Master of interpretation and awkward outdoor sculptures
Šelda Puķīte, Student, Art Academy of Latvia
Book Ārtelpas skulptūras semiotika, ekonomika un politika: Pieminekļu celtniecība un demontāža Latvijā 1945-2010 ('The semiotics, economics and politics of outdoor sculptures: Construction and dismantling of monuments in Latvia 1945-2010') by Sergejs Kruks (Riga, 2011)
In autumn this year, a monograph ‘The semiotics, economics and politics of outdoor sculptures: Construction and dismantling of monuments in Latvia 1945–2010’ by Sergejs Kruks, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Rīga Stradiņš University, was brought out by the Neputns publishing house. It is a continuation of the author’s research series on the study of the relationship between power, society and culture, using semiotic analysis as a methodological instrument.(1)

At the book presentation, Sergejs Kruks mentioned one of the first impulses for the production of the book as being the scandal which broke out in the press in 2001 about the equestrian statue of Peter I. This monument was placed in Kronvalda parks for a few days, but after heated discussions between politicians it was removed and is currently located in the Teika suburb. Six years later, Tallinn experienced a scandal and mass disturbances when the Estonian government decided to dismantle and transfer the monument known as the Bronze Soldier to the city’s Military Cemetery. In every post-Soviet country, wholesale dismantling of Soviet era propaganda monuments has taken place. However, individual monuments have remained in their places and, as shown by the previously mentioned scandals, have become a sore point in the new politics. Kruks has seen this painful question as an incentive to analyze outdoor sculptures, so special and at the same time awkward for the community, as signs of power and culture of a particular time.

More than twenty years have passed since the collapse of the USSR, and it seems that with the passing of time, the ability and the desire to look at the “painful past” in a much more objective fashion has grown as well. Sergejs Kruks is an avid researcher of the USSR, especially the Khrushchev period. The volume of the work and its contents reveal a substantial socio-anthropological investigation into a re-examination of the Soviet era. In the nine chapters of the book, well-balanced theories, factual materials and interpretations are put forward by the author. The language, using the terminology of semiotics, may seem complicated, but the author has made the text easier to understand and more flowing by the inclusion of a variety of odd facts.

Just like in his previous book, the author has included in the appendix a number of documents from the time of the Latvian SSR, through which one can follow complaints, dis¬cussions and decisions about various problems associated with outdoor sculptures. A huge number of photographs of sculptures has been collated, a large proportion of which came into being when the author travelled around Latvia and took photographs of the remaining evidence. In the appendix there are also inventory tables of sculptural works, in which one can find out about the authors of the monuments, the year they were unveiled and dismantled (if known), the materials, their sizes and the places they were located.

The photograph of the Yuri Gagarin monument on the book’s cover is like an icon of USSR ideals – a hero of the Soviet nation who conquered space.(2) It seems that artist, Anta Pence, having understood the author’s vision, has tried to eliminate the use of colour and aesthetic detail in the book design, choosing as the main goal the opportunity for the reader to clearly read the information, which can be accessed with the help of the text and images. However, it must be said that individual details in the arrangement of the text and appendix seemed burdensome. The terms used in the text are quite complex and it is a pity that there aren’t any explanations of concepts, neither in the appendix nor in the reference section. Another shortcoming is the use of expressions in the Latin language in sentences as if they were selfexplan¬atory, the author evidently considering the inclusion of a translation as unnecessary. The wealth of photographic material published is invaluable, however the cramped layout of little photos onto a single page, and the black and white colouring, doesn’t allow one to fully appreciate the objects shown in the pictures.

One of the aims of the study as proposed by Sergejs Kruks was to show that the construction and destruction of monuments is not irrational behaviour, but instead is a completely normal habit (p. 10). The author’s statement that outdoor sculptures are in a continual triangle of influence between the creator, the viewer and the body who commis¬ sions the sculpture, is of vital importance (p. 12).

As admitted by the author himself, in terms of method, the research has been influenced by the pragmatism of semiotics (p. 12). In this way the researcher engages in the interpretation of signs at a number of levels, and as a result conjures up a scene in which contemplation of the purely artistic form has a secondary role. For this purpose Kruks has created a chapter in which he explains the meaning of the various visual signs and their perception systems. The chapter develops as a kind of introduction to semiotics, which in the Latvian language is information that is rarely accessible, especially if the discussion is about the use of semiotic instruments in the interpretation of art works. Using the previously provided sign system code, the author offers a closer look at the propaganda created by the Soviet authorities, so as to analyze the iconic signs which can be seen in the works of art. Thus, without noticing, a sign system web is created within the reader’s mind which allows one to look upon Soviet era propaganda sculpture as a new, pedantically elaborated philosophy on life.

In the next stages of the study the author focuses on the economy and politics of the USSR (p. 74). It seems that the stories about the many Lenin monuments and the clashes involved in commissioning and creating them will obviously be the most captivating to the reader, as will the so-called “plaster ghosts”, which just like today’s ceramic garden gnomes, were placed in various parks and at crossroads. Sergejs Kruks explains the existence of numerous propaganda monuments in the territory of Latvia not as an outcome of the sculptors’ ideological convictions, but rather their material self-interest. As indicated by the author, they used Lenin’s leading role in the Soviet narrative as a politically irrefutable argument for commissioning grand monuments (p. 178).

Unfortunately, when reading the book, one missed a deeper analysis by the author of the personalities of the sculptors, and also an evaluation of the aesthetic quality of the works they created. The use of semiotic methodology is only one of the ways of undertaking a historical review, and, it should be added, not always the most effective. Nevertheless, in the rather barren field of Latvian interdisciplinary research this book will bring pleasure to many a reader.

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 The previous book by Sergejs Kruks “Par mūziku skaistu un melodisku!” Padomju kultūras politika, 1932–1964” [‘About music, beautiful and melodious! Soviet Cultural Politics, 1932–1964’] was published in 2008 by Neputns. In it, three chapters were devoted to the author’s analysis of the development of opera, concert hall and light music in interaction with the dominant USSR policy.
2 Yuri Gagarin monument in Ventspils. Sculptor Gaida Grundberga, architect Oļģerts Krauklis. 1974. Photo by Sarmīte Kviesīte.
go back