All of the pavilions at the Venice Biennale, on its main avenue which begins to the right of the main entrance, stand at approximately the same distance from the gravel-covered paths. This distance between the path and the pavilion is covered with grass so that all the way to the very end of the avenue, to the pavilion of England, it looks like a clean green carpet, neatly trimmed and swept under the dense shade of the enormous trees.
But already from afar, one could see that something is not right in one place on this carpet. Namely, opposite the former ‘Soviet’ and today ‘Russian’ pavilion, one can see discarded piles of branches, boards scattered about, logs and other construction garbage. When you approach it more closely, you see that the pavilion itself and the entire territory around it is encircled by a high fence made out of fresh boards with an entrance visible in the middle of it. Many visitors, certain that the pavilion was not ready for the exhibit, that it was still being built, didn’t even turn in there. (It was later necessary to hang a sign with an arrow indicating ‘Entrance.’) But those who were uncertain as to whether it was open or closed no longer had any doubts once they had ascended the stairs and crossed the threshold of the pavilion. Here before the visitor was an entire scene of ‘Major Repairs’: a narrow corridor barely illuminated by a weak electric light bulb. And there was chaos all around, as inside the dwelling where everything was heaped together: work clothing on nails driven into the wall, jars of paint, rags, brushes, crates. Having navigated his way through all of this chaos, the viewer uncertainly and hesitantly peers farther, beyond the turn in the corridor. Two steps up the stairs and he is in an enormous space where these ‘eternal’ repairs reign. There are scaffolds running along the walls, boards, sticks on the floor and the semi-darkness of an empty, neglected dwelling not intended for any visitors at all – this is what might be encountered upon entering an old, dusty factory that is of use to no one, from which all life has departed forever and where there hasn’t been anything but anguish and devastation for a long time now.
Semi-darkness is all around, and everything is done in such a way that the viewer, having wavered and then become convinced that there is nothing here, turns and walks toward the exit. But the reflection of light coming from some sort of temporary-corridor in the middle of the far wall arouses curiosity. ‘Hmm, let me just take a look at what might be there.’ This is roughly the kind of reaction that should arise in the viewer. He walks toward this light and enters into this little corridor. It is not long and ends with an open door, through which pours the light, but nevertheless, it is impossible to see anything from the small corridor itself to the approach to the door. (Moving a bit ahead of myself, it must be said that the installation didn’t work for a long time without the ‘discovery’ of this ‘small corridor,’ of this intermediary step.)
This entire passage from the garbage heaps near the entrance to the light coming through the door, the chaos, the emptiness, and devastation – all of this had to be ‘accumulated’ in order to create disillusionment, insecurity, and ‘emptiness’ inside of the viewer himself, so that what he suddenly does see has a stronger impact. And there is yet one other important circumstance: at all times the viewer must be in everyday, ‘non-artistic’ space – not ‘as though in real life,’ but in actual everyday reality (and what could be more ‘everyday’ than garbage and disorder). This very circumstance ‘worked’ against my installation, as will be discussed later.
We stopped at the door with the light coming from beyond. One more step and we are in the world of that light which has turned out to be beyond the door.
One must imagine clearly to oneself (I am writing for those who have never been in the ‘Russian’ pavilion at the Venice Biennale and who have never stepped out onto its balcony in the direction of the lagoon) those planes, as though specially contrived and arranged, which, like in a classical open theater or in the paintings of Claude Lorrain, progress in precise steps or ledges from the foreground where the viewer is standing to the last one, which opens up at the horizon. They unfold just like in a theater (or in that same painting which is that same theater) where the viewer is immobile and the motion – even, calm, and smooth – takes place in the measured movement of the eyes from plane to plane either in the direction of the horizon or in the opposite direction.
Upon exiting through the door the viewer finds himself on a narrow (1.5 meters wide) and long balcony with a stone parapet which I spoke about above. We are standing at approximately the level of the second floor above the ground. Around us is the most wonderful park in the world: enormous trees above, and below us is the famous Italian play of light and shadow in the greenery on two marble sculptures on stone pedestals. And once again about the planes. Below, at a short distance, there is a pink-red pavilion. Behind it, frontally before us, is that same fence which we saw in the beginning. Beyond the fence are flower-beds, park benches, garden sculptures; beyond them is the bank, fretted, decorative grates of the parapet. Beyond it is a lagoon bathed in blinding sunlight where boats and large ships sail one after another from right to left and back again, between the wings formed by the tops of the trees as though specially contrived by the director of this show. Finally, one of the islands of the Venetian archipelago can be seen in the distance as a long dark strip on the horizon.
The main character in this show is the red-pink pavilion which, like the main hero, is standing directly opposite the balcony. It is much smaller than the first pavilion (5 x 9.2 x 4.6 meters). Its size is similar to that of a small shed. But this ‘little shed’ is very ceremoniously and festively decorated: all the attributes of the Great Soviet Epoch shine on its walls – the emblem of the hammer and sickle, red stars, holiday slogans, flags. The insignia of the Soviet Union is in the center. A metal mast with a loud-speaker attached to it rises from a tower on the roof. From it resounds ‘to the whole world’ a cheerful Soviet song of the 1950’s, ceremonial marches full of hale and hearty spirit and inexhaustible energy …
This ‘little pavilion’ is the territory of a world which has not disappeared anywhere, but is only hidden, concealing itself behind the back of another. Standing in the depths of the courtyard, it is merely waiting for its own hour so that it may return to the place from which it was recently expelled.
It is fenced off, it is impossible to reach it, just as it is impossible to go up on stage in a theater during a performance: the exit for the viewer is only to the left, through a gate, again into the avenues of the exhibit.
This ‘hero’s’ role is dual: it is both an ornament of the ‘stage’ – a part of its ‘decorations’ along with the other sculptures, benches, flower beds, and other elements of the park – and, on the other hand, a character which delivers its own monologue. It is interesting that without this monologue the pavilion, and in fact the entire installation, simply doesn’t exist; sound is the most important element of this work. (And here we have the enormous, decisive contribution of the composer Vladimir Tarasov who collected and created the marvelous arrangement of all the sound material, which, as many can attest to, is impossible to forget.) Although, it is difficult to call this a monologue, even if it is a musical one: from three speakers resound ecstatic shouts of greetings, the thunder of an orchestra, speeches – a documentary phonogram of a May Day parade and demonstration on Red Square in Moscow. The entire effect is not only and not so much in the nature of the military marches and speeches pronounced in a language that is incomprehensible for Venice as much as it is in the strength of the sound itself coming from these speakers that are aimed directly at the viewers. This loud, importunate sound is difficult to withstand. There is nowhere to escape from it, our hero literally foists itself upon us. It is even impossible to exchange words – because of the sound you can’t hear anything. All the rules of the game are violated: the viewer usually feels comfortable at an exhibit, he looks at the objects timidly displaying themselves or that simply exist with dignity. But here is some sort of wretched joke – as though someone without our consent started to pour water from a bucket over us.
And then: ‘who,’ or more precisely ‘what,’ exactly is resounding? That totalitarian monster living far away from these places which only sometimes could be seen on television screens – why has it wound up here, where it is alien and foreign to everything?
But … the music resounds so boldly and joyfully, the pavilion sparkles in the sun with all its colors, and everything together looks so cheery and festive …
But stop! Can marvelous Venice in its continual celebration, and especially during the Biennale, can it really comprise a unique ensemble, a strange duet with this symbol of totalitarianism. Did this really enter into the plans of the installation? Isn’t this all just delirium? It is difficult to even imagine such a notion … The viewer leaves the balcony to the left and when he turns beyond the gate the music suddenly stops being audible because of the enormous trees surrounding the pavilion.
I mentioned earlier that the ordinary, sort of everyday, real feeling inside the installation ‘worked’ against it. By this, I wanted to say that many viewers, expecting to see ‘a work of art’ or at least something to look at, thought that this work was that very pink pavilion. For them, all of this contrived drama of the ‘passage’ and the participation of all of ‘nature’ and the environment as functioning components of the installation simply didn’t exist.
Music in The Red Pavilion
From three loudspeakers raised on a tall pole above the roof of the pavilion and facing the balcony come bold speeches, solemn marches, delirious songs, friendly thousand-voiced ‘Hurrah!’ This is a phonogram of a direct transmission from a May Day parade on Red Square in Moscow. This audio attack sounds like dissonance in the festive, elated, and yet nevertheless noiseless atmosphere of the Biennale and in the entire life of Venice, a city breathing ancient tranquility and peace. In terms of its inappropriateness and importunity, this dissonance resembles the roar of an airplane which suddenly has flown low over the park or – a comparison which seems even better – the howl of a factory siren which is located, hidden somewhere in the bushes. This absurdity, foreignness, aggressiveness of the invasion by an alien far-away, terrible world (any person at the Biennale recognizes the sounds of Soviet parades and demonstrations which he has seen on television) into another quiet and peaceful territory, into another solitude, is perceived by the viewer on the balcony as a shock that is tonal, mental, ideological, and simply physically uncomfortable: it is impossible to hear what the person standing next to you is saying because of the all-encompassing noise.
But the very circumstances of the Biennale serve as the integrating, all-unifying origins of such music and such a pavilion and park and lagoon as well: after all, like the Venice Film Biennale, it, in essence, is also a holiday, hubbub, the joy of the thousands of people who have gathered together just for this, for what else, if not for the same kind of holiday as the First of May on Red Square in far-away Moscow?
To sum up, everything that has been said, we must note that what was definitive in such an installation was its sound. The visual dimension only supported and connected the unusual and incomprehensible sound with all the actual circumstances of the place where this sound appeared.