Yevgeniy Fiks Ayn Rand in Illustrations
June 18 – July 30, 2010
Over a long history, image and text have related in complicated ways. But one idea remains constant: that when placed in juxtaposition to each other, we expect important connections to be revealed.
In his exhibition Ayn Rand in Illustrations at the Winkleman Gallery in New York, Yevgeniy Fiks adds another layer of complexity to this relationship; as a émigré from a former anti-capitalist state, he has decided to confront the work of one of the most vehement capitalist populists. The fact that Rand was born in Russia just adds another twist.
Fiks brings together excerpts from Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged and the images he found in the books printed in Soviet Union. The artist said that he was drawing parallels between the monumental style of Socialist Realism and Rand’s aesthetics of Objectivism, both of which blossomed in the 1930s. Ayn Rand in Illustrations suggests an unexpected relevance of her ideas to the Stalinist party doctrine.
The ideas of political and aesthetic theory are central to Fiks’ work. Indeed, the artist claims he was “breast-fed” this officially approved Soviet style from his youth in Moscow. By 1992, the year he emigrated from Russia to the U.S., Fiks took upon himself the task of tracing overlaps of the histories of the Soviet Union and America.
On first glance this is a very attractive exhibition, comprising a body of twenty-two identical (34 x76’) works on paper neatly held in black frames. Each sheet of paper carries an image, which combines a drawing and a text. The image is dominant taking most of the page, whereas the texts are either short or long. Not all the images are centered but some float in relations to the paper’s edges. Rendered in watercolor, ink and pencil, these graphic studies are assembled like pages of a book. Sheet numbers correspond to the pages of “Atlas Shrugged”, where the quotes originate. For many this ‘bookish’ format may be convincing but it does not conceal several arbitrary and simplistic combinations which text and image produce.
Overall, the texts included are moralistic, libertarian prose praising industrialization and money. Phrases include “We are the soul, of which railroads, copper mines, and oil wells are the body “or such likes “ …he had no touch of that what people called culture. But he knew railroads.” These texts are illustrated by either scenes of monumental construction or muscular tall people walking across landscapes of new developments. Fiks combines a quote about “some barefoot bum in some pesthole in Central Asia” with an image of a girl walking through a desolated rural area and clenching books in her hands, her head scarf framing high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes. Although these images are unknown to the Western viewer, the connection between Rand’s and Soviet ideologies is definitely not a new subject. ( A quick internet search gives pages of materials, which link Rand’s pro-Right ideas with Stalinist propaganda, including the style of Soviet Realism in its visual manifestation.)
There are several works however that raise more interesting questions: a portrait of a handsome man, for example, with open face and styled hair is accompanied by the phrase: “I want to make money.” A bronze sculpture of a Russian officer followed by a description of his vision: “He traced in space the sign of the dollar.” Of course, we are reminded about Rand’s unapologetic promotion of capitalism. There is little humility, irony or (self-) critique when she writes on behalf of her book’s protagonist Galt: “I don’t care about helping anyone, all I care about is making money.” This openly stated call for money-making feels uneasy. Perhaps Fiks challenges the viewer as to what role money plays in life.
In relation to contemporary society in Russia, the artist once said “They think that new money will buy a new happiness.” Rand’s text may well be used to gesture towards the Russian nouveau riche, addressing their pro-moneymaking urges. In his past projects Fiks has addressed the desire for markets and goods. His exhibition Adopt Lenin in 2008 sought to undermine the value of objects from the Soviet era and the surrounding cult of memorabilia. But his concept is muddled: Fiks almost reinforced the objects’ ‘fetish status’ by enveloping each piece in convoluted restrictions implied through the contract.
Similarly, In Ayn Rand in Illustrations the question remains open as to whether Fiks sanctions these ideas in a post-Soviet, post-’common’ and definitely newly individualist consciousness; or whether his images show the dark and oppressive underside of the kind of individualism/objectivism that Rand openly promotes. Whether the text and the image can just be appropriated and illustratively placed together and thus reduced to a fashionable consumer art object (vid. the book-like paging of Fiks works) thanks to the self-fulfilling urge of the capitalist viewer. Prioritizing the works’ aesthetic appearance, the artist might overlook these conceptual contradictions.