Kalman Zingman’s 1918 Yiddish-language utopian novella In der tsukunft-shtot edenia (In Edenia, a City of the Future), published in Kharkiv, Ukraine, depicts a vision of Kharkiv 25 years into the future. Zingman’s Edenia is serviced by “airbuses” and fountains that keep the temperature at a comfortable level year-round. But the speculation is not merely technological. Edenia is also a place where ethnic communities live side-by-side in peace and harmony. When I first learned about the novella in 2011, while reading an article by Gennady Estraikh, I immediately understood that this was an important document — it offered a rare and unique futuristic vision of a multicultural and high-tech Ukraine by a Yiddish writer. Surprising and hopeful, this novella engaged with provocative questions that remain timely and controversial to this day: the role of technology in modern life and how diverse groups can live in harmony. Already then, I believed that making an international contemporary art exhibition based on this material would be very thought-provoking.
However, it became apparent to me and to my colleague, curator Larissa Babij, that making such an international contemporary art project around Edenia was even more important and relevant after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the beginning of Russian-Ukrainian military conflict in eastern Ukraine. At that moment, we felt that it was even more important to talk about visions of multiculturalism and co-existence of diverse peoples in Ukraine via the question of Yiddish or the Jewish question in general – something that seemed to have been generally absent from the conversation. Is there a space for a Yiddish utopia in visions of the Ukrainian future? We know from history about the enormous role that Yiddish played for centuries in Ukraine among both Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
We aimed to address these questions through art. So nearly one hundred years after the novella In Edenia, a City of the Future was written and published, we invited an international group of contemporary artists to read the novella and create an artwork as if from the art museum of the imaginary city of Edenia, which is mentioned in the novella.
Almost 6 years passed from the time I first read about this novella to the opening of the Edenia exhibition at Yermilov Center in Kharkiv, Ukraine in June 2017. After reading about the novella, I requested the Yiddish original from Estraikh, then commissioned an English translation from Khane-Faygl Turtletaub, and then started inviting artists to engage with it. Each artist received an English translation of Edenia and had multiple conversations and meetings with me or Larissa about the novella, Eastern European Jewish history, and the past and present of Ukraine, as the artist was developing his/her artwork for the exhibition.
We gathered this art into an exhibition that ran from June 8–July 9, 2017, at the contemporary art gallery Yermilov Center in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The exhibition, which derived its title from Zingman’s work, was called In Edenia, a City of the Future. The exhibition presents the artists’ different visions as an invitation to look at our dreams from various angles, to take note of their colors, intonations, forms and rhythms.
At a time when many Ukrainians were divided in their respective idealizations of the Soviet past as a golden era of social justice or the European Union as the promise of a future utopia, the exhibition—based on a novella written in a language that has practically disappeared from Ukraine—invited the public to examine the country’s multicultural history and its early Soviet dreams/nightmares in light of present-day political challenges and potentialities. We urged visitors to think critically about the appeal and comfort of a utopian dream, while simultaneously remembering past actions taken in the name of making an ideal image of society a reality. At the same time, we acknowledged the utopian nature of the very project of 21st- century contemporary art, where visibility (as revelation) has come to replace the visionary projects of the past.
The highly international group of participants in the exhibition consisted of artists whose work Larissa and I knew or with whom we had worked in the past. The artists had a record of making projects that address history and politics and issues such as futurism, utopianism, and identity. We chose the artists because we believed they would make our conversation about the novella In Edenia, a City of the Future a global and international conversation—one that would address not only the history of Ukraine and Yiddish culture, but also the unfolding contemporary cultural, political, and social transformations in Ukraine and internationally.
Kama Ginkas, Kalman Zingman’s grandson, now in his 70s, and an important Moscow theater director, traveled to Kharkiv by train to attend the opening of the exhibition based on his grandfather’s novella, though he had never known before that his grandfather - “a newspaper vendor” - had published literature. At the opening Ginkas drew attention to the novella’s dark and mysterious ending that seems to foreshadow the fate of Jews in Ukraine 25 years after its publication. Art has a way of giving form to sentiments and ideas before they manifest themselves broadly in social or political life.
Below are photographs and descriptions of the different artworks included in the exhibition.