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Tatlin Tower reconstruction: a Tower too timid

An intriguing reconstruction of Tatlin's Tower cannot touch the unrealised original's bizarre genius, says Ed Frith

It’s amazing what you can find in Petticoat Lane market. These city fringe streets in East London are full of richly patterned fabrics, Union Jack underpants and the next Alan Sugar selling his wares. Amid this phantasmagoria, the Whitechapel Gallery set up a temporary exhibition space in a shop front.

The Toynbee Street shop front contained the entrance lobby to an installation based on the Monument to the Third International, an unbuilt citadel by Soviet constructivist master Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin’s Tower was designed as a great monument to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The superbly named artist collective Henry VIII’s Wives has been attempting to recreate full-size fragments of the tower in different countries across Europe since 2003. A piece remains in Belgrade, and Henry VIII’s Wives believes it can build it all, realising the monument in a new way.

Designed in 1919, the tower contained four spaces: a huge cube for legislature meetings that revolved over the course of a year; a pyramid that revolved over a month; a cylinder that revolved in a day and finally, a hemisphere for radio and light projection. The structure was to be 400m-high, an enlarged and twisting Eiffel Tower.

For the Whitechapel Gallery, Henry VIII’s Wives created an unusual installation. Two lift doors awaited visitors, suggesting the promise of a trip up the tower, looming over Spitalfields and Whitechapel. The reception committee was two female guides, complete with Eastern-European accents and Tatlin Tower-patterned dresses and hats. While waiting for the lifts, one rested on a Tatlin lounger and sipped tea from a tower tea set.

Creating a lobby of the tower was a great conception, as is the idea of recreating the tower. It offered potential for a real dreamland experience, but the project needed a greater suspension of reality: Mr Benn appearing as if by magic, or, perhaps more appropriately, local MP for Bethnal Green and Bow – and Big Brother contestant – George Galloway extolling the virtues of controlling the means of production in a Tatlin Tower-inspired cat costume.

Resume: A visit from Gorgeous George could turn the humdrum into a tower d’force

(Tatlin's Tower and the World. Closed 11 January, The Shop, 26-28 Toynbee Street, London E1 7OX)

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