BY Brian Dillon in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Architecture of the Off-Modern

Svetlana Boym (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008)

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BY Brian Dillon in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 08

Construction of the model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1920)

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919–20), the oblique subject of Svetlana Boym’s short but densely argued essay, is perhaps the most resonant unmade building (or is it an art work?) of the last century. As the art historian Stephen Bann once pointed out, the twin spirals of Tatlin’s revolutionary structure, designed to house the legislature, executive and propaganda ministry of the Comintern, swiftly composed an aesthetic and political ‘vacuum’. Into this unbuilt vortex the Western avant-garde projected its mechanistic fantasies: Boym reproduces the well-known photograph of George Grosz and John Heartfield holding a placard inscribed ‘Art is dead: Long live the machine art of Tatlin.’ Stalin too, enthused by the notion of a total monument, misread the artist’s organicist vision and planned to trump it with Boris Iofan’s monstrous Palace of the Soviets, atop which edifice Stalin’s own image would stand, inviolable.

In fact, argues Boym, the Utopian tower was already adrift in history: on the one hand, it conjured memories of Babel and Pisa; on the other, the future Tatlin envisioned was assuredly not that of a dialectic petrified for posterity. Conceived both ‘behind and ahead of its time’, the monument embodied instead a permanent artistic revolution. It’s for this reason that its afterlife as a conceptual ruin has been such a touchstone for subsequent art and architecture in Russia. Sited between Revolution and Terror, the unexecuted project functioned for the ‘paper architects’ of the 1970s as a precursor of radical practice in an era of aesthetic and political stagnation. More recently, Tatlin’s visionary scaffold, the very model of an ‘open work’, ramified in the minds of the ‘Russian Conceptualists’, most notably in Ilya Kabakov’s The Palace of the Projects (1995–2001), with its rickety spiral form and discreetly suggestive interstices.

This is not, however, merely a historical treatise on the artistic half-life of a Modernist icon. Rather, Boym essays in her reading of the Monument … a wholesale re-ordering of historical categories and possible future uses for the ruins of the recent past – the ruin, properly understood, being precisely the concept that undoes both futurism and nostalgia. The slightly awkward neologism of her title is meant to signal a swerve away from the contemporary vocabulary of ‘post-’, ‘neo-’ and ‘trans-’: a digressive move according to which we might avoid simply thinking of a lost future such as Tatlin’s as either statically ‘of its time’ or subject to excited revival (or worse, the object of a kitsch retro-futurism). The project spurs Boym to resuscitate certain dormant concepts in Modernist criticism, among them Hannah Arendt’s distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘passionate’ thought and the sociologist Georg Simmel’s championing of artistic and personal ‘adventure’. The most suggestive reference, though, is to Victor Shklovsky’s reading of the sloping Monument … as an architectural analogy to the literary ‘knight’s move’: a diagonal manoeuvre into poetic estrangement, ‘made of iron, glass and revolution’.

In that sense and others Architecture of the Off-Modern is a companion piece to Boym’s intricate study of the vagaries of cultural memory, The Future of Nostalgia (2001). As in the earlier book, her mastery of a specific history – both Russian and Western European, Modernist and post-Cold War – is here allied to a conception of criticism as rigorously vagrant and estranging, searching among the ruins for fragments of the future.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

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