by Katherine Newbegin
For almost five years, Katherine Newbegin has traveled across Eastern Europe, tracking down gigantic, Soviet-style monuments to tourism in Moldova, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Cuba, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Belarus. These buildings represent a specific type of “block hotel” built by the government for the workers of the Soviet Union, and meant for nation building purposes.
In the former Soviet Union, the individual family vacation was widely discouraged and logistically difficult, set against the Western idea of an affluent middle-class family driving to Disneyland. This stark contrast acts as the crux of Newbegin’s fascination with these hotels. One of the most compelling aspects of the vacations, offered to the “best workers” of the Soviet regime, was the element of control and monitoring which took place during the trips. If workers were given the privilege to travel, upon their return they pledged to the state to redouble their efforts in gratitude for the needed break. Thus, all tourism served the good of the state and the collective, as opposed to the individual, and aimed to instill a sense of patriotism in the laborers.
What initially brought me to former communist locations was a fascination with what it might have felt like to be behind the curtain, to live and exist in a place where one is constantly watched and where nothing is kept secret.
In these hotels, she often doesn’t speak to anyone and leaves the room only to eat. The photographs, therefore, act as a documentation of the deep isolation reached after several days. She photographs with a Pentax 6 x 7 medium format film camera, using only natural light. By leaving the lens open for several minutes, she captures the remnants of human existence in detail. Lingering floral wallpaper, ancient mattresses, and bedside tables act as conduit to the past. Overall, the architecture holds a stifling sense of deadness, as if a museum.
Since beginning the project, many of these hotels have either been renovated or torn down, as new European Union money begins to pore into Eastern Europe. Newbegin continued the project in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Special thanks to the Lesley Heller Workspace for their assistance in making sharing this work with our readers possible.
Katherine Newbegin lives and works in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Hunter college and her BA from Yale. Newbegin has shown her work widely in both Europe and the US. She currently teaches photography and video at The School of Visual Arts.