Henry Milner designs and builds models in the spheres of architecture, design and aerospace as well as models for exhibitions of fine art. Recently he has created several El Lissitzky models for the Kabakov-Lissitzky exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland. The exhibition places the Kabakovs’ works alongside Lissitzky’s, showing early and late Soviet art together. This Spring it is planned to move the exhibition from Eindhoven to the Hermitage and then to the Moscow Multimedia Art Museum. Besides this exhibition Henry Milner has realised several works of other Russian artists including Konstantin Melnikov’s ‘Soviet Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts’, 1925, for the 2007 London exhibition ‘A Slap in the Face: Futurists in Russia’.
Theodora Clarke, our Editor, met model maker Henry Milner to discuss the current Lissitzky – Kabakov exhibition at his studio/workshop which he shares with his father, Professor John Milner.
Theodora Clarke: Could you tell me how you originally got involved in the Lissitzky-Kabakov exhibiton in the Netherlands?
Henry Milner: Yes, Willem Jan Renders, the head of exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum, got in touch with me because I’d done successful work for them in the past. He and Charles Esche, the museum’s director, decided to employ my services for the Lissitzky-Kabakov show, mainly to realise the Lissitzky works. A show with the Kabakovs, Emilia and Ilya, had been planned with a walk through [he shows a diagram of the museum layout which has a red pathway running through it], from that came the decision to balance off the work. Kabakov then came with his enormous quantity of works that he wanted to show and they placed them in a long sequence of rooms. Then they knew they had to realise certain Lissitzky pieces and used me to do this. It was in other words a decision by Kabakov and the VanAbbemuseum to commission constructions.
Room 7 is enormous and all about propaganda; they needed to balance Kabakov’s wagon, ‘Let’s Go Girls’, which I understand to be a touch-in-cheek play on propaganda though I am not well versed in Russian art. The Lissitzky piece which needed to be chosen to balance this was true deliberate and dedicated propaganda; they came to me and gave me a number of options for pieces which they wanted to realise big. I recommended one as being the best balance both because of its propaganda and because of its presence.
Here I’m speaking of the Red Star from the 1929 Pressa exhibition in Cologne. You can read the piece as you like but my understanding of it is that it bases itself around communism as an ideal. The hammer and sickle hang within the red star, around this you have ‘Congress of the Soviets’ in various texts (German, Russian, French, English) with the word ‘Congress’ in this case meaning an organised group of representatives brought together. Then the piece pulls up and outward through some interplanetary shapes to a larger ring with the words ‘Town Soviet’, more of an urban political process. It then pulls up still further through these large orbs which I read as an intergalactic presence to this enormous great black void, over 5m high which I read as the void of the whole universe and then in enormous letters on the top there are the words ‘Workers of the World Unite’. My opinion is that this is true propaganda telling the world that, as the circles rise up, the communist ideal incorporates everything.
Kabakov’s piece, ‘Let’s Go Girls’, however, is slightly tongue-in-cheek and there is a certain underplay in that Lissitzky when he was working, had the facility denied to most Russians at the time, to go to foreign countries and to explore different ways of life in the West. Even though he is promoting persuasive propaganda perhaps he was interested in that Western ideal. Kabakov was born and bred under Soviet rule so in moving West, he was Lissitzky’s opposite.
TC: You’re also creating models based on Lissitzky’s original lithographs and drawings. You’re the first person to make them in a three-dimensional form because they were never actually realised in the artist’s lifetime. Could you explain how those came about?
HM: That’s correct. I think initially it was Charles Esche’s idea to realise some of Lissitzky’s designs. Lissitzky is well known for asking for someone else to realise some of his pieces. There were different sizes, my initial commission came in regard to some small pieces and they weren’t only Lissitzky. There was also a Malevich design for urban dwellings – basically blocks in Malevich’s typical architectural style of drawing. I extrapolated all the information from that and it now sits beneath the original lithograph. There was Lissitzky’s ‘Proun City’ which was again made by just looking at a cityscape, taking something from 2D to 3D. In the case of the ‘Proun City’ most of the information on the lithograph is totally sufficient to provide a good 3D facsimile but the facsimile allows people more easily than a lithograph to look at how it might exist in the town.
We then moved on to bigger pieces, we went into all the characters in ‘Victory over the Sun’. In my mind the relationship between Lissitzky and these pieces is quite intense. He understood every character so quite often you’ll find scribbles or secondary drawings of the characters in many different angles. As a constructor I therefore know that he had these characters set in his head which are formed from quite complicated shapes. He knew exactly what they were like; they are not just 2D drawings because he has drawn them several times from different angles. So I went through the information he provided and then made representations which are more complicated than the city.
TC: Will these pieces stay in the Van Abbemuseum? What will happen to them?
HM: They had two sets in their collection, one set was of individual pieces and they now own them. The other was in a version of the actual apparatus of part of the theatre which I made. Then the Van Abbemuseum came to me and said that they had people who wanted them, so they’ve authenticated them with the Van Abbe name. I sign off on them as my interpretation of Lissitzky’s work and now people are acquiring them.
TC: So are they now being mass produced?
HM: Not mass produced, they are more of a limited edition. So we have super-limited edition which is the one that Ilya Kabakov wants. I did a run of about ten and he did a run of ten bronzes and it was his idea to sell these pieces only together, never to split them so you can’t buy either one on its own. I think that Ilya Kabakov has an affinity with Lissitzky and selling the two together arises from that.
TC: What was it specifically that made the Van Abbemuseum pair these two artists together?
HM: I’m not sure myself but I think Kabakov formed a working relationship with Charles Esche and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Kabakov’s visit to Lissitzky Plus and seeing the quantity of material there. I think it may even have been Kabakov’s relationship with the building of the Van Abbemuseum, but I don’t know, I am speculating. He saw a possibility to do a different and more personal exhibition than he has ever done in the past of his and his wife’s work.
TC: I know also there have been quite a lot of discussions about the authenticity of creating models; it’s sometimes quite controversial especially for museums to recreate works that never existed in the artist’s lifetime. What is your opinion on that?
HM: Through the Van Abbemuseum, it is actually the first time I’ve been introduced to recreating another person’s thought processes. For me it’s very exciting because I like these works and I like the constructional technique that needs to be employed to make them. Therefore it’s a great journey for me, selfishly, in my workshop. With regard to how they are advertised or accredited or put in a show I think that the Kabakov show has the balance that I like in that it always credits the work: ‘Lissitzky *Designed and built by Henry Milner’. If anyone asks me what I’m doing I tell them I am trying to realise some of these pieces that were never built or lost and often that involves quite a lot of academic detective work. And the response I’ve got is certainly not outrage that I am copying this work, people are just interested because they are able to see the works that they have only ever seen in dusty photographs or faint drawings. So most people especially on the academic side, are extremely excited by seeing these lost pieces, like a new production of a play, or a new performance of a piece of music. They are also made in modern materials, not available to Lissitzky, so it is clear that they are an interpretation.
TC: Yes, you could say it’s giving us a greater understanding of the works.
HM: Yes and in this modern world there are all sorts of ways of realising pieces. Here’s an app I have [he shows an iphone app which projects his piece ‘Red Star’ onto any image/photograph on your mobile].
TC: Wow that’s amazing! I’m also really interested in how these models are made. Looking for example at the ‘New Man’ which is a piece I love, how long does it take you to make something like that and what’s the process?
HM: The process is really giving yourself the time to understand the works. So you spend a lot of time reading and looking through the Lissitzky images, and then going through the multiple copies of drawings that he created. For this particular piece let’s say (New Man), there are two drawings one where the man’s foot is up and one where his foot is down along with a myriad of other changes. This is how I know Lissitzky understood: it’s not just him deciding at random where to place the foot because he then puts it in another position. So you look at all of this and then you start to dissect what each element. This is my interpretation so there is a certain amount of me in it. But I try to find a reason in the drawings for everything, Looking at the drawings of ‘The New Man’ I examine how the sash goes behind the arm and I interpret it exactly as it is in my model. With the head it’s quite complicated to work out what’s going on but from the drawing I can definitely see a disc and two stars so I’ve made two stars on the side of an acrylic disc. You just have to interpret every single element bit by bit, so you look at it as a whole and then at all the different pieces.
TC: In terms of materials is there any indication from Lissitzky what the models should be recreated from?
HM: No, I mean, we did a limited edition of ‘The Grave Diggers’, 500mm high and then we did one 8m high, so I think he just wants them to be realised. I myself was trying to be authentic; I’m a person who is true to the materials. I ask what was around at the time, a vernacular kind of thought process, so I keep the materials down to the bare minimum. I look at Lissitzky’s work and think about just neutrals and red, I have to get the particular red depending on the lithographs. Then I find timber, reflecting on what was actually there in the 1930s and for a big construction the only flat material they really had was card or ply so I’ll try to use those materials. Then I find the neutrals, white, black and grey, which are picked up in the drawings. I also use clear, perfectly optical acrylic because there are elements in the drawings which are clear, and then I use metals. In this there’s no render or pigment apart from the very important red, other than that it’s all true: black, white, grey, wood, clear and metal.
TC: And how long did it take to make something like that?
HM: Well, you take as long designing them as you do to build them. While building you have to go into the complexities of having designed something which may not actually work. For example if there isn’t enough weight for a model’s head to pop up and down if that’s what’s needed or if it needs to talk you have to put a speaker underneath – there’s lots of this practical stuff. But it’s probably 2 or 3 months to get one right and then the limited editions are obviously different because you’re repeating the process.
TC: And how many models did you make for this particular exhibition?
HM: I’m not sure how many are on show, maybe ten or fifteen. Kabakov’s request was for the Lenin Rostrum to go next to his tongue-in-cheek piece ‘The
Dictator Leaves’, his play on it where the monstrous dictator who was to sit on this rostrum has got off, climbed down and walked off.
TC: So they were all very clearly designed to be in juxtaposition?
HM: Yes, the decisions were made by Kabakov and the Van Abbemuseum.
TC: So does the Van Abbemuseum have future plans to do more with Lissitzky, because there was the Lissitzky + and now they’ve done this new show with Kabakov? So is this going to be a series of events? I know they have a large collection…
HM: Yes, they have a large collection and I think in the 1960s in the original building they had quite an influential show. A bit like collections around the world, like the Costakis collection in Greece, they have to show the public in a different light the same pieces. They can’t and don’t want to just keep all these beautiful Lissitzky pieces hidden away.
TC: Is this something that’s been done in other museums because this seems like quite a novel approach creating models of works not produced in the artist’s lifetime. Have you been approached by others apart from the Van Abbemuseum?
HM: I have been approached by other museums quite often; it’s to do with whether projects go ahead or not and what the works are. For example at the moment the Science Museum is interested in realising some Russian constructions for their Cosmos exhibition but you never know what they’ll want. When I lived in Canada I used to do a lot for Boeing, pure space models, for example of the ISS and the Science Museum are excited by that. My Dad [Professor John Milner] has wanted to realise things from time to time, we’re working with Rodchenko pieces at the moment and we’ve done some shows.
TC: Will the Rodchenko works be for an exhibition because I know John wrote a new book on the artist recently?
HM: We’re just stirring the soup at the moment; we just make what we like. We’re developing projects slowly. There is always a reason and a show at some point.
TC: When I went to Moscow a couple of years ago, with your father, I met Rodchenko’s grandson Alexander Lavrentiev and we saw all the hanging Rodchenko pieces in the Museum of Private Collections.
HM: I think we spoke to him at one point about the potential of realising these things but, as with Lissitzky, the only way I’d be interested in it is if it’s realising works for an academic reason which becomes a good show. You start off with exciting thoughts and then approach the relevant people and after a while a show comes out of it. [He shows some of his work]. This is something I want to realise, it’s a Melnikov. There was a competition in 1929 to build a monument to Columbus’ landing. Melnikov didn’t win, a Scottish architect did and the building went ahead but the judges at the time said this was by far the most exciting project but it was absolutely unbuildable. It is about half a kilometre tall, the wings go around in the wind, you could drive your 1920s car up this spiral – it’s bizarre. So we’re talking at the moment about getting that realised very big. It is something that I’d love to do.
HM: Yes, and that worked really well, it was exactly the same premise: that it doesn’t exist anymore and it’s only in black and white photos. We had to try to determine some colour which we did from reading Rodchenko’s comments on the red washing over the Parisians as they walked through. So you draw parallels and build it saying that this is our interpretation of it.
See Henry Milner’s website: http://henry-milner.com/
Lissitzky-Kabakov exhibition is at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven until 28th April 2013: http://www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en/browse-all/?tx_vabdisplay_pi1%5Bptype%5D=18&tx_vabdisplay_pi1%5Bproject%5D=976