One morose and wet Sunday afternoon in late November, the type that presages the ultimate days of a New York autumn, a motley group of intellectuals and connoisseurs of Yiddish gathered on the Decrease East Aspect. The Russian-American conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks was available to ship an artist speak and personalised tour of his charming exhibition “Yiddish Cosmos” (by way of Dec. 16), a playful historic jaunt by means of the historical past of the Jewish elements of the Soviet area program. The exhibition was organized on the second flooring of the Stanton Road Shul, one of many final functioning Orthodox synagogues within the neighborhood. Beneath trendy prints of the Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov—who was the primary Jew in area, and would have been one of many very first males in area if his historic flight together with Yuri Gagarin on the primary Voskhod rocket mission had not been bumped due to his ethnicity—have been futurist Yiddish slogans. A hanging half portrait cleaved collectively the faces of Gagarin and Sholem Aleichem. The exhibition demanded a solution to the query of whether or not the Jewish utopia was to be present in Manhattan, Israel, the Soviet Union, or someplace within the farthest reaches of the Milky Approach.
Fiks is in his mid-40s and of medium peak and is possessed of an angelic face. He was wearing a minimalist black ensemble and possessed of a relaxed and grounded-seeming demeanor. Listening to Fiks softly talk about the connection between Soviet Yiddish literary magazines, 1920s Decrease East Aspect anarchist-Yiddishists, and the legacy of the Soviet cosmonauts, one might very simply start to consider in a way forward for Yiddish-speaking area colonies.
For near a decade I’ve been following the development of Fiks’ profession as he has constructed up a thematically and conceptually coherent oeuvre predicated on a rigorous melding of immigrant considerations, LGBT themes, and a probing post-Soviet seek for a usable future. It’s a playful inventive endeavor constructed on an archeological seek for a future refashioned from the tarnished fragments of a damaged utopian previous. Additionally it is represents a considerate and liberal response to the Soviet previous by a homosexual Jew: two classes of folks that the Soviet Union had a posh relationship with.
Fiks’ conceptual strategy, and his concerted seek for helpful and shocking legacies of the Soviet previous, which he dusts off from nostalgia for interval aesthetics, has constructed him a faithful following through the years. His e-book Moscow is a set of spare and uninhabited pictures of pleshkas, or public cruising locations, frequented by homosexual Soviet residents in Moscow from the 1920s to the ’80s. The e-book concludes on a deeply melancholic notice with the letter that Harry Whyte, a British Communist dwelling in Moscow, despatched to Stalin with the hope of reversing the recriminalization of homosexuality in Soviet society. Fiks’ artwork is concentrated on the accretion of such minor and interesting “micro historical artifacts,” by way of which he illuminates historic legacies of the soviet previous in addition to counterintuitive new methods of enthusiastic about the Chilly Conflict. It’s an strategy to cataloging the Soviet previous that’s distinctive within the post-Soviet world.
The artist’s life trajectory constitutes a near-perfect lens by means of which to watch the event of post-Soviet Russian and Russian-American artwork. The artist was born in Moscow in 1972. His household belonged to the social class that the Soviets known as the “technical intelligentsia.” Fiks’ mom was a chemical engineer and his father a radio researcher at a Moscow-based scientific institute. Eschewing highschool, Fiks was accepted on the age of 15 into what was possible one of the crucial aggressive artwork faculties within the nation: the Moscow State Artwork Faculty in Reminiscence of 1905. The establishment was recognized for its liberalism and had a popularity for being a haven for freethinkers with a liberal bent. Fiks recollects having loved his research there fairly a bit. In June of 1991 Fiks sat for his artwork faculty admission exams. It was a month earlier than the failed August coup by hardline Communists intent on derailing Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. By the point Fiks commenced the autumn semester on the V.I. Surikov Moscow State Educational Artwork Institute (an establishment which had principally barred entry to Jews for many years), the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
By the way, the Surikov is known as for the 19th-century Russian realist painter Vasily Surikov and stays famend as a bastion of reactionary educational classicism. When Fiks and I met to speak over espresso the day earlier than visiting his exhibition, we mentioned the truth that Surikov was the great-grandfather of the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. The point out made Fiks crinkle his nostril with the Russian liberal’s reflexive disdain for the gifted filmmaker turned jingoist spokesman for Putinist nationalism. “Please, do not put him into any article about me, Vladik!” he pleaded with me gently. “That man’s name should not be in any article with my own!”
The formal coaching on the Surikov was heavy on easel oil portray, figurative research, and nude fashions. The artwork historical past curriculum centered on the pre-revolutionary Russian custom. Fiks recollects that “we did not really study 20th-century modernism, with the survey courses concluding with surrealism.” Thus, he discovered himself a younger homosexual Jewish man within the vanguard class of Russian artists being educated within the backward-gazing classicism of the reborn Russian state. Fiks recollects the “very strong influence of the neo-Orthodox movement, which was very big in art circles at the time, with painting especially being seen as a culturally Russian and very reactionary domain; and so the environment was not very Jewish friendly or oriented.” Quite a few younger ladies within the portray studio wore the hair veils that Russian Orthodox ladies sometimes put on to church on Sunday.
Outdoors of that repressive studio surroundings, Fiks plunged himself into the equally heady and libertine Moscow artwork scene of the early 1990s. Independently, he unearthed the elements of recent artwork historical past that his cohort was not being taught within the classroom. Fiks would attend the nascent Moscow gallery scene and would grow to be acquainted with the irrepressible Marat Gelman years earlier than the gallerist would turn into a one-man worldwide artwork world establishment. “It was a great time,” Fiks recollects with a smile.
As with most nice occasions, it was to be short-lived. Fiks wouldn’t have the chance to finish greater than two years of his coaching on the Surikov, as his household determined to immigrate to America after being sponsored for help by the Cleveland Jewish group. The household moved to America in early 1994, thus sparing the younger artist from experiencing a lot of the upheavals of early ’90s Russia. Fiks was virtually 22 years previous when he and his mother and father arrived in Cleveland, and he would transfer to Brooklyn lower than a yr later to proceed pursuing his inventive ambitions and taking a job at Mercer County Group School in New Jersey, the place he continues to show to this present day. Concurrently he continued his research at Brooklyn School and on the Faculty of Visible Arts, however the transition was not straightforward, as any immigrant can attest. Whereas Fiks taught artwork on the group school, he wouldn’t himself produce something for a decade as he discovered his bearings, discovered English, and assimilated into American life. He would ultimately choose the Decrease East Aspect, the mental middle of his artwork, alongside together with his boyfriend, Mark, a social media strategist.
When Fiks was able to resume making his personal artwork in 2003, it was to show his concentrate on the repressed and forgotten episodes of Soviet historical past in addition to lesser-known histories of the American left and civil rights actions. All of those pursuits have been mediated by the trope of the unrealized Communist utopia, whose legacy would turn into a lifelong inventive pursuit for Fiks. At about the identical time that he started considering significantly about historical past and his personal Jewish id, he enrolled in Yiddish language courses.
The artworks that resulted from this mix of pursuits have been conceptual and witty. They’re additionally deeply literate with out being obscure or obtuse. They cope with ideology however they don’t seem to be insistent or fanatical. Somewhat, exploratory and probing with out ever feeling coercively ideological.
Fiks views the post-Soviet queer perspective as being an uncompleted undertaking, which certainly first solely appeared within the late ’80s, and continues to hang-out post-Soviet society. “We live without a queer Soviet history. The Soviet-era queer experience is still unresolved, a conceptual lacuna,” he as soon as advised me.
All through his conceptualist tasks and exhibitions, Fiks factors out the parallels between the Jewish and homosexual experiences of exclusion from the utopia of the Soviet employee’s paradise. The exhibitions and performances ruminate on the unhappy symmetry between the furtive gatherings by which each populations sought personal solace in public areas. Moscow Jewish youth would congregate on Friday nights and through the Excessive Holidays in entrance of the Moscow Khoralnaya synagogue, which was strolling distance from the water fountain in entrance of the Bolshoi Theater the place homosexual males would equally congregate, to gossip and to make new buddies and lovers.
The thought of the pleshka, a play on the Russian phrase for “bald spot,” is the Russian homosexual slang time period for an outside cruising area. It’s a idea to which Fiks returns time and again in his works. In 2016 the Cicada press revealed his Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Homosexual Dictionary, a incredible and acerbic lexicographical research of homosexual Soviet-Jewish slang. The dictionary locations Russian and Yiddish homosexual slang phrases alongside their English definitions. The introduction to the quantity started with a concise assertion of the recurring historic considerations of Fiks’ 15-year undertaking: “The gay-Jewish intersections of the Soviet era are far from clear cut and today still remain unresolved. While there was room for a solidarity of the oppressed, there was also room for separatism, prejudice, and mutual “othering”—for anti-Semitism inside the Soviet homosexual milieu and homophobia inside the Soviet Jewish group.” Memorable dictionary entries embrace kukushka: “this cuckoo wastes her life in bathroom stalls waiting for her prince charming”; soldatka: “this bearded soldier’s wife is only attracted to defenders of our homeland”; and “sexual-democrat”: “sexual-democrats under socialism get convicted under Article 121.”
Fiks is now a fixture of the Russian-American wing of a world Russian artwork world with outposts from Los Angeles and London to St. Petersburg and Paris. It’s a cellular and transnational world during which Soviet-born artists from throughout the 15 Soviet republics exhibit with their artwork supplier in London, make work for the subsequent Venice biennale of their Brooklyn- or Berlin-based artwork studio and fly to Moscow to see their collectors or grandmothers. Nonetheless, in an ironic historic twist on the Soviet legacy, within the present political local weather, Fiks typically receives inquiries from Russian establishments relating to his Communist and Jewish history-related works, which he sees as comparatively welcome. “Many fewer Russian institutions ask about the works dealing with gay themes,” he knowledgeable me.
All through his profession Fiks has produced quite a few exhibits and tasks coping with the Soviet Jewish autonomous area of Birobidzhan, a failed Communist Yiddish homeland that represents a kind of locus for the artist’s Utopia. Birobidzhan was meant to behave as a concrete various to Israel. It’s situated on a distant cease of the trans-Siberian railway within the Russian Far East. The fantastical autonomous area had been established in 1934 as a part of the short-lived “Soviet nationalities policy,” which allowed sure ethnic teams to create autonomous areas inside which they might converse their very own language and develop their nationwide tradition with a “socialist form.” The official language of Birobidzhan was Yiddish and it was assumed that the majority Soviet Jews would transfer to the remoted area. Considered one of Fiks’ exhibitions was composed of a collection of black-and-white oil work titled Landscapes of the Jewish Autonomous Area, based mostly on photographic stills taken from Seekers of Happiness, a basic Soviet propaganda movie. Shot in 1936, Seekers of Happiness—its nice musical rating was by the way composed by my ancestor, the Soviet composer Isaac Dunaevsky—sought to encourage Soviet Jews to journey to the promised land, far nearer to Mongolia than it was to Paris, by means of the story of a Jewish household on their strategy to make their life in Birobidzhan.
The identical yr that Seekers of Happiness hit the movie screens, activists in the USA had collected round 200 artwork works to function the nucleus of a everlasting assortment held by the Birobidzhan Artwork Museum. Artists comparable to Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb all bequeathed a few of their works for the deliberate assemblage. For political causes—which understandably sufficient included Stalin purging your complete management of the area the next yr—the gathering by no means lastly arrived to be exhibited within the area.
For nearly a decade Fiks has been negotiating with the historical past museum in Birobidzhan to bequeath a set of work, as a part of his challenge “A Gift to Birobidzhan.” Poetically sufficient, the proposed present fell by means of a second time for political causes—and due to native discomfort with the artwork, and the context of the Jewish query which the area had been designed to unravel. The gathering that Fiks had curated to be despatched to Russia is now being held on a provisional foundation in storage bins inside his house.
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