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HOMELESSPAGE: Lenin's gaze

This article is 3139 words long.
Keywords: Berthold Lubetkin. Lenin memorial. London. 1942. Theo Angelopoulos. José Sanchís Sinisterra



Lenin's gaze.
By Josep Quetglas

The monument consists of different pieces. Some could be called abstract, others figurative. The white marble pebbles, the black granite base and the white painted concrete frame could be abstract. Lenin’s bust and the broken chain, figurative.

B.Lubetkin, Lenin Memorial, Finsbury, London 1942
B.Lubetkin, Lenin Memorial, Finsbury, London 1942

This variance makes the viewer unable to feel at the same distance from the entire monument, that the monument as a whole is not evenly distant from the viewer but that there are different distances: some parts of the monument are closer to the viewer than others.

The viewer shares with the monument the bust, an image of a person like himself, and the chain, which can be found in daily life or in any hardware shop. This distance between the viewer and the figurative part of the monument is not bigger than the one existing between the abstract and figurative parts of the monument itself. Abstract part, figurative part and viewer follow each other and thus make up a gradual and graded whole.
Here Lubetkin seems to comply with one of the aims of avant-garde art, the implication of the viewer in the work of art but, by introducing a new agenda: not the provocation of the viewer, which implied an immediate response, neither the non-definition of the artwork, that included the activity of the viewer to complete it; but propelling the work towards the viewer telescopically, and so adding him to the work as one more link.
This way, no solitary regard of the work gives a complete image of it. One of the pieces of the monument is its public. And why has the viewer been added to the work? Are ‘public’ and ‘viewer’ appropriate names for this participation? The chain explains it. It is broken. Someone chained, therefore, has been liberated, has gained mobility, was able to leave there, has gone away. We already know who broke the chain, attacking its weakest link: Lenin. And we can also deduce who was liberated: anyone of us, all of us, the one who we discovered to be simultaneously liberated and connected to the monument: the ‘viewer’.
The viewer finds himself doubly implicated in the monument. As a viewer that walks towards the artwork and discovers a likeliness with himself, and as a viewer that comes out of the artwork, whose life has been given possibilities thanks to the actions of Lenin and his companions

This bringing together of things of a formally divergent origin is a common procedure in Lubetkin. In Highpoint II, the daring, thin slab of a concrete canopy was supported by two statues, reproductions of the caryatids of the Erechtheum. Lubetkin explained this by recognising that any kind of support for the concrete slab was considered a loss, compared to the formal capability of the slab to suggest a tense cantilever without supports.
One way to render the support invisible was to dissolve it optically among the garden elements, seen through the canopy and next to it. In gardens one can find statues. The caryatids are part of the garden, like the bushes or the flowerbeds and only by chance coincide with the canopy and fit under it. Their politeness doesn’t let them be aware of the contact, and our regard knows how to distinguish the different pieces: some of these face the garden and others face the building.

This working method of Lubetkin allows us to imagine his way of looking. On some occasions one has to integrate unexpected elements in his architecture. For instance, if we can imagine the caryatid-canopy pair in terms of mobility, why not see that exactly the same dance is produced in the zoo pavilions, between a giraffe and a wall, between a gorilla and a grille, between a penguin and a ramp or, in our case, between a bust of Lenin and a concrete frame? Classical statues, exotic animals or revolutionary politicians have something in common when compared to their modern backgrounds. And the viewer completes the triangle.

One of my favourite photographs is the one where two London workmen stand in front of the monument. One of them is still arranging something on the gravelled ground. He has taken off his jacket and his sleeves are pulled up with a garter so the cuffs don’t get in the way or become spoiled while working. The other one has already finished, he just straightened up. He has produced his pipe and his hand is looking for matches or tobacco in the pocket of his jacket. He looks at the bust, from where the almond-shaped eyes of Lenin return his glance. Do you remember Lenin’s smile? Eyes, cheeks and mouth: humour and decision.

I find that both monument and worker look alike. They have a similar image, they dress the same. The worker dresses like all urban Western workers before the Second World War. A woollen cap, a pullover and a jacket, wrapping his face and head in a repeated frame of necks and cap. Lenin’s bust is also wrapped in a visor and necks, not woollen but concrete. It is possible to imagine the monument as a wrapping that protects and dresses the bust. The frame has adapted to Lenin’s usage: to his right it doubles and adapts into an undulating line, following and summing up the profile of his head, neck and shoulder.

Beyond the doubly framed bust there appears, in the monument’ s interior, a scarlet background, cut out with the mobility of a flag. The curved line to the left of the bust adapts the frame to the bust, avoids it being squeezed and, besides, produces the image of a waving red flag.
The movement of the flag is not only traced by the asymmetry of its contour, but also the illumination of the monument: the concrete visor, in the upper part, projects forwards not only to protect the monument from the rain, but also to allow for an invisible slit to illuminate directly and zenithally the monument’s heart, the bust and the scarlet background.
The natural light enhances the background colour and gives, through the lights and shadows it projects, its volumetric wrapping to the bust which otherwise, without this light, would be perceived as a flattened low relief. Changing with each cloud, with each modification of the daylight, the flag moves, it is never starched, rigid and motionless, but it flames continuously. Its red colour being lit and extinguished as in the cycles of a fast combustion, not very different from what the worker’s pipe is going to produce in the inside if its bowl.

Worker and monument also look alike in other aspects. Without doubt the most important: they don’t exist anymore. From what is shown in the photograph nothing is left. The picture was taken in 1942, just after the inauguration of the monument, on the 1st of May. At some moment in those 55 years that separate us from this picture, the worker died. He, whose image was printed on the photographic plate, and all the others like him. You cannot find them on any city’s streets. They are not the ones Salgado is photographing nowadays.
The monument disappeared even earlier, within a few months after its inauguration. It suffered continued attacks form the first day on. It was refurbished repeatedly; after each attack the bust was substituted: it was moulded in concrete, and it is told that Lubetkin, the foreseer, had dozens of them in stock. A gate was constructed on the pebble ground, closing him up (he, who had broken the chains and the park’s fence itself) and a guard was put there to protect him. When the maintenance of the monument became an economical burden, the city government decided to disassemble it and keep the pieces in a warehouse.
Lubetkin, who had foreseen to move the monument to an entrance hall of a housing unit he was going to build nearby, decided to bury it on his own account, acting by surprise, and avoid the city government’s intervention. There are photographs showing Lubetkin and his friend burying the monument.

The burial of Lenin Memorial
The burial of Lenin Memorial

Somewhere in the London subsoil there is the complete monument, with rusty chains, the granite blocks, the concrete frame, heaps of gravel, the visor where light does not flame now to reanimate the red background, the bust...
At what do the open eyes of Lenin’s bust look now? What does he see there, under the ground, in the dark? Is it something different from what we see from up here? And we, where are we? We, that were part of the monument. Are we, perhaps, also buried in the open, in a material more viscous than the earth?

In "Ñaque, o de piojos y actores", José Sanchis Sinisterra presents two characters, that are existing in the infinite plains of a time without space, through which they move eternally: their journey is a dark and continuous track, without images, until they strand on a stage, in front of a group of people concentrated as public.
Then, on that and on any other occasion in which their drift takes them to where a curtain is drawn, the two characters personify their presence, they become corporeal, they become visible on the stage of the theatre, and act their performance.
But their visibility expires. It only lasts as long as the public is public and the stage is stage, meaning the time during which the public keeps its attention or interest to what occurs on the stage. When the attention weakens, the two characters start dissolving, they lose body, and start their perpetual wandering again, heading to another foreboding and unknown mooring place.

It is difficult to witness, without a quiver of horror, the efforts both characters undertake to attract the public’s attention, when the symptoms of dissolution are starting to show. Their performance becomes nonsense, sharper, pressing. The amazement gets blocked between the flashing of a helpless gaze and resignation.

The viewer and, with him, the movie characters of Theo Angelopoulos move within a world where form and meaning have split.
Either we have become displaced of the theatre of facts, that we imagine behind a curtain: the wall of the house in "The Reconstruction" , the canvas of the truck, the fogged negative, the steam on the window, the mist in "Landscape in the mist", the mist in "Journey to Citerea", once more the mist, once more the fogged negative, the film projection on the market square in "Ulysses's gaze".
Or, on the other hand, we have in front of us, within the reach of our hand and our gaze something of deadened contents, of lost meaning, occluded, clogged: Alexander converted into a marble bust in "The Great Alexander", the hand that emerges from the sea and flies over the city in "Landscape in the mist", the disassembled statue of Lenin in "Ulysses's gaze".

Perplexity doesn’t let us move away from both situations, which are not alternative but complementary, insisting: staying before the opaque, not assisting to what occurs.

Th.Angelopoulos, Landscape in the mist.
Th.Angelopoulos, Landscape in the mist.
The hand above Thessaloniki.

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