Photography is a deceptive art as it subverts our assumptions about time-based reality. By framing segments, the photographer allows us to see and imagine aspects of life far beyond observable reality. David Hlynsky’s photography is preeminently engaged with cerebral interpretation and in I Shop he presents photographs of Communist shop windows taken in four trips to Eastern Bloc regions from 1986 to 1990. In this display, he invites viewers to contrast our image-saturated Capitalist environment with another way of life.
Coincidentally I visited the Soviet Union in 1990, arriving in Moscow via an aging Aeroflot craft, with ice stalactites forming over my head in the cabin roof. A dark crepuscular journey to the city centre took me past grey, monolithic condo structures looming like huge battleships. By day, one realized that there was none of the West’s frenetic bustle of shopping. As Hlynsky portrays, windows were quite bare apart from indications of what wares might be obtainable within. Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika was in full swing with Boris Yeltsin poised to take over the leadership, along with murky oligarchs of criminal persuasion. If one needed to change money, you got a better deal from the waiter than the bank. There was a sense of confusion, as people scrambled to try and make a buck within a system that still worked on quotas.
If one were to believe Western propaganda, Communism had been a well-intentioned but flawed experiment that demonstrated the value of a market-driven economy. At the time certain theorists were predicting the demise of Capitalism as well but perhaps we have only just reached that point, in a world dominated by ownership, the exhaustion of fossil fuels and bourgeoning poverty. Jeremy Rifkin outlines the situation well in his book, The Third Industrial Revolution and points to harnessing new, greener energies located in the buildings we occupy that would be distributed laterally over an energy internet. The EU is actually implementing his program, which will have important economic consequences, not least for the North American economies that continue to foster oil technologies and contaminate groundwater through fracking. The trend towards open source and file sharing has become a blueprint for redesigning society and offers a moral alternative to hierarchical exploitation of resources. Paradoxically, some Asian societies have moved aggressively towards the Capitalist model and North Korea still exemplifies a communist world from the fifties.
How do we view our material existence? Are we to remain enslaved to a shopping mall mentality, bludgeoned by advertisements that even invade news reporting? Politicians believe that if something gets repeated enough, the majority will concur. For Hlynsky, these images present a lost alternative to our present culture. Instead of labels evoking fantasy, the captions and images present utilitarian information. Yet much is presented poetically and with a fine sense of design. Western adverts eulogize celebrity and wealth, inviting aspiration but in a world with decreasing spending ability, perhaps fewer can afford the dream. The image, Communal Cup, taken in Moscow 1990, exemplifies the societal difference. Our immediate reaction is alarm, because our minds have been saturated with medical warnings of infection. In a way, the medical and pharmaceutical industries are ensuring a marketplace for their skills and products. Yet, this society seems to have shared the cup with impunity. One of my most memorable USSR moments was to use the washroom in a park. Two old ladies and their cats lived inside it and maintained the cleanest establishment. Their solution to economic necessity showed that value could accrue to anything.
Art is an anomaly in Western culture with artists most appreciated after they have drawn their last breath although some advanced countries see artistic product as cultural capital and worth investment. Strangely, conversations with artist immigrants from Eastern Bloc countries reveal that art flourished under the communist system as the need to sell was obviated and they had ample opportunity to explore ideas at university level. David Hlynsky’s exhibition makes us think and that is of enormous value as we face having to reinvent our society. The role of the artist could be to simply imagine. Survival will ultimately depend on initiating a new kind of socialism commensurate with environmental considerations.
De Luca Fine Art Gallery, Toronto