Chapter 7. Luciano Fabro: Bitter Sweets for Nadezhda Mandelstam
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121 Chapter 7 Luciano Fabro Bitter Sweets for Nadezhda Mandelstam Sharon Hecker Introduction At the inauguration of the 1990 exhibition Computers di Luciano Fabro,caramelle di Nadezda Mandel’stam (Luciano Fabro’s Computers, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Candies) in Milan, students handed out sweets wrapped in photocopy paper (Plate 7.1 and Plate 7.2).1 Without much apparent consideration, the visitors unwrapped the treats and popped them into their mouths, only to discover that the open “wrappers” in their hands contained thought-provoking phrases from the memoirs of Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam (Plate 7.2). Suddenly, the straightforward distribution and consumption of candy became an encouragement to visitors to reflect upon the relationship of the artist Luciano Fabro to the author of the phrases and the wider message behind the event. Nadezhda (1899–1980), whose name means “hope,” was the wife of Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), the exiled Russian poet who died in transit to a Siberian gulag for having written a poem critical of Joseph Stalin. Nadezhda was not able to write down her memories of their experiences under the regime until after Stalin’s death decades later in 1953. Her manuscript, titled “Hope against Hope,” was ­ smuggled into the United States in the 1950s and published in English in 1970.2 122 Food Art Nadezhda had preserved the events in her mind for decades; she­similarly saved her husband’s poems,officially ordered to be destroyed, from oblivion by memorizing them and by hiding fragments of his verses on scraps of paper between pots and pans. Fabro would evoke these written fragments with the phrases printed on the candy wrappers for the 1990 exhibition.Thus,the viewer’s act of eating the candies and reading her phrases in which the treats came wrapped seemed to replicate Nadezhda’s symbolic gesture of recalling the events and “ingesting” her husband’s poems as a form of safeguarding. But the artist had the idea to hand out the wrapped candy after reading an unsettling passage in Nadezhda’s memoir of a gesture that symbolized an act of willful opposition to assimilation: the writer recalled the candies that Stalin’s police cynically offered her while searching the couple’s apartment. Although she did not write this in her memoirs,it is clear that Nadezhda either refused to take these candies or else ate them because she had no choice,in both cases implying a form of quiet resistance. She wrote, “this gesture of offering hard candy was repeated in many other apartments during searches. Was this, too, part of the ritual, like the technique of entering the room, checking identity papers, frisking people for weapons and looking for secret drawers?”3 Rather than inspiring a positive memory, the sweets represented a terrible moment in Nadezhda’s mind—police searching the apartment,instruments of a totalitarian state that exiled millions to prison camps offering candy as they were overturning the­ couple’s lives. Her story exemplifies the dramatic contradictions of the Stalinist dictatorship, one notoriously fraught with surreal incongruities .By handing out candies in his exhibition and wrapping them in Nadezhda’s words, Fabro delicately rephrased Nadezhda’s negative, painful memory in a new and hopeful way. Fabro used the candies as an index, or what he himself called a “citation,” creating an anecdote behind which other things lurk.4 He saw it as“a way to reflect on relationships between people,on the State and people, even on hygienic forms of the State. It is something very simple that suddenly becomes rich with memory. And at the same time it is something that permits [me] to impress in peoples’ memories the words of Nadezda Mandelstam.”5 By sharing Nadezhda’s memory of the candies, Fabro even drew a political parallel with the Luciano Fabro 123 manipulation of culture in the present day:“[Nadezda] ...says that ... what happened under Stalin’s regime was nothing more than a small experiment in a small space for what happens today in the world.In ... less dramatic and more diluted ways we are now living what the Soviet Union had lived. As Ossip said, the State has become a non-religious State, only engaged with culture as something to be exploited.”6 The following essay examines the functions of “Nadezda Mandelstam’s candies” within both Fabro’s 1990 installation and his broader artistic project. I argue that while the candies initially elicited an innocent,direct response from the visitor,they also raised significant questions about censorship and...