July 19, 2019

Building a Queer, Communist, Yiddish Commune in Space

“One morose and rainy Sunday afternoon in late November, the kind that presages the final days of a New York autumn, a motley group of intellectuals and connoisseurs of Yiddish gathered on the Lower East Side. The Russian-American conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks was on hand to deliver an artist talk and personalized tour of his charming exhibition “Yiddish Cosmos” (through Dec. 16), a playful historical jaunt through the history of the Jewish aspects of the Soviet space program. The exhibition was arranged on the second floor of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the last functioning Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood. Beneath stylish prints of the Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov—who was the first Jew in space, and would have been one of the very first men in space if his historical flight along with Yuri Gagarin on the first Voskhod rocket mission had not been bumped because of his ethnicity—were futurist Yiddish slogans. A striking half portrait cleaved together the faces of Gagarin and Sholem Aleichem. The exhibition demanded an answer to the question of whether the Jewish utopia was to be found in Manhattan, Israel, the Soviet Union, or somewhere in the farthest reaches of the Milky Way.

Fiks is in his mid-40s and of medium height and is possessed of an angelic face. He was dressed in a minimalist black ensemble and possessed of a calm and grounded-seeming demeanor. Listening to Fiks softly discuss the relationship between Soviet Yiddish literary magazines, 1920s Lower East Side anarchist-Yiddishists, and the legacy of the Soviet cosmonauts, one could very easily begin to believe in a future of Yiddish-speaking space colonies.

For close to a decade I have been following the progression of Fiks’ career as he has built up a thematically and conceptually coherent oeuvre predicated on a rigorous melding of immigrant concerns, LGBT themes, and a probing post-Soviet search for a usable future. It is a playful artistic endeavor built on an archeological search for a future refashioned from the tarnished fragments of a broken utopian past. It is also represents a thoughtful and liberal response to the Soviet past by a gay Jew: two categories of people that the Soviet Union had a complex relationship with.”

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