Sasha Rudensky was born in Moscow and moved to the United States at age 11, when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Rudensky is now an art professor at Wesleyan University, well-established as a member of America's cultural infrastructure.
But something keeps drawing her back to the land of her birth, even though the U.S.S.R., as it was, no longer exists.
"Everything that happened there, the cataclysmic changes, happened when I was in the U.S. But I was still emotionally engaged," Rudensky says. "I wanted to reflect on a place that was a touchstone for me, how it changed."
Photographs taken by Rudensky in former Soviet republics are the focus of a show at Davison Art Center on Wesleyan's campus in Middletown.
Rudensky isn't interested in sweeping vistas: no Red Square, no St. Basil's, no towering statues of Lenin bring toppled. In 13 years of thrice-yearly trips to Russia, Rudensky was more interested in subtle, subtextual and symbolic evidence that Russia, Ukraine and Georgia have moved from one philosophical paradigm to another, or, it seems at times, to no ethos at all.
She calls her work "a meditation on the loss of a certain way of life," for better or for worse.
"At one point, all the things they'd been told for years got negated. It sort of became a false truth," she said. "There's no slogans, no propaganda. What's left after that? ... What replaces ideas that dictated a way of being? You're working in an ideological vacuum."
Rudensky found a world where the people, gradually and imperfectly, struggle to adopt more Western attitudes. Communism gave way to consumerism, or at least the aspiration of someday becoming an affluent consumer. Hipster culture crawled in. Men bought garish Italian suits. Richer men built ostentatious mansions, sometimes modeled after historical buildings, other times modeled on their own fantasies of luxury. Teenagers worked after-school jobs at strip clubs.
This shift in values is neatly summed up in an almost ghostly image of a convenience store, glowing like an alien spaceship, built in the shadow of a flat-colored Iron Curtain-era block of apartments designed to encourage collective activities.
The only glimpse of a Lenin statue shows the founder of the Soviet Union amusingly demoted, chopped in half, humbly guarding the restroom at a bus station. A bust of Hannibal Lecter is given more respect, as the centerpiece of that hipster "concept store." The store features a confused aesthetic presentation, combining Gummi Bears, bondage imagery, mirrored walls and Hannibal Lecter.
Also given respect are poorly executed attempts at opulence. A boy stands in front of a silver stair-stepped structure decorated with chopped green glass. To American eyes, the architectural feature is far from glamorous, even tacky. But in Russia it is a popular selfie spot.
"They have a different relationship to superficial luxury," Rudensky says. "They have more of a taste for it."
A three-channel video shows the difference between Soviet and post-Soviet housing expectations. Those collectivist urban towers are squalid but actually inhabited. By contrast, contemporary gated suburbs are neat, tightly guarded and almost empty.
Rudensky is particularly fond of an image that appears to capture a luxury car speeding down a street, past piles of garbage and a stray dog. On closer look, it's a photograph of an advertising backdrop. The posh wheels aren't really there. It's just a tease, a promise of what Western-style consumer culture has to offer. What's real is the stray dog and the garbage.
SASHA RUDENSKY: ACTS AND ILLUSIONS is in the Davison Art Center, 301 High St., at Wesleyan University in Middletown until Dec. 10. wesleyan.edu/dac.