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Context (Moscow Times)
September 14-20, 2007
Remembering Yeltsin
A public vote is underway to select a monument to the former president.

By Tatyana Gershkovich

"For the Demolition of Bad Monuments," reads a sign on the half-full donations box at Moscow's Art4.ru museum.

The note may be a joke, but the gallery does think the capital is desperate for good public art -- and has found a perfect opportunity to create it.

In August, Art4.ru held a competition to design the monument to controversial former President Boris Yeltsin, who died April 23. The museum received over 100 submissions from professional sculptors and amateurs who wanted to commemorate the country's first president and express their vision of the chaotic Russia of the 1990s.

The museum announced the five finalists Tuesday; they were chosen in conjunction with representatives from the Yeltsin Fund, including Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. Until Oct. 11, visitors to Art4.ru and its web site can vote for their favorite monument. Organizers hope to erect the winner on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, right in front of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, where an infamous monument to Soviet security-police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stood until it was demolished in 1991.

While many submissions were unimaginative, others were subtle and complex -- the memory of Yeltsin and his era of wild freedom proved a fertile ground for artistic interpretation.

Designing such a monument is no easy task -- the president's legacy is highly divisive. In 1991, Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian republic, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union became the first president of the Russian Federation. In a standoff against an opposition parliament in 1993, he used tanks to recapture Russia's White House. Some see him as a liberator and champion of democracy, while others blame him for the lawlessness of the 1990s, when most of Russia's national resources ended up in the hands of a small group of oligarchs.

Henry Yasas, the competition coordinator, said that like many of the museum's ideas, the competition started as a joke, this one at the expense of prominent artist Zurab Tsereteli. Tsereteli designed the infamous Peter the Great monument near the New Tretyakov Gallery, as well as a New Jersey memorial for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"A few days after Yeltsin died, we heard that the head of the Russian Academy of Arts, Zurab Tsereteli, was thinking of building a monument to Yeltsin, and we thought, 'He's claiming another one for himself.' We started joking about building our own monument and finally decided, why not do it," Yasas said.

Yasas said the submissions can be grouped into three categories.

"Some were just examples of bad art. They were the figurative portraits made in the old Soviet Realist style. We rejected these immediately. Then there were the bitter, sarcastic parodies, mostly from people who had fallen on back luck in the 1990s and wanted to blame Yeltsin. Then there were some really interesting pieces -- very different from each other -- that show a complicated picture of Yeltsin's legacy."

Rostan Tavasiyev, a finalist, sought to portray a multifaceted Yeltsin. In his submission, a small toy rabbit, which seemingly represents the former president, struggles to support a tipping column, at the top of which sits a porcelain vase. During the day, the column appears black, but at night it pulsates with colored lights.

In his description, Tavasiyev emphasizes the ambiguity of the bunny's role in having set the column, perhaps the Soviet Union, off balance: "Why is the bunny holding the column? Because no one else will. Maybe he tipped it over or maybe he just happened to be near when the column started to fall."

Other designs are explicitly triumphant, such as that by artists Mikhail Leikin and Maria Sumnina, who go by the name Mishmash.

The title of their work is "The Person Who Broke Through the Wall." A red carpet leads to a solid red wall with a gap in it; the gap traces the figure of Yeltsin. "The wall is only red on one side because we want to show how Yeltsin broke through the wall of communism from within the red hallways of the Kremlin," Sumnina said. Leikin and Sumnina agreed that the 1990s were complicated but that Yeltsin should be praised for abandoning communism.

Many designs feature a solitary Yeltsin, or try to evoke the disorientation of moving from one social system to another by putting figures upside-down.

Dmitry Kavarga shows the creative confusion of the 1990s as a mass of black, twisted metal, with small white figurines hanging upside-down from its jagged edges. One figure, presumably Yeltsin, stands upright atop this mass. Kavarga's figurine, like Tavasiyev's rabbit, emphasizes the force Yeltsin's person had in a period of instability.

The outlandish artist Andrei Bartenev also uses an upside-down figure in his fountain monument.

"My monument is a retranslation of the Atlas myth. The great race of Atlases hold the world on their shoulders, but in my fountain the feet of the great Atlases hold the world," Bartenev said. "I chose feet because in the 1990s, everything was crazy, there were so many possibilities. It seems to me that movement and momentum played the most significant role in shaping Russia's future."

Many contributions break with the tradition of figural likeness often used in Soviet monuments -- Igor Markin, a private collector and owner of Art4.ru, hopes to encourage Russians to embrace abstraction in works of public art. Yet there are portrait likenesses among the top submissions, like the works of Aladdin Gorunov and Yulia Gukova. Still, even in works that are less literal, symbols tend to be easily understandable.

Finalist Dmitry Gutov argues that a monument to Yeltsin should reflect not only the 1990s but also the Soviet times that formed him. Gutov's design, two rows of block letters spelling out "Yeltsin," is meant to evoke what he calls "rough communist minimalism."

Gutov's monument, however, has an innovative twist; it plays a recording of Boris Yeltsin singing a Russian folk song. "I wanted to show a multifaceted Yeltsin," Gutov said, "I wanted to show him as the revolutionary, the first Russian president and also as the tsar he grew to be in the 1990s."

At a news conference Tuesday, Markin expressed hope that whichever monument wins the contest will be built in the near future, though he admitted that getting a spot on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad is almost impossible.

"It is more likely that the monument will go up in Yekaterinburg or in front of the Yeltsin Library when it is built," Markin said in an interview.

As for Tsereteli, his spokeswoman, Irina Turayeva, explained that the artist has no plans to begin a monument. "Zurab Tsereteli simply suggested that after some time has passed, he would like to commemorate the former president."

As visitors of the museum began to survey the monuments and cast their votes, it became apparent that choosing one vision of an epoch of profound contradictions would be a difficult task.

"I think I like the bunny best," said Yekaterina Dorozova, daughter of the head of the Yeltsin Fund. "There is something so touching in it. It captures how Russia develops in ways that are not easily comprehended."

"Competition of Designs for a Monument to Boris Yeltsin" (Konkurs Proyektov Pamyatnika Borisu Yeltsinu) runs to Oct.11 at Art4.ru, located at 4 Khlynovsky Tupik. Metro Tverskaya. 660-1156. www.art4.ru.