Robert Bird, a scholar of vast erudition of film and Russian literature, passed away on 7 September 2020, after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is considered a landmark contribution to the scholarship on the Russian film director. Professor Bird was a storied teacher in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Bird also curated major exhibitions of Soviet art at the university’s Smart Museum including: Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (with Christopher P. Heuer, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Tumelo Masaka, and Stephanie Smith) and Revolution Every Day (with Christina Kiaer, Diane Miliotes, and the author).
As many of those close to Robert have expressed in the past few days—there are no words. No words and too many memories flooding in. Still, there is one word that keeps coming to mind as I remember Robert Bird: comrade.
This word, especially as applied to him, means something deeper, and conveys a relationship that is broader, than perhaps the more familiar word, friend. I think it has something to do with a common cause, a cause worth devoting one’s life to. To be comrades with Robert Bird meant to be a witness to, and to share, his passion. It was a passion marked by a deep intellect, grace, gentleness, wit, and a poetic soul. It is one of the great fortunes of my life to share in some of his passions; it meant I would be one of the many beneficiaries of his genius and insight.
In my experience of academia, when folks are talking about art, the discussion tends to dwell on how artists affect scholarship. How artists lead thinking—that artists are the seers of knowledge production and culture. Less frequently do we hear the stories of how scholars impact artists and their work. This latter perspective is the vantage point from where I write. So maybe this is a remembrance and an acknowledgment of a debt.
For the past decade, my time with Robert has had an enormous impact on my artwork. Always supportive and inquisitive, his energy and intellectual generosity buoyed my spirits as well as enlarged my mind and my art. For any artist knowing that there is even one person out in the world who not only understands but cares about your work is the ultimate life-line. Whether he knew it or not Robert was that lifeline to many artists, not just myself.
We met at the first birthday party of the daughter of our mutual comrade, Matthew Jesse Jackson. To my amazement, during casual party chit-chat, I had stumbled into talking with one of the world’s foremost scholars of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker whose work I was in awe of. But more than that, he also was a scholar of some of my favorite writers, Soviet authors like Andrei Platonov and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. It was at this first meeting that I would start to accrue my many debts to Robert Bird. Fanboy enthusiastic, I blurted out something to the effect that Memories of The Future collected some of Krzhizhanovsky’s “real” writing (distinct from his work on say, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia—or so that was what I had thought I had read), to which Robert graciously pointed out that this claim was unclear and that, in fact, the author did not necessarily make such distinctions between his work on the encyclopedia, editorial work, and his novels—it was all his writing. For the Soviet writer there was no such divide between art and life. It was a casual thunderbolt, as was Robert’s way. This observation was both inspiring and liberating for me as an artist because I no longer felt hemmed in by a profession, or role, that my art wasn’t dependent on being claimed as such by other people, nor could anyone ever pay me enough in a job to stop being an artist: artist in the studio and artist in the office. Robert gave me that and so many more insights.
Time and Art
The metaphysical study of time was one of Robert Bird’s great passions. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he was a keen observer and interpreter of the time-based art of film, not only because he was a prolific writer on revolution and memory. His passion for time culminated, I believe, in the Soviet-style tear-off calendar-cum-exhibition catalog for Revolution Every Day. This little 800-page brick-shaped machine for art and primary research on what it was like to live everyday life in the Soviet Union was his invention for the exhibition. In it, Robert had essays about the Soviets early attempt to create a new sense of time through changing the workweek to changing the annual calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian (where 25 October became 7 November). These essays were placed alongside reproductions of the wildly creative soviet calendars, numerous diary entries that he translated at an unbelievable rate. The book and the exhibition Revolution Every Day had an ecstatic quality to it, not simply due to the revolutionary subject matter, but because he was working alongside his life comrade and wife, the renowned art historian Christina Kiaer. Two giants of Soviet art scholarship engaged in a true labor of love, and this labor was a gift to the city of Chicago that drew rock-star writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard (one of Robert’s favorite contemporary novelists) and real rock-and-roll stars like Ian Svenonius to the museum.
Robert Bird will surely be remembered for his scholarly work, but he also was a great curator. He had a discerning feel for space and vision for what would make an exhibition interesting. Robert was a wonderful collaborator (an essential ingredient for successful curation) open to other people’s ideas, he possessed a genuine desire to hear from people some beside himself (this no doubt was one of the things that made him such an excellent teacher.) Yet one key reason for his adeptness at curating had everything to do with his reverence for art and his enduring belief that, in fact, art could change the world. Standing beside him and Christina in this photo I definitely believed it could and, because of everything Robert gave to us, I still do.
Thank you, my comrade.
May you rest in peace and in art.
Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist. Since 2010, he has worked on his artistic project the USSA a fictitious nation-state, which has taken the form of discreet artworks, exhibitions, performances, and a novel. He is the Director of Programs and Fellowships at the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry and editor-in-chief of Portable Gray, the center’s journal published twice yearly by the University of Chicago Press