Culture

‘Stalinist Truman Show’ claims it will change art forever

PARIS: It is billed as a human “safari,” the most controversial and potentially game-changing Russian cultural export since the Ballets Russes left the West shocked and awed 110 years ago. What began as a biopic of Lev “Dau” Landau, a father of the Soviet atomic bomb and charismatic advocate of free love, has morphed into a strange and mind-boggling artistic project.

The world got its first taste of “Dau” Thursday, when its “gripping, claustrophobic” and sometimes violent universe began unfurling 24 hours a day for 24 days in two central Paris theaters and the city’s Pompidou modern art museum.

Dubbed the “Stalinist Truman Show,” Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky persuaded 400 people to live and work for nearly three years under the same totalitarian Soviet rules that Landau and his disciplines labored under.

The replica scientific institute he had built for them was not far from the one the Nobel prize-winning physicist ran in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.

Volunteers - ranging from university professors to beggars, engineers and prostitutes - agreed to be filmed periodically as they were subjected to scientific and philosophical experiments.

Sixteen babies were born in the hothouse sexual atmosphere. Its cost somewhere north of 70 million euros, sources told AFP.

Drawn by its compelling mix of sex, science and spirituality, a cluster of major international stars have also thrown themselves into “Dau.”

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, British musician Brian Eno and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja will perform in Paris amid the continuous roll of screenings, immersive experiences and intimate encounters with Siberian shamans, Buddhist monks, imams, psychologists and leading scientists.

“No one has yet found the word to explain ‘Dau,’” executive producer Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon told AFP. The Canadian did say, though, that it could change the way we see art. After experiencing “Dau,” she insisted, “going to see a film, play or an exhibition will no longer be enough.”

Its backers admit some of the 700 hours of this “encyclopedia of human nature and relationships” make disturbing viewing. Visitors will have to hand over their mobile phones and answer an intimate psychometric test before they can buy a timed or unlimited passport to enter the universe. The producers said rape, abuse or trauma victims will be locked out of rooms with imagery that might trigger them.

Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis, who plays Landau in the films, will also appear in the gutted interiors of the Paris theaters, both of which are undergoing major refurbishment.

The warren-like rooms of the physicist’s institute have been recreated inside the Theatre du Chatelet, complete with a sex shop as well as a porn cinema.

Artistic director Ruth Mackenzie compared the experience to a “safari. You don’t know what you will see. You know that it will be very intense, something very beautiful.

“Or you may see something violent and disturbing, though compared to Tarantino, it’s not violent,” Mackenzie said, “but you will come out and tell your friends about it. It’s completely different from anything they have seen before.”

One thing it is not is “Big Brother,” she said. Unlike the reality television show which continually filmed contestants, Khrzhanovsky took improvisational techniques used by filmmakers like British Oscar-winner Mike Leigh and pushed them “10 miles further down the road.”

The French press has accused Khrzhanovsky of exploiting his cast and having a guru-like hold over them. Some questions have also been raised about the Russian telecom and food oligarch Serguei Adoniev, who has almost entirely bankrolled “Dau.”

Landau was also something of a complex figure. Though he convinced many of his disciplines, his wife never shared his enthusiasm for free love.

Twice honored with the Stalin Prize, he was lucky to escape with his life from the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow for equating Stalinism with Nazism.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2019, on page 12.

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