A Post Soviet Soviet Book About Phobias
Absurd ABC: Phobias
St. Petersburg: Nikodim 2009
Woodcuts on handmade paper, quarter bound, leather and paper covered boards
Museum no. 380410009211608
Edition of 12
Located in the Printing and Drawings room on the 3rd Level of the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a small collection of post-Soviet prints. No more than 30 objects, let’s call it a bite-sized exhibit. The collection gives the visitor a glimpse of a quiet revolution, sparked when artists found themselves no longer restricted by the censorship laws of the Soviet Union. Print has developed a significance in the post-Soviet art scene. Its strict monitoring and restrictive nature during Communism, made it all the more inviting medium for artists to express themselves in the age of freedom.
Dmitry Sayenko’s Absurd ABC: Phobias is an interesting artefact born out of this period of new found freedom. Displayed in a glass case in the middle of the exhibit floor, it is a small hand bound book, placed next to a visually striking three dimensional publication of a short text commenting on the absurdities of life under communist rule. The content of Sayenko’s book does not share the same politically charged metaphor as the artefact it’s displayed next to. Instead it deals with phobias, more specifically the phobias of great figures in history. It has a light hearted tone as it comments on how said figures coped with their alphabetically ordered phobias.
The way in which the V&A decided to display the book though paints a different picture. A double page spread containing lino cut likenesses of Stalin and Lenin, the poster boys of Communism with “PROPAGANDA” printed in bold red under them. A viewer would mistakenly think that the rest of the content has a similar Soviet vibe to it, but in reality these are the only two pages which have any connection to that era. The rest of the book has historical figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aesop and Bram Stoker to name a few. The way it is visually displayed connects it to the context of the exhibition, but it completely neglects to represent the broader spectrum of the author’s inquiry. Information which, under Communism would most likely be unavailable due to its Western nature.
It is interesting to take a look at the design choices made by the author as they offer historical context to the artist’s professional life during the post-Soviet regime. During the period of restructuring, Sayenko’s publisher went bankrupt, victim of the economic “shock therapy”. That prompted him to establish his own publishing house, Nikodim. The scruffy looking pages of the hand bound book could be interpreted as the emergence of DIY culture within Russia’s artistic movement, an antonym to the mass produced propaganda prior the Fall. Its distinct lino cut pressed images, echo similarities to the Soviet Propaganda posters, but in the book’s context the style is more of an aesthetic choice, disvalued and disconnected from its original purpose.