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Complex reflections on oppression

Soviet-born artists take on legacy of gulags

Millions of people were imprisoned in the Soviet Union's forced-labor camps, known collectively as the gulag. Many of them died in the camps, where criminals and others perceived as a threat to the government were banished between 1918 and 1960. One such threat was Ivan Burylov , a beekeeper who in 1949 wrote the Russian word for "comedy" across his voting ballot. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor.

Svetlana Boym cites Burylov's story in her catalog for "Territories of Terror: Mythologies and Memories of the Gulag in Contemporary Russian-American Art," an exhibition at the Boston University Art Gallery. Years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn's legendary memoir "The Gulag Archipelago" was published, Boym, a professor of Slavic language and literature at Harvard, frames the gulag as the national equivalent of a terrible family secret, even generations on.

She has invited several contemporary artists to contemplate the gulag and its legacy. The resulting show, both provocative and problematic, runs in tandem with a traveling educational exhibition presented by the National Park Service and several other organizations, "GULAG: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom," which is on view across the street at BU's 808 Gallery. Lingering questions about the gulag can be seen in an apparent discrepancy between the two exhibits: While the website for the "GULAG" show states that "some 18 million passed through the prisons and camps" and "an unknown number well into the millions died," Boym writes in the "Territories" catalog of "the Gulag zone, where about 18 million perished."

Boym portrays the gulag as rife with contradictions. "It was represented as paradise and hell, an ideal socialist construction site and a camp of slave labor," she writes. The artists in "Territories of Terror" wrestle with the gulag's contradictions or , more often , those of the Soviet state. Indeed, not much of the work specifically addresses the gulag.

All of the artists were born in Soviet Russia during the gulag era; most of them now live in the United States. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid are revered as the founders of the Sots Art movement, which was akin to Pop Art but used Soviet political iconography instead of, say, soup cans. Frustratingly, their work here merely documents art they made three decades ago. Part of Boym's agenda is the reimagining of space as a response to imprisonment. Komar and Melamid pioneered unorthodox exhibition venues in the 1970s; their "Paradise/Pantheon" was a daring installation in a small apartment, featuring images of deities and prophets presented as a dream conjured from a prison cell. That paradise offered a democracy of faiths and creeds. It would have been fitting to re-create that piece here. Instead, the artists lamely offer a slideshow of it.

Irina Nakhova also created groundbreaking installations in her Moscow apartment. She is now a New Yorker, and her lush and disturbing "Probably Would" ties the whiteout of oppressed memory with more recent history. Nakhova collages large-scale photos of ticker-tape parades, New York on 9/11, and snowfall. The photos fill a room; they encroach upon the viewer's space by creeping onto the floor. It's impossible to distinguish between celebration and devastation, and the white stuff floating through the air doubles as an eraser.

In Vadim Zakharov's disarming "StillALife," you push your way through a space filled with sheets hanging out to dry. On either side, Zakharov has mounted photos of Red Square, obscured by a black square; it's an echo of Soviet censorship and secrecy, an exercise in not seeing. Once you reach the rear of the installation, you see the prize: a red starfish in an aquarium, echoing the red star emblem of the Soviet Union . Only this is no symbol; it's a living thing.

Eugene Yelchin's paintings form a powerful group. For "Your Passport, Citizen," also titled "Section Five," Yelchin made self-portraits in oil, painting only with his fingers. They're tortured works; ghostly figures coalesce from slicks of paint in ocher and black. None have eyes, and some have mouths agape. The titles tell more. The first evokes the fear struck in an ordinary citizen at a Soviet checkpoint when asked for identification. The second refers to the line on the passport that identifies ethnic heritage; Yelchin's said "Jewish," which, in the Soviet Union, was defined as an ethnicity, not a religion, whose observance was, Boym states, "virtually banned for ordinary citizens." This officially wiped away an important part of many Jews' identities.

Of all the artists, Leonid Sokov and Grisha Bruskin most directly address the gulag. Sokov's sculpture "Absurd Lock," a giant lock made from iron and wood, cannot be opened. Artists who lived in the gulag actually made such things -- harmless items that captured the fear and rigidity of their situations. Bruskin's "Archeologist's Collection" comprises several bronze figures, all Soviet archetypes, such as a girl with a butterfly hairpin, an Olympic wrestler, and a gulag prisoner. Mounted like insects on pins, and robbed by white paint of their patina of age, they look like embalmed artifacts, preserved yet breaking down.

All of these artists grew up in a regime that sought to limit and control the imaginations of its citizens; the gulag was one terrifying part of that iron-fisted rule. Russians are still emerging from generations of silence and censorship. This show is a small, noble, and not entirely effective attempt to break open that silence.

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