Arts: Retouched by the hand of God

...or at least by Stalin's ideologues. But is it art? The composer Michael Nyman thinks so and has set it to music.
In a cool, quiet house on a busy main road stands an extraordinary memorial to the Soviet Union's "disappeared". In filing cabinets, across bookshelves, mounted on the walls, Stalinist Russia's political ghosts, banished from the multifarious falsified histories of the period, at last have a home. Oddly, it's in Islington, north London. David King - ex-Sunday Times magazine art editor and self-confessed leftist politics/art obsessive - lives there too, and earns a living from this formidable collection of Soviet-era photographs.

It was almost 30 years ago when King first came across the phenomenon of the Soviet Union's extraordinary policy of deletion. In a -30C Moscow February, looking for pictures of Trotsky for a piece he was writing about the revolution, he was repeatedly met with questioning stares. Why did he want pictures of Trotsky? Of course they didn't have any; Trotsky wasn't important. Stalin was important.

With Francis Wyndham, King assembled the first photographic biography of Trotsky; and the journey began there. Three decades of detective work in Russia and Eastern Europe resulted in 1997's The Commissar Vanishes, a book that brings to light an astonishing history of photographic falsification, from careful retouching to the crude carving out of ostracised officials.

The Commissar Vanishes is an extraordinary document. A sinister catalogue of obsessive acts, it's a portrait of a nation where the mutilation of books made the revision of history a weekly activity; where bookshops were visited by officials with scalpels and lists of names; where paranoid citizens scribbled over the faces of disgraced officials; and where photographic printers were ordered to remove and then replace politicians in official photographs depending on their state of grace. It would almost be funny, were it only from the printed page that these figures went missing.

King's trips to investigate archive material and the fate of the blotted out officials took place in pre-Gorbachev Russia. At his house, surrounded by the ghosts of Stalinism, he denies that it was a dangerous way to spend his holidays.

"Everyone was terribly nice to me," he says, and then pauses. "Well, no they weren't actually, I just say they were. They wanted you to stay there for as short a time as possible, and then leave. Anybody you saw privately was responsible for telling the authorities that they'd seen you; and lots of times strange visitors would turn up while I was having meetings with people. They'd be introduced as a teacher or someone, but they obviously weren't. But it's amazing, since the collapse, the amount of stuff that people have sent me, that they'd collected, hidden away, at considerable personal risk."

The book is not just a feat of scholarship. In its own eerie and grotesque way - the vanishing and reappearing figures, the faces crudely scribbled across, the smiling, trusted political colleagues there one moment, scalpeled out of history the next - it's art too.

David King, with his background in photography and design, has always seen the material as emotionally evocative. And it must have been on composer Michael Nyman's mind when he contacted King to ask if he could use some of the images to accompany a piece of music. During a series of meetings, King pulled out the pictures that seemed to work best with Nyman's score; groups of photographs in various states of political transformation, with figures coming and going - powerful visual imagery that will work without the need for commentary or explanation. Film-maker Christopher Kondek then visited King's Islington base to make videos from the photographic stills. When the three come together at the Barbican this week, King's chosen photographs will come to life, shifting their content before the audience's eyes.

King explains: "I asked, can I hear my book in the music; and if so, which bits. I found this grinding dark short part of it (which I've got them to repeat through) - it's a terrifying bit - all Ivan the Terrible - and goes terribly well with the Rodchenko blocked-out heads. The first part is a kind of Stalinistic up-beat, cheerful thing which is the scene setter, so most of the material used with that is not from the book, but it's real Stalinist propaganda. From there it goes into the purges and the retouches and the blocked-out faces.

"Initially it was 70, 80 minutes long, which I protested against. It was too long to sit in an arts centre viewing Stalin's crimes. Forty-five minutes is quite long enough. We didn't want suicides."

It's a little disappointing then to discover that the music wasn't composed specifically for this collaboration. Michael Nyman's score for The Commissar Vanishes was first heard 10 years ago as The Fall of Icarus, a full-length dance piece, and continues a process of reorganisation and recycling (elements of Icarus had themselves been rescued from previous works).

But the evolution from Icarus to The Commissar Vanishes is a fairly comfortable one: a shimmering inception followed by the rapid onset of disaster provide a logical emotional direction for both the Icarus story and that of Soviet ideals turned wretched. And, in any case, it is a highly effective and focused piece of music, in which the tools of minimalism work to produce something that is both captivating and oppressive at the same time.

The Commissar Vanishes is the half-way point in the Barbican's Only Connect festival. And this intriguing work - the product of three different sensibilities, as well as countless uncredited photographic retouchers, artists and political hatchet men, fits the cross-cultural, multi-media bill very well indeed.

Still to come, Diamanda Galas (9 December) will pay tribute to some of the victims of her native Greece's own past political turmoils, with texts by a number of exiled poets from around the world. And to complete the series, an extraordinary coming together of talents will see composer Louis Andriessen (10 December) in a collaboration with graphic designer Peter Saville, photographer Nick Knight and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The evening will also include the UK premiere of Peter Greenaway's M is For Man, Music, Mozart, with Andriessen's score performed live.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, N1, David King is, despite the remains of a bout of 'flu that turned a recording for Radio 4's Front Row into something like a Fast Show sketch, in an elated mood. He has just heard that his book will be published for the first time in Russia; and his touring exhibition will visit six towns in Russia and Siberia. It's an important event. Interest in the project builds the closer it gets to the Russian border (a gallery in Budapest that had never had more than 3,000 visitors to an exhibition before counted 10,000 through its doors for The Commissar Vanishes); and the extent to which the photographic retouching and de-facing took place is still a surprise to the majority of the Russian people. But wasn't it obvious? If the Soviet authorities had wanted to fool the people, rather than scare them, wouldn't they have made a better job of it?

King leans forward. "I'll tell you something that's absolutely astonishing. In China, when Mao died, at his funeral there was a photograph taken of all the bureaucrats in a long, long line. But there were four carefully retouched blanks in the picture - the Gang of Four. Underneath, in the caption to the picture, they laboriously listed everybody, a name and then a comma. When it got to the Gang of Four, there were three x's, comma, then three x's comma... Amazing. They wanted you to know that they'd gone, and this was a warning: this is what you're going to get, if you don't watch out."

`The Commissar Vanishes' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) on Thursday. `The Commissar Vanishes/The Fall of Icarus' is on Virgin Records