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Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid were in Miami on June 12 to give a slide lecture at the Bass Museum of Art in conjunction with the museum's current exhibition Monumental Propaganda. Komar and Melamid initiated the show in 1992 when they solicited artists' proposals for salvaging socialist-realist monuments from certain destruction by the new noncommunist Russian government after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. "Monumental Propaganda" was first exhibited simultaneously at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Moscow and New York City's World Financial Center in the summer of 1993, and the show has traveled since then.
Made especially timely by the upcoming Russian elections, the display on view at the Bass includes more than a hundred works on paper by international artists; they outline their ideas, both ironically amusing and earnestly idealistic, for altering, relocating, or otherwise recycling the monuments of Lenin, Stalin, et al., to create what Komar and Melamid imagined as a "phantasmagoric garden of 'post-totalitarian' art." The Yeltsin government, not surprisingly, did not share the artists' enthusiasm, and has ignored the various proposals.
Considered dissident artists in the Soviet Union, Komar and Melamid have worked together since 1965. They left Moscow for Israel in 1977 and arrived a year later in New York City, where they have lived since. Their English remains heavily accented and slightly broken, and they feigned shyness as they appeared on either side of a portable screen in the Bass's main gallery at the start of their talk. But the pair was soon working the crowd like a couple of Borscht Belt veterans as they gave a photographic tour of the landmarks of their childhood.
"Here is Lenin in winter coat," noted Komar, a bearish man with heavy glasses and dark curly hair, as a picture of a statue of Lenin appeared on the screen. "It's cold in Russia, he needs coat."
"Here is Lenin in fashion winter coat," the artist continued, as the projector advanced to a slide of a more nattily attired Lenin, a monument that captured the Soviet hero with his arm swung out to the side in a flourish.
"He looks like Russian ballet dancer," interjected Melamid, whose wild, stand-up shock of hair gives him the air of an absent-minded professor.
"This is the biggest Lenin head that exists in the whole world," exclaimed Komar, and up popped a slide showing a huge bust of Lenin presiding over a town square.
The next slide showed George Washington's face on Mt. Rushmore. "But American busts are much bigger," Komar deadpanned. The already tittering audience broke up. Thunderous guffaws escaped from a man near the front of the room.
But seriously, folks. The slide carousel clicked ahead to project a series of arresting images of monumental stone and metal figures torn from their bases by grappling hooks, or toppled to the ground, or placed inside huge crates -- disconcerting, tangible evidence of the old regime's being swept into the dustbin of history.
"Many Soviet people believe that it's possible to change history like sculptor changes clay," a now grave-faced Komar said. "Khrushchev destroys Stalin, Brezhnev tears down Khrushchev, and after Yeltsin revolution, it's time for Lenin to go to wooden box.
"The destruction of images is destruction of our past," he continued sadly. "It's a kind of brain surgery, a washing of your brain. We are afraid that, together with the monuments, our memories too will be destroyed. What to do with ruins of any revolution?"
Komar and Melamid became obsessed with that question in 1991. In their New York studio they watched television news reports of demonstrators ripping down statues in Moscow, as well as footage of the more organized demolition that followed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The artists estimate that 70 percent of the Soviet statuary in Russia has been torn down.) They came up with a plan.
"Today any effort to save Russia's socialist-realist monuments from destruction would surely be seen as an attempt to preserve a totalitarian tradition," began a call for artists' sketches and maquettes that Komar and Melamid subsequently published in the May 1992 issue of Artforum magazine. "We propose neither worship nor annihilation of these monuments, but a creative collaboration with them -- to leave them at their sites and transform them, through art, into history lessons."
The artists provided some of their own ideas as examples. They proposed putting an electronic billboard across the outside of Lenin's tomb that would flash news updates, biblical quotations, Dadaist exclamations, or a future dictator's name. They also suggested turning the monument of Marx in front of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater on its head, "in homage to what he himself did to Hegel's dialectic."
Komar and Melamid received responses from artists all over the world. "The idea of saving these monuments by transforming them has brought together Russian and Western artists," they write in the show's catalogue, which contains fascinating historical photographs of the monuments and their demolition, as well as some of the artistic proposals. "This proved to us that irrespective of their origins, artists do not completely separate their personal histories from the 'biography' of history as a whole."