'Redness' recounts story of a people's passion for freedom


October 29, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Among those who have benefited from the new freedom in Russia, according to artist Douglas Davis, are women. "Women were brutalized by an extremely sexist society [in the Stalinist Soviet Union]. When I first went to Russia [in 1974], women did the hard work. They collected trash and worked in the fields."

That has changed in recent years, Davis believes, but women in Russia still have some advances to make. Although he says Russian women are "exceptionally strong and extremely intelligent," they must still "organize and make the case for women."

In front of Davis, as he talks at Maryland Art Place, is a

dismembered red mannequin on the floor, called "Red Woman"; she is one of many women who appear in his installation "Redness: a New Room," which opens here today at 5 p.m. as part of its international tour.

"Redness" occupies the entire first floor gallery at MAP. "The story" it's trying to tell, Davis says, "is of a very dramatic and complicated and unpredictable event." That "event" is the gaining of freedom by the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

For an American, Davis is in an unusually good position to tell this story, for he was in the middle of the "event" with some of the people who were bringing it about.

A trailblazing multimedia artist known, among other things, for .. his photography and international satellite video performances, he first visited Russia in 1974. Since then, he has had something of a love affair with the Russian people and especially with the FTC dissident artists and intellectuals who worked against the Soviet regime and were instrumental in bringing it down.

"I had contact with the cultural underground which was very large and very strong all over the U.S.S.R.," he says. "It never seemed to me that the police state could last."

Davis witnessed how broad and deep the urge for change was. && But back in the United States in the late 1980s, "no one would believe what I told them. The official line was that only Gorbachev was doing something and he didn't have much hold on power. I decided to describe what I saw -- not the theory, but what I witnessed."

One result was a diary of his trips, part of which has been published in the Village Voice. Davis plans to publish the diary as a book, and he hopes to get across the refutation of the idea in this country that "we" won the Cold War. "The Russian people won the Cold War," he says.

"Redness" is another kind of testament to the events Davis witnessed, a personal one that he hopes will add up to something meaningful for the viewer. It opened in New York last summer, and after it's shown here and in Pasadena, Calif., it will travel to Moscow and Warsaw.

At MAP,the walls are covered with thousands of pieces of paper -- parts of his diary, faxes, photos, telegrams, etc. -- Davis accumulated during his experiences. Inside the walls are objects made by the artist, often with found materials.

There is, for instance, the television set on which he saw, while in Estonia, news of the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. "To lots of people in Eastern Europe this was more symbolic than the [Berlin] Wall coming down because Ceausescu was known as a cruel tyrant and in complete control of his country." The baby that projects from the now screenless set stands for that cruelty -- to children, among others.

The fact that "Redness" is so strongly personal may help express what Davis feels about what he calls the second Russian revolution -- that it didn't come about because of abstract ideas but because of passionate individuals.


Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Nov. 25.

Call: (410) 962-8565.

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