Fake Villages, the Crimea and the Sydney Biennale pt 1

Fake Villages, the Crimea and the Sydney Biennale pt 1

Moon set, Valla
Moon set, Valla

Crimea today is on a war footing


Potemkin who led the Crimean military campaign is said to have built fake villages along the Dnieper River in 1787 so that Empress Catherine II would be impressed by its recent conquest. Others say Potemkin did build mock towns and villages, but never denied that they were theatrical sets designed to show what the area could become, including using painted screens of villages and driving flocks of sheep through the night to the Empress’s next stop.

Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Potemkin’ was a heavily fictionalised propaganda film about the mutiny on the battleship. Dziga Vertov lost his job at Sovkino in the winter of 27, probably as a result of criticizing the popular film. He was a very different film maker but his influence has since been recognised. Thomas Sheehan writes: “Vertov objected to Eisenstein’s use of theatrical effects in cinema, to his use of actors, to any kind of fiction film in fact. He was a purist who was after reality, “the truth,” and scorned those who wanted playacting in revolutionary times: his films were made as “film-poems” to, for and about the people of the Soviet Union.”

Vertov’s manifesto at the beginning of ‘Man with the Movie Camera’ asserts the unique qualities of cinema and rejects elements from other artforms. He demanded: “a film without a scenario” [script]; “a film without sets, actors”; “a film without intertitles” [titles]. Vertov says in his essay “The Man with a Movie Camera” that he was fighting “for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.”


Gavrilo Princip lived in cell No 1,
the assassin who detonated World War 1
and over eight million lives cut,
he died from TB in the spring of 1918.

In the follow-up war, the Gestapo took control,
made the Small Fortress (kleine Festung) into a prison
and the Main Fortress (grosse Festung,
became Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto.

The town square was fenced off, a commodious circus tent
housed a thousand Jews to carve boxes and coffins,
blind prisoners split mica, thinner, thinner
each slice a preservation against deportation,
others sprayed military uniforms with white dye
for the eastern front. A bank opened, camp money
was printed to pay for labour in the ghetto factories
exchanged at the ghetto cafe or in the ghetto shops.

Before representatives from the Danish Government
and the Red Cross visited in June 1944
the place was spring-cleaned, lawns laid, borders dug,
paths weeded and whitewashed, a music pavilion erected
in the square and a playground built in Stadt Park
even a monument was erected in this Potemkin village.

One visitor described being greeted by a Jewish elder
in black suit and top hat on a sunny day.

An elderly man sells balloons, sunshine hits
the synagogue, school (closed for the holidays),
and in front of the café the Ghetto Swingers play illegal jazz,
courting couples pack the benches, children play
in a brook beneath trees in this model ghetto.

The guests smelt baking bread, saw fresh vegetables
being delivered and heard the workers singing
all cued by boys who ran ahead of the officials
into the welcome concert, music lathered to conceal.

The ghetto put on drama and music performances
from four orchestras, various chamber groups and jazz ensembles.
The people created poetry and art, were even allowed to worship.
They organised lectures on a range of topics including
the Jews of Babylon, the theory of relativity,
and even German humour. Possession of medicine
or tobacco was punishable by hard labour or death.

It was a stop on the route to Auschwitz.

Manus Island

On the 17 Feb candle vigils in memory of Ezra Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker brutally killed on Manus Island were held across Australia. Five of the invited artists pulled out in protest at the Sydney Biennale being sponsored by Transfield; a company that provides services at detention camps on Manus Island and on Nauru. They wrote, “We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.” In the end nine artists withdrew and then Luca Belgiorno-Nettis stepped down from chairing the Biennale. I presume the artists re-joined. It is not a simple matter, and neither is asylum policy, but the conditions in many such facilities including Manus are abhorrent.

Margaret Mead lived on Manus before and after World War II and wrote about the people in Growing up in New Guinea and New Lives for Old.

“Guards at Australia’s detention centre on Manus island are ordered to carry hooked knives. The knives are used to cut ropes when asylum seekers try to hang themselves. This is the harsh reality of Australia’s so-called Pacific Solution.

Here’s another reality – in one sleeping area in Foxtrot compound 122 men sleep in a steaming hot, darkened room with no air-conditioning. Large, industrial fans are spaced unevenly between the beds, leaving little room for people to move. And another reality: these are men – 1296 of them – living with the dark memories of the February 17 riot that claimed the life of 23-year-old Iranian man Reza Berati. Broken window panes in the dining hall at Oscar compound, missing windows in Mike compound, bullet holes in a large white container exposing – like wounds – the rusted brown interior.

“They hit him and he fell from here and they hit him till he died,” one asylum seeker said of Berati, pointing to a stairwell in Mike compound. “They hit him in the head until he died.” Guards and immigration officials quickly moved us on.



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