Defunct symbolism
Vinca Kruk

Defunct symbolism
Lecture, December 14, 2005

by Vinca Kruk

Today I will share with you some draft ideas on this topic, for which I will use previous, and more recent research and works. Most of the issues and work I will show should be seen as part of the research on uncorporate identity used by Meta Haven as a motto at the moment. Meta Haven is a research group of four: Daniel van der Velden, Adriaan Mellegers, Tina Clausmeyer and myself.

Defunct symbolism
Defunct symbolism is a term that means dead or vanished symbolism. Since January I have been researching identity design and history. I have been trying to find out how can be dealt with political iconography of which the initial purpose has changed, but the symbolic effect has not decreased and still has a strong impact.
By research, I am exploring how we can re-use these symbols and question if they should be re-used, and what is the impact of these choices. For the research I will show you two issues or 'case studies' and tell you about the lecture series that I organised around the topic of history.

Iconic space and territorial rule
One of the 'problems' associated with symbolism in western societies is that it is still regarded as based on beliefs and religion, that no longer form the common ground of our life and mentality. The lions which once represented power and victory, and the lamb and white lily as images of God, are no longer effective as symbolic carriers. Christian iconography has lost much of its educational power. In a book called Image, icon and economy The Byzantine origins of the contemporary imaginary, Marie José Mondzain questions how Christianity could have been so succesful in conquering and ruling territory, aided by representation: 'In classic iconography the image of God inspired the church to a doctrine in which images were given the responsibility of making institutional space visible. This space develops a worldy calling under the more abstract title of the universal.'

An immobile and closed object, stressed with symmetry, is the Palace of Parliament, or the House of the People in Bucharest.
Dictator Nicolae Ceasescu got the full power in 1966, and was at the time a talented politician within the communist party. When he, in 1972, as the only eastern European country, voted against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was called to order by the Kremlin. At a conference in North Korea, he became inspired by the way in which communist statehood was practiced, and ever since, his megalomania took greater proportions.
When, in 1977, a heavy earthquake hit Romania and Bucharest, Ceausescu and his much-hated wife Elena, wrote out a contest to build a palace to house the parliament.
The history of Romania is, in many ways, painful; the country has existed at the crossroads of wars and empires, has even seen a period of fascist rule under the Iron Guard, and became, under the Ceausescu regime, increasingly isolated from the outside world. Finally, with local craftsmen, architects and designers this monstrous building was constructed. An architectural statement that could effectively compete with architectural landmarks abroad. Something like this didn't previously exist in Romania. The reaction to the re-appropriation as a House of Parliament after Ceausescu's downfall, wasn't even completely negative. The question remains why people who suffered a lot took pride in the building even after the revolution. Also among architects, the reception of the building varies. A great number of architects still in practice today, have worked for the palace.

Anca Petrescu, at the age of 27, was beset with the task to design a first proposal of the Palace. She was, though, not the only and certainly not the lead designer. That would be Ceausescu himself. As seen in more examples of totalitarian architecture, the dictator typically took his design decisions at the building site, which was of great mythological importance.

The identity of this building is an entirely constructed one, used for political purposes. During Ceausescu's regime, in western Europe there was great amazement about the demolition of houses and other cities in Bucharest, and a lot of facts were presented incorrectly. The government today manipulatively uses the remains of these feelings to create sympathy for their cultural activities, using contemporary art as an instrument for 'healing'. In a few hundred years the Palace might function as a Bucharest version of the Louvre. But not yet.
The Romanian government has decided to locate a museum of contemporary art in the back façade of the palace.
The museum opened in November 2004. Since it takes about 45 minutes to walk around the palace, it is unfortunate that there is no signage that leads you to one of the three possible entrances. The one and only direction sign is within the fence of the palace. Once you have passed the guard at the fence surrounding the palace you get to the entrance of the museum.

The museum is caught in a political deadlock. It has no budget, only a huge empty white cube, and for each exhibition its need to find sponsors. The board membership of prestigious curators like Nicolas Bourriaud and Hans Ulrich Obrist appears to be as much an empty shell as is the white cube itself. created by the museum, and the Romanian government.

Two examples of cases in other former eastern European countries:

This is the Mausoleum of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, designed by his architect daughter in the centre of the capital Tirana. When the body of Hoxha was removed, the space was transformed into an exhibition area. Unfortunatly, its chief director Edi Muka was fired, and now the museum is empty again.

And this art piece, the text 'Zweifel' or 'Dount' by Norwegian artist Lars Ramberg, was recently on top of the Palast der Republik in Berlin, where it referred to the ongoing discussion about the possible afterlife of this former icon. The Palast was once an exclusive cultural centre, where events took place that were unthinkable in the rest of the DDR.
The dysfunctional status of former communist landmarks even increases their political significance as they literally have nothing else to do than being daily reminders of the past system. Should they be demolished or preserved, should they become memorial sites or restored as functioning buildings?
And now, there is a new 'empire' sneaking in, which is once again blocking the free development of identity in former communist nations, like Romania. In former communist countries, there seem to be no obstacles to capitalism's path to victory. The market, and foreign investment, are embraced without restraint.

Soviet symbolismn and the revolution of the USSR
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the end of 1991, the Russian Federation became an independent country. Russia was the largest of the fifteen republics that made up the Soviet Union.
Just before the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin had been elected president of Russia. Yeltsin announced that Russia would proceed with its radical market-oriented reform. This lead eventually to hyper-inflation and unemployment.
A major reason for Russia's failing transition to martet economy is that the country was, during the 1990s, remaking both its political and economic institutions at the same time.

In 1994, Yeltsin ordered 40.000 troops to prevent the separation of the southern, oil-producing region of Chechnya from Russia. Living south of Moscow, the predominantly Muslim Chechens for centuries had succeeded in defying the Russians. The Republic of Chechnya's nationalist president was extremely keen to drive the Soviet state out and had declared Chechnya's independence in 1991. When the Russian army and air force attacked the Chechen capital of Grozny in January 1995, about 25.000 civilians died in air raids and artillery fire.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some former member states such as Byelorussian SSR, the Republic of Tajikistan, and Belarus gained independence.
Together with Ukraine and Chechnyna, Transdniester is one part of the former Soviet Federation where former Soviet symbols are still used.
Transdniester is currently an unrecognized nation; it is internationally considered part of Moldova, next to Romania, but claims independence and maintains some sovereignty with the assistance of Russian armed forces. The region has been de facto independent since 1991. The Council of Europe recognises Trans Dniester as a 'frozen conflict region'.
Soviet symbols still live on in Transdnsiester. Next to the hammer and sickle however, the tiny country's symbolic realm is ruled by the five-pointed star of the Sheriff corporation, which has a monopoly in supermarkets, oil, advertising and Mercedes Benz trade, and recently completed an enormous soccer stadium in Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniester. The west has expressed concern about the huge Soviet-era weapon arsenal in the territory. There is a wide agreement among western sources, that the area is scattered by money laundering, smuggling and arms trade.
In Romania, rumors have it that border guards in Transdniester do not wear common militairy uniforms, but postmodern outfits recombining traditional uniforms with western brands. Combinations of coca-cola hats, Nike shorts and former Soviet military shirts, which come in various combinations and colors.

To be continued.

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