Review of Chris Dobrowolski’s Remnants of Utopia
Remnants of Utopia
16 November – 16 December 2017
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Art Exchange explored the influence on the Soviet Union on artists working today, by offering a show to Chris Dobrowolski. In his response entitled ‘Remnants of Utopia’, conversations about political issues are inevitably raised, including the tensions between capitalism and communism – and the striking iconography that has been created to represent state power on both sides on the iron curtain.
For this exhibition, Chris Dobrowolski fills the gallery with a variety of complex mechanisms and dioramas that represent events during the Soviet period, including his father’s experiences as one of the 1.7 million Poles deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin in 1940. Dobrowolski shares his insights into the ongoing paradoxical relationship between communism and capitalism, while insisting on creating the space to dwell on the impact of political structures on individuals through personal references to his father’s wartime experiences.
Dobrowolski’s defining ‘make do and mend’ aesthetic might have developed when he started questioning why he made art in the first place. In his book ‘Escape’, he mentions his experience as an art student in Hull, where he was still searching for a purpose in making art. One day, he decided to collect driftwood and built a boat to represent his ‘inner need’ that compelled him to create artworks, while also satisfying his longing to escape art school and return home. When asked about his artworks, he often brought up the influence of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. He constantly concentrates on creating concepts that allow him to bring real, lived experience into the unreal art world. For example, his choice of using toy vehicles in his work reinforces the personal connection the artist has with them as they bring real, lived, childhood experiences into the rarefied gallery environment.
When entering Dobrowolski’s exhibition, the first artwork that captures our attention is his ‘Miniature Austerity May Day Parade’. Visitors are immediately greeted by a 9-metre long structure made up of wooden planks and work benches that cuts diagonally across the length of the gallery – pushing itself into the front window and towards the busy square outside. On the wooden planks are toy lorries that travel along via a pulley mechanism that re-creates the May Day parades of the communist era. Dobrowolski has mentioned that he believes, somewhat ironically, that Britain has benefited from communism. A fear of revolution led to the placation of the British proletariat through the post-war expansion of the Welfare State and the provision of free education and medical care for all. Within this context, ‘Miniature Austerity May Day Parade’ operates with a certain paradox, as we realize that the propaganda slogans promoting a “brighter future” with “strong and stable” leadership come from capitalist countries. This is perhaps most keenly felt with the slogan “you have nothing to lose but your zero hours contract”, which asks us to question how free market capitalism benefits workers today, as the gap between rich and poor steadily increases.
‘The Marketing Team’ can be seen as an accompaniment to the previous work as it continues the same use of toy trucks, but this time transporting objects that include: a cigarette box promoting Che Guevara, a Molotov cocktail and a picture of Dobrowolski himself. These objects remind us of the role of the state in glorifying its leaders through marketing campaigns, while also pausing to reflect on Dobrowolski’s own role as self-promoter of his art.
Across the gallery, the work ‘Agit-Prop and Anti Agit-Prop Train’ take up the gallery’s longest continuous stretch of wall. This work addresses the anxieties of forced migration, prompted by Dobrowolski’s family’s deportation from eastern Poland to Siberia during World War II. Dobrowolski re-creates this scene by placing photographs of Poles being transported into his miniature train trucks. By marked contrast, the Agit-Prop trains (short for Agitation and Propaganda train) that spread education, literacy and culture across the Soviet Union in the 1920s heads in the opposite direction. Despite being on separate tracks, there is a tension that the trains – along with their contradictory versions of the same ideology – will soon collide.
The themes and concerns that the artworks previously mentioned are appropriately wrapped up with ‘Revolutionary Reminder’, which comprises a small film projection set up in a corner of a room showing scenes of communist May Day parades intercut with images of Dobrowolski’s own vehicles and their slogans. Audiences are given the sensation that by sitting on the old fold-up chair provided, they are being forced to concentrate – much like how people might have felt during the Soviet years when not able to escape events happening around them – while communist and capitalist propaganda messages merge into one.
Further artworks in the show explore Dobrowolski’s childhood experiences, bringing home the palpable differences between his childhood and that of his father caught up in the machinations of war. It is interesting to see how Dobrowolski has intertwined his family experiences with historic events during the Soviet era, insisting on a human story coming to the foreground during a time of massive turmoil and changing ideology. The work ‘Miniature Austerity May Day Parade’ makes a particularly striking statement by utilising the gallery space well and highlighting the main issues of the exhibition that audiences will begin to understand all the more as they observe one work after another. Overall, Chris Dobrowolski’s ‘Remnants of Utopia’ provides audiences with the space to think about what people went through during the Soviet period and to relate this to political issues and concerns that are still very much present today.
Nur Aniqah Binte Sumadi
3rd Year undergraduate, School of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex