artist's book, Book Reviews

Figuring Absence, pt 3: Ken Campbell’s Ten Years in Uzbekistan

In the last post we explored a book which centered around the personal experience of absence. Following is the continuation of the transcription of my CBAA presentation, Figuring Absence, in which I now explore the political experience of absence.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan by Ken Campbell and David King

I’d like to turn now to a very different kind of absence. Ken Campbell and David King’s Ten Years of Uzbekistan takes up the disturbing issues of the absence of those who have been subject to political repression, and perhaps worse, the complicity required to effect such obliteration. Taking as a starting point, the book’s namesake – a work produced by the well-known Russian constructivist artist, Alexander Rodchenko, Campbell and King investigate and react to the history of Rodchenko’s book which saw the turning of the tides during Stalinist rule. The original Ten Years of Uzbekistan was Rodchenko’s celebration of the glory of the first ten years of soviet rule in the region. Published in 1934, it was a piece of propaganda, describing the advancements brought to the Uzbeki state, complete with portraits of politicians and other dignitaries of the area.  Not long passed, however, before Stalin’s purges began and many of these party dignitaries were declared enemies of the state to be reviled and sent to their deaths along with some million plus others during the 2-years of the purges.  But the Stalinist agenda was more thorough than just imprisonment and death. The purge had to happen at every level—books that pictured the newly-declared enemies were themselves banned and to be purged or destroyed.

The Commisar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia by David King

David King in his research found Rodchenko’s own copy of his book with the names and faces unceremoniously blotted out with large swaths of black ink—obliteration by the designer of his own work at the direction of a leader who ten years earlier had called for the creation of the book in the first place.  Through careful research and as part of his much larger project, The Commisar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia,  to record the doctoring of pictures under Stalin’s reign, King recovered the identities of each obliterated figure.  Campbell then transformed these images into a commentary not just on political repression but also a bitter judgment on the complicity of an artist in the act of censorship.  Campbell and King’s artists’ book version of Ten Years of Uzbekistan re-presents 10 of these obliterated images, accompanied by information identifying who each is and telling his or her story.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan

The first thing you notice about Campbell and King’s book, (besides its rather monumental size—it is 20 inches tall), is the heaviness of the ink.  Layer after layer is built up until you cannot even sense the texture of the paper underneath. The ink and its polychromatic glory becomes a subject itself , as though Campbell is saying to Rodchenko, “I see your ink and I raise you 10 layers.”  The focus of this artists’ book is not simply the tragic and untimely deaths of these political functionaries branded enemies of the state by Stalin’s dysfunctional reign of terror, but rather it is the fact of death and gulag not being sufficient—the need for total annihilation of all traces of the person—that is Campbell and King’s main concern. This is absence in the extreme.  Absent in body. Absent in image. Absent in Text. Absent in Memory.

From the first page, the book emphasizes inkish obliteration and censorship.  The black bars of the censor are repeated page after colorful page before the images even start. If you stare for long enough you realize that in the chaos of color, the title is being repeated and then occluded in layer upon layer of ink.

Ten Years of Uzbekistan – detail

Then the images begin. Each person stamped bureaucratically with their number  in large graphic roman numerals.  The thick layers of ink are visually palpable.  Whatever ink he used is extremely shiny  (note the light reflection in many of my photographs) and it sits on the surface in such a way that each layer can be literally felt under those that come after it. [click the image to see a larger version which shows these layers more clearly.]

Each image appears multiple times. Once as it appeared in Rodchenko’s self-censored copy, and then again in many variations as part of Campbell’s on-the-press manipulations and experiments.  Plates are turned upside down and printed over each other, then overprinted again with the text of their stories.  Interestingly, what isn’t here are the unadulterated original images that David King had found through his research.  Again, I maintain this is because in some ways the people themselves are not the primary subject here, but rather the act of what was done to them.  It is hard for us to imagine the thoroughness of the Stalinist agenda—the ability to manipulate history to the point that people who were there were made absent, not to mention people who were absent being put there.  [A major part of the propaganda machine was not just airbrushing people out of photos, but also inserting Stalin into important historical communist scenes where he had not actually been present.]

Pages on Yan Rudzutak

So it is somewhat hard to pinpoint one single message in this book.  On the one hand, it could be said that Stalin’s obliteration agenda was a success.  For generations of soviets, these people did not exist.  Their absence was complete.  The difficulty we have with reading some of their stories because of Campbell’s inking techniques reflects, perhaps, a certain subdued acknowledgment of failure by the artist.  Is it too late to resurrect these men? Is this primarily an expression of the success of Stalin’s campaign and the horror at a fellow artist’s complicity in effecting it.

On the other hand, the obliteration didn’t succeed.  After all, King has rediscovered the identity of these people so long absent from history.  In the end, the propaganda machine failed to achieve its final goal, and perhaps this is what is symbolized by the defiantly lush, colorful abandon with which Campbell plays on the press achieving inky obliteration upon obliterations but, in the process, breathing a kind of life back into these men and their stories. It is as if through sufficient layers of ink laid down with this different purpose, that initial act of inked obliteration can be undone and the figures restored to history if not to life.

More information and images of the book are available on Ken Campbell’s website. [once there, click the image of the book to view the page images.]  In our next post we’ll look at the kind of historical absence that slowly occurs from innovation and change, as opposed to the directed and intentional absence enforced by political regimes.

I’d like to thank the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago for access to their copy of Campbell’s book.