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
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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