Saturday, 27 February 2010

Shopping and space

I bribed myself to go shopping. If I forced myself into clothes shops, tried on jeans and actually purchased a pair, I would allow myself to revisit Nottingham Contemporary's current exhibition, Star City: The Future under Communism.

Even with the bribe, it was difficult. However I suddenly found two pairs of trousers that would do. My mood lightened as I climbed the short hill to the gallery.

It wasn't my first visit to Star City. I popped in on Light Night, the very first day it was opening, but didn't stay long. I wanted a range of Light Night experiences - and found them in the jitterbugging skeletons, a candlelit church, a free Schumann recital, giant insects in the castle grounds and fencers in the Long Gallery of the castle itself. Most of the Light Night events were for one night only. I knew I could return to Nottingham Contemporary.

The exhibition itself is a puzzle. Perhaps this is as it should be since many people of my generation and older are puzzled by their own reaction to the loss of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall. We knew a great deal was wrong with the Soviet Union - I grew up aware of the show trials, the events in Hungary and saw the first black-and-white footage of Soviet tanks arriving in Prague. I haven't forgotten the name of Jan Palach.

Yet while the the smart-suited bureaucrats and party officials made speeches that betrayed their followers' ideals and their own lack of conviction, there seemed to be another Soviet Union composed of the dreams of many who wanted a different, better life. Those dreams - of comradeship, freedom from want, real involvement in the government of a country, hope for the future - still seem worth preserving. I don't believe that I live in the best system there will ever be, nor that freedom to shop is a major test of liberty.

A couple of the more recent works at the gallery seemed to equate consumerism with democracy. I wasn't sure what point Diango Hernandez was making by using elderly kitchen appliances to vibrate to a speech by Castro in morse code. I had a slight suspicion that my reaction - "I like the look of that blender" - wasn't quite what the artist hoped. But other exhibits let me remember and reflect.

The Soviet posters of the space age recalled the excitement I felt on hearing that Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space and the thrill in learning just two years later that a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, had also become an astronaut. I didn't particularly want to travel in space when I grew up but I liked the sense that it was possible. The posters had the bright excitement of Janet and John books or Sunday school displays, infused with the glamour of space and Cyrillic script.

It was disappointing, therefore, to find that the Light Night opening featured two pretend Soviet astronauts at the entrance to the gallery. They played at space walks, called everyone "comrade" with exaggerated accents and treated the whole thing as a grand joke, as though going into space was nothing and seeking comradeship an absurd archaism. I wasn't angry but something inside me was hurt. Perhaps I still cherish a lost dream after all.

Elsewhere the exhibition was more complex and harder to put in words. I was reminded of Leon Rosselson's song "Wo sind die Elefanten?" which can convey its sense of loss only through an absurd sentence from a German language course. The gallery had several huge exhibits but I spent most time with a series of small illustrations by Ilya Kabakov, produced in the late Soviet era and called "The Flying Komarov." These pictures, which started in a cupboard and moved on to a world in which most people flew, seem to speak of hope for liberty and the importance of dreams. They allow space for the viewer too - not outer space but inner space to interpret and question.

I haven't given Star City all the time it needs. I'll be there again, wondering what to make of it all. I can drop in again and again - that's the benefit of a free gallery.

I'll go on thinking of the dreams we build about other countries and our own. It's not the dreams that are wrong. But across the world there are leaders and would-be leaders who twist those dreams to a hateful shape for the sake of riches and power.

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