Sculptures, 2014

Virginia Colwell_Goodbye to all that


I am fascinated by how the narrative of history shifted at the beginning and at the end of the Soviet Union. In both instances, although the story of the past changed, the format for curating, exhibiting, and framing history was the same as before: the same museum cases in the same museums. How is it possible that we can easily accept and adopt a radical change in narrative by only placing a new history in a familiar exhibition format that we consider credible? History alone, accumulated in documents, artifacts, stories, and images does not have much weight in and of itself—it is only a collection. But when we frame these objects and stories in display cases within museums, they become transformed, assuming the weight of ‘historical truth’ that they might not otherwise have.

I have been interested in how exhibition design and exhibition cases carry an authority that encourages the viewer to believe the version of the past presented. The power of framing the past is not only evident in the radical changes in the course of Soviet history, it can also be seen when traveling to history museums in other countries with opposing historical narratives, or in the instances when it is discovered that what was a revered relic of the past is in fact a fraud.

For the series Goodbye to All That I made replicas of museum furniture from the Soviet Union and Russian International Exhibitions. But instead of making exact replicas in wood, I made them in fabric in order to call attention to the otherwise fragile narratives that museum furniture supports. At the same time, I realized that the limp fabric pieces could easily look like protest banners if they were carried aloft by their legs. I like the idea of making an object that not only personifies the malleability of our historical narratives but also echoes the place where new histories are established: in the streets, in protests.

My series takes its title from an essay by the English historian Eric Hobswambs in which he talks about the lasting implications of the fall of the Soviet Union from both the perspective of the historian and through the eyes of an ardent believer in the promises of socialism. In his writing he investigates his own confusion and disappointment for loosing the historical narrative that formed and guided his personal and professional life.

What guides us when there is such a radical change in the narrative of the past? What does it mean to no longer have an alternative credible history that challenges the history of the West or of Capitalism? What is the past when the predominant histories, those framed in museum cases, have been discredited?

In addition, Hobswambs’ essay, written in 1990, marks a historical point in which the facts, documents, and artifacts of the Soviet Union’s past were taken out of the museums and removed from their exhibition cases. In this moment the old history and its objects were no longer creditable, yet they still had not been relegated to the archives because the archivists couldn’t agree on what should be preserved and what should be thrown away. In this moment the past was floating between history and oblivion waiting for a new narrative that could collect it all, order it, and re-frame it in the same vitrines and museum cases as before but with a new meaning.