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Open Access (free)
Design and material culture in Soviet Russia, 1960s–80s
Author: Yulia Karpova

The major part of this book project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 700913.

This book is about two distinct but related professional cultures in late Soviet Russia that were concerned with material objects: industrial design and decorative art. The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s is broadly recognised to have been Russia’s first truly original contribution to world culture. In contrast, Soviet design of the post-war period is often dismissed as hackwork and plagiarism that resulted in a shabby world of commodities. This book identifies the second historical attempt at creating a powerful alternative to capitalist commodities in the Cold War era. It offers a new perspective on the history of Soviet material culture by focusing on the notion of the ‘comradely object’ as an agent of progressive social relations that state-sponsored Soviet design inherited from the avant-garde. It introduces a shared history of domestic objects, handmade as well as machine-made, mass-produced as well as unique, utilitarian as well as challenging the conventional notion of utility. Situated at the intersection of intellectual history, social history and material culture studies, this book elucidates the complexities and contradictions of Soviet design that echoed international tendencies of the late twentieth century. The book is addressed to design historians, art historians, scholars of material culture, historians of Russia and the USSR, as well as museum and gallery curators, artists and designers, and the broader public interested in modern aesthetics, art and design, and/or the legacy of socialist regimes.

Open Access (free)
Yulia Karpova
in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

This chapter shows that just as VNIITE designers had built a theoretical basis for action by the late 1960s and started developing new prototypes for modern household objects, such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, they also started to recognise the inadequacy of the object as a basic unit of socialist material culture. Following the theorists of the Ulm School of Design (1953–68, a school critical of American styling and promoting an interdisciplinary approach to design), VNIITE designers tended to see environments, and not objects, as the ideal end products of their work. Without abandoning the avant-garde’s idea of a comradely object, after the late 1960s Soviet designers and theorists dwelled upon another notion of the avant-garde: the artist as the organiser of all aspects of society’s life, including the material environments of work and leisure. After discussing several projects for home appliances from the early 1970s, the chapter explains the notion of a design programme – an elaboration including systems of objects, environments and labour processes. By analysing two cases of design programmes, one from the early 1970s and another from the 1980s, I demonstrate that this type of design was flexible: it intended to regulate broad areas of human activity but also left space for consumer activity and variation.

in Comradely objects
Open Access (free)
Soviet things that talk
Yulia Karpova

The introduction surveys the approaches of material culture and objects starting from the 1920s avant-garde and ending with recent critical inquiries. It situates the book’s subject in relation to the avant-garde both as a historical precedent and a theoretical framework, reinvigorated by the recent material turn. It explains that the concern for things was at the forefront of Soviet designers’ professional ambitions and attitudes towards the socialist system, and, therefore, things can say a lot about late Soviet professional and intellectual culture. The introduction then proceeds to outline the story of Soviet design activities and institutions between the state’s repudiation of the avant-garde and the death of Stalin in 1953. Further, the introduction describes the methodology and sources of the book: how different materials are approached and brought together. And, finally, it critically engages with the key terms – ‘avant-garde’, ‘material culture’, ‘design’, ‘decorative art’ – and outlines the content of the following chapters.

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

This chapter considers the identity crisis of the 1970s–early 1980s, experienced by decorative artists in the state-sponsored infrastructure including factories, workshops and exhibitions. It shows the joint attempt of artists and critics to renegotiate the position of decorative art vis-à-vis industrial design, industrial production, craft and easel art. The proposed solution – the creation of a vigorous interdisciplinary production culture based on mutual respect between artists, engineers, technicians and administrators – proved insufficient to satisfy the decorative artists’ creative and critical urges. Even factory-employed artists tended to dissociate themselves from the state-run campaign to improve consumer products and living standards, instead promoting anti-utilitarianism, and focusing on consumers’ ‘spiritual needs’. I illustrate this tendency using the case of the non-pottery ceramic group One Composition, which was active in Leningrad from 1977 to 1986 and proposed the notion of ‘image-ceramics’ as opposed to pottery.

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

The chapter identifies an artistic tendency that emerged in the 1960s that I call, following art critic Iurii Gerchuk, ‘neodecorativism’ — a set of artistic strategies to redefine the meaning of decoration and reconceptualise applied art as decorative. Comparing works of applied art from the early and the late 1960s, the chapter reveals the techniques that the artists used to criticise the state-sponsored campaign to improve consumer culture. Far from being a tool of the Party and the government, Soviet decorative art in the late 1960s became a forum for commentary on the fundamental challenges of Soviet modernity and explored the language of postmodernism. It raised such questions as the place of individuality in the world of uniform mass production and consumption, the fate of traditional crafts in the industrial age, the role of diverse folk motifs in Soviet cultural internationalism and the meaning of sincerity and spirituality in a socialist society guided by Party dogmas. Working within the framework of Soviet institutions and policy guidelines, decorative artists and critics of the 1960s advocated the personal freedom of artists and of ordinary people without, however, explicitly resorting to the language of human rights and civil society.

in Comradely objects
Yulia Karpova

Starting from the late 1950s, Soviet applied artists, architects, critics and philosophers engaged in an ardent debate about the borders and relations between easel, decorative and applied art, techniques, and everyday material culture. The chapter demonstrates how this debate paved the way for theorising industrial design under state socialism, while some of its complexities became rapidly outdated with the institutionalisation of the design profession by the government. The concrete form of this institutionalisation was the All-Union Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics, or VNIITE, staffed by different specialists, through whom the state intended to control the totality of things and their influences on consumers. The ‘TE’ of this institution’s acronym, ‘technical aesthetics’, was promoted as an interdisciplinary science defining the ‘laws of artistic activity in the sphere of technology’ (in the words of the VNIITE director Iurii Soloviev) and optimising the production of consumer goods. Through analysing the methodology of VNIITE at the initial stage of its operation, the chapter addresses the contradictions of the Khrushchev-era vision of the perfect order of things.

in Comradely objects
Abstract only
Andy Campbell

Attachments to historical and archival sources are at the center of Nayland Blake’s 2012 installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Entitled FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! the components of the exhibition, as well as one of its public programs (a piercing demonstration conducted by Blake and his long-time familiar Lolita Wolf), is the subject of the seventh chapter. As a young artist Blake was a participant in San Francisco’s changing arts landscape, and his relation to the massive development of the South of Market area (where YBCA is located, and also where many leather bars and institutions were established), structures his questions about San Francisco’s leather histories. By literally attaching himself to a reproduction of an iconic mural decorating one of San Francisco’s earliest leather bars, Blake stages an encounter with history, exhorting his audience to participate in claiming historical networks and lineages.

in Bound together
Abstract only
Leather, sex, archives, and contemporary art
Author: Andy Campbell

Bound Together: Leather, Sex, Archives, and Contemporary Art considers historic gay and lesbian leather communities by way of two interrelated lines of enquiry; addressing the archives where leather histories and their attendant visual and material objects currently reside, while also examining the projects of contemporary artists who bring leather histories to the fore, making an implicit argument for their potential queer political force in the present. Arguing for an expansive, yet grounded, consideration of the vicissitudes and pleasures of archival work, the book centers the material and visual cultures produced by members of gay and lesbian leather communities, tracing their contextual meanings at the time of their making, as well as their continued ability to produce community-specific histories in archival repositories (that may or may not be solely dedicated to leather communities). Contemporary artists such as Dean Sameshima, Die Kränken, Monica Majoli, A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner, and Patrick Staff have incorporated the themes, materialities, and/or histories of such archival holdings into their heterogeneous practices, establishing leather history as a persistent and generative touchstone for rethinking queer life, relationality, and sexual politics.

Andy Campbell

Housed in a mobile library and archive, Viola Johnson’s pin sash—a leather garment onto which hundreds of metal pins and buttons have been affixed—spotlights the terms of her expansive leathersexuality. Such a sexuality, for Johnson, is predicated on a notion of service that primarily manifests in the constant upkeep, revising, archiving, and presenting of leather history, through the display and interpretation of her sash and library. After detailing the genesis and social milieu of the Carter/Johnson Leather Library and the significance of pins and buttons in leatherwear more generally, this chapter focuses on a button reading ‘The L.A.P.D. FREED the Slaves April 10, 1976.’ Initially made to protest the raid of a mock slave auction at the Mark IV bathhouse in Los Angeles, the button underscores the dyadic yet fungible terms of freedom and enslavement, and thus the relationships between sexual power-play and non-consensual state violence.

in Bound together