Imagine No Possessions
The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism
- 2006 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, honorable mention
344 pp., 8 x 9 in, 24 color illus., 111 b&w illus.
- Published: February 15, 2008
- Published: October 19, 2005
How Constructivist artists in Russia between 1923 and 1925 developed a counterproposal to capitalism's commodity fetish by producing objects meant to be "comrades" in the creation of an egalitarian socialist culture.
In Imagine No Possessions, Christina Kiaer investigates the Russian Constructivist conception of objects as being more than commodities. "Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades," wrote Aleksandr Rodchenko in 1925. Kiaer analyzes this Constructivist counterproposal to capitalism's commodity fetish by examining objects produced by Constructivist artists between 1923 and 1925: Vladimir Tatlin's prototype designs for pots and pans and other everyday objects, Liubov' Popova's and Varvara Stepanova's fashion designs and textiles, Rodchenko's packaging and advertisements for state-owned businesses (made in collaboration with revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky), and Rodchenko's famous design for the interior of a workers' club. These artists, heeding the call of Constructivist manifestos to abandon the nonobjective painting and sculpture of the early Russian avant-garde and enter into Soviet industrial production, aimed to work as "artist-engineers" to produce useful objects for everyday life in the new socialist collective.
Kiaer shows how these artists elaborated on the theory of the socialist object-as-comrade in the practice of their art. They broke with the traditional model of the autonomous avant-garde, Kiaer argues, in order to participate more fully in the political project of the Soviet state. She analyzes Constructivism's attempt to develop modernist forms to forge a new comradely relationship between human subjects and the mass-produced objects of modernity; Constructivists could "imagine no possessions" (as John Lennon's song puts it) not by eliminating material objects but by eliminating the possessive relation to them. Considering such Constructivist objects as flapper dresses and cookie advertisements, Kiaer creates a dialogue between the more famous avant-garde works of these artists and their quirkier, less appreciated utilitarian objects. Working in the still semicapitalist Russia of the New Economic Policy, these artists were imagining, by creating their comradely objects, a socialist culture that had not yet arrived.
Christina Kiaer's imaginative study of the socialist object is one of the most important, provocative, and illuminating works yet published on Russian Constructivism. Unpacking the myth of Constructivism, it focuses on the everyday objects of mass consumption that the Constructivists theorized and produced in a calculated response to the hybrid consumer culture spawned by the New Economic Policy. The author's fresh, penetrating critique is bound to alter and deepen our understanding of the human dynamics as well as the theoretical imperatives that vitalized the Constructivist project.
Anatole Senkevitch, Jr., Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan
This is one of the most stimulating and original books that I have read about the objects and designs produced by the Russian Constructivists. By elucidating the theoretical and practical complexities of the Soviet context within which these artists were working, and by using recent theory, the author throws important new light on their work of the 1920s. Without trivializing Constructivism or its achievements, Kiaer injects a vivacity, sexual excitement, and creative flamboyance into the movement and its main protagonists that have been missing for far too long.
Christina Lodder, University of St. Andrews, author of Russian Constructivism
...a book so luminously written and gorgeously illustrated that Sovietologists, art historians, and students of modern culture of all stripes will find it a treat to open and impossible to put down.
AAASS Vucinich prize committee
Kiaer has written perhaps the most through study of this brief but highly provocative and original era...Imagine No Possessions is a valuable consideration of a period that, some seventy years after its end, continues to generate fertile discussion.
Times Literary Supplement
Splendid...Kiaer's very rich study...succeeds in convincing us that what had thus far been considered a fairly limited and even aberrant aspect of Constructivism was part and parcel of its ideological program.
Imagine No Possessions is a fascinating analysis of the early Soviet socialist object as a uniquely compelling historical phenomenon, and as the key to a reevaluation of Russian Constructivism. In its recovery of the utopian desires motivating the design of the object-as-comrade, Kiaer's incisive yet accessible book is a stirring reminder that there are alternatives to present-day capitalist triumphalism.
Jonathan Flatley, Department of English, Wayne State University