Pussy Riot, President Putin in frilly knickers, gallery and museum censorship, to say nothing of the widespread calls for a boycott of the upcoming 2014 Manifesta Biennale in St Petersburg in response to the recent anti-gay laws. These are the headline grabbing art stories coming out of Russia that have attracted the attention of international media. His successful diplomatic brokering between Syria and the US recently may have been a major coup, but there’s no doubt that Vladimir Putin is losing the soft power battle.
However, overshadowed by the sensational news stories is a vibrant and colourful contemporary art scene in Russia that may be less visible, but no less deserving of international attention and support. So, invited by my friend, performance artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich, to attend the preview of the 5th Moscow Biennale a couple of weeks ago, I cast aside any reservations I had and headed to Moscow, where I found myself thrown head first into the city’s still thriving and edgy art scene.
Moscow was showcasing scores of art events during biennale opening week, from small artists studio visits, to performances and big name openings, like Vadim Zakharov at TSUM, and John Baldessari at Garage Centre of Contemporary Culture. Our first visit, straight off the plane and still jet-lagged, was to Art Moskva, a smallish art fair now in its 17th year held in the late-Brezhnev Era Central House of the Artist. The focus this year under new Director, Eric Schlosser, was on younger artists from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Works were hung edge to edge in the crammed exhibition hall, vying for the attention of a sadly underwhelming number of people on opening night.
Unlike Chinese, Western or even South-East Asian art, according to Schlosser, Russian contemporary art has remained largely overlooked not just internationally, but locally as well, having only developed since the early ’90s perestroika period. “The main problem for Russian contemporary art today,” he explains, “is accessibility. If you’re not a part of this art world it’s difficult to have access to information, and a lot of people are intimidated by it”. It’s something he tried to address by introducing works priced no higher than USD$5,000 to attract younger collectors (although I did see works priced much higher), younger galleries, and more peripheral non-commercial exhibitions. Some wall sculptures resembling slices of tree trunks made of rolled-up newspapers and magazines by Pavel Brat at Moscow’s Triumph Gallery tickled my fancy, and a kinetic sculpture by Alexander Shiskin-Hokusai at Ural Vision Gallery appealed to my puerile sense of humour and attention deficit love of novelty. On the whole though, the fair was a mixed bag of quality with some less than inspiring paintings.
Schlosser mentioned a boxing match taking place in the exhibition hall downstairs; he wasn’t kidding. In the expansive hall there was indeed a boxing match in action, while perched on pillars nearby were two strapping buff topless boys in boxing shorts standing like Slavic Olympic gods. Umm … I’m guessing this was part of the “making art accessible” plan.
Later, back at our hotel, the historic art nouveau Metropol, we sat down to a welcome dinner with our host, Alexander Klyachin, and had the first of many vodkas with a coterie of Muscovite art-world luminaries including: curator and director of Moscow House of Photography Museum and Multimedia Art Museum, Olga Sviblova; British artist and architect Alex Schweder; and the stylish beautiful art couple, light-artist Margo Trushina and hubby Salavat Timiryasov. In the next room, a great glass-dome ball room that called to mind the imperial grandeur of the early 20th century, GQ Russia was throwing a party for its Man of the Year. Yet more beautiful people (Russia sure knows how to make them), with one glamorous couple upstaging Lisa Stansfield‘s performance with dancing that displayed more verve and sauciness then ever seen on ‘Dancing With the Stars’.
No time for a hangover as next morning it was an early breakfast — blinis and caviar of course (when in Moscow…) — with renowned Russian artist and academic Dmitry Gutov, who then took us on a tour of the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation‘s ‘Reconstruction’ exhibition, an overview of Russian art in the ’90s. It was fantastic and eye opening to see the creative explosion that emerged out of a period of such economic and political chaos. Artists like this year’s Russian representative for the Venice Biennale, Vadim Zakharov, Russia’s preeminent female artist Olga Chernysheva, and performance artist Oleg Kulik, were included in the show, giving us an insight into this influential and dynamic period in Russian art history. Artistically it was the ‘happiness epoch’, with cutting-edge anti-establishment art and performances that pushed boundaries and challenged accepted notions of art. “It was the beginning of an epoch full of hope”, explains Dmitry Gutov. “It was the most interesting time here. It was a new world then. Now we have no hope. We have Putin for another 30 years, no democracy, and not much support for contemporary art here”, he said.
The widely lamented notable lack of government-funded infrastructure and institutions for contemporary art in Moscow and St Petersburg, means that often private individuals — patrons, curators and artists — have had to step up as the main driver in building a vibrant contemporary art scene. Privately funded art spaces such as the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, Garage Centre of Contemporary Culture, and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design have been cropping up in Moscow in recent years. Winzavod, a former wine factory, is now a complex of artist-run galleries. Opened in Moscow in 2007, it was the passion project of advisor to the Culture Minister, Sofia Tretsenko, and her husband, businessman Roman Trotsenko. Until spaces like Winzavod were established, “There were no professionally designed spaces in Moscow where artists and the public could interact, and where contemporary art could be properly exhibited and sold”, states Trotsenko.
During the Biennale Winzavod featured a solo show by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, and a dozen gallery shows by Russian artists like Gosha Ostretsov, an artist who represented Russia at the 63rd Venice Biennale in 2009. As well as being an active exhibiting international artist, his gallery also showcases young and emerging Russian artists including Olga Bozhko, Petr Bystrov and Daria Krotova. I snuck out of lunch to take a quick tour of the works with Ostretsov as my guide. I had written a little piece about last year’s Russian contemporary art exhibition at the Saatchi in which Ostretsov was featured, so it was fantastic to finally meet him and chat about Russian contemporary art.
On our second evening we headed to Solyanka State Gallery, an artist-run space dedicated to video, performance and animation, now directed by Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich. Fyodor and six other artists were performing at the space as part of performance art collective, Artist’s Zoo, spending four hours every day for a week locked up in cages. When not in his own cage, Fyodor spent the other 20 hours wearing a black ram’s mask for the week in a performance that fused the public with the private. I found myself dining with and walking around Moscow at night with a black ram whose presence around guests at night caused consternation among the security detail of at least one prominent Muscovite.
Despite the various challenges posed by the current political and cultural landscape, the show, and main attraction, must go on. The 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, this year aptly titled ‘Bolshe Sveta’ (More Light), aims to promote “enlightened conversations”, states Belgian curator, Catherine de Zegher, encourage contemplation, and perhaps shine a little more light on contemporary art in Russia in a period that for many seems justifiably gloomy and uncertain. De Zegher pulled together works from over 70 international artists to fill the large appropriately light-filled space. Works by Mona Hatoum (Lebanon), Song Dong (China), Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia/US), and Russian artists like Victor Alimpiev, Valery Koshlyakov, Elena Kovylina and Dmitri Venkov, flowed or were weightlessly suspended throughout the Manezh space, a 19th century neo-classical former riding school. Many of these artists were shown for the first time in Russia.
Some of the installations were not yet finished by the preview night, and identifying some artists and the works was difficult due to the puzzling absence of labels. However, Song Dong’s installation was, as always, pretty hard to miss as the contents of his mother’s home sprawled out across a great part of the upper floor. Mona Hatoum’s delicate glass sphere spider-web was fragile beauty suspended overhead in the Manezh’s dimly-lit ground floor.
The space, whose history is one of tension between art and politics, came with predictable limitations on the public curatorial programme, reflected in the notable lack of provocative works. “Overly political subjects or work considered propaganda could not be shown”, explained Daria Khan, Educational Program Coordinator. “It’s very institutional due to the building’s closeness to the Kremlin and the corporate nature of the Manezh”, not to mention sponsorship from the Russian Ministry of Culture, who provided over half the $3 million budget. Organising a biennale under these circumstances brings inevitable compromise. Nonetheless, despite what some have criticised as an anodyne selection of works – – no sex, no violence, no overt politics — some thought-provoking works (must they be provocative?) were still to be found, such as 22 year old Moscow based Chechen artist, Aslan Gaisumov’s series of bullet pierced gates collected from across Chechnya. Irish artist Tom Molloy’s ‘Protest’ (2012), tiny photographic cutouts of protests from around the world — including the slogans ‘Does anybody know where my vote is?’ and ‘God hates fags’ — seemed rather apropos in the current political environment, but given its miniature size it was easily overlooked and got lost in the cavernous space. “Artists at the biennale are addressing controversial issues,” said de Zegher is an earlier interview with The Art Newspaper, “but they are in nobody’s face.”
De Zegher acknowledged references to Russia’s great avant-garde artist, Kazimir Malevich littered throughout the exhibition. As a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Futurist opera ‘Victory Over the Sun’, for which Malevich designed the costumes, was an installation by Valery Koshlyakov, a large cardboard carriage referencing the lines from the opera: ‘From the altitude of skyscrapers, as though uncontrollably, pour carriages’. And there was the curator’s decision to split the exhibition over two floors: one dark (a nod to Malevich’s 1915 painting ‘Black Square’), and one filled with light (‘White on White’, 1918). It was fitting that we also paid a visit to the New Tretyakov State Gallery where we took a detour from the contemporary to immerse ourselves in the work of Malevich and other Russian modern artists whose names are now well known to the Western audience. There was Vassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky. The focal point of the exhibition was Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, probably the most famous work of Russian art in the last century. “It’s our Mona Lisa”, commented one of my Russian friends.
John Baldessari’s first Russian solo exhibition, held at Garage’s new temporary premises in Gorky Park was a big talking point. In the current show, ‘1+1=1’, Baldessari reinterprets iconic art works from the 18th to 20th centuries, mining popular culture for inspiration and playing with the tension between image and text. Fragments of well-known works, like Warhol’s soup cans are combined with other works, and paired with titles from film noir, songs, or other artists’ names. The result is a wholly new work of art (thus the title ‘1+1=1’) for which the viewer creates new meaning. There was irony, there was humour, and he stood by his one time declaration that he would “make no more boring art”, as viewers amused themselves with a spot of ‘guess the reference’.
A private tour later that day of the Bolshoi Theatre, recently reopened after a six-year refurbishment that brings the theatre back to its original pre-Soviet opulence, provided a dose of breathtaking beauty and inspiration. It was the highlight of the trip. We had a tour backstage and onstage where the Opera de Paris corps de ballet was warming up for the upcoming performance of ‘Paquita’, and sat in the rarely seen red silk and gold adorned Tsar’s box where historically only the imperial family and guests were allowed to enter.
On the last night we were invited to dinner at a collector’s home where we were met at the door by a bit of tongue-in-cheek Russian humour. At the entry stood a bronze sculpture by Russian artist, Leonid Sokov, one of the original creators of the Sots Art movement (a Soviet version of Pop Art) of the 1970s: Lenin-meets-Giacometti in a clash of Soviet Realism and Western modernism. Inside, works by old masters, religious icons, and Western contemporary names like Anish Kapoor, Gerhard Richter, and John Currin hung alongside works by modern Russian greats like Viktor Popkov and El Lissitsky. It was a nice change from the ‘Instacollector’ phenomenon dominating art collections at the moment.
Contrasting with this sumptuous dinner and its environs was a visit straight afterwards to performance artist German Vinogradov‘s studio. Here we were welcomed by a menagerie of stuffed toy animals lining the hallway leading to the artist’s tiny flat-cum-studio. Stepping into a cluttered, dark, sage smoke-filled room, with nothing but a few candles illuminating it, we were met with a scene that resembled a shaman’s temple. Found-objects, like bits of metal, bones, feathers, figurines of Ded Moroz (Russia’s Father Frost), and car parts, hung from the ceiling, were clustered on altars, or were incorporated into his haunting, hypnotic music and sound performance (check out the video below). We listened in captivated silence as kittens ran underfoot in the darkness. It was an unexpected, surreal and moving end to our last night in the city, and it showed us that despite adversity, art prevails in Moscow, created in the most unlikely environments.
5TH MOSCOW BIENNALE: MORE LIGHT
Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, Moscow, until 20 October, 2013
Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, ‘Watermelons’, 2013, at Art Moskva
Performance artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich performing ‘My Face is on Vacation’ in the Artist’s Zoo at Solyanka State Gallery
The haunting music and shamanistic performance of Moscow artist German Vinogradov