In an art project that has been compared to The Truman Show, Big Brother and the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York, a Russian artist has paid 400 people to live for three years in a fictional but functioning Stalin-era research institute.
In an experiment long anticipated in the film and art worlds but confirmed by the Guardian on Friday, Ilya Khrzhanovsky created an institute of theoretical physics in eastern Ukraine modelled on the shadowy facilities which existed in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Inside it were more than 400 real people, who relived 30 years of the Soviet experience in three years between 2008-11, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, and obeying the same rules as Soviet citizens would have.
People fell in and out of love, conceived 14 children, formed friendships and made enemies, according to executive producer Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon.
Khrzhanovsky used the story of Soviet physicist Lev Landau – whose nickname also provided the project’s title, DAU – as the basis for his fictional world. “It is really to show how people are, it is not particular to that culture or that time,” says d’Anglejan-Chatillon. “It is about looking at what human nature is capable of, under a microscope, and the capacity for beauty and intellect and optimism and change or a capacity for the opposite.
“In a way what Ilya created was an encyclopaedia of human relationships and human nature and how things develop over time in people.”
It has been a sprawling project shrouded in secrecy. Very few journalists have ever been given access. One who was, Michael Idov, wrote a piece for GQ in 2011 headlined The Movie Set That Ate Itself, describing Khrzhanovsky as “unhinged.”
James Meek, a novelist and former Guardian Moscow correspondent, was in 2015 invited to a building on Piccadilly where Khrzhanovsky has spent years pulling the project together. He wrote a piece for the London Review of Books in which he said “I felt I’d crossed a membrane into another medium.”
The research facility was also a vast movie set and for some of the time the participants were filmed by the German cinematographer Jürgen Jürges. Over 700 hours of footage was captured, and the film, DAU Freiheit, or DAU Freedom, will be shown to the public for the first time at an art installation in Berlin this October.
“The world has been waiting for this,” said d’Anglejan-Chatillon. “The film world has been anticipating this for a long time.”
For the event, a large section of the Berlin Wall will be rebuilt on Unter den Linden boulevard in the German capital, creating a walled-in “city within a city”. Visitors must purchase “visas” online and hand over their phones before entering. The project will end with a ritualistic tearing down of the wall on 9 November, exactly 29 years after the event in 1989.
The installation in Berlin will also feature performances and live interventions by artists including Brian Eno and Robert del Naja of Massive Attack.
“You often hear things described as ‘ambitious’. Nothing I’ve ever encountered comes close to the ambition of DAU,” said Eno of the exhibit.
“It’s the most extraordinary and multi-layered art-project I’ve ever heard of, involving many thousands of people – artists, actors, musicians, artisans, lighting designers, editors, cinematographers, officials, cartographers, scientists, shamans, and thousands of ordinary humans – and it’s still growing.”
Khrzhanovsky’s project has piqued the interest of many distinguished artists and scientists. Visitors and participants in DAU include the artists Marina Abramović and Carsten Höller, opera director Peter Sellars, Nobel prize winning physicist David Gross, and mathematician Shing-Tung Ya.
Events in Paris, before Christmas, and London, in the new year, will follow the project. In Berlin the installation will be hosted by the Berliner Festspiele arts festival and in Paris the partner will be the Theatre du Chatelet. Details for London have yet to be released.