Installed Stalinist era gets its Truman Show
In an art project that has been compared to The Truman Show, Big Brother and the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York, a Russian artist has paid 400 people to live for three years in a fictional but functioning Stalin-era research institute.
In an experiment confirmed by the Guardian last week, Ilya Khrzhanovsky created an institute of theoretical physics in eastern Ukraine modelled on the shadowy facilities that existed in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Inside it were more than 400 real people, who relived 30 years of the Soviet experience in three years between 2008 and 2011, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes and obeying the same rules as Soviet citizens. People fell in and out of love, conceived 14 children, formed friendships and made enemies, according to executive producer Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon.
Khrzhanovsky used the story of Soviet physicist Lev Landau – whose nickname also provided the project’s title, DAU – as the basis for his fictional world. “It is really to show how people are, it is not particular to that culture or that time,” says D’Anglejan-Chatillon. “It is about looking at what human nature is capable of, under a microscope, and the capacity for beauty and intellect and optimism and change, or a capacity for the opposite.
“In a way what Ilya created was an encyclopaedia of human relationships and human nature and how things develop over time in people.”
It has been a sprawling project shrouded in secrecy. Very few journalists have ever been given access. One who was, Michael Idov, wrote a piece for GQ in 2011 headlined The Movie Set That Ate Itself, describing Khrzhanovsky as “unhinged”.
James Meek, a novelist and former Guardian Moscow correspondent, was in 2015 invited to a building on London’s Piccadilly where Khrzhanovsky has spent years pulling the project together. He wrote a piece for the London Review of Books in which he said: “I felt I’d crossed a membrane into another medium.”
The research facility was also a vast movie set and the participants were filmed by the German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges. More than 700 hours of footage was captured, and the film, DAU Freiheit, or DAU Freedom, will be shown to the public for the first time at an art installation in Berlin in October.
“The world has been waiting for this,” says D’Anglejan-Chatillon. “The film world has been anticipating this for a long time.”
For the event, a large section of the Berlin Wall will be rebuilt on Unter den Linden boulevard in the German capital, creating a walled-in “city within a city”. Visitors must purchase “visas” online and hand over their phones before entering. The project will end with a ritualistic tearing down of the wall on 9 November, exactly 29 years after the event in 1989.
The installation in Berlin will also feature performances and live interventions by artists including Brian Eno and Robert del Naja of Massive Attack. Events in Paris before Christmas, and London in the new year, will follow the project. In Berlin, the installation will be hosted by the Berliner Festspiele arts festival.