blue light special

The first time I came to Moscow was in the dead of winter 1992. My initial conversation with a ‘real’ Russian (in real Russia) was with a little Red Army private at the passport control booth at the airport, Sheremetjevo II. In my newly acquired very basic Russian I said, “Good day, and how you are?” The private at the desk said in very broken English, at least as bad as my pathetic Russian, “Fiev Doughlara!” ($5.00). As in if I wanted my documents returned I would need to pay him a little cash. His comrade, directly behind him, nervously looked around for the duty officer so as not to be caught and scolded. And more likely not to have to share the five bucks three ways. It was to be a situation I would encounter again as the years went by; on numerous levels in innumerable situations. Even now thirteen years later, although not as prevalent or blatant, extortion is a way of life here. Everyone, particularly foreigners, is preyed upon as if they are a natural form of financial support in addition to a real job salary. Another thought is that some Russians feel foreigners owe everyone of the former Soviet Union a fee for entering into the remains of “Paradise Lost”; many feel we foreigners were pivotal in its destruction by our very entry into this Promised Land.

Now I’m here all these years and I still run into these ingrained attitudes of extortion and self-importance that marginalize right thinking in any society.

In another early Moscow experience in 1992 I accompanied my wife on a tour of the cemetery at Novodevichy Monastery, built in the 16th and 17th centuries. During Soviet times, particularly after World War II, but continuing to this day royalty, heroes, politicians and celebrities are buried in this cemetery. Several of the grave markers struck me as bizarre in their literal representation of the individual interred and the role they played in society. For instance, one marker was for a general in the Soviet Army who had been in charge of rockets during the Great Patriotic War/World War II. It was a very serious classical portrait of the General with a brace of rockets on top of the guy’s stone marker. Another marker was for a tank General, and yes, he had a model of a big green tank on top of his stone marker (with what I perceived to be an unnaturally elongated cannon, Freudian?). An artist or poet might be artistic in gesture if sculpted in a realistic portrait or a singer would be captured in song for eternity. Cosmonauts in costume, dirigibles, jet planes etc. were all in view and eternal.

Dethroned ex-Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having blown his chance for internment in the wall on Red Square, is at Novodevichi! I found his marker one of the most subtle. There was a certain irony with this somewhat sophisticated monument, in that he was the Neanderthal Soviet Premier who beat his shoe on the desk in the United Nations General Assembly to make a point in the early 1960’s. It had been designed and the stone bust sculpted by Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian sculptor who now lives in the U.S. Once ridiculed by Khrushchev as creating decadent art it was surprising that Neizvestniy was given the commission to realize this tribute. Someone said later that it was a payback from Nikita’s comrades for his denunciation of the “Great Leader, Stalin”; for which Khrushchev was never forgiven by the Communist Party.

Novodevichi was packed with interesting reminders of the heroes and stars of Soviet and Russian history. But to my American taste many of the newer monuments were strikingly out of place, some a bit juvenile and many lacked esthetic continuity with the enviroment.

Within a few months of moving to Moscow I began driving my own car. In 1993 the streets were best described by a ‘visiting artist acquaintance’ “as being total anarchy”. It reminded me of contact sports back in the States; just short of colliding, in most cases. There were no traffic laws that couldn’t be twisted or broken if the traffic jam was too big or the drivers brazen enough. Getting caught by the traffic police simply meant negotiating an on the spot bribe. And, of course, if all are in violation at once there were never enough police to stop every single offender. Sidewalks were considered overflow lanes if the traffic was slow. Three lanes became five if warranted by the drivers; sometimes driving in the oncoming lane, or lanes, when in a hurry or stuck on the stalled side of the street. Pedestrians were at high risk of being nailed by “all important drivers of cars”; the worst offenders being those in foreign cars particularly BMW’s and Mercedes. In those days I saw numerous bodies on the streets after being run down; most of the time the drivers of the cars were long gone. I personally witnessed two victims being hit by cars, not killed in these instances. The drivers then drove away not even stopping to see if the people were injured or needed help.
Another irritating driving issue was, and still is, the flashing blue lights on the cars of the politicos in this capital city. Then there were many cases of people just paying to get the document necessary for a blue light, which of course includes a siren. There were so many at one point, 30,000 in Moscow alone was one quote I heard, that they disrupted traffic in their all powerful right to blast around lines of cars or go through any given traffic situation or signal they chose to ignore. Their lack of concern causes disorientation if you’re driving and certainly adds to the causes of accidents and near accidents.
If you have a blue light in Moscow you are special.

Well so what am I getting at with this flow of built up gripes and complaints about ‘what’s bad’ with the place where I’ve spent a significant portion of my life?

After three years of working in Moscow, I crafted a caricature head of my idea of a Soviet style bureaucrat or Russian mafia boss to vent some of my hostility about the system I felt I was enduring. I made him as slimy looking as possible: including some warts, a ‘too tight’ shirt collar around his fat neck and a “Belomor Canal” cigarette (a Russian cigarette unique in its strange looking filtration design) dangling from his slightly opened snarling gob hole. After being cast in bronze the head had to be mounted.

As with many of my ideas for assemblage sculptures or installations the bronze head fermented a while in the studio while I went through a process of deciding what next? At some point I realized that the wealth of materials in the junk yard outside my studio was my answer to mounting the head. The collection of junk parts belongs to Rostislav Ushanov’s “movie special effects” shop which works beneath and behind my Moscow studio. In the stacks of stuff was the hood of a “Pobeda” (Victory) automobile. These automobiles had been produced after WWII to reward the best of the heroes and finest of Soviet society for the victory over Nazi Germany. Certainly some were given as gifts to Soviet style bosses like the one my caricature represented. And it had been there in my line of sight for several years, perfect! I had felt an attraction to it and its form, which lent itself to the idea of a clerical canopy for an icon of some sort. That led to the inclusion of other elements and the idea that my little head sculpture would be a critical tribute to Russian bureaucracy. Yes, and iconographic! The influence of Novodevichi, blue lights plus numerous other cliches I had amalgamated in my mind then played out in the realization of “Blue Light Special” or “Sami Glavni” (a Russian ‘title’ for most important or most high as in leader, director, cook, plumber or whatever.

My version of Russian-ness in this commentary on bureaucracy’s inefficiency and corruption was further enhanced by:
-The outstretched hand as an indicator of a greedy extortionist.
-Mercedes’ symbols as an indication of this character’s religious preference i.e. “Ostentatious Materialism”.
-Three blue lights flashing in rotation with accompanying sirens slowed down in a muted obnoxious drone complimenting this personality’s demeanor.
-Flashing head and signal lamps to further irritate and call attention to the dead one this monument was intended to immortalize.
-A huge bumper, or cattle deflector, like you might see on a large 4-wheel drive chase car in Moscow; or as seen on pick up trucks back on the farm or ranch in the States.
-The bumper detail was also a tribute to the unwary pedestrian who might happen to wander into this cretin’s path as he came blazing down the road careless and self important in his journey.
-The filigreed wing shapes, with Mercedes Symbol central to the design, are reminiscent of the popular wood trim you see on old wooden houses throughout Russia.
-The upper portion of the piece rocks back and forth like an automobile; it is a mechanized multi effect installation.
-Lastly, at the rear of the installation the bi-product of this personage’s life long pursuit: a little mechanized pumping system to fill molds for bricks of green (like money) excrement. The product of a life’s work!

So why the English language title “Blue Light Special”? A double entendre in this case! Of course I’ve already talked about the blue light phenomenon in Moscow traffic. If you are an average American, not unlike me, you are aware of announcements made at hyper markets in the States like K-Mart, Wal-Mart or Home Depot etc. “Hello, shoppers! In aisle seventeen we have a ‘Blue Light Special’ today on rubber stoppers.” Or, “Our ‘Blue Light Special’ today is in aisle 69 where we have number 20 framing nails on special at 3 cents a lbs,” etc. A Blue Light Special, with actual flashing blue light, is a product placed on sale to draw you to an area of the store where you might also buy other products. It is a sales gimmick or come on, they are items often lacking in serious value or necessity; important only in their superficial attraction to draw you closer to other merchandise in the store.
My English title is to infer that the Sami Glavni person is actually common; and not of serious intrinsic worth or social necessity.

This piece was intermittently worked on for well over two years beginning in 1996 and reaching completion in 1999. Several advisors, helpers and experts aided me in the technical details and labor that went into this mechanized installation.

Two were Professors Leonid Ivanov and Nicoly Alekseev, instructors and researchers of electrical engineering at a local institute in Moscow. I had known Leonid for several years and he and Nicoli had helped me with many other electrical problems great and small. In “Blue Light Special” I needed a control panel to illuminate and coordinate the lights timing and other mechanisms. The little implanted sirens in the blue lights had to be disseminated so as to make a lower decibel sound; the battery operated lights had to be slowed down and run off of power from wall sockets. The movement function had to be programmed into the electrical system also. It operates completely off of a single 220 volt wall plug.

Alexander ‘Sasha’ Archibuchev devised the mechanism that creates the rocking movement in the piece. Sasha is a machinist and fabricates metal work. He runs his own business and has worked with me on numerous projects.

Andre Nesterenko was one of my two studio assistants for a number of years; a jack of all trades including auto maintenance, mechanical drawing, wood working and all forms of fabrication. A brilliant young man, ask him, he’ll tell you!

The underpaid welders at a ‘un-named’ military factory in North Moscow Oblast who clandestinely welded the aluminum base for this piece after my design.

Lastly: it was Vladimir Massalsky, my well paid main man for twelve years, who was responsible for the finish welding of the bumper for this piece and who did the molds for the castings in aluminum and bronze for the head and other details.

The criticism I express in “Blue Light Special” is directed at an attitude assumed by many with any form of power in Russia. My use of symbols is intended to Russify and place the statement historically and geographically. It could not have been realized without the help and expertise of the Russian individuals I mentioned. I suspect one or two might disagree with my attitude in offering such criticism. But the victims of the powerful in Russia infected me early on with their plight and stoicism and gave cause for my artist’s response.

Frank Williams, February 2006

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