Landscapes of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, 2016
Courtesy of the artist
Evgeny Fiks, born and raised in Moscow, moved to New York in the mid-1990s. In adapting to a new place and becoming part of American intellectual and artistic life, he made several unexpected discoveries. The experience of being far from his motherland led him to realise the significance of the Soviet experience and his own role in determining the fate of the past century. As a result, Fiks began to consistently explore the Soviet legacy in his works, shattering many notions of the Cold War era. In particular, he showed that, contrary to the seemingly irreconcilable confrontation between the First and Second World, the borders between them were not impenetrable. It turned out that, as polar opposites, they gazed intently at each other, interpenetrated each other, and were interdependent. In taking on the "responsibility of a post-Soviet artist", Fiks makes another important discovery. It transpires that not only was the Soviet world not fenced off from the world of the West, but, contrary to formerly current ideas, was deprived of monolithic integrity inside itself: Soviet subjectivity harboured numerous internal differences – ethnic, gender, sexual, etc.

The retrospectively historical and almost investigative findings of Fiks were largely motivated by his own personal circumstances. The realisation of the mutual dependence of the two Cold War worlds helped the artist reconcile himself to two places dear to him – Russia, where he was born and grew up, and the USA where he lived. At the same time, his desire to uncover the diversity of Soviet identities was born out of a protest against the West's tendency to label everyone who came from the Soviet world under the common term of "post-Soviet". This brought the artist to his third discovery, as obvious as it was unexpected: he discovers his own, previously unsuspected, Jewish identity.

This discovery prompted him to turn to the history of Birobidzhan, the administrative capital of Jewish autonomy in the Far East of the USSR. And although this Soviet social experiment, predating by twenty years the creation of Israel, may be considered a setback, it is in Birobidzhan – and not in Moscow, where the artist was born, nor in New York, where he lives – that he is inclined to feel the fulfilment of his "natural human desire to be at home somewhere". Therefore, he does not present the history of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in his works, but rather what might be called its phenomenology – samples of its flora and fauna, its landscapes, and its folklore, connection with which usually provides a sensation of sensual, organic involvement in a given place.

And yet it is clear that there is nothing more than utopianism in the desire of an artist born in Moscow and living in New York to find his place in Birobidzhan. Both Birobidzhan and the Soviet political project that gave birth to it were utopian too. But is not any identity, any persistent attempt to identify oneself with a certain place – a utopia, i.e. a speculative construct? After all, involvement in a place is not an a priori reality, but something formed by purposeful efforts, through which its significance, as well as conventionality, is realised, particularly through the experience of emigration as experienced by Fiks – the experience of changing places. The advantage of the Birobidzhan identity for him is that this place is indeed a utopia, that is, a place without a place, and involvement in it is an obvious act of conscious choice, without any claims of deep rootedness there. Birobidzhan, invented sometime in the past century, therefore remains a place between reality and imagination, a place where identity, whose foundations have not yet set solid, can remain in a state of incessant creative development.

Viktor Misiano
artistic director of the project: Viktor Misiano
National Center for Contemporary Arts
Moscow Museum of Modern Art
Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center
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