Of all the books that have ever been recommended to me, Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant, satirical novel The Master and Margarita has been suggested more times than any other as a masterpiece worth savoring. To which I always respond by beginning the book but soon promptly abandoning it, like clockwork. I’m supposed to enjoy this, I tell myself while reading without enjoyment whatsoever. Everyone adores this book – stay with it. Life is too short to attempt to get through novels that you don’t enjoy so I have never managed to get through much past the first couple of chapters. There is a moderate amount of regret that I harbor because of my failure to get what everyone else seems to get. Yet I think that Serbian artist Irena Haiduk may have aided in a comprehension that has eluded me for years. There’s nothing to get. Just be.
REMASTER is based on themes and scenes from the novel, which centers around a visit by Satan to Soviet Russia, unfinished in the author’s lifetime and unpublished until 1967 to great acclaim, 27 years after Bulgakov’s death. Over two floors of the Swiss Institute, the viewer is confronted with the book’s themes of love, evil, and devotion in the abstract. Haiduk has modeled the ground floor after the Variety Theater, and the second after Apartment 50, pivotal locations for the main characters in the story. That “the existing infrastructure of this world must be used to create a new one” is Haiduk’s central premise with this literary, cinematic artwork of which REMASTER at the Swiss Institute is its current iteration. Haiduk began REMASTER in 2008; her previous exhibitions of the piece also moonlighted as film studios where the cinematic elements for this iteration were generated. Between January 17 and March 22, a series of live events accompanies the exhibition, transforming the gallery spaces into a creative laboratory where performance art, musical recitals, and theater converge. Utilizing the methods of performance and film, Haiduk deconstructs reality and reassembles it, creating an environment of unease and awe, where a new way of living seems possible.
Walking through the imposing, beveled metal doors into the ground floor of the gallery sets a certain mood for what experience might await the visitor. Could the scene inside be anything but uncanny, magical, transcendent? It is as if the viewer was stepping into a castle and back, in, or through time, entering a realm that exists outside of a regular, linear temporality. One may first notice a large mirror on the floor that complicates how the viewer registers the size of the gallery space. A projection screen hangs straight ahead. Various plants that may or may not be artificial occupy the corners of the room. An expansive curtain with a faint toile pattern covers the windowed wall to the world outside.
I felt completely cut off from reality within REMASTER, which is the artist’s first solo show with the Swiss Institute. Time appeared elastic in Haiduk’s environments, bending, stretching, and retracting within the confines of the dark rooms. How long had I been sitting on the “concrete” bench, or—more accurately—foam molded to resemble outdoor plaza seating? Possibly five minutes, or was it fifty? I sat still in the dim, colored light: the alternating cool and warm hues soothe while the enveloping sounds disturb. Onscreen a hand appeared, as well as the reflection of that hand, as long nails are affixed to each fingertip making it resemble a cat’s paw. One hears bells; a sound like a cello having the notes wrung out of it by a bow; chanting; applause; a punk anthem in a foreign language; and a disembodied female voice plainly stating, “tonight and every night.” I listened carefully to try and make sense of the sonic medley, but I soon gave up. This exhibition nudged—no, pushed—me to capitulate to any semblance of understanding the situation, which brought a certain degree of enjoyment. I felt liberated in my ignorance; I didn’t know what was going on.
In the stairwell to the second floor with its burst of bright artificial light, the viewer is granted a short reprieve from the darkness before entering mirrored doors and plunging again into an eerie gloaming. Thin bands of illumination seep into the room through plastic blinds, and the surfaces of the angular sculptures have an inky sheen. There’s lots of glass on this level but it’s difficult to decipher any reflections in the haziness. There are places to sit: a chair, the floor, the bed. Again, I sit and lose track of time, looking straight ahead at the pattern the tiny beams of light make on the objects in the room. I close my eyes. I breathe, and I wait. For clarity? For awareness? I’m still unsure. I let time pass and listen to the sinister purring of a large, invisible cat—a fitting nod to Behemoth, Bulgakov’s fictional feline—that permeates the gallery spaces.
Already over a decade in the making, REMASTER is a continuous and evolutionary investigation into the possibility of radical change wholly realized through small interventions. Oblique, satirical, or ironic work must often evade its censors in order to reach its intended audience in social spheres where creative output is thwarted or restricted. Sometimes, these efforts take many years, as was the case with Bulgakov’s novel. Haiduk’s dynamic work reflects this patient struggle, its current version unfolding and developing multiple times in multiple ways throughout the duration of the exhibition. REMASTER emphasizes that change is always possible, even if external factors make the path toward transformation appear insurmountable.
As I exit, I overhear a gallery attendant telling other visitors that the exhibition is based on The Master and Margarita. I’m soon out of earshot as I close the mirrored doors behind me, and note that if the novel is anything like this sleek and brilliantly baffling exhibition, it is something that I simply must read.
REMASTER remains on view at through March 22nd at the Swiss Institute, 38 St. Marks Place, New York.
Lauren Palmer is an art writer and critic based in Brooklyn, NY. Her interests meet at the intersection of art, culture, literature, and philosophy.