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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saving History, Not Rewriting It

A statue of Lenin, overcoat open, right arm stretched out to show the way to the socialist future, stands on a tall marble pedestal. His chin is raised, his gaze is stem, and in his palm, the Bolshevik holds a Nike running shoe.

No, it's not the latest advertisement from America's most visible sneaker company. The image, an artist's proposal for a potential use for Russia's Lenin statues, is part of an exhibit of some 200 drawings and photographs that opens Thursday at the New Tretyakov gallery. The exhibit, showing simultaneously in New York, deals with one central question: What is to be done with the monuments of the former Soviet Union?

The idea for the exhibit was born in 1991, when Russian emigre artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid followed the events of the August coup from New York. Worried that bureaucrats and politicians would remove all memorials to Soviet power, blotting out an entire era in history, Komar and Melamid decided to appeal to artists to propose creative alterations to the monuments.

"Russians believe that they can make the past beautiful", said Komar, who returned to Moscow for the exhibit opening. "They rewrite history. This project is a collaboration with history, an attempt to save history".

The exhibit is more likely to make history than save it. Although humorous, most of the suggestions submitted by the artists are clearly conceptual. Komar and Melamid, for example, want to put an electronic signboard, Times Square style, on top of Lenin's mausoleum that would continuously flash the word "Leninism", the news, poetry and outlandish dadaist messages such as MAMA MAMA MAMA.

Another variation on the Lenin statue theme comes from a pair of Michigan artists who depict the leader in his ubiquitous overcoat, the lining of which is full of watches. This piece is called "An advertisement for Street-corner Watch Sales".

Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist with The New Yorker magazine and author of "Maus" and "Maus II", mocks the famous "Worker and Peasant" statue by shrinking its platform. In Spiegelman's version, the barrel-chested man and woman who hold their hammer and sickle aloft like trophies would be striding forward - into thin air. A little push, it appears, would topple them.

Spiegelman came to Moscow with Komar and Melamid to help design the exhibition, which has had its share of problems. The Solyanka gallery, which was supposed to host the show, unexpectedly withdrew its support on Monday. A hastily arranged exhibit of contemporary Russian orthodox icons was mounted instead. Olga Yakovleva, Solyanka's temporary director, refused to comment.

Komar was certain that this was a political move of some sort. "It was a coup in a way", he said, orchestrated by some "new Kremlin curator".

Marat Guelman, owner of the Guelman gallery in Moscow, came to the rescue. An old hand in the Moscow art scene, Guelman has organized several shows at the New Tretyakov gallery and the Central House of Artists. On Monday afternoon, he managed to arrange for space at the New Tretyakov gallery; installation began Tuesday, and Guelman says the show will open on time. The exhibit will be open to the public at 5 P. M. Thursday.