by wjw on February 28, 2019

I’ve always felt there was a place for megalomania in art.  (Go big or go home, right?)  And recently one of the most megalomaniacal works in history premiered in Paris. Eleven years in the making, financed by a pro-Putin oligarch, over a dozen feature films plus 700 hours of ancillary material, and shot in an abandoned swimming pool in Kharkiv, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU is finally shown to the public.

Allegedly a full-length biopic— or more than a dozen full-length biopics— of the Nobel-winning Russian physicist Lev Landau, the project seems to have morphed into, well, something else.

You might have read the accounts of extravagant and eccentric goings-on in Kharkiv where a walled-off set was erected inside of an abandoned city pool and transformed into something insane. The sex and violence on screen would be unstaged, nothing would be planned and anything would be possible. You may have heard that much has been made of the obvious similarities between the allegedly licentious behavior of Khrzhanovsky and the free-love experimentation of the prize-winning scientist whose life he was determined to put on screen. The prominent Russian-Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis plays Landau, as Khrzhanovsky was said to be categorical in his decision that a “genius” would have to play the genius scientist. The role of the KGB officer who seizes control of the Institute from the scientists is played by real life KGB officer Vladimir Azhippo. A cast of thousands would be assembled and tens of thousands more interviewed for roles in the project. The postmodern novelist Vladimir Sorokin had worked on the original screenplay for the DAU biopic, when the project had been a film and had not yet morphed into a massive anthropological experiment on the meaning of human nature.

My guess is that somewhere a decision was made that orgies and kinky sex would probably have more appeal to audiences than the equations for the Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity.  Though it has to be said that Lev Landau was a enthusiastic supporter of the Free Love movement, carrying on even in Stalinist Russia.

Participants in the project conceived no less than 14 children while on set.

The director went about constructing a period Soviet institute where Soviet life would be enacted with total abandon and in perfect accuracy by participants wearing precisely recreated copies of Soviet clothing while living precisely recreated copies of Soviet lives. The institute—predictably also known as DAU—carried on after the filming was done as a self-sustained social experiment—a miniature city lost in time, complete with its own schools, cafés, dentists, opticians, and internal apparatus of repression—until Khrzhanovsky decided to conclude his experiment in living theater by arranging that it be ritually destroyed. The ruination was carried out by a gang of neo-Nazis . . . who had also taken part in the filming.

For the Paris premiere, viewers had first to apply for a visa through a Soviet-style bureaucracy (which, like the real thing, functioned badly or not at all).  Displays of Soviet-era clothes, food, drink, and games were available for the participants.  Security officers, some in uniform, some undercover, prowled about keeping tabs on everybody.

. . . Khrzhanovsky would be taking over both the Théâtre de Châtelet and the Théâtre de la Ville from the city of Paris for his production. Since their inauguration in 1862, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Mahler, and Strauss have all conducted in the halls of the first theater, while Gounod, Bizet, and Berlioz have premiered historically important pieces in the other. Now they would be converted into a Stalinist-themed sex dungeon.

Reminds me of the Seventies.

I’m guessing that the actual product— the feature films— are shambolic and awful, but if they ever turn up on Netflix I’m sure I’ll find out.  What interests me is the notion that the Soviet Union is now viewed by creators as a kind of found-art project.  The psychologist James Pennebaker claims that the past turns into history in 15 years, and it’s now nearly 30 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, which means that the USSR is ripe for expropriation and exploitation by a new generation of artists who never had a chance to experience the real thing.  (At the premiere, guests were offered genuine Soviet canned-meat products, and genuine Soviet condoms— which, of course, break, allowing couples to create new objets trouvé in the form of children.)

None of the artists wanting to exploit the USSR would actually want to have lived there, just as none of the artists who might want to wrap the Chrysler Building in colored ribbon would want to live in a ribbon-bedecked skyscraper, and no romancer devoted to creating steampunk set in the Victorian era would put up with living in 1888 for more than a minute.

The Soviet Union is just stuff. In fact it’s chockfull of stuff.  Once the misery and tragedy and humanity is scraped off, the stuff can be played with and transformed, and made more interesting– one hopes– than a Stalinist-era sex dungeon.

The massiveness and complexity of the DAU project, however awful it might be, still awakens in me both admiration and envy.  It’s rare that we get to view something so grandiose and insane.

And it makes me want to say: Where is my oligarch?  Someone willing to finance one of my projects for ten years, and watch it roll out packaged in every medium known to humanity.  (I mean, why stick just to film, or to prose?  Make the audience look everywhere.  The line of an ankle-strap block-heel pump might well contain important information!)

Let me release my inner Dagmar, o friendly oligarch!  I will spend your money well!

John Appel February 28, 2019 at 1:22 pm

This is incredibly baroque. I want to come up with something along the lines of “Like if the court of the Sun King were possessed by X” but the identity of X eludes me at the moment.

wjw February 28, 2019 at 5:44 pm

The obvious X would be Sade, I imagine.

pixlaw February 28, 2019 at 6:50 pm

Walter –

I got $1.50 you can have. Let me know where to send it, and what type of art I should expect to eventually see. I feel like a post-post-modern Medici.

pecooper March 1, 2019 at 11:45 am

Walter, I remember at an ArmadilloCon, many years ago, our discussing the way Greek restaurants are springing up all over the world, serving quite palatable food. We decided that anybody in Greece who can cook immediately emigrates, since nobody who lives there can cook worth a damn.*

I, hereby, volunteer to head up the research for a documentary on the subject, when the oligarch ponies up. I figure a camera crew, studio time, visiting Greek restaurants around the globe for couple of years with a posse of food scholars — shouldn’t run more than $20 million, max.

*At least, that was the opinion of student who spent quite a bit of time there in his youth.

wjw March 2, 2019 at 1:43 am

Pix, for a buck and a half I’d make you a picture of a kitty!

Robert M Roman March 3, 2019 at 4:02 pm

It seems to me that someone did something similar in New York City a decade or two back. It was in a very large basement, complete with a firing range, and everyone was on camera 24/7. Quite a few psychological casualties. It was eventually shut down by New York’s building inspectors… noise from the firing range. It bugs the living daylights out of me that I can’t remember the names. It was started by some software entrepreneur.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.