The Harriman Institute Atrium” isn’t an atrium. It’s a lounge—complete with green couches, windows looking into offices, and grad students. As part of the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies on the 12th floor of the International Affairs Building (IAB), it also functions as an art gallery.
For the last two months of 2014, the Harriman Institute housed Soviet Bus Stops: Photographs by Christopher Herwig, an exhibit comprised of over a dozen photos of, yes, Soviet bus stops.
The combination of the words “Soviet” and “bus stop” lends itself to images of squat, boxy structures covering masses of sad-looking people, possibly surrounded by snow. Herwig’s project, however, showcases elaborate works of public art, which also happen to be bus stops, in isolated parts of the former USSR.
Far from the grim and uniform Brutalism typically evoked by the Soviet Union, the stops themselves vary in design and material. One from Abkhazia is a giant mosaic wave, whose playfulness would have made Gaudí proud, while another stop in Moldova is composed of benches covered by two green, hollow dodecahedra (or, for those wary of geometry, the shape of the wormhole ship in Contact).
It’s surprising that the government once famously blasted by art critic Clement Greenberg for using kitsch (a “dumbing down” of art) to enforce totalitarian control of the masses would even bother funding these rather avant-garde sculptures. It was even more surprising that the USSR would pay for such impractical objects. Simply put, they make terrible bus stops. One Estonian stop, a striking work of postmodern minimalism composed of two-thirds of a tilted hexagonal prism, is made entirely out of exposed wood—not the most appropriate for an Estonian winter. But even this stop looks practical next to a Kyrgyzstani stop that consists entirely of an imposing stone statue of a falcon and a few paltry benches scattered around the base. National symbolism, yes—but poor protection against Siberian winds.
Photographer Christopher Herwig must have been similarly surprised when he first encountered these stops during a 2002 bus tour from London to St. Petersburg, since—according to a plaque at the exhibit—he spent the next twelve years traveling to thirteen countries of the former Soviet Union, photographing over 1,500 structures. While Herwig himself failed to offer an explanation for why the Soviet government would have approved the massive project, Dr. Nicola Contessi, a postdoctoral scholar at the Harriman Institute and organizer of the exhibit, has a theory.
The bus stops, according to him, are “overall representative of Soviet cultural policies” because they celebrate the cultural heritage of the myriad ethnic groups of the former USSR. One stop from Kazakhstan resembles a brightly colored tent, bringing to mind the nation’s historically nomadic peoples. Another stop from Turkmenistan, which has a large Muslim population, shares architectural similarities with the interior of a mosque.
The more “futuristic” stops like the dodecahedra, Dr. Contessi explains, seem to encapsulate the Soviet focus on technological progress. These ambitious modernist structures soaring out of remote and barren landscapes served as reminders that space-age idealism isn’t only a product of Soviet urbanity, but represents a unifying national value.
It’s only fitting that these unconventional images have found themselves in such an unconventional home—much like the stops themselves. Next up for the Harriman Institute? An exhibit on the work of Russian futurist Andrey Bartenev, on view until March.