Coordinates

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2012, texts; prints of archive materials; video in the loop (found footage)

Coordinates, Moravian Gallery, Brno, 15. 11. 2012 – 3. 3. 2013, curated by Yvona Ferencová

 

The project is an attempt at a museum’s reconstruction of the image of a lost world based on a few surviving fragments. It works with the experience of alienation which we feel in relation to the mythologies of destroyed civilizations: the myth no longer acts as the basis of our security in understanding the world, but represents an ad-lib fantasy construct onto which we project our own explanations.

 

exhibition view, photo Moravian Gallery, Brno

 

video, found footage from the film The Leningrad Spy Area (1949)

 

catalogue of the exhibition, graphic design by Radim Peško

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I.

The construction of the Leningrad underground railway started in 1947, shortly after the Second World War. The first line became operational in 1955, linking the city centre and the south-western quarter of Narvskaya Zastava. Each station along the line is designed in the monumental style of the period, known in the vernacular as “Stalin’s”. The design of each of the eight stops reflects a particular moment in the Soviet people’s “struggle to build communism”; for example, the bas-reliefs on the platform at the Uprising Square terminus represent pivotal moments in the Great October Socialist Revolution. The exterior of the station building resembles a gigantic tent, supported on Doric columns and topped with a spike. Uprising Square is one of the key hubs of Leningrad municipal transport. It is situated by Moscow Station, and three major city streets lead to it: Nevsky, Staro-Nevsky and Ligovsky prospekts. The underground station building is thus a definite element in the panorama of the city. When viewed from Moscow Station, its spike is a counterpart to that of the Admiralty on the distant horizon.

This spectacular angle of view is captured in a photograph reproduced in Leningrad, a collection of colour photographs published in 1964 that became the template for a series of postcards. Ilya Borisovich Goland is credited as its photographer. Thanks to the recollections of his son, which have recently appeared on the internet, it is known that he was actually not “Borisovich” but “Borukhovich”. He came from Dvinsk (Daugavpils), Latvia, and was about twenty when Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union. During the war he suffered several injuries, losing both legs in the most serious of them. Someone in a field hospital gave him a camera and several rolls of film, war booty. After the war it transpired that Goland’s whole family in Latvia had been killed by the Nazis. He therefore decided not to return to his home town and went to Leningrad instead. At first he felt a stranger in the city as his Russian was not very good. However, he liked to take photographs of the city, and went on to become renowned for his panoramic shots of Leningrad.

 

II.

The Librarian was among the visitors to the gala opening of the first line of the Leningrad underground in 1955, although obviously, at eight years old, he had yet to acquire his nickname. Throughout his childhood and youth, when he lived in Konstantina Zaslonova Street (originally Glazovskaya Street), the nearest underground station was Uprising Square. From the junction of Zaslonova Street and Ligovsky Prospekt he had to walk four more blocks to get there. A new station was opened at this very junction in 1991 – not that the Librarian really cared much, since he had emigrated the year before. He read about the new station much later on the internet. He found a photo of the house that was the entrance to the station vestibule and realised that it had once been a bakery he knew well. He remembered an incident there that involved his father. Shortly after the war, before he was demobbed, there was a queue of people in the shop and a group of soldiers were aggressively demanding more than their allotted rations of bread, at the expense of the civilians. The Librarian’s father drew his service gun and drove off the greedy militiamen. “That place where that incident occurred doesn’t exist anymore”, thought the Librarian, and went on to look at some other photographs from his former neighbourhood on the internet. He noticed that a pharmacy on the corner was still open for business. “At least the pharmacy is in its place”, he said to himself. “But where am I?”

 

III.

The Leningrad Spa Area, a promotional film released in 1949, is the oldest colour film to capture the recreation belt on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, north of Leningrad. Takes of the coastal landscape alternate with those of Soviet people – workers and Young Pioneers – taking various forms of “active leisure”. The film also features a number of architectural and sculptural landmarks. Most of them were erected after the Second World War, only shortly before the film was made. One can learn about their history and current status on the website of the town of Zelenogorsk. The only one about which no information has been found is a statue of a sportswoman sticking out of the water; the take including it lasts only a few seconds. The author of the website text comments: “It possibly did not stand there long; the Gulf of Finland ice would have crushed it in the first winter.”

 

IV.

He wanted to become a sailor and travel to distant lands. However, they turned him down at a naval apprentice school because his eyesight was not good enough. He then did military service, in the course of which he mastered Morse code. After returning to the civilian life, he thought that he would try to join the navy again, this time as a wireless operator. During the interview he was asked to demonstrate how to receive a coded message. He didn’t do well in the test as he had no way to know that the navy used a different coding system from that in the army. He thus had to bid farewell for good to a life at sea. He swapped real travels for imaginary ones and began to study English philology. Around that time he stopped celebrating his birthday with friends. Instead, he would travel north, to the Gulf of Finland, step into the water in the night and swim as far as he could.

 

V.

The book The Earth and the Sky is meant to explain, in accessible form, basic geography and astronomy to first-grade pupils. Plentiful colour pictures make the text lively and compelling. The beginning of the book conveys the apparently bizarre conceptions of the ancients about the earth and the sky: the world as a semi-sphere carried by three elephants standing on a turtle’s back; our entire home as a flat piece of land on the backs of three whales. Having confuted these archaic beliefs, the authors turn to scientifically-grounded information about the earth, its place in the universe and the possibility of intergalactic flight. There is a detailed plan of a spaceship and a picture of people on the Moon. Yet the exact level of the book is as fictional as the old beliefs that it sets out to ridicule. The book was published in 1957, several years before the first manned flight to space took place, and about a decade before man landed on the Moon. The text thus proceeds from confuting what is no longer valid to describing what has not yet come to pass, from myth to utopia.

 

VI.

When the Night Watchman went to school, the conquest of space was on everyone’s lips. The political discourse of the times resonated strangely with the sci-fi books on the shelf in his room. Then fiction became reality: man travelled beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Schoolchildren were allowed that April day off. They took to the streets chanting “Soviet man in space!” The Night Watchman was walking along the Nevsky Prospekt with the others, sharing their enthusiasm. At the same time, deep inside, he was beginning to realise that the chance of travelling to space, or elsewhere, had nothing to do with him. He had a feeling that grew stronger, that he was not a “Soviet man” and didn’t want to be one, either. He was happy looking at the stars from the earth, hoping that the people on the earth would just let him be.

 

VII.

“The principal objective of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food is to help housewives prepare tasty and healthy meals for their families, with a minimum of work and time and, first and foremost, with the use of the rich and varied assortment of foods produced by the food industry.” These are the words with which the authors of the preface of the most famous Soviet cookbook sum up its goal. The book, however, was not to be just a collection of recipes but also a scientific treatise on a rational diet, as well as a shop window on the food industry. It was first published in 1939 and its introduction is signed by Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin himself. A new, extended edition spanning four hundred pages appeared in 1952, and was considered canonic. The print run of half a million issues failed to meet demand and was followed by reissues of the same print run in 1953 and 1954. In the 1960s the food situation in the country deteriorated, and many recipes in the book became inaccessible for common people. For the generation growing up in that period, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was a source of visual rather than culinary experiences. The situation repeated itself, in more acute form, in the 1980s when almost all of the ingredients became shortage goods.

The Piano Teacher got a copy of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food in a green binding as a present from a student. The dedication says “Leningrad, 1952”. The green book was used in the Piano Teacher’s household on Glazovskaya Street (renamed, in the same year of 1952, to Konstantina Zaslonova Street). After the Piano Teacher’s death, the daughter, son-in-law and grandson moved to a smaller flat in Khersonskaya Street, and took the green book with them.

Another edition, this time in the blue binding of the 1953 version, was purchased in Moscow by the Public Enemy’s daughter. One year later she remarried and followed her second husband to Lithuania. The blue book thus appeared in Vilnius, first in a modest flat on the outskirts of the city, then in Poželos Street in the centre, and in 1987 in a housing estate in Mildos Street, on the outskirts of the city again.

In December 1977 the Piano Teacher’s grandson and the daughter of the Public Enemy’s daughter got married in Leningrad. They changed addresses several times and ten years later ended up, with their children, in a large flat on 4th Sovetskaya Street. They took all their things from the flat in Khersonskaya Street there, the occupants of which had died. The green book was then used by the daughter of the Public Enemy’s daughter, who remembered the blue book from her childhood and youth.

In 1990 the family emigrated to Czechoslovakia where the first husband of the Public Enemy’s daughter lived. They moved into his Prague flat on Na Pískách Street, Dejvice, and placed the green book on a kitchen shelf, next to the Czech cookbooks.

In 1993 the Public Enemy’s daughter moved to Prague as well. She returned to her first husband. She brought the blue book with her in order to cook from it for her husband and herself. First they lived on a housing estate in Petrovice, and in the second half of the 1990s bought a flat in Stříbrského Street, Háje. Although both of them have died, the blue book is still in use in their flat.

The green book and the blue book did not differ originally, save for the cover colour and the year of publishing. Yet time has left different marks on them. They both lost their spines over years of use. The Piano Teacher’s grandson had the green book rebound as a present for his wife. The green book was thus provided with a new spine. The blue book is currently without a spine, and the old one is inserted between its pages. The green book features a dedication on one of its opening pages, the blue book has no dedication. A colour plate from the green book showing the portioning of beef had been torn out and inserted in the wrong place during rebinding. The position of the plate has not changed in the blue book. Both books have printed cuttings and handwritten recipe sheets inserted, some in Russian, some in Czech.