- Reviewed by
In the past decade, visual arts have emerged as one of the most effective forms of engagement with the remains of the Soviet past. From online photo collections of Soviet memorabilia 1 to critically acclaimed film documentaries 2 and catalogs, 3 these visual projects relentlessly bring back images and representations of the period that in the early 1990s seemed to have vanished irrevocably. It would be wrong to [End Page 435] dismiss these projects as merely nostalgic. Yet it would be just as wrong to ignore a significant affective charge that authors and audiences of these postsocialist explorations of socialism invest in material and visual traces of recent history. Often done outside the frameworks and conventions of professional history, these assemblages of representations usually offer neither coherent narratives, nor convincing interpretations, nor consistent critique. Instead, they pile up one piece of historical evidence after another, creating in the end fascinating catalogs of symptoms of socialism, which have yet to be decoded.
The book under review is an interesting example of this emerging trend. Like many other publications of this genre, Museutopia is also a catalog. It offers us an important glimpse into a process of active manufacturing of the past by tracing a dizzying transition from "a Communist monoculture" to the chaotic bricolage of post-Communism (P. 39). A set of 135 annotated photographs by Ilya Rabinovich meticulously preserves for future generations the content of Moldova's major national museums put on display in 2008. Room after room, Rabinovich followed the exhibits in order to retain the historical narratives created by the curators. These photos are as informative as they are dispassionate and distant. Rabinovich is no Rodchenko: he does not manipulate his camera in order to modify the situation visually. The photos offer no unusual angles or other photographic devices able to "reveal" the photographer's message. Instead, to convey a sense of documentary objectivity, the photographer heavily relies on front- and three-quarters shots that present museums' interiors with almost anatomic precision.
This cool distancing is even more striking given that at the core of Museutopia is a personal quest. In 2008, thirty-three-year-old Ilya Rabinovich, an artist who resides in Amsterdam now, visited Chişinaú, hoping to reconnect with the city of his birth, which he left in 1973 with his parents for Israel. 4 As Rabinovich recollected it, for him and his fellow immigrants from the USSR, growing up in Israel meant forgetting, ignoring, or denying his (Soviet) past in order "to become the desired 'true Israelis'" (P. 21). It was precisely this formative traumatic struggle with masking his "Russian accent while talking in Hebrew" (P. 21) that ultimately resulted in Rabinovich's attempt to restore links that were cut out from his biography and identity during the years of assimilation in [End Page 436] Israel and elsewhere. Rabinovich's search for his own past was as predictable as it was unusual: to alleviate the pain of "having no history," he did not just visit the country, he examined Moldova's national museums. At least initially, the nation's history was seen as a potential explanation for the individual's biography. Rabinovich explains: "…by means of my artwork, I try to track traces of the past. They are still there, but they are hidden and need to be revealed and recontextualized carefully. … At the same time, however, I tell an alternative story about Moldovan national identity. …My hope is that by sharing the process I have been going through, others might get another, more ambivalent and less unproblematic picture of the places where they live" (Pp. 17, 20).
It is precisely this conflation, this amalgamation of two planes that makes Rabinovich's project both interesting and important. The personal and the political become inseparable here. Yet this amalgamation is of a peculiar sort. The two planes are brought together by their profound embeddedness in the operation of historical erasure: returning to Moldova to discover his roots abandoned twenty-six years earlier, Rabinovich faced...