GOING EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE
I: A MOSCOW MIRED IN MEMORIES
A BANNER was dangling from the giant triumphal portico of VDNKh, beneath the two collective farmworkers brandishing their bale of straw. It advertised the 6th Moscow Biennale – the number 6 allotted spiralling arms to resemble a Catherine Wheel. But the banner was challenged by a bigger hoarding wheeled on to the piazza below, blowing the trumpet of a separate festival called Circle of Light.
The Biennale’s main show was taking place just behind Lenin in VDNKh’s Central Pavilion (also known as Pavilion N°1), erected in 1954 and topped by a 350-foot spire modelled on the St Petersburg Admiralty.
The Biennale was meant to open at noon. I tried to find the entrance but couldn’t. There were no signs. No information about where and when the Biennale could be visited. Yuri Albert’s immortal line breezed through my mind: The Biennale cannot and will not take place. The 6th Moscow Biennale had been having well-publicized financial problems. Was it so bankrupt that it had ceased to exist, morphing instead into a Conceptualist joke?
VDNKh, six miles north of Red Square, was the sixth venue for the Moscow Biennale’s main exhibition. It had previously been held in the former Lenin Museum near Red Square; the under-construction Federation Tower at Moscow City; the newly restored Garage (now Jewish) Museum during its brief Abramovich/Zhukova tenancy; the renovated ArtPlay cultural and commercial complex; and, in 2013, the Manezh.
The choice of the vast, swanky Manezh, central Moscow’s leading venue for glitzy art shows and (increasingly political) blockbuster exhibitions, was a sign that the Moscow Biennale had lost its rough-and-ready cutting-edge and settled into smooth-production routine. In fact, the Biennale has been on the slide since 2009 and the decision to shift it from the depths of Winter – when it was tough, off-the-cuff and utterly Russian – to late September, when it became just another event on the overcrowded artworld treadmill. Many things make Russia appealing, but trying to be mainstream isn’t one of them.
VDNKh was conceived as an exhibition park either side of World War II, and extends over an area the size of Monaco, hosting seventy palatial buildings (modestly dubbed ‘Pavilions’) in an eclectic neo-classical style. Many were originally devoted to the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, with ‘indigenous’ architecture to match. The result is an effete photogenic time-warp, freshly restored to shimmering glory.
Until two years ago the pavilions hosted tacky stalls peddling merchandise that had fallen off lorries – cheap mobiles, bootleg CDs etc. Now the merchants have been swept from its wedding-cake temples to be replaced by bars, restaurants and hi-tec exhibitions. The spacious alleys, lined with trees, fountains and golden statues, have become Moscovites’ favourite weekend destination and, on a sunny afternoon, as patriotic 1950s songs blare from the tannoy and summer frocks flutter in the breeze, you could easily imagine yourself back in the USSR. It is charming, and a little spooky.
On this late September Sunday, with the Biennale’s main show having vanished into thin air, I visited VDNKh’s Pavilion N°13 to inspect a whimsical exhibition staged under the Biennale’s umbrella, East / Deconstruction: columns clothed in coloured cellophane, patterns made from upside-down piala bowls, and Anastasia Kachalova’s dangling cylinders of black fabric evoking stylized hijab veils.
The yellow-walled Grain Pavilion, opened in 1939 but granted an Art Deco tower in 1954, was housing a twee photo exhibition entitled Friendship of Nations – all the nations, coincidentally, being former members of the USSR. I was more impressed by the intricately painted flowers and plants on the pavilion’s frosted glass windows. The cathedral-sized Cosmos Pavilion at the far end of the park with its majestic iron-and-glass dome was housing a parade of vintage automobiles that seemed designed to prove that anything the Yanks could do, the Commies did better.
By now, back at Central Pavilion, Alexander Kutovoy was busy at the top of the steps on a half-finished clay effigy entitled The End of Modernism in Russia, and the Moscow Biennale had finally opened its doors.
Inside, a ballerina was practising in front of mirrors-on-wheels; an artist was dashing off monochrome portraits of visitors; Els Dietvorst’s assistants were putting the finishing teeth (roughly-hewn wooden figures) to her sackcloth Skull; and a poster-like image entitled Centre of Eurasia by Almagul Menlibayeva, one of the world’s most sophisticated video artists, had been strung up on scaffolding 15 feet off the ground, like some sort of advertisement. Scaffolding was everywhere you looked.
I reached for the Biennale’s 384-page catalogue to try and make sense of it all.
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, in his Welcome Address, announced that it had ‘been decided to significantly expand the scope of the Biennale.’ Really?
Commissioner Joseph Backstein placed that remark in context. ‘The curators’ he declared in his Foreword ‘have made a considered decision to place the accent on the Discussion section of the programme.’
In other words: Less Art, More Waffle.
Next up was a 12-page spiel from the Biennale’s trio of international curators. Then one of them, Bart de Baere, director of the arid contemporary art museum in Antwerp, was let loose for another 16 pages to pontificate about ‘Eurasia.’ Then there was an essay on ‘Moon Time’ (sic) by someone I had never heard of, inanely concluding that ‘the kinds of activity and process proposed for VDNKh have their own logic.’
The Catalogue did not get around to Art until Page 120. It was, like the Biennale’s central show, entitled How to Gather? Acting in a Centre in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.
Rarely has such a torrent of drivel been spouted in 20 words.
Now 70, Commissioner Backstein – the name and title trill off the tongue like Sergeant Bilko or Inspector Maigret – has become the dinosaur of Russian contemporary art. He has run out of money, run out of ideas, and is running out of credibility. This convivial cove deserves an honourable retirement, with loads of medals for decades of stalwart and, in olden times, inspired service.
The Moscow Biennale ran – blink and you’d missed it – from September 22-October 1. Ten days that did not shake the artworld.
But I was not unduly dismayed by my encounter with Central Pavilion. One of the worst things about any Moscow Biennale is the pick-and-mix smorgasbord internationalism of its main exhibition.
The best thing about the Moscow Biennale is the plethora of side-shows that happen in its wake, for which the Biennale tries to steal the credit by assigning them to such vacuous categories as Special Projects, Parallel Programme or Collateral Events. The Biennale catalogue listed 70 satellite shows in all.
These shows happen all across Moscow, often in places far from any Metro or even bus stop. But there were two just around the corner from the Central Pavilion, down an alley along which I had failed to venture on any of my previous half-dozen visits to VDNKh. The venue was the Kinopanorama, a circular cinema built in 1959.
The main show here – a tidy but drab array of dull-toned photos and paintings – failed to exploit the spectacular architecture, unlike Svetlana Shuvayeva’s subtle display of dummies in chintz dresses, inspired by the 1996 Czech film Margaritki. These dummies were placed at regular intervals along the glass-windowed corridor around the hall’s circumference. The dresses, sewn by Shuvayeva herself and embroidered with her own neo-Constructivist designs, hovered between flimsy vulgarity and Soviet chic – uncannily in sync with the mood of VDNKh.
A star, in Shuvayeva, is born, but who can save the Moscow Biennale? Probably only Dasha Zhukova – but she has kept her distance since 2009, when she hosted the main show at the Garage but was not asked to co-curate. Meanwhile she has had other priorities, like revamping Gorky Park. I headed there next.
Zhukova’s latest Garage opened in June, 600 yards from its temporary predecessor. It is abundantly sign-posted, just as well because the rectangular blockhaus conjured up by Rotterdam’s Rem Koolhaas is so austerely minimalist you could pass right in front of it without noticing (especially as the entrance is round the back).
The New Garage began life as a 1960s restaurant called Времена Года (The Seasons). Koolhaas has ignored the original ground-floor arcades and panoramic upper windows to clad the whole shebang in silvery polycarbonate – creating a sleek, monotonous, anaemic contrast to the flashy ostentation of today’s new Moscow buildings.
The best thing about the New Garage is the restaurant. For just over a fiver you can enjoy humus with peppers, cucumber, pitta bread and a glass of Russian white. This is a nice surprise. Russian bars and restaurants rarely sell Russian wine or beer, even though Russia has admirable vineyards and excellent breweries. Fancy a Baltika or a Nevskoye? No chance. All they serve in ‘smart places’ is eurodrizzle like Heineken or Carlsberg.
Upstairs was Vadim Zakharov’s Postscript After RIP: A Video Archive of Moscow Artists’ Exhibitions 1989-2014, consisting of 26 plastic coffins (one per year) arranged in rows, each containing a screen showing grainy video footage of Moscow artists arriving at exhibitions, talking to each other at exhibitions, and drinking together at exhibitions. The Stakhanovist Zakharov chronicled 230 group and solo exhibitions in all. The result is tedious beyond imagining – shattering fond beliefs that these artists were heroically and rebelliously disinterested rather than narcissistically aware of their own importance.
The New Garage had opened with a bigger bang: a wide-ranging and superbly displayed exhibition devoted to Louise Bourgeois that continues through 7 February 2016. The other international superstar in town as a ‘Special Guest’ of the Moscow Biennale was Anish Kapoor, with works at the ‘original’ Garage (now Jewish Museum) through January 17. But (a) I hadn’t come to Moscow to see Anish Kapoor, (b) the Garage is a pain to get to (Metro, walk, tram); and (c) I’d already seen Kapoor in the Garage anyway, during the Moscow Biennale of 2009.
My next stop was the Manezh – where a Biennale Special Project entitled Our Land/Alien Territory occupied the basement. The Manezh is so vast a space that not even works by 30 international artists can fill it, although America’s Dan Peterman had a go, littering the floor with hundreds of sandbags camouflaged as cushions. Nearby were pieces of furniture dangling from wire, a map of Transnistria and some photos of Putin.
Two works stood out: Kristina Romanova’s ingenious glass-print installation on Abkhazia; and Parallax, a bewitching three-channel video by Pakistan’s Shahzia Sikander, first shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013. This offered an essentially abstract contrast to the other blockbuster video being screened in town: AES+F’s Inverso Mundus at OIga Sviblova’s Multimedia Art Centre. I had seen Inverso Mundus at the Venice Biennale in May and, while admiring its trademark technical wizardry and classical soundtrack, been unwowed by its failure to break new ground. AES+F are starting to parody AES+F.
Meanwhile the main hall at the Manezh was hosting an exhibition commemorating Seventy Years of the Russian Nuclear Industry, subtitled (with a modesty that former inhabitants of Chernobyl might find hard to stomach) A Chain Reaction Of Success. Among its ‘unique documents and exhibits’ were a bust of Stalin on a desk beneath a portrait of Lenin; a map of Russia threatened by American bombers from all directions, whose lasting political message was all too obvious; and the AN-302 hydrogen bomb detonated in 1961. This ‘most powerful weapon in human history’ was the most popular spot in the show: the perfect backcloth for selfies and kiddy photos.
Not so long ago – during the short-lived directorship of Marina Loshak (2012/13) – the Manezh seemed to be carving out an identity as an innovative cultural venue rather than a haven for propaganda. But in Summer 2013 Loshak was promoted to become Head of the Pushkin Museum (the Moscow Louvre), where her background in modern art was evident during the Biennale, both inside – with a show of openwork metal versions of Rembrandt works by the indefatigable Dmitry Gutov – and out. The museum’s colonnaded façade was fronted by Alexander Ponomaryov’s Windtruvian Man: an installation of giant red-and-blue windsocks powered into permanent erection, like guns of war symbolically targeting… Mariupol, perhaps? Or maybe the Kremlin.
The Pushkin is also home (until November 29) to a magnificent exhibition devoted to the Paris immigré artists Pascin & Foujita, curated by Benoît Sapiro of Galerie Le Minotaure. Highlight is a trio of large, boldly colourful paintings by Pascin, lent by French private collectors and never seen in public. Of specific Russian interest is a section on Pascin’s influence over Moscow artists, notably Tatiana Mavrina (1900-96).
Smart museums are all very well, but for Contemporary Art you can’t beat a grungy, inaccessible venue where anything goes. That’s how next day I found myself outside Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro station, admiring its elephantine outcrop of Socialist Realist demonstrators, before plodding down a windswept boulevard and getting lost in pursuit of a derelict textiles plant called Trekhgornaya Manufaktura. I slumped into a café, or tried to; the entry turned out to be a small room with large front window and a pretty young lady lolling over her nails like an Amsterdam pro. She looked up languidly, pressed a button and the bookcase behind her span open to reveal a spiral staircase.
The elusive Trekhgornaya Manufaktura was not on the street given as its address (a not uncommon occurrence in Moscow), in fact it was not on any street at all, but buried in an industrial complex in the throes of gentrification, i.e. with karaoke lounge and Irish pub. I had missed the entrance by about 400 yards.
The exhibition was called Nadezhda (Hope) and had been put together by Simon Mraz, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow. I had been tipped off about this unfindable show by Donatien de Rochambeau, Kitai Gorod’s favourite French aristocrat, chef and comic-strip specialist. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only person there.
But most of Nadezhda involved views of Russian industrial cities by Russian and foreign photographers. Blow-ups created a bit of ambiance, but most of the images would have looked just as good in a magazine. The use of flattened corrugated iron as the background for some photographs looked magnificent, but having to enter some galleries through a turnstile seemed weird
I was about to leave, somewhat underwhelmed, when I stumbled across a hall in the back corner of the factory hidden away like Aladdin’s cave. With the factory walls left bare and in shadow, the focus was on the concrete floor, rusting green pillars, and two sweeping white partitions at right-angles to one another, one embellished with folded sheets of aluminium by Andreas Fogarasi.
A Revolving Door in steel, plaster and Indian ink, by fellow-Austrian Cäcilia Brown, hung between two pillars; a mohair tapestry, by Holland’s Susanne Kriemann, between two more. This was called Ruda (iron ore), and portrayed a ‘future relief’ of the industrial hell-hole of Magnitogorsk.
I finally twigged that the show’s Nadezhda title was sarcastic, and that Mraz was targeting the hopelessness of Russia’s industrialized excess.
Dominating the hall was Norilsk Substance by Dmitry Kawarga: a grungy mass of twisted grey and black rags and tubing, symbolizing the 280 miles of tunnelling at Norilsk in northern Siberia – a ‘closed city’ until as recently as 2001 whose mine, as Kawarga specified in an accompanying note, was worked by 300,000 Gulag inmates. Kawarga’s shambling monstrosity, about the size of a small car, was topped by a whimsical plastic roof and lent unusual colour by orange wire and turquoise rods.
A couple of green and orange puddles had formed alongside, as if the monster had sprung a leak. An attendant seeped out from nowhere to refuel the artwork with a large bottle of mineral water. Within a few minutes the puddles started to grow, looking more toxic than ever.
Offering a clinical contrast, just a few feet away, were rows of Mondrian-like coloured geometric patterns on white canvases of diminishing sizes: stylized street views of Vyksa, a small steelworks town east of Moscow, by Mish-Mash (Misha Leykin & Masha Sumnina). I have had my eye on these unsung superstars of Russian art for some time: everything they do is as cerebral, coherent and deceptively imaginative as a Bach fugue.
The ‘Kawarga Room’ was infinitely superior to the Biennale’s Central Pavilion at VDNKh, with its ballerina and tatty scaffolding. I don’t suppose many of Commissioner Backstein’s VIPs made it out to Trekhgornaya, though.
Another Biennale show was taking place in more genteel surrounds – the Decorative Arts Museum on Delegatskaya, a mecca for Russian lacquer-work and Soviet porcelain. Intervention required contemporary artists like Konstantin Zvezdochotov or Ira Korina to sneak their own works among existing museum displays, and blend in with/ aesthetically challenge venerable artworks decades or centuries old.
Zvezdochotov (born 1958) rose to prominence in the 1980s, but another – and undoubtedly greater – Non-Conformist shirked the limelight, and had never come to my attention: Boris Kocheyshvili (born 1940), whose works have a sort of a mystical figurativism that defies categorization. He is being rescued from comparative oblivion by Tamara Vyekhova, who had laid on an enthralling non-Biennale exhibition in the foyer of the theatre of the School of Dramatic Art – a building of rare post-Soviet wit, designed by Anatoly Vasiliev and Igor Popov, opened in 2001.
The effervescent Vekhova recently opened Здесь (‘Here’) Gallery in an ugly 1970s block across Prechistinka from Zurab Tsereteli’s Academy of Art. I have passed the building dozens of times but never looked at, let alone ventured in. It houses a number of galleries. Vekhova’s, with its low ceiling, dark wood panelling and mezzanine office-space, is unexpectedly cosy. Its donnish, Old English feel makes it well-suited to the art talks and wine-tastings Vekhova hosts for her discerning clientèle.
An even newer addition to the Moscow gallery scene is Artwin, opened in February by Mariana and Madina Gogova. The twins had already staged several shows in temporary spaces before opening their 130m2 gallery close to the Turandot and Café Pushkin restaurants (Maison Dellos, which runs both, is the gallery’s ‘strategic partner’). Yet fears that the fashion-sistas would pander to tussovka taste appear unfounded. During the 6th Moscow Biennale Artwin laid on a show of wit and subtlety devoted to three young artists. Called Inside An Event, it featured Alexei Mandych’s Animal Farm Symphony, comprising sixty digital watches on metal rods all showing the same time; Alexei Korsi’s Celestial Chancellery – a permanently smouldering cigarette; and a mesmerizing 10-minute video of men and women in a hauntingly lit Pool by Polina Kanis, who shot to prominence at the wonderful First Cadets Corpus group show in St Petersburg last year.
Artwin or Artone? Perhaps the gallery should be renamed, because last May Madina Gogova was appointed Culture Minister of her native republic, Karachay-Cherkessia in Russia’s northern Caucasus, leaving Mariana to go it alone. That hasn’t stopped the gallery opening a new exhibition space in Baku, or pursuing their interests across the Caspian. In August the versatile Olya Kroitor, Artwin’s flagship artist, performed Fulcrum outside Almaty railway station, standing motionless on top of a 15-foot pole for two-and-a-half hours. The Gogovas – who staged an excellent Oksana Mas show in Almaty a year ago – also work with two of Kazakhstan’s finest artists, Almagul Menlibayeva and Gulnur Mukazhanova.
It was in Almaty last year that I first met Dmitry Shorin. I had encountered his paintings at a solo show in St Petersburg’s Marble Palace in 2008, and saw a whole lot more in 2013, when reporting on Erarta Galleries. His slick brushwork and eye-easy subjects – usually teenage girls – mark him down as St Petersburg’s one-man answer to Dubosarsky & Vinogradov. He also produces plastic angels with aeroplane-wings, which Erarta use as mascots in their international outlets, and which even adorn St Petersburg’s new Pulkovo Airport. But I enjoy Shorin’s company, so one dark evening I tracked down Marina Obratsova’s Fine Art Gallery near Mayakovskaya (seven blocks and 600 yards from its boulevard address) for the opening of 2Я, his latest show. By the time I arrived all the vodka had been drunk, for which I hold Dima largely responsible, but there were still lots of aeroplanes and lots of girls – one with propellers in her hair.
For sheer quirkiness, however, even the great Shorin was outshone by a private performance by the Stas Namin Theatre of the legendary 1913 Suprematist opera Victory Over The Sun, laid on at the Udarnik cinema by dealer Vladimir Frolov and oil-pipeline tycoon Shalva Breus (one-time boss of the late lamented Art Chronika). The performance (which premièred in Switzerland during this year’s Art Basel) had incredible gusto and Ubuesque anarchy, featuring Malevich costumes and Matyushin music played on two electric keyboards by young ladies facing the front of the stage. One of them got shot during the performance and was temporarily replaced by one of the actresses, who played the keyboard back-to-front on her knees with sublime nonchalance.
In contrast, the mood at the marble-floored Ekaterina Foundation is seldom less than hushed and sedate. As usual Ekaterina were contributing a couple of shows to the Biennale off programme. Downstairs was an uplifting little exhibition of psychedelic trees and snowboarders by Viktoriya Malkova & Polina Moskvina, irrelevantly entitled Suspense and marred only by an installation involving a dummy and a snowboard stuck in some polystyrene snow.
Some canvases were playfully hung at right-angles in the room corners.
Upstairs there was more of the narcissism witnessed at the Garage. Scenes From Russian [read Moscow] Art Life 1986-1992 involved a roomful of newspaper cuttings; cordoned-off galleries resembling rooms in an attic, piled with works of art that may or may not have been authentic; and a hall lined with grey banners every few feet jokily marked ISKUNSTVO, fluttering above black-and-white photos of old exhibitions for which Joseph Backstein’s curatorship was repeatedly thanked on large-lettered plaques. The historical theme echoed Elena Selina’s far superior exhibition Reconstruction at the Ekaterina Foundation in 2013, which comprehensively revisited the emergence of the Russian [read Moscow] contemporary art scene through reconstituted gallery displays and original artworks.
The final Scenes exhibit was a grey board displaying 61 oval mugshots beneath a banner reading Rebyata c Nashego Dvora (‘Kids from our Block’). This was meant to be a parody of an old-style Soviet group photo, but the humour got lost in the self-importance and the hierarchy, with Kabakov, Bulatov, Vasiliev, Chuikhov and Nekrasov forming the top row. There were 59 artists in all, plus two curators: Backstein high up, Erofeyev low down. I fear the rankings may have provoked more than a little confraternal jealousy.
It irks me to see the Non-Conformists conforming to the dictates of vanity, image-consciousness and self-glorification – whatever the art historical interest of the documentary material dredged up for this type of exhibition (though it would be far more useful in a book). There is a prevalent mood of nostalgia that seems to herald the end of a happier and more adventurous era; I was reminded of the giant 1985 photograph in the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, pointing out – or rather boasting – that four of the Moscow Conceptualists featured on it had since been officially canonized, i.e. selected to represent Russia [read Moscow] in the Giardini.
Like the Ekaterina Foundation, Vinzavod – site of a former industrial winery – opened in 2007 and has been the city’s major contemporary art complex ever since, hosting both galleries and non-commercial exhibitions. Strangely it has never been the main venue of the Biennale. I suspect politics and egos have much to do with that, and the fact that biennales are run by curators and museum-people, who tend to consider themselves morally superior to gallery-owners. The organizers of this year’s Moscow Biennale, for instance, made no attempt to contact Alex Sharov, boss of 11.12 Gallery – the only gallery present in both Moscow and Asia (Singapore). No one would have been better placed then Sharov to contribute to or advise a Russian event based on the concept of ‘Eurasia.’
Vinzavod staged two exhibitions as part of this year’s Moscow Biennale. Its Lower Hall had a messy, disparate show called Leaving Tomorrow that looked as if it had been put together by first-year A-level students – although I thank its bloated pink pig for memories of Pink Floyd and Battersea Power Station.
But there was a superb exhibition in the Upper Hall: No Time, underwritten by the Sorokin Foundation and imaginatively curated by Vladimir Logutov with V-shaped and diagonal walls. Despite the odd photograph or installation (including one by the versatile Sveta Shutayeva), the emphasis was on paintings – both by reasonably established artists (Valery Chtak, Vlad Yurashko, Valentin Tkach, Pavel Otdelnov) and emerging ones: Vladimir Potapov, Kirill Garshin and Leonid Tskhe.
I have known Vinzavod in buoyant mood at weekends, but there was a glum, half-empty feel on this Autumn Sunday, not helped by several galleries (XL, Pechersky, Proun) being closed, and another (Pop-Off) open but unmanned. Gallery 21 had some thoughtful photographs by the Russo-Swedish Natasha Dahnberg; Regina amber-encrusted Scythian-inspired carvings by Evgeny Anutfiev; and Triangle colourful works by Evgeny Kukoverov.
But 11-12 had the best show, involving Vasily Slonov’s facetious iron head-dresses and his axes engraved with Russian leaders. Slonov surged to notoriety in 2013, when his irreverent Sochi Olympics posters were displayed by Marat Guelman in Perm – prompting Guelman’s sacking as head of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art.
Guelman’s Vinzavod gallery Z + L was showing recent, more demure, works by the prolific Natalia Nesterova, whose style has hardly changed for decades. Guelman was back in the news on October 27, announcing that his Vinzavod gallery was being shut down in response to the charity auction it hosted on October 18 in aid of people jailed for taking part in an anti-Putin rally.
Guelman received immediate support from the London-based Russian collector Igor Tsukanov, who wrote to Vinzavod owner Sofia Trotesnko urging her to back down and promising to act as a ‘guarantor’ that the gallery would continue to ‘stage exhibitions and serve as a small island of cultural freedom’ (Guelman was also accused of using his Vinzavod premises as an advice centre for would-be emigrants to Montenegro, where he now lives).
Tsukanov’s noble efforts proved to no avail. Sofia’s billionaire husband Roman is close to Moscow’s political élite, and relations with Guelman have frayed beyond repair. Guelman has no plans to open another space in the capital. ‘It’s not a good time to start anything new in Moscow’ he observes drily.
Art censorship in Russia used to seem more religious than political, perpetrated less by the Kremlin than the Orthodox Church. It was religious zealotry (spiced with in-house jealousy) that did for Erofeyev at the New Tretyakov in 2008. But as Russia grows ever-more totalitarian, with its zombie-box media peddling propaganda of puerile dishonesty, art is inevitably in the political firing-line. The situation has worsened dramatically since the presidential ‘election’ of 2012.
In 2013, just after Guelman was downed in Perm, police closed a St Petersburg exhibition by Konstantin Altunin due to its unflattering images of leading politicians. The artist fled to France. Meanwhile respected curator Katya Degot learnt she was considered a potential extremist because she had taught Pussy Riot’s Ekaterina Samutsevich at the Rodchenko Art School.
Last year I experienced political pressure myself. In early 2014 one of Moscow’s leading galleries asked me to recommend an East European artist for a show commemorating the centenary of World War One. I suggested a truculent Romanian with a powerful graphic style. His works criticized various wars, including that in Chechnya, and lampooned a number of warlords, including Putin. But the gallery’s ‘international curator’ – a young woman with beautiful English, limited artworld experience and a gloating delight in the recent annexation of Crimea – took exception to the work featuring Putin, and to an anti-Putin comment the artist had made in my catalogue interview with him. Out they went.
When I expressed my disquiet to the gallery owner, he insisted that censorship was not gallery policy and that the work (and comment) would be reinstated (they weren’t). ‘But come on,’ he concluded mockingly, ‘is Putin really such a bad guy?’
The only place you are allowed to answer that question honestly is outside the country. For instance, at this year’s Venice Biennale, where the main show in the Arsenale, All The World’s Futures, saw St Petersburg’s Gluklya express some hometruths on poles bearing Clothes for Demonstrators against a Phoney Election – including this pair of trousers with their embroidered call for a Россия без Путина (Russia Without Putin).
Culture, in today’s Russia, is a matter not of the Future but the Past – a vehicle for State propaganda in classic Communist tradition. Three Moscow shows rammed home that point last year. Within weeks of the annexation, ArtPlay was hosting an exhibition of jolly photos of Russian leaders from Nicholas II to Putin, all enjoying themselves in Nash Krim (‘Our Crimea’). The art collection of the Russian Interior Ministry – full of 21st century Socialist Realist paintings of gun-toting ‘Polite People’ – went on show at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And Myth of the Beloved Leader, in the former Lenin Museum, displayed roomfuls of sculptures, portraits, posters and ‘artworks’ glorifying Lenin and Stalin – with both given equal billing.
This year’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II have offered fresh opportunities to eulogize Stalin – while concealing his cosying-up to the Nazis in 1939 (via the Ribbentrop Pact) and his catastrophic failure to heed intelligence about imminent Nazi invasion in 1941. I was not surprised when Moscow’s Gulag Museum, where Stalin got it in the chops, was shut down earlier this year. Although it has just reopened in a different spot, I doubt its collection of savagely accusatory paintings – notably those of former Gulag inmate Nikolai Getman, led by his view of a Stalin-surveyed camp in Magadan – will have survived the move unscathed.
VDNKh’s lavish recent restoration, while architecturally laudable, was motivated primarily by its associations with USSR glory days under Stalin. The choice as the focal venue of this year’s Moscow Biennale of its Central Pavilion – whose epic plaster frieze by Evgeny Vuchetich, Glory to the Soviet People, has become a high altar of a nationalist nostalgia – cannot, therefore, be viewed as anything other than political, and the same applies to its ‘Eurasian’ theme. Forget Peter the Great’s ‘Window on the West’: today’s Russia looks east to China (or south to Syria) rather than to Europe, where its only friends are Berlusconi and Transnistria.
On that happy note, I left Moscow and headed East. First, along the Guelman Trail, to Perm. Thence to Ekaterinburg, beyond the Urals, in search of Eurasia.
All images are courtesy of the author.