BRODSKY & UTKIN: ETCHINGS from the PROJECTS PORTFOLIO (1981-90), Michael Rosenthal Contemporary Art, Redwood City, Calif.
Last month I went to see the “Projects” etchings created between 1981 and 1990 by Russian artists Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. The pair trained as architects in the Soviet Union during the late 1970s. When they graduated, they unsurprisingly found that Brezhnev’s doctrine of unadorned architectural utilitarianism—and shoddy Soviet construction—made the idea of practicing architecture with any hope of independence or quality an impossible dream. To find solace, they became part of a small movement known as the Paper Architects, who sought consolation in designs never intended to be built.
Optimistically read, Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings create absurdist fictions about real people dwarfed and dehumanized by their built environment. The works fight the architecture of their time by documenting the baroque fantasies inhabiting their creators’ imaginations not yet extinguished inside the concrete anthills in which they were forced to live. With each little scratch of the etching needle, Brodsky and Utkin were saying, “We are still breathing in here! See what we can still dream up in your boxes!”
Yet after a while, I started to feel awful looking at these etchings. I didn’t feel buoyed by the resilience of outlawed imaginations, despite everything I’d read about the hardships they overcame. Brodsky and Utkin faced paper shortages and numbered some of the editions higher than the quantity actually printed in hopes of someday finding enough sheets to print the entire run. Because of the rareness of copper plates, the pair adopted a dense engraving style that allowed them to work for years on one plate. As I looked at all those tiny scratches, I saw where you’d get the idea of artists engaged in noble struggle. But I also saw talented, good-humored people cooped up in concrete boxes, unable to do the work for which they were trained. Because of the heaviness and density of the technique, these works don’t exactly come off like the trill of a caged canary. They read more like a ton of bricks that somebody carried for a long, long time. The imagination can provide refuge, the work says, but not escape.
The etching “A Bridge for Real Travelers” purportedly champions the magic of not building. The text scrawled in pseudo-archaic font in the images bottom corner reads:
“A real travels(sic) needs a real Trial. A real traveler must be ready to everything during his journey. The bridge between two islands is invisible but mighty. It connects the islands but doesn’t change the landscape. Walking along it in calm and crossing the conventional boundary the traveller(sic) feels himself on the real boundary between the sky and the ocean.”
Like their traveler, Brodsky and Utkin perhaps wanted to believe that they too could transcend the need for physical structure. But it’s hard not to catch the poignancy of two architects seeking exultation in a bridge “invisible but mighty.”As soon as they got the opportunity, Brodsky and Utkin pitched a design for an actual bridge—a massive wooden trestle footbridge linking downtown Tacoma, Wash., to the city’s waterfront. A wooden trestle built in a modern city would have seemed even more hallucinatory than the etching’s imagined structure. On the blog secretplans.org, Virginia mapmaker Matt Frost describes the fate of their proposal: “Their preliminary design was to be a timber trestle, but perhaps that idea was too nostalgic and decrepit-feeling for the city fathers. True to the tradition of paper architecture, the project went to someone else.” That someone else was Dale Chihuly, who makes a good living decorating bridges, casinos and lit pedestals with glass bulges, and who might benefit from some of the “architectural utilitarianism” that forced Brodsky and Utkin into paper architecture.
Brodsky and Utkin are not working together anymore. They split up as a team in 1993. Ilya Utkin keeps busy with designs for the ballet and lovely melodramatic architectural photography. Alexander Brodsky has since secured generous budgets to do installation work. In 1997, Brodsky transformed the Canal Street Subway station in New York into a Venetian canal, complete with shadow puppets, gondolas and a gently lapping shallow wave pool the length of the station. I am still kicking myself for missing this. People said they couldn’t believe it was there—exactly what Brodsky was going for. The installation was by all accounts elaborate, but the effect was fleeting, dreamlike. This is what he wanted from the etchings. This is what I wanted from the etchings. But to see them only as fantastic and whimsical, missing the veil of suffering in which they come wrapped, is to deny these artists the dignity of their struggle, and their work its more complex testimony of resistance.