Opinion

Utopia Ltd

London

7 October 2013

Utopia LTD brings the innovations of the 1920s Soviet Constructivist group to a 21st Century, western audience at London’s GRAD: Gallery for Russian Art and Design. In synthesizing the historical and the contemporary, the exhibition sheds light on elements of collaboration, materiality, and experimentation in Constructivist design.

Utopia LTD positions Alexandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Gustav Klutsis, and El Lissitzky as quintessential Constructivists pioneers, and uses their designs to define the historical moment of Constructivism during the Soviet 1920s. Their work is brought forward through contemporary model maker Henry Milner, who has reconstructed, recreated, and re-envisioned the original designs of the four artist-engineers.

With its roots in European Modernism, Constructivism sought to break from traditional artistic practices. Beginning near 1917 and forming fully in the early 1920s, the Constructivists saw themselves as engineers, exploring the materials with which they worked and striving to produce objects that championed emerging technologies, functionality, and new forms. They viewed art as having the ability to inform the social and economic behavior of the Soviet masses in post-Revolutionary Russia, in a manner which fell in line with their Communist ideals. Constructivist aesthetics influenced the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, and appear throughout the evolution of modern and contemporary design.

Yet due to the severe scarcity of resources during the early Soviet era, many of the objects designed by the Constructivists have never been built, no longer survive, or are too delicate to move to the United Kingdom. In this way, Milner’s speciality in the realization of lost or un-built works serves a vital purpose for the exhibition. Milner’s creation of the four Constructivist giants’ work provide a glimpse of what they had imagined in their utopian designs, and embodies the experimental, revolutionary spirit of the era.

The materials of the objects – including leather, cork, plywood, steel, paper, and cotton – bear irregular properties that require skilled working techniques. The act of reconstructing the designs functions as a means of truly understanding them, says Elena Sudakova, Utopia LTD’s co-curator and GRAD’s founder. Working from the original designs resulted in “an adventure in materials”.

Sudakova suggests that Milner was able to construct improved versions of the original designs because of the materials available to him. For example, after learning that one of Rodchenko’s hanging spatial constructions was originally built in plywood that bore traces of silver paint, Milner chose to reconstruct his mobiles in steel instead of in plywood. In steel, Milner was able to better emphasize the reflection of light in motion, a crucial design feature in Rodchenko’s work. The placement of Milner’s mobiles in the gallery corner – precisely where Rodchenko’s creations had hung in the original OBMOKhU Russian art collective exhibition in the 1920s – allows the mobiles’ light reflections to shine.

The works on display include an array of media, presenting a varied and dynamic engagement with Constructivism. The focal point of the exhibition, Letatlin, is an expansive yet delicate flying machine constructed following Vladimir Tatlin’s design. The machine hangs in the center of the gallery and accurately portrays Tatlin’s fusion of the natural with the technological. Similarly, a model of Tatlin’s iconic Monument to the Third International – Tatlin’s Tower – is a faithful rebuilding of the 1925 model, which he presented at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

A highlight of the exhibition is the inclusion of secondary materials, which enhance the major works on display. For example, Milner’s small maquette experiments for Tatlin’s tower, alongside his notes with mathematical equations for its eventual reconstruction, illuminate the research, flexibility, and detail with which Milner approached reconstructing Tatlin’s designs. The video of the original model from 1925 projected onto the gallery’s wall visually opens a dialogue between Tatlin and Milner, illustrating the collaboration of designers who are generations apart.

The exhibition demonstrates a compelling take on the iconic Constructivist works in a contemporary context. The inclusion of Gustav Klutsis’s designs for standing radio news kiosks, which championed utility, new technology, and mass communication, brings to light an artist whose too often unrealized work is relatively unknown to a London audience. The definition of the period through the four distinct, key figures of Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Klutsis, and Tatlin is logical and well developed.

Yet the exhibition makes minimal mention of the wide variety of other Constructivist designers, and says nothing of the major female artists who worked within the group, such as Lyubov Popova, Aleksandra Ekster, or Varvara Stepanova (Rodchenko’s wife). The role of female artists working in artistic production within a communist ideology immediately following the Soviet Revolution was complex and unique. Including the designs of these women either as a source for Milner, or as a section of the exhibition, would have provided a platform through which to bring their stories to London’s public alongside those of Rodchenko, Tatlin, and Lissitzky, whose work has already been shown throughout western galleries and museums (including a 10m high reconstruction of Tatlin’s tower at the Royal Academy in 2011). The stage designs, textiles, paintings, and ceramics of designers like Popova and Stepanova, that are essential to the development of Constructivist design, might have given the exhibition as a whole a more comprehensive view of the realities of the period.

Barring this omission, the exhibition stands as an exceptional reinterpretation of Constructivism and its legacy. Constructivism’s aesthetics of technological functionality, geometric simplicity, and mass communication appear throughout contemporary design today. Utopia LTD’s discourse of past and present, east and west, original and reconstruction, highlights the spirit of experimentation that design can never lose.