Video of marriage agency interviews with Russian women, shipping container, security guard and dog
For ISEA 1998, curated by Charles Esche
Cosmopolitan used videotapes bought from marriage agencies which presented interviews with women from the former Soviet Union seeking potential husbands in the West.
The outdoor installation of Cosmopolitan consisted of a video screen, projector and sound system fitted in a 40 foot steel shipping container on its trailer. The trailer and container are interchangeable components of the globalised transport system — here, the trailer became a plinth for the shipping container, which framed the video screen. In this way, Cosmopolitan combined image and commodity, while evoking an American drive-in movie and a Russian Constructivist mobile cinema.
At dusk, the container doors were opened to reveal the screening of interviews with hundreds of Russian women. One after another, the women presented themselves to the camera with gestures, clothing and hairstyles which signified ‘femininity in the codes of Western visual culture of the recent past. Off screen, a North American male questioned each woman with a degree of repetition and at a pace which by turns suggested interview, audition and interrogation. The videos were sold with lists detailing each woman’s name, age, height, weight, marital status, occupation, and a summary of her personal aspirations.
However, many of the women’s responses suggest that they were not simply being exploited as commodities, but were choosing to enter a more complex transaction driven by economics, framed by sociopolitical change and facilitated by technology. If video contributed to the erosion of communism by spreading Western images of property and consumption, then perhaps marriage agencies trade on the resulting desire to live out fantasies of globalised media imagery. Cosmopolitan highlighted the bonds between individual freedom and particular social, economic and political conditions, to unsettle the adage that ‘the personal is political’.
Whatever opportunities awaited these women, they were taken at a cost of leaving friends, family and home, to begin new lives with almost total strangers. The exodus of so many healthy, intelligent and skilled women of child bearing age may have indicated a widespread disaffection with their prospects in the former Soviet Union. Yet if this threatened ‘a crisis of Russian masculinity’, it could equally be argued that the marriage agency process was symptomatic of dysfunction among men in the West. Despite its allusions to material and emotional fulfillment, Cosmopolitan delivered only emptiness, masked by a vision of desire.
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