A CONTEMPORARY ART FAIR in a neo-Classical trade-hall begun under Catherine the Great. Sounds crazy. Looks stunning.

Cosmoscow ran September 7-10 in Gostiny Dvor, two minutes’ walk from Red Square, and across the road from the Stary Anglisky Dvor (Old English Court) granted to London’s Muscovy Company by Ivan The Terrible in October 1555.

On a global fairs circuit dominated by giant tents and soulless sheds, Gostiny Dvor is a magnificently atypical venue. Only the Grand Palais, home to FIAC in Paris and similarly cloaked by a glass roof, can compare for grandeur. But not for atmosphere. Cosmoscow has it licked. The building does the trick.

You arrive from the street to find the Fair spread out at your feet. Gostiny Dvor is a giant architectural illusion. You think you’re on ground-level but you’re up in the gods. As central Moscow tumbles down towards the River Moscova, Gostiny Dvor’s ground-level entrance seagues into a soaring balcony, circling the Fair arena and transforming it into a theatre for contemporary art. You must descend a grand staircase, like the Tsar opening a Ball, for the show to begin.

Cosmoscow has been held in Gostiny Dvor for the last three years. The market has changed since its first, one-off edition in the converted Red October chocolate factory in 2010, when ‘buyers were very spontaneous, with not a lot of experience’ recalls Founding Director Margarita Pushkina. ‘Now they talk to the gallerists, know artists, and follow what’s going on.’

Since 2015 Pushkina has rented Gostiny Dvor (the ‘biggest space in central Moscow’) on an annual basis. She is hoping to clinch a longer contract in order to fix the Fair’s dates for the long-term; those for 2018 are still not decided, although the Fair is expected to stay in early/mid-September.

Dates matter. The first Cosmoscow, which Pushkina helped launch with Moscow dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko and German gallerist Volker Diehl, took place in December. Too close to Christmas. Ovcharenko was keen to try May, which Pushkina opposed due to its plethora of public holidays and proximity to Art Basel (and, in alternate years, the Venice Biennale). She prefers September when, grumbles Ovcharenko, people are back from Summer holidays and not feeling flush. Pushkin says it’s the start of the social and business year, with the mood dynamic and people relaxed. She adds that it makes good sense (especially for foreign visitors) for Cosmoscow to overlap with the Moscow Biennale, which opens in September in odd years. ‘Our aim is to make the Russian scene more united and better organized,’ she declares. But this was impossible in 2017 because the Biennale was incapable of finalizing its start-date (September 18) until the last minute.

Moscow Septembers are erratic – veering this year from cold and wet to a sultry, sunny 24° – but the city was heaving during Cosmoscow as Moscow celebrated its 870th Anniversary (sic). The city centre was closed to traffic, with police checkpoints for pedestrians every few hundred yards. It was feared Fair attendance would suffer. Didn’t seem that way. Cosmoscow racked up 19,000 visitors over three days and felt busy throughout. The Thursday night vernissage attracted over 3,000 – including heavy-hitters like Peter Aven, Inna Bazhenova, Shalva Breus, Masha Baibakova, Daniel Guerlain and Igor Tsukanov (plus a bevy of what the Fair reassuringly described as ‘reputable art professionals’).

Cosmoscow has been Russia’s only international contemporary art fair since the 2013 demise of long-running Art Moskva, held by the commercial fair organizers ExpoPark in the vast but dowdy House of Artists near Gorky Park. This year Cosmoscow featured 54 galleries – 19 of them from abroad and thirty from Moscow. Most of the city’s main galleries were present though not, sadly, Krokin or Tamara Vekhova. Triumf also missed out, perhaps because their gallery is down the street from Gostiny Dvor.

Triumf used to be Russia’s liveliest representatives on the international fairs circuit, but have retrenched drastically in the last two or three years. They were one the ‘Big Five’ galleries who used to hold sway on the Moscow art scene and were accused of operating a cartel at Art Moskva to keep out foreign ‘competitors.’ The other four have met differing fates. Aidan has closed. Guelman has moved to Montenegro. That leaves XL, who showed works by Viktor Pivovarov at Cosmoscow, and Regina, who had the Fair’s simplest yet most powerful stand, with Sergei Bratkov and Semyon Faibisovich going head-to-head.

RA+C International Editor Simon Hewitt with Semyon Faibisovich

Cosmoscow offered the chance to admire works old or new by many great Russian artists of recent decades: Marlen Spindler at Nadja Brykina, Edward Gorokhovsky at Fine Art, Vladimir Dubosarsky at Gallery 21, Alexander Brodsky at VP Studio, Irina Zatulovskaya at Vladey…. Vostochnya had a splendid array of 2-D metal abstractions by Vladimir Tryamkin (who died earlier this year), while Kultproekt paid tribute to Yuri Kuper, 77 but still going strong, with his 2017 series of acrylic and cement seascapes on plywood, resembling small-scale Kiefers amidst a dangly marine-mood display in subtle tones of grey, beige and blue.

A section called Past/Present at the start of the fair offered a sprinkling of works by Koshlyakov, Makarevich, Nesterova, Kabakov, Monastirsky and other masters. I presumed this was a museum-type homage, but it turned out that everything was for sale.

Fair organizers counted 175 artists in all – the majority Russian – with prices ranging from €100 (prints at Roza Arora) up to €350,000. There was plenty of chance to gauge the strength of Russia’s newer generation. Two of the best young Russian artists were at Artwin: Dima Rebus, whose paintings have a cosmic feel redolent of Piotr Bely; and Artem Filatov from Nizhny Novgorod, whose whimsical approach to plant life earned him the Crédit Suisse Young Artist Award from the bank’s head of collecting, André Rogger. Filatov will now enjoy ‘mentorship support’ and an art residency in Bern, where his CHF 3,000 (£2,400) cash prize should last him about a week.

The Russian provinces seem alive with creative energy. The wittiest work at the Fair was at 11.12: a geometric abstraction made from wire fencing by Vova Marin from Kaluga. Gallery supremo Andrei Sharov has an eye for emerging talent – and humour. One part of his stand, devoted to the self-styled ‘art sect’ Simple Things from Tver, was revamped as a work-out gym.

The Alex Sharov Work-Out

Humour is a mainstay of Russian contemporary art. The political satire of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, accessible only to those au fait with Russian affairs, seems on the wane. Margo Trushina’s neon figures (Osnova) and the woolly wall textiles of Evgeniya Nozhkina (25 Kadr) have borderless appeal. The dainty paintings of Kirill Garshin (Pechersky) blend absurdity with despair, like Hopper painting Gogol.

Osnova is one of several new galleries that have braved the tough economic situation to open in Moscow in recent years. These include Askeri, Omelchenko (showing Julia Malinina’s caustically cheerful industrial landscapes) and Triangle (where Alexey Bogolepev’s 2015 inkjet print Ghost Village stood out). Fragment, established in December 2016, even landed the Best Stand Prize – I presume for content (small-scale, low-key works by Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov) rather than presentation.

Kirill Savelev: Moscow (2016)

IT’S NOT ALL MOSCOW

H.L.A.M. from Voronezh had the Fair’s most atmospheric photograph: Kirill Savelev’s Moscow (2016), a slice of suburban wasteland with a wolfish-looking dog slinking off bottom right. Tolk from Nizhny Novgorod, founded in 2014 by Andrey Olenov, brought attention to the city’s vibrant Street Art tradition. UVG (formerly Ural Vision) have expanded from Ekaterinburg to open a subsidiary in Budapest: Hungary, it seems, is becoming something of an artistic mecca to Russians. Olga Tobreluts’s New Mythology exhibition runs until November 12 at Mücsarnok, Budapest’s top art venue, while the St Petersburg duo Ivan Plusch/Irina Drozd now live and work in rural Hungary for much of the year.

Although the gallery scene in St Petersburg has shrunk in recent years, the city boasts two of Russia’s most active dealers: Anna Nova and Marina Gisich. Both had striking stands at Cosmoscow. Gisich, true to her penchant for unorthodox presentation, brought her own Designer table and chairs, and hung a number of paintings tilted at an angle, although this daring effect was undermined by a surfeit of trailing wires.

The overall look of Cosmoscow, mind you, was splendid: spacious alleyways and a charming contrast in lighting effects: rays of the sun cascaded through the glass roof during the day, while even, artificial lighting held sway in the evening.

The grey walls at Lazy Mike stood out like a dirty thumb amidst the Fair’s clean white lines. Long-established Lumière Brothers painted their stand red and black as a background to their high-powered array of Soviet photographs: as the only specialist photography gallery at Cosmoscow, they just about got away with it. I wasn’t sure what to make of Palisander (established 2017), whose gallery blurb has them focusing on Design but who, at Cosmoscow, were showing abstract paintings. I suspect there are more wealthy Russians buying Design than Contemporary Art: Cosmoscow might look to exploit the synergy between the two in future.

The Fair also featured two auction firms: Vladimir Ovcharenko’s Vladey, where highlight was a 1950s Oleg Tselkov still life; and Igor Markin’s Art4, where a clutch of six-figure work by Oleg Vasiliev confronted a wallful of recent monochromes by Anya Zholud, snapped up at the opening. The popular Zholud was also represented at Cosmoscow by her whacky wire furniture ensemble Schematic Space of Elevating Happiness from 2007.

Schematic Space of Elevating Happiness

FOREIGN GALLERIES REACH 35 PER CENT

‘International galleries have reason to come to Cosmoscow if they want to meet Russian collectors – and attack a new market that is developing fast!’ declares Margarita Pushkina.

Actually, maddening bureaucracy, customs shenanigans and a dearth of buyers means most international galleries avoid Moscow like the plague. So hats off to Cosmoscow for seeking a novel way to attract them – with a Collaborations section that sees foreign dealers effectively ‘chaperoned’ by a Russian counterpart.

Sometimes these pairings shared a booth with a joint display: a well-meaning concept that didn’t really work. But offering fraternal help with logistics, linguistics and an introduction to the local market – in return for an opening on the West – is an idea that could have serious mileage.

Cosmoscow’s foreign galleries were a mixed lot, ranging from Tbilisi (Erti) to Trento (Boccanera) via Warsaw (Raster), Paris (Odile Ouizeman) and Brixton (Knight Webb). Art Select from Bahrain brought highbrow abstract works by Balqees Fakhro. Olga Temnikova followed on from Basel with more irreverent works from Merika Estna’s Rubber Gloves series, including a large rug. In a fair short on photography and almost bereft of video, textiles added some variety. Olga, by the (family) way, tells me she’s scaling down her fair participation – which probably means she’ll be doing six a year instead of sixteen.

Two foreign galleries opted to showcase Russian artists. Their choices were sure-fire. One Gallery (New York/Sofia) displayed, with appropriate elegance, paintings and sculptures by Aidan Salakhova while NK Gallery (Antwerp) lined up some meaty compositions by superlative draughtsman Kirill Chelushkin.

Norway, as ‘Guest Country,’ was represented by five ‘galleries’ of uncertain commercial status. Terminal B arrived from Kirkenes, close to the Russia/Norway frontier in the Arctic Circle, bringing with them Alexander Florensky’s 96-drawing account of his journey to Kirkenes from Murmansk. Rake (Trondheim) had a stylish display of stones and wire that brought to mind Moscow artist Dmitry Gutov. The invariably empty stand of the Khartoum Contemporary Art Center, currently of Oslo but bent on relocating to Sudan, brought to mind the Sahara Desert.

Khartoum weren’t the only exhibitor to keep it uncluttered. Gregory Orekhov, who set up his own gallery this year, brazenly displayed a single stainless-steel sculpture. Can he become Russia’s answer to Albania’s Helidon Xhixha? Russian kitsch used to be embodied, with some irony, by Dima Shorin and Dubosarsky & Vinogradov. Their successors seem brasher, going on Maria Agureyeva’s latex and plastic wall sculptures, or the plentifully available works of Rostan Tavasiev. I’m not sure about Alexander Povzner, and it’s probably unfair to include Vladimir Potapov in such company, as his Pop palette intriguingly evokes moth-eaten old photographs. Such, however, was the surfeit of Potapovs at pop/off/art that their impact was not so much intriguing as sickly.

Cosmoscow’s ‘Artist of the Year,’ Ivan Gorshkov from Voronezh, set the tone with a parade of grungy psychedelic sculptures at the start of the Fair. Further along, the spacious central area was occupied by a scattering of random objects conceived by Cosmoscow’s ‘Non-Profit Institution of the Year’ – the bizarrely named ‘Typography Centre for Contemporary Art’ from Krasnodar. These objects included a little truck, which a typographer occasionally took for a spin through the aisles, harassing visitors in a conceptual sort of way.

A gleaming row of tutti frutti Bentleys offered a vehicular contrast at the far end of the Fair. ‘Bentley’s plant in Crewe employs about 4,000 people’ purred the press-release, as if Crewe were Windsor or Balmoral. These Staffordshire slicksters overlooked the plunging semi-circular amphitheatre which, complete with giant screen, hosted Artist’s Talks and the opening Media Conference, compèred in effortless Anglo-Russian by Elena Kurbatskaya.

Margarita Pushkina and Elena Kurbatskaya

Completing the roster of Cosmoscow’s glamorous sponsors were Parisienne jeweller (and art collector) Valerie Messika and the St Regis Hotel on Lubyanka, where the Fair’s VIP guests were housed in considerable style, a mere five-minute walk from Gostiny Dvor. They were also treated to a packed programme of visits to Moscow collectors and institutions.

There was even more going on inside the Fair. Lurking to one side was a children’s area stocked with arty materials. On the other, if you looked hard enough, were a couple of superb exhibitions.

One featured powerful works from local private collections (Gogova, Popov, Smirnov & Sorokin, Pechersky). The Popovs (no relation to pop/off), who were hanging Ghada Amer’s 2007 acrylic and embroidery Black Garden, bragged alongside that ‘we bought at a FIAC V.I.P. Preview’ and modestly predicted it would ‘become an integral part of art world history.’ Rich and omniscient. Tell us the recipe!

The second exhibition consisted of 17 items offered for a charity auction that raised €118,700 for the recently established Cosmoscow Foundation for Contemporary Art. The auction was conducted by a Hooray Henry from Phillips on his first visit in Russia. Choosing Phillips as the Fair’s auction partner seemed odd. There are four auction firms who promote – and sell – Russian Art twice a year in London, but Phillips aren’t one of them. Christie’s duly dispatched their Russian Art specialist Sarah Mansfield to keep an eye on things. She ensconced herself in the VIP Lounge, sporting a brightly embroidered Hungarian blouse in symbolic defiance.

This spacious Lounge boasted a majestic Kawarga sculpture over the doorway, an hypnotic wall-to-wall Blue Soup Sea video, and an endless deluge of colourful Beluga cocktails. You felt like staying there all day.

Created Not Made: Beluga Cocktails Deluge the VIP Lounge

I would have been happy to linger on Sunday, listening to Evgeny Svyatsky from AES+F, but was called away to take part in a mini-seminar at the other end of the Fair. This focused on Ratings, Analytics & Other Instruments of the Art Market and was expertly (and bilingually) chaired by Ksenia Podoynitsyna of Gallery 21, who sees Cosmoscow as a ‘networking platform for the local financial elite.’

Ksenia’s PhD choice of seminar subject-matter hardly seemed designed to wow punters fresh from Sunday brunch, yet thirty people turned up. What with Svyatsky in the Lounge and another artist due in the Amphitheatre, there were no microphones left – so everyone huddled around Ksenia and her team of experts, all ears, camp-fire style. My colleagues included the celebrated British curator/cricket connoisseur Alastair Laing and the international art consultant Nic Iljine – who, in a career of decades, has seen it all. Yet even Nic looked mildly startled when three ladies clambered into full-bodied body-stockings a few yards away and began to improvise a mournful erotic ballet.

Bodystocking Performance

There was something going on at Cosmoscow wherever you looked or listened. Three weeks, not three days, would have been needed to do it all justice.

‘We want the fair to find its own place, and its own face, on the international calendar,’ Margarita Pushkina told me. ‘I dream of us becoming the Russian Frieze!’

Cool it, Margarita. No imitations needed. A little fine-tuning and you’ll have the greatest show on earth.

Blue Soup video in the VIP Lounge