258872_originalThe Immortal Factory Review by Jessica Fitch-Bunce   PROzavod exhibition At the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography 15 January – 1 March     I have never been one to marvel at the latest piece or gadgetry, or to wonder at the size of a car engine, and I’ve certainly never thought of a Petrochemical plant as something particularly romantic. The latest exhibition from the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography, PROzavod, is enough however to make anyone see the image of the factory and the factory worker in a totally different light. Stemming from an initial idea to showcase the best pieces of Soviet industrial photography, PROzavod soon became a genuine research project, tracing the evolution of factory aesthetics in Russia from the 1920s to the present day. The exhibition features vintage photographs from the Lumiere Brothers’ collection as well as modern images, audio and video works and publications.

Red October Factory / Courtesy of www.m-guides.com

Red October Factory / Courtesy of www.m-guides.com

Tucked away on Bolotnaya Naberezhnaya, the location of the Lumiere Brothers Studio on the former site of the famous Red October factory is particularly fitting for its current exhibition. While Red October was a producer of confectionary rather than an industrial plant, it is nevertheless an incredible architectural ensemble, and provides a suitable prologue to the PROzavod exhibition dedicated to the factory aesthetic and the photographic documentation of these mighty, sprawling complexes. Of course, from the very outset the image of the factory and the industrial worker in particular would inevitably occupy an important place in Soviet iconography. Taking the ideas of Karl Marx and his theories on proletarian revolution for inspiration, Lenin championed the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, and the October Revolution of 1917 was proclaimed in the name of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldier’s deputies. The industrial proletariat was, in Soviet ideology, the only class capable of leading the transition to communism, and this rhetoric would come to assume gigantic proportions towards the end of the 1920s and the onset of the 5-year-plans; an enormous drive to modernize and industrialize the country and, in the famous words of Stalin, to make good the distance between Russia and other advanced capitalist nations in just 10 years.
Nikolay Khorunshiy, Birth of a Plan, 1960 / Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

Nikolay Khorunshiy, Birth of a Plan, 1960 / Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

The five-year plans are indeed at the centre of several of the photographs at PROzavod. Nikolay Khorunshiy’s “Birth of a Plan” (1960), for example, or Anatoliy Skurikhin’s “Sunny Plant. Five Year-Plan in progress” (1932). In the latter, sunlight streams into the factory from the ceiling, illuminating the workers and their machines in a glorious, almost saintly light; a familiar motif that crops up in many of the exhibition’s works. Of course, the reason for this is hardly a mystery: with its associated collectivisation campaign, responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants across the Soviet Union, the great industrialisation drive demanded enormous sacrifices, and the state had to rally support for its programme which had caused chaos in both the countryside and cities. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the unashamed propagandistic overtones in many of the works on display: Vladimir Lagrange’s image from the 1960s of two workers “hastily” drinking milk, presumably on a snatched break from their machines, is almost laughable in its blatancy, and images of happy, smiling workers (notably both men and women) abound in the collection.
Vladimir Lagrange, Quick break, 1960 / Courtesy of Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

Vladimir Lagrange, Quick break, 1960 / Courtesy of Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

What is striking, however, is just how effective these images are. While the benefit of hindsight and an increased understanding of the mechanisms of propaganda may prompt us, from our modern perspective, to automatically dismiss it as transparent and trite, standing before the photographs in the Lumiere Studios, one has to admit that they are difficult to resist. Yakov Khalip’s “Steelworkers. Two generations” which depicts a young worker laughing with his older colleague, is a powerful image: just as a pre-revolutionary son might have taken over his father’s role in the family business or law firm, now he takes his place in the factory: two generations, young and old, side by side, working to build Russia’s industrial future.
Vladimir Sokolaev, The Kuznetsky metallurgical factory, 1979 /  Courtesy of Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

Vladimir Sokolaev, The Kuznetsky metallurgical factory, 1979 / Courtesy of Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography

The exhibition claims to reveal the “evolution” of the industrial aesthetic, its “transition from utilitarian to culture forming”, and certainly the collection represents a variety of genres and styles. In the wake of economic and social changes, so too did the view of the photographer and their approach to their industrial subject evolve. Vladimir Vorobiev and Vladmir Sokolaev (two members of the group “Triva” whose photographs are on display at the exhibition) captured the life of the Kuznetsky metallurgical factory in the manner of a social documentary, and their works certainly cannot be called propagandistic: in 1982 the group was pursued by the authorities and closed down, and a large part of their archives had to destroyed. In spite of this however, the overarching impression left with the viewer is one of continuity. From the photography of the immediate post-revolutionary years and the heady days of the first five-year plan, right up to the contemporary works of the post-soviet period, there is an obsession with the factory image, a reverence in its rendering; an irresistible beauty in the sharp lines and contours of the machines, and in the faces of the workers who command their factory kingdoms. Even Vladimir Antoshenkov’s “Moloch” (1999), which looks like something out of War of the Worlds, is strangely mesmerising.

Vladimir Antoshenkov, Moloch, 1999 / Courtesy of Courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography 

Indeed this sense of the unanimously alluring pull of the industrial aesthetic for many artists over the last 100 years is emphasized by the arrangement of the exhibition itself. While several of the most modern works are placed together at the far end of the gallery, in the rest of the exhibition space photographs from across the decades sit side by side. Mark Markov-Grinberg’s the latter not in colour, at first glance it would be difficult to distinguish which was modern, and which was not. Common tropes which appear throughout the collection also help to create a sense of the timelessness of the industrial aesthetic: images of smoke and steam, and recurring circular motifs create the sense of a living, breathing factory which has endured throughout the decades, full of movement, energy, purpose and productivity. Of course, it was not just in photography that the image of the factory and the factory worker attracted interest, and it has assumed a special significance in art, novels, propaganda posters and film as well. The exhibition shows clips from both Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925, USSR), which showcased his famous “montage of attractions” and features numerous shots of the factory floor, glorifying the proletariat’ and their industrial kingdom, and Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm. Sympathy of the Donbass (1930, USSR). The latter was the first Soviet “sound film” and was specifically dedicated to the first five year plan and to hailing the achievements of industrialization and Soviet coal and steel workers. PROzavod also includes a special multimedia installation by musician and artist Svyatoslav Ponomarev, Ruins of the Future. Using six projections positioned on either side of the White Hall as well as surround sound, Ponomarev’s installation plunges the viewer into the deteriorating workshops of the ZIL factory. The installation provides an interesting counter-balance to the photographs in the main exhibition hall as we see before our eyes the great industrial epoch crumble: no more clear, sweeping lines of factory cylinders, no towering, majestic machines. Just chaos, destruction and decay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pm287bf9pWg PROzavod offers viewers a unique opportunity to see the evolution of the industrial aesthetic in photography from 1920 to today; from the propaganda of the post-revolutionary years to the multi-media installations of the 2000s.Viewers can trace the history and development of photography in Russia and the USSR, which is nevertheless centred on one enduring image: that of the factory, worker and machine.   PROzavod will run until the 1st March 2015 at the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography at 3 Bolotnaya Naberezhnaya, Moscow.   Please visit the website for more information.