as experienced by our correspondent Alexandra Gilliams
I approached my reflection in the the mirrored doors of the Theatre de la Ville in Paris at my allotted time, six o’ clock, armed with a DAU “Visa” bearing my photograph and an uncertainty of what I was about to get myself into. LED screens outside flashed clips of sad, hysteric, sometimes smug individuals who had participated in a grand experiment conceived by Russian director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky.
This experiment involved a town in Kharkov, Ukraine that was built to resemble, down to its piping system, Soviet Russia. Individuals – scientists, artists, philosophers, barmaids, families, lovers, cheaters – were chosen and agreed to live there for a few years. They were given ill fitted clothes, from thick stockings and garters to itchy, woolen undergarments, made to resemble the bleak styles from 1938-1968 in the Soviet Union. They were instructed to speak in dated Russian, and anyone heard muttering a contemporary word was to be fined by guards patrolling the grounds in rubles that they had “earned” on-set. The harsh sound of a cello echoed endlessly in the streets on loudspeakers, in order to make the participants feel on-edge. The general tone and “narrative” of this experience surrounded the Noble Prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau, and this parallel universe was deemed the “Institute”. For three years, Khrzhanovsky and his crew recorded 700 hours of thousands of participants on 35mm film and through hidden microphones.
The sound of a woman screaming blared from a concealed speaker before I pulled open the heavy doors. I walked into a room resembling an airport, complete with a screen displaying the “departure times” of each film. I was instructed to lock my cell phone in a small locker, and making it through the metal detector I strolled into what appeared to be a Soviet convenience store. Rows of bulky industrial shelves supported cans of meat labeled with Russian words, and littered about next to them were aluminum spoons with a hammer and sickle cut out of their centers. There were mouse traps, newspapers, army jackets, even individual condoms wrapped in brown paper labeled with red characters. It took a moment to realize that this was not just an installation, but these items were, in fact, for sale – I was in the gift shop.
DAU as a physical entity is a movie theater and religious space, an interactive installation and labyrinth, a bar with half-liters of Russian beer and vodka for one euro and a restaurant serving canned fish and borscht in aluminum bowls. Lifelike wax figures dressed as if they were participants peer out at every turn; there are rooms filled with them which become so visually illusive that it becomes difficult to discern who in the room is alive.
I followed bold red and black words painted on the wall: REVOLUTION – FUTURE – COMMUNISM, different descriptors defining each room, film, and element of DAU. They lead me up the stairs of a theater stripped bare from renovations to a hall of meticulously decorated Soviet “apartments”. A participant dressed in an oversized pinstripe suit was seated at a table in a “living room”, his eyes closed and a guitar in his hand, belting out Russian songs with haunting intonations that echoed throughout the corridor. Suddenly a woman in a headscarf rushed past with sopping wet laundry and began hanging it on clotheslines that snaked through the hallway. Peering into a giant window of another “apartment”, I began to spy on a shaman clutching a string of beads, revealing secrets to an inquisitive visitor. The atmosphere set in and I felt a suspension of time before entering the screening rooms. Once inside, I was handed an earpiece to listen to a translation of the film in a fashion that was apparently similar to how foreign films were screened in Soviet Russia. The voice went in-time with the Russian dialogue, but it was cold and expressionless. A sense of anxiety arose as the dub became increasingly distracting. In screening rooms labeled INTIMACY or MOTHERHOOD, we get a taste of the relationship between a young Landau and his dutiful wife, Kora. Despite Landau’s accomplishments as a physicist, Khrzhanovsky was also fascinated by his penchant for sleeping with a lot of women, and many moments in the films explore his habit.
In ANXIETY I am a voyeur, introduced to new characters going about their daily lives in the Institute: a French scientist, two waitresses with a strange relationship, and a group of soldiers. Despite a language barrier, the elder scientist and waitress make sloppy love on a creaky twin bed. Drunken soldiers clink glasses as an older Landau slams dead fish on the table. In a laboratory, a soldier is placed in a metal cage where he is blasted with electric waves to “make him stronger”, and some scientists discuss experimenting on the brains of babies to remove their sense of empathy. Weaving in and out of the thirteen films and having been immersed in this realm, I felt a sense of camaraderie with the people on-screen; I began getting to know them, their desires, needs, and wants, and I had an urge to know more.
In the largest theater, FUTURE, rows of visitors sat on ascending blocks of concrete in front of a gigantic screen playing another film: the scientists we had been introduced to have gotten older and are indulging in a psychedelic, ayahuasca. A heavy voice reverberated loudly in the hollow theater, expressing how through every decision we make, the decision we do not choose is made in a parallel universe. Ruminating on this, I took a moment to remember where I was, feeling disoriented as time slowly lingered; I was near the end of my visit. Unless I returned to DAU, I would never get a complete sense of each character, as multiple films run at once and there is hundreds of hours of footage. Nevertheless, I began recognizing reoccurring characters and making connections in an overarching storyline. Suddenly I understood that by connecting the dots and my questioning of the human condition that I, too, was part of the experiment.
DAU will move to London in the Spring, and there will eventually be a cinematic release of a single feature film, documentaries and a television series.