Zhanna Kadyrova, Second Hand, 2017, mixed media, 36 3⁄4 × 20 7⁄8 × 1 1⁄8". From the series “Second Hand,” 2014–.

Zhanna Kadyrova, Second Hand, 2017, mixed media, 36 3⁄4 × 20 7⁄8 × 1 1⁄8". From the series “Second Hand,” 2014–.

Zhanna Kadyrova


Communist-era statues remain a divisive issue in the former Soviet empire. In Prague, for example, a controversy recently flared up over the monument to the Soviet general Ivan Konev, who liberated the city from the Nazis in 1945 but also led the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was involved in preparing for the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. The municipal administration had the statue veiled to protect it from vandals, then voted to have it removed this past September. Supporters and opponents of Konev have held rallies at his feet. To avoid such conflicts, the Ukrainian-born artist Zhanna Kadyrova has devised an innovative solution: Her Monument to a New Monument, 2007–2009, is a white tile sculpture that seems to show a heroic figure covered by a sheet, as if to suggest that future statues can be veiled from the day they are installed.

Architecture is another of the artist’s central concerns. Beginning in the 1950s, the drab gray concrete surfaces of buildings throughout the Eastern Bloc were embellished with colorful mosaics. The tiles were made of opaque molten glass, a material whose use dates back to the Byzantine Empire and was taken over by the medieval Russian Orthodox Church. The technique was inherited in turn by Soviet architects, though their Art Deco mosaics featured intrepid workers and smiling kolkhozniki (collective farmers) instead of saints, tractors and dams instead of churches. Many of the Soviet buildings were shoddily built or badly maintained and now stand empty. The tiles, however, are unusually durable, and mosaic-covered facades often survive even as the structures behind them fall apart. In a weird way, the peculiar longevity of this cladding material also echoes the long-standing Russian tradition of privileging facades over what is behind them; the notorious Potemkin village comes to mind.

In 2013, Kadyrova created a nearly twenty-foot-wide tile mosaic, Monumental Propaganda, that clearly alluded to the heroic motifs of Soviet monumental art. While retaining the Art Deco style, she set her muscular worker against a backdrop not of a factory or a coal mine, but of a fast car and a bikini-clad belle holding a bottle of champagne. The piece won her the renowned PinchukArtCentre Prize.

In her recent exhibition “Resistance of Matter,” curated by Elena Sorokina, Kadyrova presented several objects and photographs from the series “Second Hand,” 2014–. For this body of work, the artist created unwearable dresses from used tiles, mostly sourced from derelict buildings including a factory that used to make copies of movies for distribution across the USSR. Several such dresses—whose geometric patterns bring the Twiggy fashions of the 1960s to mind—were presented on clothes hangers in the gallery. Others appeared in photographs that show them on crumbling tiled walls with similar patterns. Their colors fading, the tiles exuded a shabby charm that was underscored by their often-dilapidated surroundings, yielding photographs that convey an oppressive sense of evanescence and futility. Silent witnesses to the grand aspirations bound up with a heroic industrialization effort, the small-format pictures have an air of tragicomedy.

The scale and uniformity of Soviet architecture was meant to negate the individuality of its denizens, reflecting an ideological program that called on citizens to merge with the collective. Now that the spirit of collectivism has vanished, an unwelcoming chill pervades the anonymous industrial facilities in which Kadyrova photographs her tile dresses as proxies for individuals. The work left one feeling these recycled pieces have held up better, in any case, than the faded dreams of yore.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.