It is often said that to understand the present, we must look to the past. This sentiment is fitting for the Zimmerli Art Museum’s latest exhibit at Rutgers University. “Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection” features paintings, photographs and sculptures created by artists in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The works comment on Soviet life from 1960 through the 1980s, but are unnervingly relevant, given the renewed tensions between the United States and Russia today.
Organized by Ksenia Nouril, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, the exhibit features more than 20 artists from Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine (all of which used to comprise the Soviet Union, until 1991). All but four pieces come from the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art—a collection of approximately 20,000 works amassed by Norton, an American economist who acquired the art throughout his travels between the U.S. and Soviet Union and via connections with artists who emigrated from the region.
“Given the reality of our current political situation, the Dodge Collection is a very rich historical document in which we can look back on the Cold War period,” Nouril says. “We can learn from seeing the way people were living and dealing with these catastrophes in hopes of building their dream worlds.”
Didn’t major in art history? Don’t be intimidated by the heady nature of the exhibit. Even Nouril admits the content can seem a bit dense at first if you don’t have an art or political science background. However, the works on display depict fantastical space scenes and subversive images that will entice anyone who has ever enjoyed “2001: A Space Odyssey” or a Pink Floyd album.
“Dreamworks and Catastrophes” is a reference to the dichotomy of Soviet life in the second half of the twentieth century. Due to the space race and the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, life in the Soviet Union was greatly influenced by technology that was developing at breakneck speed, offering advancements that seemed almost fantastical. At the same time, the potential danger of these technologies, paired with the growing political tension, was an ominous shadow that sprawled over Eastern Europe.
With these themes in mind, “Dreamworks and Catastrophes” features work that looks like modern fantasies, as well as hyper-realistic paintings that depict blunt and alarming images.
From the “Dreamworlds” side, Nouril points out an oil on canvas painting by Sergei Sherstiuk titled “The Cosmonaut’s Dream.” Created in 1986, it features an astronaut floating outside his space capsule. However, the background swaps out the obvious celestial setting for a rural Russian landscape.
“We don’t know if he’s sleeping, dead, or alive,” Nouril points out. “The juxtaposition between the heavy space suit, all the contraptions of his capsule and the bucolic, traditional Russian landscape is very striking. It really makes you think what perhaps is to come.”
The first art piece that greets patrons of the exhibit is from the “Catastrophes” aspect of the show. It’s a gelatin silver print, hand-colored with aniline dyes by Boris Mikhailov, created sometime between the 70s and mid 80s. From his series titled “Sots Art,” it features two boys wearing gas masks, standing below a photograph of Vladimir Lenin, in a classroom setting with a teacher looking on.
“Mikhailov has colored the photograph; it was originally black and white,” Nouril says. “He’s colored it in these sharp, sort of irritating neon colors. The neon itself almost seems radioactive. These boys are wearing these gas masks, and it’s almost as if they’re transformed into monsters; you can’t even see who they are or what they look like. And then there’s Lenin, always watching above them.”
The political implications of this piece are nothing short of chilling.
However, Nouril is hopeful people take more away from “Dreamworks and Catastrophes” than the dangers of the era’s politics.
“I hope people are surprised and shocked even by how advanced the Soviet Union was at this time. People have a very stereotypical idea of it being backwards,” Nouril says. “It’ll make people think twice about how advanced technology was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We’re so used to Apple coming out with a new iPhone every year, and we can measure our heart rates by a watch and answer phone calls by tapping it. We have to remember that technology has always been fast and has always impacted our lives, even if the gadgets and gizmos weren’t like the ones we have today.”
Although the politics of the time is the elephant in the room, “Dreamworks and Catastrophes” really is about the lives of people in the Soviet Union as the millennium came to a close.
“Whether or not you come to it with any knowledge of the U.S.S.R. or of the Cold War globally,” Nouril says, “I think you will have a great time, whether you’re looking at it from the technological point of view, or a contemporary political point of view.”
“Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection” is on view at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, Mar 12-Jul 31, 2016 in the Dodge Wing Lower Level. For museum hours, related programming and more information, visit www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.