View of “Rosângela Rennó,” 2019.

View of “Rosângela Rennó,” 2019.

Rosângela Rennó

It was more than a century ago that Lenin thundered his way into twentieth-century history. For some, his name became synonymous with the onset of Communist totalitarian terror; for others, it represented the greatest hope for liberation in human history. These days, Lenin’s ideology is generally considered obsolete, but his image—replicated ad infinitum by the USSR propaganda machine and its cult of personality—continues to hold power as both a point of reference and a source of controversy, especially in Europe in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the struggle for democracy in the Eastern Bloc.

This was the geographic and political context of Rosângela Rennó’s installation Good Apples/Bad Apples [proposal for a document/monument], 2019, which featured 740 framed images (each approximately five by seven inches) that show or reference Lenin in some way, stretching horizontally almost a hundred feet across six walls in the main space of the Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art gallery. The Brazilian artist had spent nearly two years collecting these images, almost entirely from the internet. As the USSR collapsed, many of the statues of Lenin erected across what was once the Soviet empire were taken down, decapitated, and/or moved elsewhere. As some of the images on view showed, in Ukraine Lenin statues were even painted blue and yellow to celebrate the country’s independence.

There are several additional layers of meaning in these images. In place of captions, handwritten notes, jotted on each photograph, provide information about when and where they were taken, while the alphabetical organization by the city of origin invites a geopolitical comparisons. The color-coded frames, which, in turn, bear the copyright and publication details, distinguish between the statues of Lenin that have been preserved (in red), disfigured (in black), and relocated (in white), with some frames left empty as reminders that archival work is forever in progress. As a final touch, each image is stamped with a small emblem of an apple in red, black, or white. The good and bad versions of these fruits in the installation’s title dangle the possibility of moral judgment.

Throughout her thirty-year career, Rennó has developed a pioneering and systematic approach to the archive and to the image, with an eye to the role of each in the formation of memory and meaning. For the artist, the technologies of the production, transformation, and preservation of images are inseparable from those of building, transforming, and updating those images’ cultural and political significance.

On display on the gallery’s lower floor was Imagem persistente (Persistent Image), 2019, a work that brings together sixty-eight photographs of what at first appear to be cameras. As he moved closer, some of them seemed comical or just outright bizarre, and we realized that what the photographs depict are toys, gadgets, and other assorted objects based on the image of the camera rather than the thing itself. More than just offering us a formal index, the artist has set up a temporal glitch: In our recent past, the camera was what enabled us to produce the images through which we constructed our memories, but here we stood before simulacra and suggestions of a near-obsolete technological device. Do the “old” images taken with analog cameras still persist? Do we nostalgically long for them?

At stake here was the fundamental relationship between the process by which political and cultural thoughts and feelings are produced and the means by which the images of memory—the raw material for our intellectual and emotional activity—are generated and preserved. In contrast with the records, collections, and archives of the past, what kinds of thoughts and sensitivities will be yielded by the constant flood of indiscriminate, instantaneous images we experience today—images with no depth, vigor, or permanence?

Translated from Portuguese by Wendy Gosselin.