Leonid Lamm

“Birth of an Image” recorded Leonid Lamm’s mid-’70s incarceration in a labor camp near Rostov-on-Don in the former Soviet Union. The sketches and watercolor studies of prison life, a monumental painting, and the elaborate installation Lamm created for this exhibition together raised concerns about Erinnerungs politik, the politics of memory, at both the personal and collective levels. In his foreword to the catalogue, Michael P. Mezzatesta, director of the Duke University Museum of Art, notes that despite a rich literature on the gulags, few visual accounts of the camps by inmates have been available; Lamm’s story is both “one of millions” and unique. The works convincingly deliver the artist’s recollections of the debased existence there, but with their gentle theatricality and the clean, almost slick design of the exhibit, they do not produce quite the same chilling effect as their literary equivalents.

Lamm spent about three years in Institution 398/6 following his arrest for political protest in December 1973 (he emigrated to the United States in 1982). Two sketchbooks with inscriptions and several loose drawings, reported to have been made secretly and smuggled out, were deposited like relics in a large vitrine built to resemble Malevich’s Suprematist coffin. These attest to the monotony of a life divided between forced labor and activities in the barracks, canteen, baths, and such leisure facilities as the camp afforded. A number of images address the commonness of violence, often extending to rape: for Lamm, the drama of prison subordination reached its peak in the mistreatment of gay prisoners, derogatorily called petukhi (roosters), but the graphic literalism of his depictions undercuts their effectiveness as psychological documents. Cumulatively, the sketches raise questions as to how the traumatic past can be visualized in art without reducing the singularity of one’s experience.

In addition to his more-or-less clandestine artmaking, Lamm was put in charge of the camp’s visual propaganda, and “Birth of an Image” grew largely out of one particular assignment: decoration for May Day, 1976. A number of watercolors depict inmates setting up the artist’s billboards, and the celebration itself is captured in the exhibition’s centerpiece, Morning of Our Motherland, 1987 (a recreation of a 1976 version). Lamm’s work satirizes Fyodor Shurpin’s 1946–48 canvas of the same title, in which Stalin in a glorious white uniform is depicted against a sweeping view of Russian plains, the high clear sky punctuated by electric power lines and agricultural combines. In Lamm’s grim send-up, the gray-clad prisoners march through a double row of bright, garishly illustrated billboards that mimic the kitsch aesthetics of Socialist Realism—“The Party, Our Leader,” “We Will Fulfill the Plan For Increasing Heads of Cattle!,” “Everything for the Homeland.” In the camps, the end point of the state’s control over its citizens, Soviet life became hallucinatory as signs are substituted for reality.

Morning of Our Motherland was placed against the backdrop of a large black rectangle that echoes Malevich’s Black Square, 1914–15. For Lamm, the two Malevich works stand in for the Soviet subordination of culture to ideology as well as the Modernist quest for purity of form. The vitrine containing Lamm's sketchbooks was flanked by two rows of black boxes filled with facsimile pages from the books; the boxes, according to the artist, were meant to evoke both prison cells and Donald Judd sculptures. Having made the transition from persecuted nonconformist to emigre New York artist, Lamm finds a perverse serendipity between modern art and totalitarian authorities as parties to the search for perfection.

Marek Bartelik