The largest body of work by El Lissitzky (1890-1941) outside Russia is to be found in the Van Abbemuseum’s collection. Time and again Lissitzky’s work serves as a fount of inspiration in the conceptualization of exhibitions.
His designs for an innovatively abstract visual idiom and their translation into graphic works have found a home in a central museum gallery. Lissitzky called this series of designs [=painted works?] his Proun compositions. ‘Proun’ means ‘for the champions of the new art’, an ideal with which Lissitzky identified himself with verve. His viewpoint was that the artist should serve the new society, alongside the worker, scholar and engineer. Art was subservient to the social revolution and had to strive after an objective quality that represented the fulfilment of a utopian communist society. His work presents constructions and designs that embody these aspirational ideals in a strictly organized formal idiom.
Around the time that the communist bulwark to which Lissitzky had devoted himself was being dismantled at the end of the 20th century and the Soviet Union fragmented into independent states, the Lithuanian sculptor and filmmaker Deimantas Narkevičius, born in 1964, started to respond to that communist legacy in his work. After Lithuania had gained its independence in 1991, brand-new utopian visions were hatched regarding society, art and culture, but Narkevičius did not allow himself to be distracted by the latest delusions. He first turned his camera to achieving an intelligent and astute reading and re-interpretation of the past. Every single film by Narkevičius presents an analysis of the ways in which the socialist Utopia was previously promoted in word and image and the impact of this on the life of the individual Soviet citizen. To achieve this he produced both highly personal and more essayistic documentaries. What these share in common is that his interpretation is seemingly self-explanatory, because he employs cinematic techniques that were common in the past in the here and now. His films have to some degree the superfice of informative [=propagandistic?] Soviet films of the 1960s and ’70s. The filmmaker essentially exploits this to manipulate his modern-day images and provide them with an historic double, thus making any interpretation – let alone the discovery of the truth – into a complex undertaking. The basis of the former Soviet Union’s absolute values are retrospectively placed on an uncertain footing. In his later work the filmmaker investigates how the very loss of these absolute values causes the youth of today to long nostalgically for the past, as if hankering after an exotic world, one that in their perception is no longer associated with the repressive reality that went hand in hand with it.
In Plug In #06, Lissitzky and Narkevičius meet each other in a remarkable manner. In his 1923 folio of designs for a futuristic opera, the Figurinnemappe for Sieg über die Sonne (Victory over the Sun), Lissitzky sings the praises of the new humankind, a people who exchange dependence on the sun for a self-created energy source, while in his documentary Energy Lithuania (2000), Narkevičius deconstructs the glorious existence of such a human invention. In a manner as restrained as it is effective he reveals how the optimism that accompanied the construction of a power station in the 1960s has been supplanted by a well-nigh idle complex. This places the sacrifices of the workers, immortalized in heroic murals, in a wry context. Footage of line-dancing residents from the city of Elektrënai demonstrates how the citizen’s readiness to become part of a streamlined whole no longer benefits the advancement of a new Utopia but has been transmogrified into an innocent recreational pursuit.