Strange synchronicity. In a universe parallel to the multimedia globalism of Moscow’s Fourth Biennale of Contemporary Art this past fall was one exhibition that seemed entirely national and particular. Across a rear courtyard, down a staircase and up another, on a catwalk laid across masonry vaults below, the Schusev State Museum’s annex (called “The Ruin”) offered Nikolai Lyovochkin’s mysterious architectural models.
Lyovochkin worked most of his life as an engine driver for the Moscow metro. He made his work not so much in secret as in the purifying absence of any attention whatsoever. The models were discovered only after his death in 2007—a shrine to folk traditions in his two-room allotment in a Soviet apartment block. They are tabletop size: in the museum’s catalogue, architect Sergei Sitar suggests this is a moral correction of Stalinist gigantism. Built from wooden half- and quarter-rounds, they also include paper, glass and sparkly plastic. Lyovochkin used his cheap materials with lapidary precision. He cut and realigned pendants from plastic chandeliers, for example, into crosses, the vertices fitted together for maximum diffraction. Most of the models are churches, not replicas of specific buildings but distillations of Orthodox Church architecture, with titles like Church of the Inmost Hiding Place. Although the work has an obsessive quality, Lyovochkin is not an outsider artist, constructing and defending a private world. His world is cultural. His models constitute an act of remembering in defense of a culture whose rulers had made it safer to forget.
To American eyes, Lyovochkin’s work resembles Cornell’s. It is idiosyncratically crafted, intimate and lovable, with a striking contrast between surfaces and interior spaces. For example, many of the models have bell towers, with interiors painted dark blue (one is bright yellow). Color creates the illusion of something vast within. The models may be poetic, but they do not have a fairy-tale quality. Rather, they are strongly volumetric; forms are massed and organic. Panels of glitter Lucite in magenta or green complement the warm, fleshy color of the wood. The result is a heightening of dimensionality, as if these models were somehow more real—more embodied—than any actual prototypes. In the end, they may be not just models but incarnations of Russian national culture. The Orthodox Church placed a high value on memory, considering it the union of human and divine consciousness. Lyovochkin, although a citizen of an officially godless state, dedicated his work to the memory of “those who were and those who remain alive,” thus merging living consciousness with ages past.
Photo: Nikolai Lyovochkin: Church of Holy Lidia, 1984-85, architectural model, approx. 52 by 26 by 22 inches; at the Schusev State Museum of Architecture.