In East Berlin in 1961, following Nikita Khrushchev’s public disclosure of Stalinist atrocities, Stalinallee, the city’s grand postwar boulevard and a prime example of ideological city planning, was abruptly renamed Karl-Marx-Allee. The bronze statue of the dictator that capped the avenue was torn down. But other cracks in GDR ideology soon appeared, and to prevent the migration of people from East to West, the Berlin Wall was erected the same year.
The fate of that forgotten statue is at the core of Swetlana Heger’s newest work, ‘Animal Farm’ (2007). Starting with concrete fact, Heger quickly delves into a territory that indexes the points at which urban myth blurs with historical accuracy. She faithfully delineates a narrative that may or may not be factually true, but which almost certainly points to a larger truth about the rapid remoulding of ideologies. According to the story doggedly pursued (or constructed, depending on your point of view) by Heger, the defunct Stalin monument was melted down and its bronze recycled and reincarnated as animal statuettes. Scattered throughout the parks of Berlin, these representations of apes, giraffes, chickens, bears and donkeys stray into the territory of public kitsch, even as they effectively enact a humble antithesis to the bombast of the original statue.
For ‘Animal Farm’ Heger methodically tracked down and photographed these sculptures, recording them in a series of sombre black and white images. Despite the grim quality of the images – the parks are devoid of human life, and the sky seems permanently overcast – there is a sly humour derived from the inconsistency between the deadpan documentary tone of the photography and the childishly whimsical forms of the statues themselves. Certainly anti-heroic, seemingly anti-ideological, the statues – by way of their origin – are nonetheless infused with historical and ideological significance. ‘Animal Farm’ has to do with the persistent contamination of history and the residue left in the wake of grand historical gestures, whether physical or ideological.
With clear nods to George Orwell and Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s difficult to ignore the distinctly allegorical strain of this new work. Heger is well known for her ‘Playtime’ series (2002), a set of collaborations with luxury brands ranging from Hermes to Adidas, in which the artist posed with various status objects. ‘Animal Farm’ maintains Heger’s clear concern with the role of cultural artefacts in our society, with the ways in which we use them to construct, to obscure or to deny meaning. That thematic preoccupation with interpretation follows on a fascination with methods of production (a process Heger refers to as ‘construction plates’) as well as a recurring preoccupation with distribution – the networks, likely and unlikely, that distribute material and objects through our society.
Formally the presentation of the photographs – all of which are placed in customized candy-coloured frames, a jarring contrast that positions them more as seductive products than the result of an investigative photographic survey – provides a visual link between this project and Heger’s previous work and her ongoing interest in the act of contextualization and dislocation. The artist is clearly concerned with the reproduction and proliferation of the image. At the same time she is well aware of the way in which context alters meaning (in Quite Normal Luxury, her 2001 work made in collaboration with Plamen Dejanov, the significance and value of everything from a BMW car to vehicle engineering drawings is changed by their placement in a gallery) and is specific with regard to the context in which the ‘Playtime’ fashion images are seen.
Highlighting the recontextualization and recycling of cultural products – whether designer goods or political monuments – is hardly ground-breaking. But in her current project’s examination of long-standing historical and cultural facts and fictions Heger achieves something new. In this more sober series she demonstrates the range of her thought, and argues that, in a culture dominated by shiny surfaces and increasingly short-term memories, the dark past is unexpectedly present, lingering in the child-friendly forms of a baby giraffe or a cuddly bear in a quiet city park.