Lenin Lives: In Search of a Revolution’s Lost Father

Lucas Weals-

It was Lenin himself, in the first chapter of “The State and Revolution,” who lamented that the deaths of revolutionary leaders are always followed by attempts to “convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names,” all while “robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance.” Lenin was writing about Marx, and about the bourgeoisie’s penchant for brandishing his slogans while ignoring his calls to action; but it seems just, amid all of the Soviet experiment’s reflexive ironies, that Lenin’s words today so acutely describe his own tortured legacy. It’s the revolutionary’s great fear—of becoming a symbol without a signified, a stylized face on a banner flapping uselessly above an unchanged world—that seems on a deep level to animate the newest exhibition in the VAC’s Van Every Gallery: Lenin Lives.

Co-curated by Lia Newman, Gallery Director and Curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries, and Dr. Roman Utkin, Assistant Professor of Russian Studies, Lenin Lives refuses both the hagiography and the demonology—to borrow the words of the author China Miéville—that so often dominate discussions of the Soviet Union’s first leader. Instead, the exhibition’s fourteen featured artists set off in search of a more nuanced Lenin, one whose image and words might transcend the brutal inevitability of history and illuminate something of the man himself: a man who, whether or not he still lives, must once have at least lived.

The work dances between whimsy—small portraits by the American artist Larry Rivers show a Lenin foregrounded on fields of warm pink, the drawn-in rifles more evocative of children’s toys than of the Terrors—and somber reflection—Dread Scott’s Lenin, Boy and World, a diptych of gray acrylic paintings, depicts a chiaroscuro Lenin, standing before a gramophone, while on another panel a group of peasants gathers to listen for the latest news of revolution from Petrograd. There is a Lenin to fit in the palm of your hand (Masha Vlasova’s Squishy Lenin sculptures), a Lenin to take pictures with tourists (Victoria Lomasko’s Lenin Isn’t For Sale), and even a Lenin to sell you Coca-Cola (Leonid Sokov’s Lenin – Coca-Cola). Between them all is a yearning: both to know the man himself, and to tell the story of his life in a different voice than the many who have told it before.

This yearning finds its most haunting expression in The April Theses, a dramatic, biographical photography project by the Italian photographer Davide Monteleone. Monteleone re-created Lenin’s famous train ride: beginning in Zurich, where he had been living in exile; through Germany, Sweden, and Finland; and arriving finally in St. Petersburg, in the heart of the fomenting political turmoil, mere months before the events of October, 1917. Monteleone made the journey in a lifelike Lenin costume—complete with period clothing and detailed makeup—and photographed himself along the way, a stand-in for the young revolutionary. The pictures are surreal, revelatory: in a video interview, the artist explained that at times he became convinced that Lenin never existed.

Walking through Lenin Lives, awash with so many variations on the same iconic visage, it’s tempting to agree with Monteleone—in a meaningful sense Lenin didn’t really exist, at least not in the form of the caricatures we’ve come to accept. But Monteleone’s pictures provide, for a brief moment, a chance to step inside the few images available to us of Lenin, to enter his world and to draw him into our own. There’s a near-magical elevation to a black-and-white shot of Monteleone’s Lenin, his left hand perched on a guardrail, standing before a vast and aluminum-gray sea: suddenly there is a place just outside the frame, a place we might recognize, toward which this shadowy figure proudly strides.

The final photograph in Monteleone’s room—and arguably the end of the entire gallery—is a life-sized rendering of Lenin’s iconic black suit. It calls to mind Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, and a famous debate over whom the shoes really belonged to. Jacques Derrida famously argued that the shoes did not quite belong to anyone: that the painting itself had created a “phantom debt,” some ghostly “out-of-work supplement” that haunted the space between the art and its viewer. In the same way Lenin’s suit, and perhaps his whole image, belong to no one in particular—he is a ghost without a body, restored to itself only through an audience. This strikes me as vital to the exhibition as a whole. It’s as if each artist is responding precisely to Derrida’s question: “To whom does it,” the image, “return?” Lenin haunts his own gallery

(A useful illustration of one such haunting: in the first room, Warhol over-saturates his Lenin in such a way that his face and hands turn a strange, deep orange; in the next room, Lomasko draws two pictures of a Lenin statue in Seattle, a statue whose face and hands have been spray-painted orange by vandals. Might these vandals have been admirers of Warhol’s Lenin? A fantastic theory, but almost certainly not a correct one. If Lenin Lives is, in Derrida’s words, “a story of phantoms,” we might do best to let some ghosts be ghosts.)

Between Lomasko’s mournful report on Lenin’s commodification and Warhol’s gleefully lurid pop-portrait of that severe, goateed face, there’s also a healthy tension over what it means to sell a revolutionary. How has a global capitalist hegemony subsumed and repurposed Lenin’s image? (In Lamasko’s bitter sketch of a Lenin statue being sold for profit, it’s hard not to think of how many different stores in an average American mall carry t-shirts with Che Guevara’s face on them.) These questions implicate the gallery audience itself—in a university system long-since cleansed of any zealous or radical Marxism, what are we to draw from an aesthetic performance of a character so deeply entwined with the fervor of revolution?

An adjacent exhibition of Soviet propaganda posters, located in the Smith Gallery next-door, further agitates these fraught questions. The bold style and brash slogans of these pieces embody all the contradictions at work in Lenin Lives: futuristic utopias share wall-space with nationalistic paranoia; historical clarity is lost in lurid colors and pithy phrases. Every image heightens a certain dissonance between the world that was promised and the world that came to be.

In his book October, a narrative history of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville recounts a tale of St. Petersburg in the final days before the Bolsheviks seized power: a city where anxious soldiers guard every tramline and public street, and where Lenin, dressed haphazardly in the clothing of a crippled vagabond, crosses the city in disguise to join the ranks of the revolutionaries. It’s a powerful image: a man risking everything on his ability to pretend to be someone he is not.

Lenin—a pseudonym, after all, for a man named Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov—wore many costumes; and Lenin Lives imagines him with more still. The result is an eerie sort of sleepwalking. We conjure up a Lenin from the world’s collective dream, chasing a phantom behind a face we’ve already seen.

 Lenin Lives is on display until October 8, 2017, and Revolution on Display: Soviet Propaganda Posters is on display until October 6, 2017, in the Belk Visual Arts Center.