Artist Mark Kelner grew up in Rockville, the son of two Soviet emigres who fled the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. That background informs much of his art on display at “Solaris: Shelter for the Next Cold War” at Culture House DC (formerly Blind Whino). Many parts of the exhibition, which includes propaganda-themed graphic works, photography and an immersive installation, play with ideas of language and commerce, like a logo for “Stalinbucks” coffee, with the mustachioed despot replacing the familiar green mermaid. Other sections make more direct reference to our current era of renewed U.S.-Russia tensions, like a wall of pages from the Mueller report with only the black redactions visible. Kelner spoke about the ideas and events that led to his exhibition.
Q: How did growing up in Washington in the '80s, with parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union, influence your worldview and the pieces on display in "Solaris"?
A: My dad’s a writer, and being from Russia, there was a question once posed to me: Do you know who Chekhov is? And I was like, “Yeah, he’s on the starship Enterprise.” That duality is something I’ve always minded. A lot of these crazy Moscow conceptualists, they invent words in English that an American wouldn’t necessarily get. It comes from looking at the world through an entirely different history. I’m coming from that background as well, inventing words, changing “Starbucks” into “Stalinbucks.” I’m very much using humor as a steppingstone to get into some darker themes.
Q: There's a lot of Cold War-focused pop culture references in your work, like the gallery of Russian villains from '80s action movies. Did movies and characters like that complicate your feelings toward your family's home country?
A: My parents really wanted me to assimilate. But I was a curious kid. What is our history? And these movies were coming out that vilified Russia. I had to look at images of pop culture to understand what my parents left behind. There was “Rocky IV,” which was very much about the end of the Cold War. I remember being teased in school around then: ‘You must be commies.’ But the most important one to me was “Moscow on the Hudson,” with Robin Williams. I must have seen it 20 or 30 times. Williams’s character is a Soviet that ends up defecting in a Bloomingdale’s, the high church of capitalism. It put the hook in me.
Q: How much of "Solaris" is a reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump? There are allusions to him, but he's not the focus. Were you trying to balance how much to reference him without overdoing it?
A: I wasn’t afraid to mention him, but it’s an apolitical show. It’s not based on what’s going on in the world, or reacting to the noise on Twitter and cable news. It was important to me to not be topical. The banner with a Russian-ized version of the word “huge” is the only piece directly aimed at the president. I’m writing his favorite word — huge — in the style of a Russian slogan. It’s in that netherworld I inhabit where it’s technically gibberish in Russian but can be pronounced phonetically to have meaning. I think Donald Trump inhabits that netherworld, too.
Q: You mentioned that sometimes you'll hang around the exhibition without identifying yourself as the artist, and listen to what people have to say. What are some things you've overheard?
A: I had a really surreal experience with this little Russian American kid and his mom. Going back to the “huge” banner — it has a curse word built into it. The first three letters of that word are actually a very offensive reference to the male member. That’s not unintentional, and Russians usually lose their minds over it. It’s very funny to them. So the kid says to his mom: “Look, look, look, it’s Russian! What does it say?” His mom looks at it and she’s shocked. She says, “It’s a bad word,” in a very heavy Russian accent, just like how my mom talks. Then she looks around and says, in Russian, “What a nightmare.” That is the fondest memory I have of the whole experience. I’ve done my job.
Q: We talked earlier about how sometimes you see exhibitgoers taking fun selfies in front of artwork of yours that, in reality, has very dark undertones. Does it upset you if people don't interact with your art in a way that's appropriate to the meaning?
A: Yeah, I built an Instagram trap. In the final room of the exhibit, I wanted to mine the old Soviet poster culture by means of extraction. I took out all the images of people to see what the posters would look like. What I noticed was a pattern in the ones where the sun represented a logo for the Communists’ utopian revolution. In taking everything else out, that sun was shining on nothing. I’ve made them very pretty, very decorative, but without the entire context of history. All I’ve done is take out the images of revolutionaries and farmers and workers. Where did they go? Well, this revolution produced millions of deaths, murders, displacements. But because the posters are so pretty, that context is lost. So the visual impulse is to have an experience with the art, take a picture. But the whole meaning is lost, purposefully.
Q: So the Instagramming of those posters actually fits into the juxtaposition you were trying to present?
A: Exactly. I knew it was going to happen. They became decorative objects. Look at these images: They’re pretty, but the people inside are dead. The sun is shining on nothing.
Culture House DC, 700 Delaware Ave. SW. www.swartsclub.org.
Dates: Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. through July 7.
Admission: Free (tickets required).