Uconn Free Press
Activism in the Form of Art: artist Ted Efremoff walks us through
by Clare Rowland
Though Ted EfremoffÕs installation, ÒApartment 34 Parallel Construction,Ó is a few weeks away from being complete, the essence of the piece enveloped me as I walked through it. Efremoff, a graduate art student at the University of Connecticut, has constructed a simple two room apartment with a few symbolic objects placed throughout it to demonstrate what it was like to live in Soviet Russia, or any other control oriented society. The only tangible objects in the reproduction are two large rectangular tables, a small telephone stand, a wooden chair, and a desk upon which sits a metal lamp and ancient type-writer. From the ceiling, a twenty-four minute loop of a film is projected onto the objects below, portraying people performing tasks influenced by their fear of the violent soviet dictatorship. Standing in EfremoffÕs stark memories, it is easy to feel as if you are surrounded by ghosts whispering reasons to appreciate our own waning freedom. Beginning March 31st, ÒApartment 34Ó will be on display at the Benton Museum on the UConn campus.
What was your inspiration for creating ÒApartment 34 Parallel ConstructionÓ?
This is basically a replica from an apartment where I grew up, in Moscow. I was in my graduate art theory class, and I remembered how this woman, who was a friend of my family, used to pack a suitcase in case she got arrested during the Stalin years. So I had that picture in my mind, and then I remembered that when my motherÕs friends would come over, she would take a pillow and put it over the phone, because she felt that if we were talking about politics, we could potentially be overheard. This kind of stuff was continually happening in our apartment. Then I talked to my mom and she said that in our apartment at one point, four people moved into one of the rooms. The father had been executed and the mother, the grandmother and two children lived in one room. They had to use their tables for beds, because they didnÕt have enough space. Then another part of the story I heard was that when we had friends over and were eating dinner, they would write something down that they didnÕt feel comfortable saying out loud, and pass it around, and people would read it and then they would burn it in a plate so there would be no evidence, no sound. Also, relatives of mine participated in self-publishing. People were not aloud to read certain books because a lot of books were censored and illegal. So my aunt worked with a guy who was a dissident. He was a writer, but wrote books underground, and had them published in Europe. So my aunt typed his books because the government wouldnÕt allow anybody access to copy-machines. My aunt would use a type-writer and type the books by hand and circulate them underground.
All of this happens in ÒApartment 34Ó over the course of 24 minutes. ItÕs a piece where you donÕt walk in and see everything, but you stand in the apartment and this stuff happens around you. ItÕs meant to be seen as walking through, but also from above.
How much research did you do before beginning this project?
The project came together very slowly. I got together with some other graduate students, and I wanted to see what filming something from above would be like. And we worked it out, and we had a dinner in the metal shop, and I liked the footage I got from that, but it wasnÕt what I was going to use. Then I started talking to different members of my family about things that went on in our apartment. I talked to my mom and my uncle and other people. As it turns out I had forgotten most of the things that had happened, like I forgot about the family of four that had been living in the apartment.
Why were people so scared?
After the soviet revolution, communists took command of the country, and decided to make communism happen in this really large country of about 130 million. Not all of the people wanted communism, so their method was to make it happen through force. The man that is renowned for this is Stalin, who besides being a dictator, was a very paranoid person, and felt that people around him couldnÕt be trusted. The unofficial record is that he probably wiped out as many citizens as WWII did, which is about 20 million. So after his legacy other people like Khrushchev and Brezhnev came into power. During Khrushchev there was a slight thaw, and during Brezhnev it wasnÕt back to Stalinist days, but it was still fairly restrictive. I remember as a little kid knowing that I wasnÕt supposed to talk about the government, or say things that could get me in trouble at school or at home.
What was it like growing up in Soviet Russia? Besides not being able to talk about the government, do you feel like you had a fairly normal childhood?
I actually really enjoyed my childhood. I felt like my existence was fairly normal. I hung out with my friends and played hockey and soccer and enjoyed my life. I left Russia when I was sixteen, so I wasnÕt quite aware of everything, but I did know that I wasnÕt supposed to speak about politics. But at this point, during the Brezhnev era, there were a lot of anti-government jokes. I remember a friend of mine and I walked out of a store once, and he spontaneously shouted some anti-Brezhnev sentiment and this cop appeared out of nowhere. My friend was quick enough to say that two guys who ran around the corner had said it, so the cop went chasing after them.
You are aware of these things: I left in 1980 and in 1990 I went back to Russia. I met up with a good childhood friend and we started talking about Politics. I was whispering to him, and he turned to me and said, ÒYou donÕt have to whisper anymore.Ó I had remembered for ten years that this was not something you were supposed to discuss.
How has recreating this apartment affected you?
Recreating it made me learn a lot about my family. Another part of this installation is going to be peopleÕs stories that can be heard coming out of the walls about these objects. So my next little project is to do recordings over the phone. IÕm going to call Russia and talk to some of my relatives and call my mom in Philadelphia. Through creating this installation I am learning all of these things about my family, and I feel about a lot of families that lived in this era.
What remnants of this era can be seen in Russia today?
My wife and I just went back to Russia in May, and I was amazed by how many police I saw. We must have seen six different kinds of police in different kinds of uniforms. We went by two of the major prisons and courts, and we saw all of these men sitting in cars looking suspicious and tons and tons of police everywhere.
Putin, who is the current premier in Russia, is believed to be a puppet of the KGB or one of the strongmen of the KGB. After Gorbachev, people were able to choose the governors of the 15 republics that are now part of Russia. What Putin did was he changed the law so that he appoints all of the governors. It would be like President Bush appointing the governors of each state. One of my relatives works at a television station and friends of his have died for reporting the wrong things.
What steps do you feel people should take to prevent something like this from happening?
A senator by the name of William Fulbright said something to the extent of: it is paying a compliment to your country to criticize your country. I think it is important for people that live in the US today to be able to voice any concerns or protest any taking away of their civil liberties. In 1980 when I was leaving the Soviet Union, if you wouldÕve told me that this whole empire would crumble in ten years and would be a shadow of its former self, I wouldÕve never believed it.
Though this piece is about Soviet Russia, did you intend to draw a parallel between the historical infringement on peopleÕs privacy and the AmericanÕs increasing tendency to violate our privacy today, via avenues such as the USA PATRIOT Act?
The name of this piece is ÒApartment 34 Parallel Construction.Ó I took my apartment in Moscow, recreated it in the US, and I filmed the dinner scene with my American family, my wifeÕs family, so these things that are happening with the Patriot Act, like information that can be had by the government from libraries or websites or wiretapping and things of that nature, are things that can escalate. I think itÕs the responsibility of American people to point a finger at that. One thing I find happening more and more often is that my art is reflecting my thinking. I want Americans to walk through this space to let them understand what it feels like.
There is a very strong historical and factual basis for this piece, what personal touches have you added to transform this piece from a replica into a piece of art?
I made a lot of choices in making this piece. One of the choices was to focus mainly on the objects that have some significance with the story. Most of the things you see in here tell a story; there are very few objects that donÕt speak to the story I am trying to tell. Another thing I think I will add is a mirror, because I want people to see themselves as they are walking through here. I also made the walls grey because I didnÕt want to make an exact replica of the apartment but I wanted to abstract it for people.
What are your plans, as an artist, for the future?
Since coming to UConn my art started reflecting my thinking a lot more. Before, I was mainly a landscape and cityscape painter. I dealt with history and the history of architecture; but now I want to do more with my thinking process, and how I feel about subjects like civil liberties, certain freedoms, oppression you can find around the world. My art now reflects more of how I feel as a person, and I wanted to continue to do that.