Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America
Third Solo exhibition – February 15 – March 23, 2013
621 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 – 6 PM
Points on a map, moments in time, locations in a city – such indices are sites of mourning for Yevgeniy Fiks. His 3rd solo exhibition at Winkleman Gallery – Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America – derives its title from a 1953 article by Cold War pundit Arthur Guy Mathews. There is no mistaking the homophobic intent of Matthews’s remarks, nor Fiks’s irony by layering images of the first Soviet atom bomb tests (code-named “Joe-1, 2, 3, and 4” for Joseph Stalin) with Cold War rhetoric. These statements of disjunctive logic are the kind of code-speak politicians use when they want to send obtuse messages to the opposition, masked in spin for the general public. Humor is also apparent, as the artist trudges a 6-foot cardboard cutout of “Joe-1” around D.C. to photograph it in otherwise empty cruising sites of the McCarthy era. Originally from Moscow but living and working in New York City since 1994, Fiks, looks back sixty years, well before he was born, to witness the manufacturing of enemies through fear-mongering, innuendo, and association with its reverberating consequences on social relations within and between the two nations today. I spoke with the artist to get a sense of just what he had in mind with this explosive mix of history, place, and speech.
Kathleen MacQueen: I’d like to start in Russia or more appropriately the Soviet Union… You came of age around the time of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. What did the Soviet Union mean to you? And when did you begin to think of yourself as an artist?
Yevgeniy Fiks: I was groomed to become an artist, going to all the right art schools in Moscow including a college named in memory of the Revolution of 1905. I studied painting and set design as applied arts along with classical art training. I saw myself as someone who would become an official state artist and, as a teenager, I had no sense of an underground or critical art movement. I accepted the Soviet training at its face value and I loved it. I had no protest. Now looking back, I realize how limited the education was in terms of ideas and exposure to contemporary or Western art. We studied modern art up until World War II but not the Russian avant-garde…
KMQ: Constructivism or Suprematism?
YF: No, not at all; not before 1991 when I graduated from this college. Perhaps at the university level this was discussed but not at the applied arts level.
KMQ: You emerged then right at the collapse of the Soviet Union. What was that transition like for you? Were you even aware how dramatic the change was or would be?
YF: To a certain extent… When you are in the midst of it with changes happening so fast, you experience them day-by-day as a continuous flow. And on a personal level, the consistency of one’s personal life softens the change in the political life. In any case, while my parents were not dissidents, they were quietly disapproving of Soviet policy, so they embraced the change. I was nineteen at the time, so I welcomed the idea of political freedom and a free market.
KMQ: It wasn’t long before you came to the US… Would you describe that transition?
YF: Millions of people left at this time for the West, which was partially an economic impulse but, with our Jewish background, my parents had considered leaving since the 1970s. In the 90s, they finally took the opportunity. Though my older brother stayed behind, it was a family move. We immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio but I wanted to be in New York – that’s where the art was – so that’s where we moved.
I was already exposed to the burgeoning art world emerging in Moscow but I was not active as an artist before I left so I had no exhibition record. If I had stayed I would probably have started exhibiting in 1993-94. In the early 90s, the art world was New York and not yet the international scene with its surge of global biennials. I caught the end of New York as the glorious art center but I had not yet found my voice. Around 2004-05, I finally began working actively as an artist. Part of this was personal maturity.
KMQ: Perhaps the Soviet training did not offer what you needed in the context of the 90s art world…
YF: Yes, it’s true but I was leading a double life as an art student because I also studied two years at the university and followed the emergence of the underground movements from 1991-93…
KMQ: …with some exposure to the conceptual movement that would become the basis for your work.
YF: Of course. In New York it’s a completely overwhelming art scene so I took my initial impulse from the older generation Russian artists working here: Komar and Melamid and the SotsArt movement, for example; but they were from a completely different historical era having come here in the 70s when there was extreme interest in art from the Soviet Union for political reasons. By the time I arrived, the discussion circling around Russian art had ended.
KMQ: The conversation had changed; it was no longer about Soviet dissidents…
YF: …absolutely. And for me it was, therefore, an experience of complete disorientation.
KMQ: You moved that broader discussion of the Soviet legacy into your own work, specifically linking the Soviet narrative to a Western one. Your exhibition at Winkleman Gallery – and we are now twenty years into your career as an artist – looks back to the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against Communism. You don’t present this as simply a capitalist/communist binary…can you set the stage for us?
YF: The Cold War/anti-communist witch hunt is part of the mainstream American historical narrative but the Cold War/anti-gay witch hunt is still relatively unknown. When I discovered these quotations revealing the combined anti-communist/anti-gay rhetoric I was stunned. The inclusion of a gender issue within the anti-communist campaign shows to what extent homosexuality was equated with evil. Gay people of the 1950s found themselves very much in between the fighting empires.
KMQ: …pressed between a rock and a hard place.
YF: Yes, they became a common “other” for both super powers, dangerous weapons against national security.
KMQ: In your series, Stalin’s Atom Bomb a.k.a. Homosexuality, you layer images of Soviet atom bomb tests with incendiary statements from congressmen and journalists. During the Cold War, US politicians accused the Soviets of not only exploiting homosexuality in the US to gain access to state secrets, but also of being an openly gay society; what was really going on there?
YF: Stalin acted as a Thermidorian dictator consolidating power by suppressing nationalisms of different kinds. In 1933, he criminalized abortion and re-criminalized homosexuality. Thereafter, the gay narrative is repressed and not at all embraced as depicted by notable American senators. Not only were the right wing American politicians saying that gays were Stalin’s weapon to “destroy America” but Soviets and the American Communist Party were saying that gays were a Western “capitalist” infiltration of “bourgeois degeneracy,” incompatible with the Soviet way of life. In that sense, the communist left shared homophobia with mainstream American society. This is a devastating legacy for leftist politics and society.
KMQ: Your new publication, Moscow (UDP, 2013) takes on the Soviet legacy. Can you describe this project?
YF: I wanted to consider gay history in Moscow, my hometown. The project commemorates quite a few generations of gay Soviet subjects who found themselves in a shadow of invisibility where everything was owned by a homophobic government. Public spaces became the locations where gay people would meet. Gay history, then, becomes attached to the urban environment, particular outside spaces such as parks and squares. I researched gay cruising grounds of the Soviet era and then photographed thirty sites as empty spaces where we see no one, only environments of erasure.
In the appendix of this book, I have reprinted a letter to Stalin written by Harry Whyte, a British communist living in Moscow. He uses Marxist/Leninist theory to deconstruct the logic of homophobic repression. The level of honesty and directness and belief in the system was amazing. It told me that there was a particular time when this discussion was possible.
KMQ: Did Harry Whyte have a counterpart in the American milieu?
YF: Definitely. I’m interested in his namesake Harry Hay who was an American communist in the 1930s and 40s and who left the Communist Party in 1950 to found one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States, called the Mattachine Society, using the activist methodologies he had learned in the Communist Party. So these two figures are roughly the same generation. In a way Harry Hay was the “nightmare” of McCarthy – the gay communist or the communist gay.
Yet Hay was in the closet as a gay when organizing as a communist; so it’s ironic that the conservative assault of McCarthy rhetoric in the US prompted Hay to come out and organize for the rights of gay people. Gay people had been pushed into a corner; they no longer had a choice to sit in the gay bars but now had to fight publicly for their rights. They could no longer be invisible.
KMQ: Location becomes a stand-in for the individual but your work is also about community; what then – or even “who” – is Moscow and Washington, DC? Historical narratives are created by but also imposed on the lives of human beings. What is the presence implied through the absence in your work?
YF: I am trying to depict without depicting. The projects that I develop now from the post-Soviet queer perspective, try to remain true to the actual manner of self-expression or visual manifestation of Soviet-era queer subjects whose presence was invisible. It is also a question of ethics; I am trying to remain ethically true to the lived experience. This is the gay subject who is in transition between repression and liberation.
KMQ: …who is also performative! There is a sense of participation in your work and we can speak directly about your practice of conducting walking tours in the urban environment or suggestively of your map of Manhattan, on which you isolate gay cruising sites and Communist Party meeting sites of the McCarthy era. Are your walking tours a creation of a counter-monument?
YF: Oh, yes! And the photographs of Moscow I also see as a counter-monument to Moscow, a way of forging a queer historical narrative.
KMQ: And Washington – a city of monuments – is perhaps the most in need of counter-monuments.
YF: Yes, I think so.