Personable yet erudite, Yevgeniy Fiks is a rare combination: a conceptual artist who makes approachable work.
In a recent project entitled “Lenin for Your Library,” Fiks sent a copy of the seminal communist text, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism by V.I. Lenin, to one hundred global corporations. Offering the book as a gift for their corporate libraries, the artist targeted capitalist powerhouses such as IBM, Lucent, and Coca Cola (to name a few.) The correspondence, consisting of his letters to the companies and their replies, documents the decision-making process he initiated. In this subversive yet simple act, Yevgeniy Fiks examines the legacy of communism in what he terms a “so-called post-ideological society.”
I wanted to learn more about “Lenin for Your Library.” In series of emails, I recently had the chance to ask the Russian-born artist about his interventionist tactics, their surprising outcome and the future of this provocative project.
CINDY STOCKTON MOORE [CSM]- I’d love to hear more about the planning process of this project. How exactly did you arrive at the list of companies to send Lenin? Were there certain parameters you worked within - any geographical, industrial, ethical criterion that had to be met?
YEVGENIY FIKS [YF]- Well, when I was planning/starting it, I really didn’t know what to expect exactly. I wasn’t sure if I would get any replies at all because the whole project could have been perceived by the companies as a total spoof. Initially I sent out only 25 packets and waited. Then, when I saw that it’s actually “working” I sent the rest. First, I wanted to send Lenin only to computer and other companies associated with “digital revolution” because it's these companies that personify the “new imperialism” today. I felt that the juxtaposition of these hip young imperialist companies and the supposedly dated Lenin's text (“Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” was written in 1905) would be more effective.
So, about fifty percent of the companies to which I send the book are from the official list of major world's computer companies. Later, however, I shifted my focus – mostly because quite prosaically I started to run out of computer companies whose name would be notorious enough, connotative enough with imperialism – and the goal was to meet a 100 bar. So I started sending to non-digital companies too, including to those that actually existed during Lenin's time such as Coca-Cola, for example. And I’m glad that I did, because the resulting list of companies is a good mix of those “classic” sharks of imperialism and the supposedly “progressive” imperialist newcomers. It becomes more historical this way, I think.
CSM - The fact that it “worked” is initially what surprised me about this project too. It really made me consider the cogs of the corporate machine and the efficiency in which that machine often operates. Also, it got me thinking about the concept of organized work in general, bringing up possible parallels between two otherwise polar elements... communist ideals and corporate practices. How do you view the concept of work within this project?
YF - Yes, I mailed out books with letters and somebody had to reply on the other end. A wonderful thing about USA based corporations is that they are so courteous! I think this is mainly why it worked. And I think it also had to do with a level of education and knowledge about what this book meant and who Lenin was. Vitaly Komar's told me that the reason I got replies is probably because those who answered my letters simply didn't know who Lenin was. And I think Komar is partly right. For my respondents it was just another book, no different from any other piece of fiction, say Steven King’'s, that someone might decide to donate to their corporate library. And fundamentally this is true – because Communist programs and critique have become nothing more than literature and not the program for action or changing the world that they once were. So I guess only those who didn't respond did understand who Lenin was and what this book means in the context of 20th century history.
But this was not only a question of education, but as you correctly noted, an issue of efficiency too – of following guidelines and policies, where every consumer’s inquiry has to be answered. So, the corporate machines worked without thinking – unconsciously – perhaps the replies that I got were totally mechanical. They must have been a result or a type of conveyer of letter writing and answering inquires. So there was an element of alienation of those reply-writers. I don’t think they were truly invested into what they were writing. So, yes, I got official replies on the part of the corporation executed by alienated laborers within these corporations – to a large extend it was an alienated letter-production, I'm sure.
CSM - The shift you point to from activism to literature is an interesting one. Time is only partially to blame for Lenin's transformation from a political to historical figure; there are so many other factors at work. I find his changing role in history particularly fascinating in reference to your latest installation site for 'Lenin for Your Library.' Could you explain the cultural relevance of the museum and your intervention with it over the course of the exhibition?
YF - The museum where I showed this project now is called Krasnoyarsk Museum Center. It's in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Formerly it was Lenin Museum. It’s a huge late-Soviet modernist building of glass in concrete which was completed in 1987. In fact, it was the last Lenin Museum that had been built in the former Soviet Union (there were a total of eighteen such museums in the country). So, they actually completed and opened this museum in the middle of perestroika, although they of course started planning it probably in the late 1970s.
Even now they still have several rooms in the museum devoted to Lenin’s legacy. They call them “the red rooms”. What's very interesting is that they still have people of staff from the old times – Lenin biographers, scholars – and they continue to carry out their research now in this post-Soviet age! It's really bizarre. They say that they kept Lenin scholars employed because of humanitarian reasons – they couldn't fire them throw them out on the street. And I think it’s also because of the political climate in Krasnoyarsk – communist sentiment is still very strong in Krasnoyarsk and in Siberia in general.
So, my project was actually installed in those “red rooms”, where on red walls there are paintings, busts, and sculptures of Lenin, his books, and other memorabilia. And my installation actually blended quite well with it. People at the museum actually called my project “21st century Leniniana” (Leniniana is used to be a genre of official Soviet art devoted to creating art about Lenin's life and work.)
I’m not sure how much this project was an intervention with this museum on the conceptual level, however. Physically, of course it's an intervention, but not conceptually. I don’t think I disrupted the codes of this museum that much. Yes, it’s a radical upgrade of Lenin’s theme in art, but not really an intervention. I think this project would have been more of an intervention if it had been critical of Lenin. But it’s not – as a matter of fact it’s much more critical of the corporations to which the books were sent than of Lenin. I think it was an intervention with those corporations. It's those corporations that had been hacked. But I could be wrong.
CSM - No, you’re absolutely right – it’s not only a infiltration of the corporation but also an intervention of sorts. Have you considered other physical sites where you would like to install this body of work? In closing, I am interested in knowing your thoughts on the future of the project.
YF - The next place where I’m planning to show it is Lenin-Museo in Tampere, Finland. It’s the only museum devoted to Lenin's legacy that ever existed in a Western Country. Finland has a special connection to Lenin, because it’s because of him Finland gained independence from the Russian Empire. I think it was in 1918 but I’m not too good with exact dates. So Lenin is a sort of national hero there, a crucial figure in the formation of the modern Finish State. The difference with the Krasnoyarsk Lenin Museo and the one in Finland is that Lenin-Museo in Tampere
But coming back to your question regarding intervention, I think it would be great to exhibit this work actually in the headquarters of some corporation – perhaps one of those that I contacted. This would be sort of a double-intervention and I think it would result in an interesting tension. I am also contemplating publishing (perhaps self-publishing) a book consisting of these letters. People keep telling me that it can perhaps be even better in a book format, for the operation of reading is how one really engages with this work. It works well as an installation, but I think as a book it might be even better. So I think I’ll listen to my wise friends.
is dislocated not only historically but also geographically (at least Krasnoyarsk was a Soviet city in the past). So Lenin-Museo in Tampere is functioning in the body of a Western city/a capitalist nation and that mirrors my project which is about functioning of Lenin's legacy in the body of the West.
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