As part of the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative observing the hundredth anniversary of the October Russian Revolution, the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) is hosting an exhibition entitled “Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future).” The exhibition, which is on view until December 22, 2017, is curated by Kristin Romberg, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Taking the October Revolution as a point of departure, the exhibition looks broadly at revolution from the perspective of a diverse group of artists, including the Russian collective Chto Delat, Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco, and Vietnamese collective The Propeller Group. The exhibition features a variety of media, with a particularly rich collection of video-based works. Inviting visitors to experience all the possibilities that video offers, the exhibition includes Jennifer Moon’s TED-style talk projected on an entire wall, the operatic performance of Chto Delat on a screen with headphones, and, as part of The Propeller Group’s Television Commercial for Communism, a conversation around a table playing on five screens arranged in a circle in the center of the gallery, mimicking the camera positions from which it was recorded. Interestingly, however, one of the most striking works on display is a series of photographs from an artist who is known primarily for filmmaking. Tacita Dean, an English visual artist, created the series by blowing up black-and-white photos from old disaster postcards. The photo portfolio is entitled “The Russian Ending,” a reference to the early Danish film industry, which would produce two endings for one movie: a happy ending directed toward American audiences and the sad one for Russian theaters. On each photograph are various notes for framing and editing, suggestive a film director’s storyboard.
On September 22, 2017, a conversation about the exhibition was held in the gallery space at the Krannert Art Museum, featuring curator Kristin Romberg; Tameka Norris, contributing artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Iowa; Jaleh Mansoor, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia; and Terri Weissman, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois. The conversation echoed the central questions raised by the exhibition itself: What is revolution? How does an event become a revolution, and who shapes that label? What role does any given medium – painting, film, photography – play in depicting, narrating, agitating, or forging revolution?
In her introduction to the talk, Romberg discussed how the idea for the exhibition developed out of her own research into revolutionary Russia and the Constructivist movement in particular. She argues that the seemingly propagandistic slogans that accompanied the Revolution were not mere prescriptions to be followed, but rather a process of co-authorship that encouraged discussion over what a group’s shared standpoint should be. This form of collective authorship as a process of debate and discovery forms the basis for an exhibition that highlights art collectives (Chto Delat, The Propeller Group) and directs attention to how film is edited (Dean’s annotated photos, Coco Fusco’s mix of real and fictional footage).
Accordingly, a major theme of the discussion among the four panelists was revolution as a historical process rather than merely a discrete event on a timeline. As Mansoor pointed out, this process is visible in the ways that revolution affects art, when power shifts and those who were previously marginalized try to “inscribe [themselves] as a subject” in art. The panelists agreed that the exhibition challenges the adage that “history is written by the victors.” Mansoor identified Tameka Norris’s work in the exhibit – consisting of bedsheets recovered from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina mounted on rectangular wooden frames – as belonging to the “aristocratic lineage” of painting but also subverting it, not unlike Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko famously declared the “end of painting” following the Russian Revolution. Likewise, Norris explained how revolutionary art destabilizes the binary of high and low art, noting that a painting may provoke a visceral response much like a pop song, regardless of whether the audience can understand color theory or music theory, and that rap music may not “translate” to everyone, but rather requires some audiences to “do the work” to understand it. As reflected in the exhibition, these possibilities of revolutionary art are not dependent on a single historical incident, but are part of broader cultural processes of transformation.
The “Propositions on Revolution” exhibition can be found on KAM’s main level in the Rosann Gelvin Noel Annex, Light Court, and West Gallery. It is sponsored by the 1917: Ten Days that Shook the World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus Initiative; Center for Advanced Study; School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics; Center for Global Studies; and Krannert Art Museum.
Morgan Shafter is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on translation studies and Russian literature and art from the late Soviet era to present.