PARIS (AFP) – It is billed as a human “safari”, the most controversial and potentially game-changing Russian cultural export since the Ballets Russes left the West shocked and awed 110 years ago.
What began as a biopic of Lev Dau Landau, a father of the Soviet atomic bomb and charismatic advocate of free love, has morphed into one of the strangest and most mind-boggling artistic projects ever undertaken.
The world will get its first taste of Dau soon, when its “gripping, claustrophobic” and sometimes violent universe starts unfurling 24 hours a day for 24 days in two central Paris theatres and the city’s Pompidou modern art museum.
Dubbed the “Stalinist Truman Show”, Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky persuaded 400 people to live and work for nearly three years under the same totalitarian Soviet rules that Landau and his disciplines laboured under.
The replica scientific institute he had built for them was not far from the one the Nobel prize-winning physicist ran in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
Volunteers – who ranged from university professors to beggars and engineers – agreed to be filmed periodically as they were subjected to scientific and philosophical experiments.
Its cost somewhere north of 70 million euros (USD80 million), sources told AFP.
Drawn by its compelling mix of science and spirituality, a cluster of major international stars have also thrown themselves into Dau.
Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, British musician Brian Eno and Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja – who many believe to be street artist Banksy – will perform in Paris amid the continuous roll of screenings, immersive experiences and intimate encounters with Siberian shamans, Buddhist monks, imams, psychologists and leading scientists.
“No one has yet found the word to explain Dau,” its executive producer Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon told AFP.
However, the Canadian said it could change the way we see art.
After experiencing Dau, “going to see a film, play or an exhibition will no longer be enough,” she insisted.
But its backers admit some of the 700 hours of this “encyclopaedia of human nature and relationships” make disturbing viewing.
Visitors will have to hand over their mobile phones and answer an intimate psychometric test before they can buy a timed or unlimited passport to enter the universe.
The producers said rape, abuse or trauma victims will be locked out of rooms with imagery that might trigger them.
Star Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis, who plays Landau in the films, will also appear in the gutted interiors of the Paris theatres, both of which are undergoing major refurbishment work.
The warren-like rooms of the physicist’s institute have been recreated inside the Theatre du Chatelet.
Artistic director Ruth Mackenzie compared the experience to a “safari. You don’t know what you will see. You know that it will be very intense, something very beautiful.
“Or you may see something violent and disturbing, though compared to Tarantino, it’s not violent,” she said.
“But you will come out and tell your friends about it. It’s completely different from anything they have seen before,” Mackenzie insisted.
One thing it is not is Big Brother, she said. Unlike the reality television show which continually filmed contestants, Khrzhanovsky took improvisational techniques used by film-makers like British Oscar-winner Mike Leigh and pushed them “10 miles further down the road”.
Khrzhanovsky, however, has faced accusations in the French press of exploiting his cast and having a guru-like hold over them.
Question have also been raised about the Russian telecom and food oligarch Serguei Adoniev, who has almost entirely bankrolled Dau.
Named philanthropist of the year in 2016 by the Russian Ministry of Culture, Bulgaria said it had revoked an EU “golden passport” it had previously granted the businessman because of a US money-laundering conviction dating back two decades.
Adoniev, 57, is trying to have the conviction quashed. He is not a target of EU or US sanctions on Russia aimed at allies of President Vladimir Putin.
Landau – who was honoured recently with a Google Doodle to mark what would have been his 101st birthday – was also something of a complex figure.
Though he convinced many of his disciplines, his wife never shared his enthusiasm for free love.
Twice honoured with the Stalin Prize, he was lucky to escape with his life from the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow for equating Stalinism with Nazism.