The ‘Krasny Oktyabr’ chocolate factory used to cover a considerable area of prime land right on the Moscow River just across from the Kremlin. It was re-located in 2007 and the site subsequently emerged as a centre for the fashionable industries of the 21st - art studios, galleries, cafes with exposed brickwork and generally bright, new spaces for bright young things.
One such place is the ‘Lumière Brothers Centre for Photography’ – opened in 2010 and now established as a major venue on the cultural map of the city. Its current exhibition, PROZAVOD – Russian 20th. Century Industrial Photogrpahy, is a mixture of cliché and brilliance.
The narrative of the show is the tried and trusted, (or, if you prefer, ‘corny’) ‘journey from the industrial past to the ruins of present’ in photographic and video form. The more modern photographs mirror many sites on the net offering seemingly endless images of disused factories – nothing to get excited about here. This Lumière exhibition shows us ‘big’, serious, ground-breaking Soviet photographic masterpieces of the 20th. century. It takes us through the whole, awesome process that was the construction and development of Soviet industry. Grandiose plans were turned into massive designs, which were finally realised on unprecendented scales by men of immense application, dedication and talent.
It is perhaps fitting that the final chapter of the exhibition’s narrative, ‘Ruins of the Future’, is both amateurish and pretentious – itself making a sweet comment – ‘the bold and pioneering cultural experiment has decayed into modern trash art’. It is clear that some contemporary photographic artists are a long way from expressing the brilliance of their cultural forefathers. There is no need to remind us of this by presenting student-esque, kitchily edited frames of spooky things in the former ZIL car factory. The true masters of the image found (and find) far more engaging ways to make us aware of the second law of thermodynamics.
Is this review going to be a long complaint about a waste of 350 Roubles? - Certainly not. The exhibition is worthwhile, containing a satisfying amount of well-chosen, thought-provoking material. Superlative photographs from the period of industrialisation and into the 1950s are powerful reminders of the optimism, enthusiasm and willing or unwilling self-sacrifice of the time. They were extraordinary times, and those recording them were similarly amazing photographers.
Decay is all around us – but it is not the end of the story. The irony of the very location of the exhibition is the whole story in itself. It is a former industrial building that once hummed with productive activity, then fell silent and into disrepair before being re-generated as a photography gallery depicting the way in which buildings can hum with productive activity, then fall silent and into disrepair and then be re-generated as photography galleries depicting……
Among the more modern works in the exhibition, two areas stood out – one was the work of the artist Gennady Vlasov, photographed by Denis Tarasov. Vlasov transformed surfaces of factory equipment lockers and housings in the vast Ural Heavy Machine Building plant into reproductions of Russian landscape paintings. The industrial giants of the Soviet period – hydro-electric stations, blast furnaces and mines were the ultimate manifestation of human creativity of the era. They defined art – and were themselves defined by the art of the photographers who are on display in this exhibition. Vlasov took the art of a bygone age and to it applied a more modern, naturalistic form of expression. Later on, with the factory in deep decline, Tarasov captured this extraordinary work on camera and thus created another generation of creative communication, reliant on the same theme but different in its execution and meaning. The vanishing point of the narrative of the exhibition is encapsulated here, not in the ‘Ruins of the Future’ indulgence.
The other shockingly beautiful contemporary work was that of Alexander Sorin. These dream-like images of heavy industry in the far northern town of Norilsk make us think we are looking at the lost city of Atlantis. The very strangeness of the photographs is a suitable reminder of the massive achievement and terrible damage humans have managed to organise there.
I defy anyone to be unimpressed by this exhibition. Follow this link to go to the site.
Entrance is 200 to 350 Roubles depending on how old you are and what day it is.
You can leg it across the bridge from Krapotkinskaya metro or wander along the embankment all the way from Krimsky Most. The gallery is on the south eastern side of the end of the spit, before the Peter the Great sculpture.
All the photographs used in this article are courtesy of the ‘Prozavod’ exhibition catalogue