How I found the beating, Soviet heart of Dau – without being allowed to watch the film

The DAU Visa Centre: "Visas are for places with notions about their purity, and which don’t want you there for good"
The DAU Visa Centre: "Visas are for places with notions about their purity, and which don’t want you there for good"

It’s January 2019, and Ilya Khrzhanovsky has decided that 14 years are enough. 

After an abortive attempt in Berlin, his gigantic film-cum-artwork DAU is being presented in Paris. The project’s gestation was notoriously long and grim; Khrzhanovsky began work on a film biopic (of the Soviet scientist Lev Landau) in 2005, and by 2009 the cast and crew were moving into a sealed set in Ukraine, a mock Soviet-era city where they wore Soviet clothes, ate Soviet food, earned Soviet rubles. Several participants have spoken of how this “experiment” led to brutality and paranoia. Khrzhanovsky’s network of microphones and cameras recorded it all.

At last, DAU has taken public form, as a 24-hour installation built around the 700 hours of film, 8,000 hours of sound and 2.5 million images that Khrzhanovsky collected in Ukraine. It was slated to open on Thursday in two large Parisian spaces, the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Théâtre de la Ville. That day, I crossed the Channel to see how the totalitarian dream had turned out.

To access DAU, you must first present yourself in person at the “Visa Centre” to collect your pre-arranged six-hour, or 24-hour, “visa”. (It’s a cold word for a glorified ticket: “visas” are for places with notions about their purity, and which don’t want you there for good.) Those who sign up for a full day have to complete a psychometric test, so that their “experience” (another buzzword) can be tailored to their profile. Those who sign up for the six-hour shift, like me, do not.

The “Visa Centre”, a kiosk on Place du Châtelet, was crammed with staff, IT equipment and impassive security guards. It was uselessly glass-walled, in the way that buildings are when they take a short-cut to what they think is a “modern” look. Expensive stuff, but by the time I arrived at 10am, the discontent had already begun. The 9am six-hour group hadn’t yet gone in. Soon, the 12pm and 3pm groups, the latter of which was mine, were being stalled. The queue grew larger, though this was Paris, so there was nothing so ruly as a line.

'This was Paris, so there was nothing so ruly as a line'

People from DAU, some with badges and some without, began to scurry and shift, pushing their way inside, or hovering on the cusp. Prospective punters, meanwhile, took life as it came: some were being let inside, through heavy doors that had to be heaved open or shut, while some were told to hang on the pavement. (It was minus 1 degree.) I asked a staff-member what was going on; he replied, in helplessly cryptic style, “soon you’ll see”.

By noon, the problems were clear, if unknown. A trio of young staff emerged to apologise, saying that exigences techniques – a suddenly managerial phrase – were keeping DAU from opening on time. Everyone was “invited” back at 6pm. The French visitors largely bristled, turning away or asking for remboursement. The English-speakers (from the UK, US and Eastern Europe, to my ear) pressed harder to get what they’d paid for today. The staff held up their hands. Exigences techniques! Within the sleek glass box, the security guards sat there and watched.

Without the chance to get into DAU that day, and with the Visa Centre sticking to their lines – especially when they knew journalists were asking the questions – my only option was to head up to a small ancillary exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. This would put the DAU project in the unsparing light of comparison: the Pompidou’s contemporary galleries are so rich, they distract you at every step with a glimpse of a Serra, a Nauman, a Brancusi to your left or right. (That’s my selection, but you’d have yours; the knack of the Pompidou is to seem tailor-made for a thousand people at once.)

The DAU installation is a small enclosed section at the end of Niveau 4. Its prime attraction is a mocked-up Soviet room, into which a long and dark corridor intrudes, sealed off from the historical world but offering windows on every side. At first, the décor seemed to be the draw, as in more polite time-travel attractions, such as the Jersey War Tunnels or Beamish Museum. But then a man emerged, in a dated but tidy suit. (I can’t be more precise; Soviet chic is hard to date.) He sat down to read a book, its cover tilted frustratingly towards the bare wooden desk.

'By noon, the problems were clear, if unknown'

All the while we watched him, we were being watched ourselves. Facing down the corridor, and to all the viewers' backs, was a window dark enough to pass for a mirror – until a dim form shifted behind it, making the low light dapple a touch, and only then we realised that we were being stared at by a second man. He was impassive too, even if you caught his eye. Nothing except the new balance of power made him different to the one reading in the room-cum-cell. But you knew that power had invisibly choreographed this space, and that this was a brute fact that you'd taken too long to figure out. No-one dared to approach.

The set-up was neat; too neat to bear Khrzhanovsky’s sprawling stamp. The man behind the window was a spectre of Stalin himself, who would hide behind one-way glass in the courtroom as his old Bolshevik comrades were sentenced to arbitrary death. (Khrzhanovsky, whose inmates could enter and leave the set without fear of pain or reprisal, could only dream of that kind of control. After a few drinks on set, he’d sometimes break character himself.) The Pompidou installation, then, has the same conceptual focus as the DAU project overall, but it streamlines it, gives it affective life.

This miniature DAU set, a version of Khrzhanovsky’s dream with the megalomania stripped away, seemed like a triumph to me. It organised a situation where multiple lines of control were allowed to develop and then were exposed by the ones ensnared. The spectators go in believing themselves in charge, then are struck by their own being on display. And the artworks by the corridor’s entrance give the whole visit an added frisson of embarrassed irony. Erik Bulatov’s Vhod-vhoda net (Entrance-No Entrance, 1974–5), for instance, has big bright letters that mock the Soviet mania for rules, and find grotesque humour in a system that simplified whatever it could. In the colourful Pompidou, disjunctures and antitheses keep the mood fluid – playfully so.

'Khrzhanovsky’s dream with the megalomania stripped away'

For all its laborious world-building, this spontaneity is what DAU, as an art project, never had. Its sheer duration, its capacity to absorb its participants and alter their habits – even to the point of horror – testifies only to an old, dull fact: when environments change, people change too. There’s nothing interesting about filming a couple’s bed, then finding them having sex on tape, just because there are cameras and microphones – because they know it. The endless months accustomed Khrzhanovsky’s people to their new conditions; alternatively, if they couldn’t, they upped and left. Nice people denounce each other, cheat on each other, try to steal a march. Soviet history is testament to that. 

Now that DAU has finished, in a way, it’s clear that it wouldn’t have been different if it had stopped earlier, or even carried on. “The thing about ‘Khrzh’”, a friend of the director told the LRB's James Meek, “is that he believes cinema is one of those artforms that does not require an audience.” I went back to the “Visa Centre” a few hours later, to ask about those technical issues. Blank faces, careful silence. DAU didn’t open that evening, and it’s now been postponed again.

I don’t know if it needs to open at all. Khrzhanovsky’s dream is an old one, and we’ve seen it happen before. He turned some people into browbeaten shells, others into exhibitionists, and showed that in the artificial conditions of a gulag city, we all have the capacity to be one or the other. To put it another way: first he built himself a slave state, then he built a viewing gallery for us. You don’t need to watch 700 hours of film to be sure that he’s proud of both.