The Return of Memory is part of a collection of events staged during the Autumn/Winter season at HOME, Manchester, under the banner of A Revolution Betrayed?. This exhibition coincides with the centenary of the Russian Revolution, two uprisings that occurred in 1917 and led to the overthrow of the ruling Tsarist regime, spurring the formation of the Soviet Union. It has been reported that the Russian government has largely ignored this anniversary and that a formal acknowledgement has been lacking, seemingly with the aim of avoiding answering difficult questions that still remain fresh in the collective memory of Russian society today.
The 100-year gap between the Revolution and the present is contracted by the first two pieces the visitor encounters when entering the exhibition. The first is the video installation ‘Victory Over The Sun’ (2017) by Ruslan Vashkevich, which includes the iconic 1919 Soviet propaganda image of a red wedge penetrating a white circle. This image covers an entire wall and is encircled by a life-sized overturned staircase that warps the perspective of the visitor as they enter the gallery. On the wall behind this installation is a piece by Gluklya titled ‘Clothes for Demonstration Against False Election of Vladimir Putin’ (2011-2015) where garments hang like protest placards, embroidered with slogans such as ‘Power to the Millions, not the Millionaires’ and ‘Russia without Putin’. Both pieces represent unrest and a desire to overthrow and change the status quo. Within the exhibition Gluklya’s piece encapsulates the revolutionary strife of the present, while the other pieces on display call on us to remember or to try and imagine what life was like in the years and decades following the Revolution itself.
For instance a dark room in the exhibition is dedicated to Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield’s research into X-ray vinyl, which was produced in the cold war era of the Soviet Union. Due to the music industry being dogmatically controlled by the state, bootleggers recorded vinyl onto discarded X-ray plates from local hospitals. The room contains several examples of these social-historical artefacts: forbidden music pressed on ghostly ribcages.
The exhibition continues from cultural starvation under communism to actual starvation: the 872-day Leningrad Siege in World War 2. Artist Callum Cooper is working with one of the oldest seed banks, The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (St. Petersburg, Russia), to produce a crop of cabbages cultivated from seeds offered to communities cut-off from the outside world during the siege for the installation ‘Vavilov’ (2017). The same seeds which managed to save thousands of people from starvation. Cooper manages to think outside the gallery space by not only growing these cabbages as an installation, but also collaborating with horticultural students and greater Manchester allotment-owners to grow vegetables, grains and seeds selected from the Vavilov Institute vaults. The exhibition’s close will culminate in a discussion around and feast from this harvest titled ‘Vavilov’s Last Supper’ on 6 January 2018.
The introductory text emphasises the re-activation of the past by contemporary artists. Often the artists in the exhibition concentrate on an individual event, image, artefact, iconography or piece of footage, yet the extent of what the artists do with these differs greatly. Some elements of the exhibition feel like they are merely presenting historical artefacts rather than repurposing them. The contemporary artists’ mark does not always come through and these items remain historic compared to other, more overt, contributions. Two pieces that stand out in the exhibition are Declan Clarke and Sarah Perks ‘One Day the Sadness Will End’ (2017) where everyday at noon, both online and in the gallery, a person, group or place is revealed that has been betrayed by revolution. Another is the three video pieces by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, whose work mirrors that of Cindy Sherman. Within these performances Mamyshev-Monroe plays all the roles morphing himself into different personalises that satirises Russian culture and histories.
The Return of Memory turns the spotlight on the legacy of the Russian Revolution in today’s ‘New East’ – defined by the curators as the expansive territory across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Baltic, Russia and Central Asia – and acts as an important and fascinating exploration into the events proceeding from it.
The Return of Memory, HOME, Manchester.
21 October 2017 – 7 January 2018.
Anna Ratcliffe is a writer based in Leeds.