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Rodchenko at the Hayward

From:     blp
Category: Art
Date:     24 March 2008
Time:     10:24 AM


Outside I bumped into a nice guy I know vaguely from a design agency I work at sometimes. He was
propping himself up on a concrete wall. Something about the light and the trees behind him made me
feel like I was looking at a medium closeup in a Godard film, the effect only a little skewed by the
fact that, subtly, he seemed to be talking nonsense. He asked me how I was and I said something to
the effect that I was getting soul sick working in these design and advertising contexts that I make
my money in and couldn't relate to the people in them who sat around talking about the work like
they cared about it. 'Ah, well then you've got to find an angle on it.' 'I'm not sure. I
do you mean?' 'Well, it's like when I was working as a photographer's assistant and one day we were
doing this fashion shoot and I realised everyone in the room genuinely cared about it and I had to
find an angle on it.' At this point, Polly appeared from inside  'Ah there you are.' and I went off
without finding out what finding an angle on it would have meant. Perhaps it was something like the
things people do in repetitive factory jobs to make them interesting, like watch patterns and wait
for breaks in them or something. I went in and said hello to Polly's partner Rhys and their baby
Martha, who's just beginning to walk and talk and seems very happy. 

Inside, we found that the way to the Rodchenko led through the Laughter in a Foreign Language show
and I insisted we take at least a quick look, despite everyone's disinclination, including my own.
It seemed very uninteresting and we beat ourselves up lightly for not working harder at taking an
interest. The Chapman brothers' defaced Hogarth prints were the last things we looked at. I said I
didn't get the point of them, I believed from what I'd heard that the whole thing was supposed to
have something to do with an assault on enlightenment values, but I didn't know how or, really, why
one would want to assault enlightenment values. In an off the cuff way, I said that Jake Chapman
seemed a little confused. 'I don't know', said Polly, a vague look passing over her face. I had to
press her a little. She said that, well, he just seemed to have a really good handle on what he was
talking about, very intelligent and well read and she'd always been rather impressed by him. I said,
yeah, it's true, he is well read and talks about it well, but the thing that wraps up all that
intelligence and knowledge is very simple mistake. He genuinely wants all this stuff he does to
shock people out of their normal ways of thinking etc. and it's taken him all this time to realise
it's not shocking because it's giving people just what they want or expect from an artist. He
basically said so in the last interview I read with him. 'Really', said Polly, 'he said that?'
'Pretty much', I said, feeling only a little unsure. 

We walked around the first room, which was contructivist graphics for magazine covers more than
straight photography. Almost all of it seemed good to us. Rhys wanted to know why all this Russian
stuff was on right now. It is just coincidence? Polly said it wasn't, that there was coordination
between different institutions. Why Russia now? We didn't come up with the obvious answer, that one
big blockbuster show sets the tone, but we talked about how contructivism has been kind of cool in
the art world in the past few years and how that's sort of part of eighties revivalism, since the
eighties was the first time constructivism was revived, though more in graphics than in fine art.
Then we remembered the Franz Ferdinand cover and I told the others, who didn't know, that I thought
that cover was by Lucy Mckenzie, 'an au courant artist who's interested in constructivism', again,
feeling just a little unsure. 

We got around to the last of the graphics and Polly said something about the lost hope of this
preStalinist moment and how amazing it was and yet sad. I said, 'Can you explain to me what the word
"ideology" means?' She looked at me as if I was being deliberately stupid. 'No, I said,
because...are you looking at me because you think it's obvious what it means and it's just "dogma"?'
'Basically, yeah.' 'Well, that's what I thought too, but lately I've begun to get the idea that it's
something else. Apparently, there's this phrase in Marx "they're doing it but they don't know
they're doing it." and that's what dogma is, a sort of unconscious participation in and perpetuation
of dogma. A kind of trick. A way of saying something's normality, when it's actually not. Anyway,
I've begun to find it quite a useful way of looking at things, I think. Like, you go to some
hipstery place full of people in trainers and it's sort of normal, these are normal people, yet
actually it's not natural, you have to think about it to be it or not be it and there are all these
messages in it about what it means to be a young, sort of artistic person here and now, about
freedom etc. and what you can allegedly expect from this if you commit to it.' 'Oh yeah', said
Polly. Then Rhys came around from the other side of the screen and said, 'Hey did you know this
exhibition is sponsored by Roman Abramovich?' and I laughed and said, 'There you go.' 'But,
alright', said Polly, actually on the verge of getting quite annoyed, 'What if someone just thought,
we're having a Russian show,  who's a Russian guy with a lot of money?' 'Well they probably did', I
said, 'but this ideology idea is to do with the unconscious. You have to approach it like a
psychoanalyst.'  I walked off, but we picked it up again in the larger room of photos because Rhys
wanted to know what we were talking about. 

'I just don't want to  get into conspiracy theories', said Polly.  I said, 'But it's not the same
thing because it isn't conscious. Look, well, Rhys, I was saying that ideology, rather than just
being dogma, seems to be this process of being political without knowing you're doing it. We'd been
talking about the hope that's in these Rodchenko photos and then we talked about this idea of
ideology and then you came around and told us that this show was sponsored by Roman Abramovich,
who's like the symbol of the final nail in the coffin of this hope.' 'Alright, when you put it like
that', said Polly. 

After that we talked about a lot of the obvious stuff about how Rodchenko's work had had to change
under Stalin because you suddenly needed a permit to take photographs in the street, how just taking
portraits from funny angles suddenly wasn't allowed, whether the later photos of athletes were like
Leni Riefenstahl (another argument. Polly thought I was peddling the old 'Stalinism, Nazism, all the
same' line). Rhys wanted to know what formalism was. 

I don't want to get into conspiracy theories either and I I'm not sure I like the way, once you
accept this ideology idea even a little, it starts to hang on like tinnitus, but I will say this: I
love the photographs from before Stalin. I love their designed, formalist, overtly *constructed*
quality, which is almost completely unique and startling. What does Stalin do in banning all that?
Allegedly he takes a stand agains their implicit ideology, the visible hand of the too individualist
artist. But doesn't he then miss the real point that this is an attempt to make ideology visible, to
say, yes, of course this is constructed *because all images are*. So under Stalin, the ideology
fades back into the fog, without, of course, losing its power. OK, now, for the sake of argument,
think about the artless, unconstructed photos that Wolfgang Tillmans takes, which simply capture
some little moment, some personal, cute little poetic something or other. 

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