Escaping Gravity

Escaping Gravity: Letatlin and Other Utopian Flying Machines in Twentieth-Century Art—Five Marginalia

Andreas Broeckmann

1. TATLIN: The Myth of the Artist

Vladimir Tatlin is considered one of the most important representatives of the Russian avant-garde. Often in the reception of his work, various levels blend: Tatlin began working intently on his image as TATLIN very early in his career. Above and beyond this image, the myth of “TATLIN” was created, and the meaning of the myth was essentially divorced from the artist TATLIN and the person, Vladimir Tatlin. It is therefore reasonable to distinguish between these three figures: Vladimir Tatlin (1st degree), TATLIN (2nd degree), and “TATLIN” (3rd degree).
The myth of “TATLIN” (3rd degree) began in 1914/15 and was based on the international reception of the counter-reliefs; at the latest it was manifested in the battle cry of the Berlin Dadaists in 1920: “Art is dead. Long live Tatlin’s machine art.” The rumor that Tatlin was a “machine artist,” which originated with Konstantin Umansky that same year, has stubbornly persisted ever since.(1) From then on the name “TATLIN” stood, like almost no other, for avant-garde art’s affinity for machines and technology, as well as for its radical abandonment of the bourgeois concept of art.(2) The artist himself had no control over the myth of “TATLIN.”.
On the other hand, TATLIN the artist (2nd degree) is a figure that Tatlin essentially constructed and designed. His positioning of the Counter-reliefs, the Monument to the Third International, and Letatlin, the flying machine, pursued a strategy of image building. In this he was supported by Nicolai Punin, whose essays and reviews extolled TATLIN’s art as the fulfillment of the revolutionary tasks of his time. In a pamphlet titled TATLIN (Against Cubism) from 1921, Punin explicitly wrote that the text was not about Tatlin the person (1st degree): “We mentioned Tatlin’s name primarily in order to determine the point where the various . . . tendencies encounter one another.”(3)
Today we know little about Vladimir Tatlin the person, the teacher, the politician—the artist (1st degree). The second- and third-degree TATLINS must be surgically extracted in a discourse-analytical examination. In contrast, an extensive cultural and socio-historical contextualization of Tatlin the person has to occur in order to better understand how he worked, taught, and served his cause.

2. Letatlin, Flying Bicycle

By the early nineteen-twenties, at the latest, Tatlin was working on a project for a flying apparatus that he called Letatlin in which the wings were to be manipulated by a person lying inside the body of the machine.(4) Letatlin was supposed to make it possible for people to fly in a machine that was as affordable and simple to use as a bicycle. After an intensive work phase that began in 1929, Letatlin was presented in public three years later for the first time at an exhibition in Moscow.
The “dream of flight” has often been accepted as a fundamental anthropological constant in the literature about inventors such as Daedalus, Leonardo da Vinci, or Otto Lilienthal. However, its (and TATLIN’s) motivation should not be treated like an atavistic fact. Instead, its historically specific, pragmatic, and utopian potential should be investigated. It is necessary to historicize Letatlin, because even the significance of the bicycle—the machine that Tatlin had been referring to ever since he was a young man around 1900 and first heard of the idea of a “flying bicycle”—had fundamentally altered in the meantime. At the end of the nineteenth century, the bicycle, along with the sewing machine, was an important piece of innovative technology, the starting point for companies such as Peugeot, Morris, and Opel before they began producing automobiles, but by 1930 the bicycle had completely lost this status. Technological innovations mainly came from the communications, aviation, and automobile industries.
After Letatlin was exhibited in 1932, the voices that had previously accused Tatlin of formalism grew even louder. It was said that he was not an artist; he was merely an engineer entirely devoted to technology. After a public event in January 1933 Tatlin declared that he would return to painting and set design, which had defined his artistic practice in the years before the Revolution.(5) There was a certain tragedy inherent in this declaration. Like one of the later, infamous “self-critiques” in the secret Stalinist courts, Tatlin seemed to be forswearing all of the work he had done as an artist during the immediately preceding years. All the same, after years of working on Letatlin, and shortly after its first public display, he relinquished it. In the way that it combined utopia, construction, and the transgression of limitations, Letatlin may have retained its visionary potential. Nevertheless, even when it was first presented in 1932, it belonged to the rearguard of a Constructivist avant-garde that had given up its claim to trailblazing long before.

3. Panamarenko, Art

While other works of art by Tatlin are maintained and regularly exhibited in Russian art museums, the original model for Letatlin is currently in the storehouse of the Central Airforce Museum in Monino. This expresses a sense of uncertainty about the status of this object. The new type of Constructivist artist which the group around the poet Velimir Khlebnikov conceived, no longer wanted to differentiate between the technological machine, the study of material, and artistic sculpture. Art institutions, however, have continued to do so to this day, and so Letatlin, currently classified as a flightless ornithopter, awaits its transfer to an art museum and its reclassification as a work of art.
So that Letatlin can achieve this status, it would be necessary—according to the conventions of twentieth-century art—to affirm its technical dysfunction, as is usually done for works by artists such as Jean Tinguely or Panamarenko. Since the nineteen-sixties the Belgian artist Panamarenko has built countless “useless” flying machines, running through the entire vocabulary of aviation, creating manned and unmanned flying machines, balloons, zeppelins, propeller and jet propelled vehicles, almost all of them built to accommodate one pilot. These objects radiate a sense of humor and a delicate, poetic notion of technological impossibility. Obviously, Panamarenko is not interested in flying per se, let alone in building models capable of flight; rather, his enthusiasm is for images of impossibility and glorious failure in an age when even a manned flight to the moon is possible.
While he was developing Letatlin Tatlin was not striving for that kind of aesthetic—the aesthetic of the impossible or of failure. His constructive work on Letatlin was always focused on the realization of what was conceivable and desirable. Admittedly, this brought with it the reputation of failure and debacle at the end of the experiment. The dilemma surrounding the fact that Letatlin was even interpreted as an unsuccessful technical engineering feat instead of an autonomous work of art stems from Tatlin’s own affirmation of the technological and the constructivist. This not only reinforced the stigma of formalism that socialist critics pinned on him, but also the stigma of functionalism, which is effective in bourgeois culture, and results, for instance, in Panamarenko, the flying machine artist, being divested of the tradition of Constructivism and his works instead assigned to the same category as the utopian designs by Buckminster Fuller and Joseph Beuys.(6)
To rescue Letatlin from Monino there has to be a decisively artistic reinterpretation of it that elevates Tatlin’s concept of art to the status of a forerunner of the postmodern understanding of art. Until then, Felix Philipp Ingold’s assessment of the special quality of Panamarenko’s works reads like a verdict about Letatlin: “Panamarenko’s flying objects will remain relevant conceptual art as long as they continue to fail in the technological sense and are thus devoid of any form of use whatsoever.”(7)

4. Peljhan, Technology

The development of Letatlin was supported by the pioneer Union of Societies of Assistance to Defence, Aviation and Chemical Construction of the USSR (OSOAVIAKhIM) from 1929 to 1932. Their campaign sought to awaken enthusiasm for flying, as well as popular support for the Soviet aviation industry.(8) A 1934 poster advertising a plenum of the communist party featured a portrait of Tatlin and a photo of Letatlin with OSOAVIAKhIM activists, under the title “The Inventor – the Foremost Combatant for the Most Modern Technology in National Defense.” In addition the poster also shows four other Soviet inventors with their militarily interesting, technological projects.(9)
This ideological appropriation of Letatlin reflects the Constructivists’ orientation toward socially important themes and tasks. Admittedly, art can only be an effective cross-genre, transgressive practice when employed in this kind of intervention in such fields of social agency.
A kindred transgressive artist is Marko Peljhan, born in Slovenia in 1969. Peljhan explicitly identifies Constructivism and Velimir Khlebnikov as important sources of inspiration for his own work. Since the mid-nineteen-nineties Peljhan’s projects have dealt with themes such as the technological infrastructure of telecommunications, and with climate research and geopolitics, through which he examines the aesthetics and politics of technological knowledge and practice.(10)
Between 2004 and 2007 Peljhan and his colleagues at Project ATOL worked on the small, unmanned flying machine C-Astral, a remote-controlled drone that can send live video images to a tracking station. C-Astral was built for purposes of civilian counter-intelligence; for instance, the plan is to use it at anti-globalization demonstrations, thus making it possible to critically observe police actions.
Peljhan argues that critical artists need to appropriate technology.11 He has been acknowledged in the art world (among other things, he was invited to exhibit at the documenta X in Kassel), as well as in science and technology circles. Moreover, at the University of California in Santa Barbara he does his own artistic research, as Tatlin did.

5. Hachiya, Freedom

When he was developing Letatlin, Tatlin mentioned that his son, Vladimir, ought to be the first one to fly the machine.(12) This was a pragmatic concession to the technical problem of how much weight the machine could be expected to bear. Yet, the remark also opens up the idea that Tatlin may have harbored a hope for a future, liberating usage of the “flying bicycle” by young people.
Whereas Panamarenko’s projects exclude the possibility of flight from the start, and Peljhan’s C-Astral is designed to be an unmanned drone, the project OpenSky 2.0 by the Japanese artist Kazuhiko Hachiya approximates TATLIN’s utopian instrumentation of technology. Hachiya has built a flying machine, MOEWE-02J, that is conceived as a mixture of functional glider and jet-propelled aircraft for one person.(13)
MOEWE-02J is an almost exact copy of the aircraft flown by the young heroine, Nausicaä, in the animated film of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki.(14) This machine helps the girl in the animé film to perform important, heroic rescues and gives her the same degree of freedom that Tatlin tried to achieve for the pilots of Letatlin. The fact that Myazaki’s animated film takes place in a harsh, post-apocalyptic future is less important to this interpretation than the fact that the film became embedded in the everyday pop culture life of its audience. By holding public flight demonstrations and exhibiting MOEWE-02J, Hachiya paid particular attention to making the aircraft accessible to children. The OpenSky 2.0 project expresses fantasies that also resonate in the photographs of Letatlin that were taken in 1933 at a glider show. And Hachiya’s attempts to turn Miyazaki’s fiction into reality (at least the reality of art), may have been inspired by the same sense of possibility that also fueled Tatlin.


1. Konstantin Umansky: "Der Tatlinismus oder die Maschinenkunst." In: Ararat (Flugblatt), München 1920. See Anatolii Strigalev in Zhadova 1988, pp. 40-41.
2. The fact that George Grosz, on his visit to Moscow, was disappointed by the Tatlin he met there, supports this theory of the difference between “TATLIN” and TATLIN. See ibid..
3. Quoted in Zhadova 1988, p. 415. TATLIN’s 1922 solution can also be understood along these lines: “Material culture! Down with Tatlinism! (ibid., p. 263).
4. For more on Tatlin’s work on Letatlin, see Anatolii Strigalev, “Die Flügel des Künstlers,” in Die Kunst des Fliegens, exh. cat., Zeppelin Museum, Friedrichshafen, 1996, pp. 125–33.
5. See newspaper article by A. Kut (January 10, 1933), quoted in Zhadova 1988, p. 336.
6. See Dirk Snauwaert, “Man, Machine, and (the Refutation of) Motion: Panamarenko,” in Robert Lehman Lectures (New York, 2009) vol. 4, pp. 29–42.
7. Felix Philipp Ingold: “Künstler und/oder Ingenieur. Zu Panamarenkos Flugstudien und Flugobjekten,” in: Panamarenko, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Basel, 1977, unpaginated. For more examples of artistic flying machines see, for example, the flying bicycles by Gustav Mesmer, Stelarc’s Movatar (2000), Anselm Kiefer’s Lead Plane, and Joost Conijn’s Vliegtuig (2000/2010).
8. See Jyrki Siukonen, Uplifted Spirits, Earthbound Machines: Studies on Artists and the Dream of Flight, 1900–1935 (Helsinki, 2001).
9. See Zhadova 1988, fig. p. 340.
10. See the projects Makrolab ( and Arctic Perspective Initiative (
11. See Marko Peljhan, “Situational Awareness,” in Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schöpf, eds., Ars Electronica 2007 (Ostfildern, 2007), pp. 196f.
12. See Zhadova 1988, p. 162.
13. See Kazuhiko Hachiya, OpenSky 2.0., InterCommunication Center, Tokyo, 2007.
14. Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, animé film, 1984.


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(Lüneburg/Berlin, 15.10.2012)

This is an abridged version (without a chapter about Stelarc), published in: Museum Tinguely (Hg.): Tatlin – New Art for a New World. International Symposium. Basel, 2013, p. 291-295; the abridged German version, p. 84-87, full German version here: Flugapparate; abridged Russ. version p. 188-191.

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