A tower of the mind

The Royal Academy hosts a scale model of the greatest piece of architecture never built.

Imagine a construction 100 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower, significantly wider and in perpetual motion. This is Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. Designed in 1920, it is the greatest piece of architecture never built.

Now, London's Royal Academy has commissioned a 1:40 scale model of the tower, by artist Jeremy Dixon, to sit in its open-air courtyard and welcome visitors to the gallery.

It is an impressive sight. But at just 10 metres high, it is a mere echo of Tatlin's monstrous 400m high Constructivist model, with its distinctive twisting double helix design (you can see pictures here).

Tatlin's Tower was designed as a celebration of Bolshevism, assisting Lenin in the propagation of the revolutionary tradition and commemorating the 1917 uprising, in much the same way that the Eiffel Tower does the French Revolution.

When the state came under Bolshevik control - in a revolution that saw the Winter Palace captured and Tsar Nicholas II executed - the arts came with it. Tatlin's objectives (and indeed those of all Soviet artists of this era) were to promote the regime in a way that could be perceived as collective. It was no easy task to create a structure that captured the huge influence of the party, its ruthless ambition and desire to be at the centre of world government.

Tatlin turned to time itself for inspiration. He designed a space for offices, meeting rooms and a propaganda centre, housed in one of four geometric shapes. These were intended to rotate at the speed of an hour, day, month and year, essentially making it the world's biggest perpetual calendar.

The tower was to promote Bolshevism as a regime in motion - progressive, active and ambitious. Its flowing spiral design was intended to suggest the resolution of all earthly conflicts (presumably by the conversion of all countries to Communism), and its almost skeletal structure hinted at the idea of man and machine as equals in a classless society.

Tatlin's tower was both a Soviet Utopia - a vision of the bright Bolshevik future - and a fully functioning government building. It was hailed by his contemporaries as an artistic revolution and opened the doors to an exchange of ideas between Moscow and Berlin. Such luminaries as George Grosz paraded signs around the streets, reading 'Long Love Tatlin's Machine Art'. This was Constructivism at its most daring and egotistical -- the progress of art into industrial production, albeit under the watchful eye of the state.

Needless to say, Tatlin's vision was destined for failure. He was not an engineer or architect, so the building was structurally questionable. And there was a shortage of materials, particularly iron. The popularity of Constructivism was also on the wane.

Today, Tatlin's Tower is often hailed as a symbol of modernism's decline: a too-ambitious project, which encapsulated the arrogance of the age. But it can also be viewed as a symbol of experimentation and collective hope. For this was the first true Communist building (albeit never built) - a Bolshevik wonder of the world to rival the Tower of Babel and Hanging Gardens of Babylon, from which is draws inspiration.

It has also influenced many artists. The work of Zaha Hahid and Richard Rogers has echoes of Tatlin - and Rogers' Pompidou Centre in Paris must owe something in its dynamic design to his vision.

Anish Kapoor, too, has taken inspiration from Tatlin's Tower for his ArcelorMittal Olympic sculpture, designed for the London 2012 games in Stratford. (Although with the majority of the cost being covered by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, it can hardly claim any anti-capitalist leanings.)
And in the Far East, imposing megastructures are rising out of ancient cities - their sculptural steel frames a modern interpretation of Tatlin's radical concept.

Did Tatlin ever intend his tower to be built or was it destined to live in the mind? We may never know. But one thing we can be sure of: it has endured where many political regimes have fallen.

The model of Tatlin's Tower is on display at the Royal Academy until March 2012.

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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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