There is an exhibition called “Announcer” going on right now at William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. It features the superimposed pages of “The Kelmscott Chaucer” and “For the Voice” – a 1923 book of poems by Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovskiy, illustrated by El Lissitzky.
William Morris Gallery is a gem of Walthamstow in its own right. Here in an immense harmony with the surrounding park, the nearby market and historic Walthamstow lies a mesmerising museum of the pinnacle of Victorian design. The temporary exhibition there invites us to see the development of the social thought in the UK and Russia through the book design.
I was always surprised and relieved on how in Britain it is so easy to dissect the context that is so painful in Russia – in this case, ideals of socialist revolution.
When living inside any given context, the re-appearance of certain ideas, objects or people inevitably triggers a mechanism of our own attitude towards them. This is because any fact of social history comes with much ache and suffering. As a piece of the ex-soviet system one may woe that “The Cloud in pants” is also “Left March”.
However, for people living outside the situation it is easier to pick and choose standalone facts without looking back to the past and the endless context it entails.
You can wear a Che Guevara or Lenin T-shirt when you are out of Che’s or Lenin’s countries – this way they become caricaturistic, attaining almost facetious traits. You can put up a Stalin’s portrait next to the samovar in your show and it will be ok.
Announcer offers this little piece of context – but with a twist.
William Morris is a renowned designer of Victorian times, disappointed by labour division and mass production. He became a socialist and created his own textile company where he produced marvellous designs according to his own idealistic, even fundamentalist approach to his political ideals.
Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and illustrator and architect El Lissitzky propagate socialist revolutionary ideals, proclaiming new order, taming steel beasts of factories and going off to an epic battle for a better life. Their oeuvre “For the voice” is a schoolbook example of designer and poetic ideals of the 1920es.
Morris’ approach reminds a bit of the current hipster utopia, a world where people claim their living money working on simple, straightforward production cycles. They straighten their back at dawn after a night’s worth of noble craft and wipe their foreheads off the bitter sweat while staring at some idyllic pastoral countryside.
This would make laugh the idealists of early 20th century. They would ridicule this vision by showing off their fancy complex factories, heroic udarnik marches and the rapid development of “the new world”.
It would be hard to find a more unlikely peers. Have they met in real life, somebody would definitely leave the scene in an ambulance.
The soundtrack to the exhibition is excerpt of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” as if it wanted to remind us of seemingly uncomplicated and “real” human relations. The excerpt is opposed by “Could you” read in a thunder-like voice of Mayakovsky himself. It almost freezes the listener by its unshakable revolutionary logic that sticks forever in their memory.
Mabb superimposes these two approaches, physically intercepting them by pulling one canvass-mounted pages of text on top of the others. This direct and literal approach of the century-long political discussion allows the viewer to contemplate on how different political allies can be. In the space of just one room the artists try to insert a whole conflict that seems so up-to-date as if it just featured in today’s newspapers.
Which side appeals more to you in this representation? Our attitude to this conflict, as in any art, reveals more about ourselves, than about the art.
As we go about our lives, following media-skimmed view of the world, we often dehumanise our political and social opponents, reducing them to caricatures.