In­stalled Stal­in­ist era gets its Tru­man Show

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Mark Brown Photo: Phenomen IP, 2018

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.

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