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
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.
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
or poet might be artistic in gesture if sculpted in
a realistic portrait or a singer would be captured in song for eternity.
in costume, dirigibles, jet planes etc. were all in view and eternal.
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.
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.
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
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.
you have a blue light in Moscow you are special.
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?
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
in bronze the head had to be mounted.
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.
version of Russian-ness in this commentary on bureaucracy’s inefficiency
and corruption was further enhanced by:
outstretched hand as an indicator of a greedy extortionist.
symbols as an indication of this character’s religious
preference i.e. “Ostentatious Materialism”.
lights flashing in rotation with accompanying sirens
slowed down in a muted obnoxious drone complimenting this personality’s
-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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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!
underpaid welders at a ‘un-named’ military
factory in North Moscow Oblast who clandestinely welded
base for this piece after my design.
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.
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.
Williams, February 2006
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Frank Williams. All Rights Reserved.