Issue 13.2
—Summer 2021

On the Question of Exhibition Part 2

Image Diplomacy

Vladislav Shapovalov

“Image Diplomacy” is an extended artistic project focused on the use of exhibition as a political medium during the Cold War. The project was developed as a body of work and a series of exhibitions incorporating mixed media and photographic installations, displays of documents and photographs, a film and a book—all brought about between 2016 and 2020.

“Image Diplomacy” was initiated after the discovery of an archive of Soviet travelling photographic expositions in Milan, Italy. The exhibitions, preserved today in the former friendship association Italy-USSR, were dedicated to the most diverse aspects of life in the Soviet Union: from sport, domestic and public life, technology and work, geography and architecture, to women’s emancipation and achievements in space exploration. The aim of these itinerant exhibitions was to promote to the world the image of a modern, emancipating, internationalist and alternative project to that of Western capitalism. All the decisions regarding the contents of the exhibitions were done by the “Soviet exhibitionary complex” represented by the VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), while the arrangements regarding the display were done on site in different cities, facilitated through a worldwide network of associations of friendship with the Soviet Union.[1] The exhibitions could be assembled autonomously and at low cost by simply following the instructions and technical drawings included in the exhibition kits. Thus the idea of an alternative modernity within anyone’s reach was proclaimed, not only through the themes of the expositions and reproducibility of photography and film, but also by the display systems, transforming the exhibition into the mobile chronotope of political subjectivation.

On the other side of the ideological divide, the United States Information Agency (USIA), the US counterpart to VOKS, adopted an asymmetric strategy and organised one single travelling blockbuster exhibition, “The Family of Man”, which was destined to become “the epitome of American Cold War liberalism.”[2] Curated by photographer Edward Steichen, “The Family of Man” first appeared in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and went on to tour across 69 countries, including the USSR as a part of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959.

By staging “exhibitions about exhibitions”, “Image Diplomacy” testifies to the role that the medium of the exhibition had on the formation of the twentieth-century political imaginary characterised by the competition between the dream worlds of communism and capitalism. The archival materials reassembled within the “Image Diplomacy” installations recall and isolate the forms of exhibition display systems designed by VOKS, and recount in particular the relations between the USSR and Italy, which was the country with the most deep-seated communist party in the West. The installations were accompanied by a film comparing the story of the Soviet kit exhibitions with the story of “The Family of Man”. On the one hand there was the socialist internationalism project that sought to unite Second and Third World countries, and on the other hand there was the American universalist project.

  1. VOKS is an acronym for Vsesoiuznoe Obshchestvo Kul’turnoi Sviazi s zagranitsei, meaning All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
  2. Sekula, Allan. “The Traffic in Photographs”. In Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983. London: MACK. 2016. pp. 88-89.

The following visual essay is based on the script and stills from the film Image Diplomacy (2017). Scenes were shot inside the archive of Association Italy Russia (ex-friendship society Italy-USSR) in Milan, the Film Archive in Bologna, and inside the reconstruction of the UNESCO recognised photographic exhibition “The Family of Man” in Clervaux, Luxembourg. The film deals with the construct of history and the materials that contribute to this construction. Dedicated to the re-composition of facts and narratives considered obsolete or forgotten, it ruminates on the question: why do we look at the past?

Although historically grounded, the film is less concerned with how things actually were than with how they appear in retrospect. The aim is to blast holes in established interpretations of the political topology of the twentieth century and open up to new lines of sight that allow for critical re-appropriations of the legacy of the past, and reflections on the current state of relationships between images, politics and society.


Image Diplomacy project began during the fellowship at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen, Innsbruck, in 2016–17, and was first presented in group shows at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen (2016) and the Kunstpavillon of the Tiroler Künstler*schaft (Innsbruck, 2017), then continued to unfold in 2017–18 in two simultaneous solo exhibitions at V-A-C Foundation, Moscow, and ar/ge kunst, Bolzano, Italy. Later different works from the project were presented at Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art (Riga, 2019), AVTO (Istanbul, 2018) and Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci (Prato, 2019). The monographic publication dedicated to the Image Diplomacy project was awarded a grant from Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago, and published by Mousse publishing, Milan, in 2020.


Vladislav Shapovalov

Vladislav Shapovalov is engaged in projects that use the exhibition as a medium to explore entanglements between cultural artifacts, geopolitical configurations, and the notion of history. His work has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including The Missing Planet, Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato (2019–20); The Fabric of Felicity, Garage Museum of Contem-porary Art, Moscow (2018); One Thousand Roaring Beasts: Exhibition Dispositifs for a Critical Modernity, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contempor.neo, Seville (2017–18); Atlas [of the Ruins] of Eu-rope, CentroCentro Cibeles de Cultura y Ciudadania, Madrid (2016); and The School of Kyiv, Kyiv Biennial (2015), among others. His long-term project Image Diplomacy (2015–ongoing) has been presented in solo exhibitions at V-A-C Foundation, Moscow; ar/ge kunst, Bolzano; and AVTO, Istanbul. Shapovalov lives and works in Milan and Moscow.