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Black and white and dread all over

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Alexander Brodsky’s latest work presents an unsettling vision of imagination and memory

What is a room? A contained space, where your mind can run free? Virginia Woolf thought it was rather a good idea to have one all to yourself. Alexander Brodsky, slight, softly-spoken, who leaves a smoke trail of half-finished sentences, has created two: one white, one black.

There is the obvious contrast between light and darkness, waking and sleeping, life and death. If, on the surface, it seems straightforward, that’s because it is, says Brodsky: ‘It’s the simple things about life: the bedroom and the fire.’

‘It’s the simple things about life: the bedroom and the fire.’

Push through a white curtain and walk into bright light, blinking, and you’ll see drapes on the two long sides of the room, mirrors at either end, and a neat row of empty beds in-between, doll-sized, precisely spaced. The urge is to count them, but it’s harder than it sounds. It’s easy to get lost halfway down the line and they are reflected ad infinitum in the mirrors. There are 21.

The next thought: where have all the people gone? And then, even if they were here, they couldn’t sleep in this glare. Certainly it’s not a place that screams sex. It feels sterile.

Push through a black curtain and stumble through the gloom to an unsettling centrepiece. Here are the people then, tiered ranks of them, squatting around a blue flickering fabric flame, stark against shadow. Try and count these figures, and you’ll probably give up.

‘There are fewer beds than people,’ says Brodsky.

You might want to touch the figures: they are scratchy, hollow-sounding. The original model was cast in clay. These ones are Styrofoam copies. It is the shape of the heads that interests most. Square headdresses, hinting at a far-off civilisation, or an imagined population of imagined ritual.

The figures haven’t just appeared. They have been with Brodsky for ‘maybe 30 years… they are something  of a self-portrait’. And then: ‘They sleep in the bright room. And in the dark room they are watching.’

You can only enter the dark room by travelling through the light, and you cannot leave the darkness without re-entering the light room.

‘Everything comes from me, from my childhood,’ Brodsky says. ‘The white space reminds me of a hospital or sanitarium. I wanted to create some working contrast, where you suddenly find yourself in the dark with something mysterious going on… They are at the edge of the mind, these thoughts.’

Brodsky was one of the leading Paper Architects in Russia in the 80s, working in collaboration with Ilya Utkin. Constrained by state-sanctioned dreariness, the Paper Architects entered plans and designs to foreign ‘forbidden competitions’ for others to judge: an architecture of dreams.

The dream-like quality runs through his other works on display. To get to this part of the exhibition you have to leave the two rooms, walk through the gallery lobby and go down a flight of stairs. Here, the work is politely and properly pinned on walls and presented in cases.

The drawings are fantastical, surreal: dark architectural doodles given life

But it is not polite work. There are a series of pencil drawings on beige paper. Factories with smoke pluming from chimneys. Curved pyramids. Binoculars through which no one could ever see. And birds. Birds with talons curled around branches and around other, smaller birds. Birds that could never sing or fly or strut; beaks, tail feathers and feet part of the branches. Birds with cruel beaks, blank eyes and human ears, wearing the same caps as the figures upstairs. The drawings are fantastical, surreal: dark architectural doodles given life.

In the centre of the basement is a sculpture made of unfired clay. It is a crumbling recreation of a converted factory where Brodsky once lived in Moscow. Bits keep dropping off it each time it is moved. They don’t move it much. You have to peer into it, like looking in through the windows of a dolls’ house into a miniature world. There are corridors and grills on windows, and circular industrial towers.

There are echoes of Brodsky’s earlier work. In Coma, he recreated the centre of Moscow to scale, and flooded it with crude oil, a critique of the industry’s effect on the city. In The Trip, a twist on a train carriage, he used the curtain motif, and the benches look like bunk beds for attenuated people. In his Rotunda in the Kaluga region of Russia, the fire is central.

The impermanence of the clay, the impact of industry, the starkness of the regimented beds, the underlying threat and unease: Brodsky’s work captures something of late Soviet Russia and subsequent changes in the country. But more than that, it is a space of imagination and memory.

Does he feel free when he creates? ‘There are levels of freedom…I’m trying to feel free.’

White Room/Black Room by Alexander Brodsky is at the Calvert 22 gallery until  25 November. Free

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