Towards the end of the last century, artist/sculptor Mihail Chemiakin received a call from Yuri Luzhkov -then the mayor of Moscow- who was in need of an artist to produce an ambitious public installation. The brief was to visualise the dangers to children that originate from the evil traits of adults. These had been conveniently condensed into 13 key vices that were presented in list-form to the intended artisan.
Sponsored by the State-owned oil company: Rosneft, the task was a major endeavour set to occupy a prestigious place in the centre of the Russian capital. Although seemingly a dream commission for any sculptor, Chemiakin did not immediately jump at the opportunity.
“At first I wanted to refuse,” he admitted, “Because I vaguely imagined how it is possible to make this realisable.” It would take the sculptor 6 months (and assumingly; a very tolerant client) to decide upon an appropriate treatment for the challenge at hand.
Eventually, the Muse was with him, as he revealed: “I came to the conclusion that only symbolic images can stand up worthily in this exposition, so as not to offend the spectators’ eyesight.” So, his methodology was set, although the stated intent to “not offend the spectators’ eyesight” would not fare so well.
Chemiakin’s approach was to embody each vice as a stylised, imposing figure, the size of an adult human or larger. All were arranged in a wide arc with each character’s attention fixed menacingly upon a central pair of blindfolded children playing, oblivious, under their threatening gaze.
Everyone’s a critic
The designs were approved and the sculptural process underway as rumbling discontent and outright condemnation swept in, snowballing as the time of the 2001 unveiling approached. The principal concern was with the nature and quality of the figures themselves.
Executed to a high standard and with a stylised realism; the vice-figures are plausibly nightmarish; unworldly but grounded enough to be terrifying to the very children whose plight the installation’s creators were motivated to highlight. The figures efficacy lies in the efficiency and potency of their design and characterisation, without recourse to cheap shock tactics.
Such is their presence that some of those opposing the project claimed it would disturb young visitors or that it celebrated the very vices that it seeked to warn against. Others described it as a “blasphemy” that should be consigned to a museum or moved to a less prominent locale. No one, it seems, criticised the quality of artistry on display.
The final lineup
In spite of the controversy, the completed work – installed by architects V.B. Bukhayev and A.V. Efimov was situated in a park on Bolotnaya Square, Moscow (just over 600 metres from the Kremlin) and subsequently unveiled on September 2nd, 2001. Set on a stepped plinth, the figures are easily accessible, allowing them to be met face to face and their appropriate title-roles read on each character’s base.
The children are resplendent in heavenly gold, and stand amid innocent and honorable books of Russian tradition and folk tales. Behind them, the vices lurk in drab grey-green with the tools of their respective trades. Here’s the lineup featured in the finished work entitled (in translation): Children are the victims of adult vices:-
Drug Addiction: The winged figure of an obliging butler stands at the ready with a lethal syringe in hand.
Prostitution: Also referred to as “debauchery” by the sculptor, this vice-monster is depicted as a buxom woman with a cold-blooded frog-head.
Theft: A respectably dressed, boar-headed man glances back over his shoulder as he walks away from the viewer. Over his shoulder is a draped a partially filled swag-bag, whilst a drawstring purse -freshly lifted- dangles daintily from his fingers.
Alcoholism: A rotund bacchanalian character with a crown of laurel leaves sits stride a large wine barrel. He holds a large flagon and a drinking horn. Plenty for all.
Ignorance: A donkey-headed man dances playfully in front of the onlooker. He holds a pocket watch in one hand and a jester’s staff or rattle/bell-stick in the other.
Irresponsible science: Depicted as a slim genderless figure, this character’s senses are obscured by the low hanging hood that partially hides the face. He/she puppeteers a small humanoid figure with two dog heads, whilst also holding a scroll of dubious knowledge. To the figure’s left sits an assembly of primitive laboratory equipment.
Indifference: Rendered in an almost cubist style, this vice-character stands as a block-like monument with no defined legs. Its mouth and eyes are closed whilst it’s fingers block it’s ears. A second pair of arms are folded across it’s buttoned-up chest.
Propaganda of violence: A slight, well-dressed figure with a devil-tail and a tall stovepipe hat. He wears a small mask from which protrudes a long pointed nose. A shield is mounted with his wares: a selection weapons including a cutlass, pistol, grenade and automatic rifles. He holds a lantern over a pile of books; one is labelled “Mein Kampf”.
Sadism: Here represented as a corpulent, heavy-set, bestial humanoid with an extended rhino-like face – complete with a savage horn. His rope belt terminates in a dangling noose.
For those without memory: The most abstract of the characters; this a medieval pillory complete with a demonic face and snakes ascending the sides of its supporting column. Victims were secured in this clapper-board device with hands and head protruding -for prolonged discomfort and public humiliation.
Child labour: Here, a bloated, hawk-headed, predatory businessman welcomes the little ones into the open door of his tiny factory.
Poverty: This a simple representation in the form of an emaciated woman, barefoot and wearing a simple cloth skirt. Her shrunken chest droops as she supports herself against a rough-hewn staff. She extends a hand; begging for food, help, anything.
War: Steely wings protrude from the rear of a medieval suit of armour. A slender, mechanical head and neck protrude from the helmless torso -terminating in a gas mask. The robot-like figure holds a bomb capped with a Mickey Mouse head.
Don’t have (too many) nightmares.
Photos by Jason Eppink