Jan Banning

Red Utopia

Storgata 95

27. April 2019 - 17. November 2019

Mari Hildung

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, communist ideology has, to some extent, been cast on the scrap heap of history. But since 2017 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the Dutch photographer Jan Banning travelled to Russia, Italy, Portugal, Nepal and India to document people who still raise the communist banner. He meets them in their everyday surroundings, in offices cluttered with symbols: red flags, banners and portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, plus those of local ideologs and party leaders. From an office desk, a concentrated gaze is directed towards the camera – a pose and composition also characteristic for another of Banning’s photographic series, namely, Bureaucratics, which was shown at Perspektivet Museum in 2009.

Who are these remaining communists with a mutual admiration of Marx, yet who otherwise have such different approaches and styles and are seen in such diverse settings? In the 50 offices in Russia which Banning visited, critical remarks about Joseph Stalin, one of the 20th century’s most egregious mass-murderers, were quickly dismissed as exaggerations. The communists’ enthusiastic stories about ‘the good old days’ included the mention of free education, access to health care and wages or a pension one could live on. Such benefits have been lost along with savings and a general feeling of safety in the comprehensive privatization process after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Today’s communists, however, are not just elderly and disillusioned people. In Italy, a large percentage of Communist Party members are young and highly educated, while in Kerala in India, the Communist Party prefers to pursue traditional social-democratic policies.

Portraits and sculptural busts in exaggerated formats, ragged furniture and outdated technology; such settings could suggest a theatre of the absurd. ‘If I want to stimulate people to think, some elements of absurdity [are] necessary’, says Banning. Whether it’s the office of a bureaucrat or of a communist, the whole idea of an office is a kind of theatre stage. I am using that to engender thought.’

As both a photographer and a historian, Jan Banning combines an artistic eye with a documentary approach. He has won great international acclaim for creating photo series that often address sensitive and complex themes. It is through encountering people and their everyday surroundings that he allows the big questions to emerge. He himself has never voted for a communist candidate, but he has sympathy for party members’ persistent struggle for justice and social equality; many of them have suffered torture and long prison sentences. Under a neoliberalist, market-driven economy with enormous environmental pollution, great social disparity, increasing populism, nationalism and xenophobia, Banning thinks there might be some benefit in a new reading of Marx’s works – at the very least, as inspiration for making radical changes to achieve a more idealistic and just world.