Alexander Rodtschenko Pioneer girl, 1930 Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print 56 x 43,1 cm Moscow House of Photography Museum © Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zürich
Rodchenko became the leading spokesperson for those Russian avant guarde artists who threw in their lot with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and put their art in the service of the great cause of creating a world of peace and justice. Of course we know it turned into a totalitarian nightmare, against which Ai Weiwei is now one of the most famous current victims. When we view Rodchenko's early, optimistic works, we are forced to admire his craftsmanship and his ingenious originality, but we inevitably see this through eyes laced with irony. Who can read Rodchenko's words "The camera lens is the eye of civilized man in a socialist society."(1928), and not be struck by a sense of sadness, knowing that this was the year Stalin commenced the first Five-Year Plan. It seems quite heartbreaking to read "My creative path has not been easy, but it is clear to me who I was and what I want. I am certain that in the future I will make genuine Soviet works" (1935), knowing that the year marks the beginning of the Great Purges and that the near future will mean the dismemberment of Lenin's original party, the murder of millions and a gigantic war against Nazi Germany that will kill 20,000,000 Russians.
Alexander Rodchenko Caricature Showing Osip Brik, variant of a cover for LEF Magazine, 1924 Gelatin-silver print 24,2 x 17,9 cm Private collection © Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zurich
The career of Rodchenko draws inevitable comparison with that of the ingenious Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. Both seemed to have been obsessed with montage in their early work, both are idealists who put their work in the service of bringing about a political revolution, and both become disillusioned by that same revolution towards the end of their lives.
Alexander Rodchenko Girl with a Leica, 1934 Gelatin-silver print, Vintage print 45 x 29,5 cm Private collection © Rodchenko’s Archive / 2011, ProLitteris, Zurich
Ai Weiwei is another politically motivated artist, one who lives with the consequences of the victory of communism. But unlike Rodchenko, instead of supporting the communist state, he has used his photos and film, in all their wonderful quirkiness, to attack the absurdity and hubris of state power. The cost has been huge. As part of this exhibition Ai Weiwei was supposed to give a talk in Winterthur last week - but as we all know by now, China's most internationally famous artist has disappeared into the Chinese labryint of oppression, having been arrested on April 3rd.
His "June 1994" must surely bring a smile to most faces, with the contrast between, on the one hand, the officials in uniform and the man standing stiffly for a photo outside the Forbidden City with its image of Chairman Mao, and, on the other hand, the pretty woman who faces us and raises her dress to give us a glimpse of her knickers. As I said, the irreverence will bring a smile to most, but certainly a scowl from the members of the Party.
Ai Weiwei June 1994, 1994 C-print, 117,5 x 152 cm © Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei Study of Perspective – Tiananmen, 1995-2010 C-print, 32,5 x 43,5 cm © Ai Weiwei
The most impressive part of this exhibition is when one steps into a large room to be surrounded by dozens a large coloured prints called "Provisional Landscapes". These cityscapes are in transition (Provisional) because of the Chinese government's scorch-earth policy towards its own past and present. In its myopic drive towards the future and modernization it is willing to destroy entire neighbourhoods, an easy thing to do when the state owns all of the land.
Ai Weiwei Provisional Landscapes, 2002-2008 Diptych, Inkjet-prints, each 66 x 84 cm © Ai Weiwei
This disregard for the past is captured by Ai Weiwei's self-portrait triptych "Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn":
Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn, 1995
Triptych, C-prints, each 150 x 166 cm
I must admit to a sense of unease as I walked around this exhibition yesterday with my family. Having soaked in the images, we had lunch in the museum's Restaurant George. The children bought a few souvenirs of the day. It was a wonderful way to spend Ascension Thursday. The unease came from knowing that Ai Weiwei has not been able to enjoy this. It is an outrage that, instead, he languishes in an unknown prison in China.