Poet Katie Farris on a dream of commodity fetishism, inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky and Aleksandr Rodchenko
Dec 17, 2020
This project appears in conjunction with the exhibition Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, on view at MoMA through April 10, 2021. You can also read Farris and Ilya Kaminsky's translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky's verse, and their exploration of the challenges he faced in formulating his role as a poet in a time of revolution, in the exhibition catalogue.
In their advertisements, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Aleksandr Rodchenko’s goal was not simply to sell light bulbs and cigarettes and cocoa. As advertisers, they were responding to the new Soviet directive to transmute the public’s consumerist desire for objects (traditionally associated with bourgeois capitalism) into a new civic desire to shop as a responsible Soviet citizen. The challenge: to teach consumers to desire Socialist objects by showing them the strange fever-dream of consumerism that capitalism had created.
This conundrum remains urgent in developed countries today, with a slightly different set of questions: how can we shop, knowing the environmental and social toll of consumer goods? If abstaining from shopping is not an option, then how can one shop with an awareness, as Mayakovksy, Rodchenko, and the other Constructivists hoped to inspire, of “the commodity phantasmagoria of capitalism”? How can we wake up to that phantasmagoria, that dream, even as we walk its aisles, pulling items from its shelves?
These three short pieces develop the idea of shopping as phantasmagoria. Here the shopper, Vera, is deep in the dream. Will she be able to wake? And what will she find?
Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades.
—Aleksandr Rodchenko, letter, 1925 
Vera never felt that ownership meant enough. She wanted to incorporate her possessions more deeply. One morning she ate half her jewelry and then went shopping for a suitcase so she could bring everything with her, always.
It was hard to decide on a case—after all, she wanted to buy herself, appropriately modified to perform the task at hand: Vera-as-suitcase. First, she examined a trunk. Stretched over the box was the skin of a creature, bleached white. She placed a light bulb, three cigarettes, and her grandmother’s engagement ring in the compartments allotted for light bulbs, cigarettes, and engagement rings, and closed the lid. When she opened it again, they were gone. A neat trick.
Next, she found a sturdy hard-sided case and unzipped it, admiring the straps and the wheels that turned 360 degrees.
“It’s covered in ballistic nylon,” the salesperson said.
“Oh?” Vera turned it on its wheels. “Ballistic,” she said, satisfied. “But could the sides crack in transit?”
“Is that all you’re afraid of?” the salesperson asked, head tipped cannily toward her.
Vera zipped up the bag, placed it back on the shelf, and walked away from the question.
The last bag was small and red, the size of her fist. First, she placed another light bulb inside, closed the bag, and opened it—the bulb was still there, like the sun at night! Next, she poured in her strawberries, the rest of the cigarettes, some cooking oil, and all her clothes. Everything fit. Experimentally, she stepped into the bag. She lay down, surrounded by what she owned. It all glittered and gleamed in the red-filtered light. She reached up. Zipped the bag closed.
Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891–1956) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (Russian, 1893–1930) (As Reklam-Konstruktor [Advertising- Constructor] agency [active 1923–25]). Reconstructed by Varvara Stepanova (Russian, 1894–1958). Advertisement for State Department Store (GUM) lightbulbs.1923/30. The slogan reads: AT NIGHT GIVE US SUN!/ BUT WHERE FROM?/ BUY IT AT GUM/ BLINDING AND CHEAP
In proportion, as the bourgeoisie grows in wealth, the proletariat grows. . . .
—Friedrich Engels, Principles of Communism, 1847 
Vera stroked the velvet of the coat; it was brilliantly green, the color of early summer, absinthe, and herbs. As she watched, a tiny sprout shouted itself into existence from between the fibers, a new leaf now unfurling slowly.
The salesperson walked by as more sprouts sprung up under her wondering palm.
“Have you ever felt as alive as that coat?” he asked as she traced the embroidery. And before she could answer, the tip of her finger burst its calyx into sepal and untwisted its petals.
“Aha!” the salesperson said. “A cornflower!” And the sprouts on the coat all tilted, as one, toward her face.
Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891–1956) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (Russian, 1893–1930) (As Reklam-Konstruktor [Advertising- Constructor] agency [active 1923–25]). Maquette for poster for Tea Directorate (Chaeupravlenie) cocoa. c. 1924. The slogan reads: COMRADES!/ THERE’S NO DEBATE!/ SOVIET CITIZENS/ WILL GET IN GREAT SHAPE/ WHAT IS OURS/ IS IN OUR POWER/ WHERE’S OUR POWER?/ IN THIS COCOA POWDER
The Constructivist drive [offered] the critical understanding of the excessive nature of consumer desire—the “flash of recognition”—that would be necessary for waking up from the commodity phantasmagoria of capitalism.
—Christine Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions, 2005 
One day, Vera went shopping for a door. A door, if properly chosen, is the jewel of the wall; a door could be a revolution whose knob you hold in your hand.
The door salesman gestured her toward the doors with hollow cores, saying: “The hinges are the only thing keeping them grounded. Without them, the doors would float like helium balloons.” But she found stress fractures near the mounting plates, so she asked to see something else.
The door salesman walked her over to a glass door, shatterproof and insulated with argon gas. “Argon gas is denser than the atmosphere,” he told her. “The hinges are the only thing keeping the door from sinking like night-cooled surface water sinks into the sea, carrying memories of light from the stars to the sea’s deepest creatures.” But to Vera, the door smacked of the manufacturer’s floor: the argon came not from supernovas, but from a cryogenic air separator.
It wasn’t hard to see that these doors were the opposite of revolutions: they were made to be obstacles.
As she approached the exit, before the sliding glass door opened, she couldn’t find her own reflection. While she stood, searching, the door stayed open: something laughing, something breathing.
Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891–1956) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (Russian, 1893–1930) (As Reklam-Konstruktor [Advertising- Constructor] agency [active 1923–25]). Maquette for poster for Mossel’prom cooking oil. 1923. The slogan reads: ATTENTION PROLES/ COOKING OIL/ IS THREE TIMES CHEAPER/ THAN BUTTER/ BUT RICHER/ THAN ALL THE OTHERS/ GET IT FROM MOSSEL’PROM
1. Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), p. 190.
2. Aleksandr Rodchenko, letter from Paris, May 4, 1925, in “Rodchenko v Parize, Iz pisem domoi,” Novyi Lef 2 (1927): 20. (Trans. Christina Kiaer.)
3. Friedrich Engels, “The Principles of Communism” (1847), in Selected Works, Vol. 1, pp. 81–97 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), trans. Paul Sweezy.
4. Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions, p. 190.
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