reclaim control through a range of defensive gestures.

piano deconstruction
At times nihilistic and haunting or mischievous and seductive, Damage Control charts artistic responses to the theme of destruction over more than half a century. Film and photography, often incorporating imagery taken from media sources, chart the build-up of the ‘atomic age’ in the 1950s, in light of what appeared to be the very real prospect of nuclear war. Into the 1960s, a more inquisitional practice is seen as artists themselves begin to attack and destroy, from the piano deconstructions of Raphael Montañez Ortiz to the auto-destructive art pioneered by Gustav Metzger. Yet grandiose gestures and playful performances in the postmodern era are followed by a renewed psychological anguish, as foreboding about the dangers of War on Terror and environmental degradation leads artists to make new contributions to the long history of iconoclasm.

Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 continues at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. until 26 May 2014.

Image: Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Piano Destruction Concert. Recreated at the Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C., October 2013.

African Artists in the Soviet Union

Calvert 22 Gallery in London, an institution dedicated to the display of Russian and Eastern European art, recently launched an ambitious project to explore Cold War artistic connections between Africa and the Soviet Union. A team of researchers under the leadership of curator and Royal College of Art lecturer, Dr Mark Nash, are in the process of collecting film and archival material, sourcing interviews and commissioning new works to tell this fascinating and largely unknown story.

Dating from Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’ in the 1950s, African artists and filmmakers were invited to study for free in the USSR. Participants included leading writers, directors and producers, such as the Senegalese ‘father of African film’, Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali, and Ethiopians Seyoum Wolde and Bekele Mekonnen. The initiative was part of Khrushchev’s efforts to re-engage with the international community after the isolating Stalinist years, and also an astute policy to strengthen Soviet influence over former colonies in the process of establishing independence.

The two-year programme, entitled Socialist Friendship, is set to conclude with a series of events. You can find out more at the Calvert 22 Gallery website and sign up to receive more information as the project develops.

Image: Cejuma, Dissertation Works, Tashkent, 1986. Courtesy Calvert 22 Gallery