German critic Walter Benjamin warned in 1936 that "[mankind's] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is how it stands with the aestheticization of politics that Fascism pursues.” After watching the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, it seems to me that his direst predictions have come true.
I do not mean this as a comment on Russian politics per se, but on the way in which the designers of the ceremony sought to portray the country and its current reality. Masses of people representing either the warriors or the ballroom dancers of War and Peace appeared as geometric figures. The miracles of projection and animation abstracted and took apart the human figure as if it was just so many pieces of a state-generated machine. People become blobs; countries, projected maps; historic places, mirages hovering in the air. Everything melted to an insistent disco beat.
What made this all the more disturbing was the small child falling asleep reading a fairy tale, then sailing through a triumphant Russian landscape and history, encountering human actions and achievements whitewashed into abstractions. The girl would encounter portraits of famous Russians as she floated through the air, reminding us of the presence of actual human beings. These apparitions would soon disappear to make way for marching phalanxes or, as an apotheosis, dancers choreographed to appear as a waving Russian flag.
The camera angles and edits were integral to the alternate reality the presenters constructed, so I have no idea how this looked to those present in the stadium. It was designed as a television performance. This is, of course, nothing new. Directors have been turning human beings into patterns and dissecting reality in what Benjamin called “the dynamite of a tenth of a second” through edits and camera angles for more than a century. What was different in the Sochi show seemed to be that process, celebrating the country’s nation-building as the replacement of reality and humanity with visions and dreams.
In one of the most apt highlights, the directors paid homage to Constructivism and Suprematism (without, of course, making any overt political references to the hyper-Soviet roots of these genres). Geometric fragments and giant heads floated through the air; workers constructed a new reality of steel beams and girders. Their work came to nothing and quickly morphed into yet more building, following the Second World War (which was briefly and abstractly depicted in the show).
In the new Russia, the histories of tsarism, fascism, communism, and capitalism all collapse into one continually rebuilt reality. In the program, actual buildings, such as cathedrals and palaces, became lighter than air, as did the skyscrapers that are now transforming Moscow into another node in the international flows of capital. Nothing real remained.
The reality of Sochi is, by all accounts, something different. It is a bit of a mess. It all looks fine on television—though it also appears from looking at the background behind the sports action as if this Olympics will not produce a single construction of any aesthetic quality. That is also not that exceptional, but you would have thought that a new Russia also needed buildings as anchors for its ambitions. Who needs reality, however, when you have TV?
At least this latter-day bit of agitprop was a useful antidote to the relentless hero worship and nationalism of U.S. TV coverage. The cult of personality, Benjamin also warned, is the image and cloak of mankind’s destruction.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.