One morose and rainy Sunday afternoon in late November, the kind that presages the final days of a New York autumn, a motley group of intellectuals and connoisseurs of Yiddish gathered on the Lower East Side. The Russian-American conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks was on hand to deliver an artist talk and personalized tour of his charming exhibition “Yiddish Cosmos” (through Dec. 16), a playful historical jaunt through the history of the Jewish aspects of the Soviet space program. The exhibition was arranged on the second floor of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the last functioning Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood. Beneath stylish prints of the Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov—who was the first Jew in space, and would have been one of the very first men in space if his historical flight along with Yuri Gagarin on the first Voskhod rocket mission had not been bumped because of his ethnicity—were futurist Yiddish slogans. A striking half portrait cleaved together the faces of Gagarin and Sholem Aleichem. The exhibition demanded an answer to the question of whether the Jewish utopia was to be found in Manhattan, Israel, the Soviet Union, or somewhere in the farthest reaches of the Milky Way.
Fiks is in his mid-40s and of medium height and is possessed of an angelic face. He was dressed in a minimalist black ensemble and possessed of a calm and grounded-seeming demeanor. Listening to Fiks softly discuss the relationship between Soviet Yiddish literary magazines, 1920s Lower East Side anarchist-Yiddishists, and the legacy of the Soviet cosmonauts, one could very easily begin to believe in a future of Yiddish-speaking space colonies.
For close to a decade I have been following the progression of Fiks’ career as he has built up a thematically and conceptually coherent oeuvre predicated on a rigorous melding of immigrant concerns, LGBT themes, and a probing post-Soviet search for a usable future. It is a playful artistic endeavor built on an archeological search for a future refashioned from the tarnished fragments of a broken utopian past. It is also represents a thoughtful and liberal response to the Soviet past by a gay Jew: two categories of people that the Soviet Union had a complex relationship with.
Fiks’ conceptual approach, and his concerted search for useful and surprising legacies of the Soviet past, which he dusts off from nostalgia for period aesthetics, has built him a devoted following over the years. His book Moscow is a collection of spare and uninhabited photographs of pleshkas, or public cruising places, frequented by gay Soviet citizens in Moscow from the 1920s to the ’80s. The book concludes on a deeply melancholic note with the letter that Harry Whyte, a British Communist living in Moscow, sent to Stalin with the hope of reversing the recriminalization of homosexuality in Soviet society. Fiks’ art is focused on the accretion of such minor and fascinating “micro historical artifacts,” through which he illuminates historical legacies of the soviet past as well as counterintuitive new ways of thinking about the Cold War. It is an approach to cataloging the Soviet past that is unique in the post-Soviet world.
The artist’s life trajectory constitutes a near-perfect lens through which to observe the development of post-Soviet Russian and Russian-American art. The artist was born in Moscow in 1972. His family belonged to the social class that the Soviets referred to as the “technical intelligentsia.” Fiks’ mother was a chemical engineer and his father a radio researcher at a Moscow-based scientific institute. Eschewing high school, Fiks was accepted at the age of 15 into what was likely one of the most competitive art schools in the country: the Moscow State Art School in Memory of 1905. The institution was known for its liberalism and had a reputation for being a haven for freethinkers with a liberal bent. Fiks recalls having enjoyed his studies there quite a bit. In June of 1991 Fiks sat for his art school admission exams. It was a month before the failed August coup by hardline Communists intent on derailing Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. By the time Fiks commenced the autumn semester at the V.I. Surikov Moscow State Academic Art Institute (an institution which had mostly barred entry to Jews for decades), the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
Incidentally, the Surikov is named for the 19th-century Russian realist painter Vasily Surikov and remains renowned as a bastion of reactionary academic classicism. When Fiks and I met to talk over coffee the day before visiting his exhibition, we discussed the fact that Surikov was the great-grandfather of the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. The mention made Fiks crinkle his nose with the Russian liberal’s reflexive disdain for the talented filmmaker turned jingoist spokesman for Putinist nationalism. “Please, do not put him into any article about me, Vladik!” he pleaded with me gently. “That man’s name should not be in any article with my own!”
The formal training at the Surikov was heavy on easel oil painting, figurative studies, and nude models. The art history curriculum centered on the pre-revolutionary Russian tradition. Fiks recalls that “we did not really study 20th-century modernism, with the survey courses concluding with surrealism.” Thus, he found himself a young gay Jewish man in the vanguard class of Russian artists being trained in the backward-gazing classicism of the reborn Russian state. Fiks recalls the “very strong influence of the neo-Orthodox movement, which was very big in art circles at the time, with painting especially being seen as a culturally Russian and very reactionary domain; and so the environment was not very Jewish friendly or oriented.” Numerous young women in the painting studio wore the hair veils that Russian Orthodox women typically wear to church on Sunday.
Outside of that repressive studio environment, Fiks plunged himself into the equally heady and libertine Moscow art scene of the early 1990s. Independently, he unearthed the parts of modern art history that his cohort was not being taught in the classroom. Fiks would attend the nascent Moscow gallery scene and would become acquainted with the irrepressible Marat Gelman years before the gallerist would become a one-man international art world institution. “It was a great time,” Fiks recalls with a smile.
As with most great times, it was to be short-lived. Fiks would not have the opportunity to complete more than two years of his training at the Surikov, as his family decided to immigrate to America after being sponsored for support by the Cleveland Jewish community. The family moved to America in early 1994, thus sparing the young artist from experiencing most of the upheavals of early ’90s Russia. Fiks was almost 22 years old when he and his parents arrived in Cleveland, and he would move to Brooklyn less than a year later to continue pursuing his artistic ambitions and taking a job at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, where he continues to teach to this day. Concurrently he continued his studies at Brooklyn College and at the School of Visual Arts, but the transition was not easy, as any immigrant can attest. While Fiks taught art at the community college, he would not himself produce anything for a decade as he found his bearings, learned English, and assimilated into American life. He would eventually settle on the Lower East Side, the intellectual center of his art, along with his boyfriend, Marc, a social media strategist.
When Fiks was ready to resume making his own art in 2003, it was to turn his focus on the repressed and forgotten episodes of Soviet history as well as lesser-known histories of the American left and civil rights movements. All of these interests were mediated by the trope of the unrealized Communist utopia, whose legacy would become a lifelong artistic pursuit for Fiks. At about the same time that he began thinking seriously about history and his own Jewish identity, he enrolled in Yiddish language classes.
The artworks that resulted from this combination of interests were conceptual and witty. They are also deeply literate without being obscure or obtuse. They deal with ideology but they are not insistent or fanatical. Rather, exploratory and probing without ever feeling coercively ideological.
Fiks views the post-Soviet queer perspective as being an uncompleted project, which indeed first only appeared in the late ’80s, and continues to haunt post-Soviet society. “We live without a queer Soviet history. The Soviet-era queer experience is still unresolved, a conceptual lacuna,” he once told me.
Throughout his conceptualist projects and exhibitions, Fiks points out the parallels between the Jewish and gay experiences of exclusion from the utopia of the Soviet worker’s paradise. The exhibitions and performances ruminate on the sad symmetry between the furtive gatherings in which both populations sought private solace in public spaces. Moscow Jewish youth would congregate on Friday nights and during the High Holidays in front of the Moscow Khoralnaya synagogue, which was walking distance from the water fountain in front of the Bolshoi Theater where gay men would similarly congregate, to gossip and to make new friends and lovers.
The idea of the pleshka, a play on the Russian word for “bald spot,” is the Russian gay slang term for an outdoor cruising space. It is a concept to which Fiks returns over and over in his works. In 2016 the Cicada press published his Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary, a fantastic and acerbic lexicographical study of gay Soviet-Jewish slang. The dictionary places Russian and Yiddish gay slang words along their English definitions. The introduction to the volume began with a concise statement of the recurring historical concerns of Fiks’ 15-year project: “The gay-Jewish intersections of the Soviet era are far from clear cut and today still remain unresolved. While there was room for a solidarity of the oppressed, there was also room for separatism, prejudice, and mutual “othering”—for anti-Semitism within the Soviet gay milieu and homophobia within the Soviet Jewish community.” Memorable dictionary entries include kukushka: “this cuckoo wastes her life in bathroom stalls waiting for her prince charming”; soldatka: “this bearded soldier’s wife is only attracted to defenders of our homeland”; and “sexual-democrat”: “sexual-democrats under socialism get convicted under Article 121.”
Fiks is now a fixture of the Russian-American wing of an international Russian art world with outposts from Los Angeles and London to St. Petersburg and Paris. It is a mobile and transnational world in which Soviet-born artists from across the 15 Soviet republics exhibit with their art dealer in London, make work for the next Venice biennale in their Brooklyn- or Berlin-based art studio and fly to Moscow to see their collectors or grandmothers. Still, in an ironic historical twist on the Soviet legacy, in the current political climate, Fiks often receives inquiries from Russian institutions regarding his Communist and Jewish history-related works, which he sees as relatively welcome. “Many fewer Russian institutions ask about the works dealing with gay themes,” he informed me.
Throughout his career Fiks has produced numerous shows and projects dealing with the Soviet Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan, a failed Communist Yiddish homeland that represents a sort of locus for the artist’s Utopia. Birobidzhan was meant to act as a concrete alternative to Israel. It is located on a distant stop of the trans-Siberian railway in the Russian Far East. The fantastical autonomous region had been established in 1934 as part of the short-lived “Soviet nationalities policy,” which allowed certain ethnic groups to create autonomous regions within which they could speak their own language and develop their national culture with a “socialist form.” The official language of Birobidzhan was Yiddish and it was assumed that most Soviet Jews would move to the isolated region. One of Fiks’ exhibitions was composed of a series of black-and-white oil paintings titled Landscapes of the Jewish Autonomous Region, based on photographic stills taken from Seekers of Happiness, a classic Soviet propaganda film. Shot in 1936, Seekers of Happiness—its great musical score was incidentally composed by my ancestor, the Soviet composer Isaac Dunaevsky—sought to inspire Soviet Jews to travel to the promised land, far closer to Mongolia than it was to Paris, through the story of a Jewish family on their way to make their life in Birobidzhan.
The same year that Seekers of Happiness hit the film screens, activists in the United States had collected around 200 art works to serve as the nucleus of a permanent collection held by the Birobidzhan Art Museum. Artists such as Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb all bequeathed some of their works for the planned assemblage. For political reasons—which understandably enough included Stalin purging the entire leadership of the region the following year—the collection never finally arrived to be exhibited in the region.
For almost a decade Fiks has been negotiating with the history museum in Birobidzhan to bequeath a set of paintings, as part of his project “A Gift to Birobidzhan.” Poetically enough, the proposed gift fell through a second time for political reasons—and because of local discomfort with the art, and the context of the Jewish question which the region had been designed to solve. The collection that Fiks had curated to be sent to Russia is now being held on a provisional basis in storage boxes inside his apartment.
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