THE MOSCOW BIENNALE, seemingly moribund two years ago, has survived. But is it as relevant today as when it was launched in 2005?
Back then Moscow was recovering from the financial crisis of 1998, when Russia devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debt. The city’s nascent gallery-scene lacked international focus. The fairs Art Moskva and Art Manège catered to a domestic audience. The Tretyakov had only recently, under Andrei Erofeyev, begun to include Unofficial Russian Art in its permanent display. No museum or institution was regularly showing international contemporary art.
It was in this inward-looking context that veteran Non-Conformist curator Joseph Backstein boldly organized the first Moscow Biennale. It featured artists from 22 countries and took place in February: a blast of cold, cultural fresh air bringing together living artists from Russia and abroad for the first time in a major event on Russian soil. This début Biennale was entitled – with no hint of irony – Dialectics of Hope. Post-Soviet democracy, and cordial relations with the West, still seemed possible.
Since 2005 the Moscow art scene has changed beyond recognition. 2007 saw the opening of the Ekaterina Foundation (Russia’s first private foundation devoted to international contemporary art); Art 4.ru (Russia’s first private museum for Russian contemporary art); and the Vinzavod art complex, regrouping many of the city’s contemporary galleries in a single venue. The Kandinsky Prize for Russian Artists was also launched that year.
In 2009 Dasha Zhukova opened her Garage Centre, initially at the Melnikov Tramshed in north Moscow (now home to the Jewish Museum), latterly in Park Kultury – where Louise Bourgeois, no less, inaugurated the swanky new building in 2015. The Art Play complex near Winzavod, and Olga Sviblova’s magnificent Multimedia Art Museum, both opened in 2010. The Institute of Russian Realist Art followed in 2011, Inna Bazhenova’s In Artibus foundation in 2014, and the Museum of Russian Impressionism in 2016 – launched, despite its name, with a show by Valery Koshlyakov and a multimedia installation by French contemporary artist Jean-Christophe Couet. The dynamic VAC Foundation is to open a new Moscow HQ in 2019.
Meanwhile Art Moskva and Art Manège have given way to glossy, cosmopolitan Cosmoscow – a fair of infinitely greater professionalism and wider-ranging appeal.
In other words Moscow’s infrastructure for contemporary art is now one of the best in the world, with high-profile international artists regularly on show in the Russian capital.
The Moscow Biennale is the victim of a success it helped kickstart. But in today’s context it has to do something pretty special to catch the eye and justify its own continuing raison-d’être.
The three headline artists at this year’s Biennale – which opened on September 18 and runs until mid-January – are Denmark’s Olafur Eliasson, America’s Matthew Barney and Icelandic pop diva Björk (to whom Barney was formerly married). If the vernissage was anything to go on, Björk’s virtual reality digital installations hold the biggest appeal for a Moscow audience.Barney is represented in Moscow by four new metallic pictures, Eliasson by a new light installation – but neither is new to the Biennale. Eliasson took part in 2011, Barney in 2007 – when his Cremaster cycle (completed back in 2002) received its first Russian screening and was talk of the town.
The 2017 Biennale features another 48 artists from 24 countries. Big names cost money, yet the 213 works in the Biennale’s main show are insured for just over $3m – about the price of a decent Kabakov. The Biennale’s operating budget is just $1m. A third of that is assigned to shipping; God knows how much went on hiring Japanese curator Tuko Hasegawa, who has a CV as long as Zurab Tsereteli’s statue of Peter the Great. Given the derisory financing it is a miracle that a Biennale is being staged at all.
Hasegawa has called her show Clouds⇄ Forests. Apart from the pretentious arrows, the title is principally of note for its ecological contrast with the political ‘Eurasia’ theme of the 2015 Biennale.
Er, hang on… 2017 has been presidentially decreed Year of Ecology in Russia. So I guess Hasegawa’s theme is not so apolitical after all.
Think of ecology and climate-change, and places like the Sahara Desert or Amazonian Rain Forest spring to most minds. Not to Hasegawa’s. Her Biennale does not include a single artist from Africa or Latin America. It does, however, include Vinogradov & Dubossarsky, who I thought became extinct thousands of years ago.
This important piece of ecological evidence must have come to light during an excavation on Rublyovskoye Chaussée.
The handful of other Russian artists selected by Hasegawa are younger. She ‘received over 600 applications from Russian artists and more than 100 recommendations from the Expert Council, museums and non-profit foundations’ we are told. My, what a time-consuming process that must have been. Why not start with the two dozen artists short-listed for the Kandinsky Prize?
You might expect, having sifted through 700+ applications and recommendations, Hasegawa would have tracked down some hitherto obscure talent. No sir. Her choices are all comfortably established. Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov helped Fragment Gallery win best stand at this year’s Cosmoscow. Alexey Martins also shows at Fragment, Michael Tolmachev at Gallery 21 and Anastasia Potemkina at St Peterbsurg’s Anna Nova. Valia Fetisov has shown at the Garage and VAC. Where Dogs Run took part of the 2015 Urals Biennale in their native Ekaterinburg, while Buryatia’s Dashi Namdakov unleashed his ethno-kitch sculptures on Mayfair (Halcyon Gallery) in 2014.
In any case, the job of discovering young Russian artists has been diligently pursued by Moscow’s International Young Biennale since 2008. To suggest Hasegawa only identified her Russian participants after a laborious expert process is ridiculous – especially given the breakneck speed at which this year’s Biennale was prepared.
It was clear by September 2015 that Joseph Backstein’s Biennale leadership was on its last legs [see www.russianartandculture.com/article-going-everywhere-and-nowhere-by-simon-hewitt]. But he did not formally step down – to be replaced by the relatively unknown Julia Muzykantskaya – until July 2016. Hasegawa was not appointed Curator until November 2016, and her appointment not announced until January 2017, when it was revealed that the Biennale would open at the Manezh on September 15. During the Summer this opening was pushed back to September 18 – and the venue changed to the New Tretyakov.
If you judge an opening by attendance it was a thumping success. If you judge it by what can you see it was a disaster.
The opening was slated for 6pm. Moscow punters poured in punctually, as they are wont to do whenever there is the prospect of free booze.
They spent the next 90 minutes sipping warm champanskoye. The art was cordoned off until the opening speeches were delivered at 7:30. These took place on the First Floor landing, which was soon bursting at the seams. When the Biennale was, at long last, opened for viewing, two large gentlemen, of the Night Club Bouncer variety, levered open the crash barriers and allowed people to trickle through. There was a predictable surge of impatient art-lovers. It felt like a rock concert or big soccer match with spectators scared of missing the start. The bouncers struggled to close their barriers as a human torrent poured up the stairs to the Second Floor, where the Biennale began. Hundreds converged on the first room in the exhibition; others escaped the scrum by heading up more stairs to the Third Floor, where the Biennale ends – and began viewing the exhibition backwards.
But it was almost impossible to view anything because of the crowds. The Third Floor visitors, going one way, collided with the Second Floor Visitors, going the other. The surfeit of rooms devoted to Video added to the confusion. These were blocked off at either end by thick black curtains. People from either side pummelled these curtains, and sometimes each other, in search of an opening, like a scene out of Morecambe & Wise.
When the Biennale was held at the Manezh in 2013, the entire open-plan basement was dimly lit and devoted to video: there were no need for curtains and you could walk around freely, even on opening night. The Manezh is colossal. So is the New Tretyakov, but it is divided into some large halls and lots of smaller ones – and Hasegawa’s Biennale is squeezed into the smaller ones. All the video would have been fine at the Manezh, but was woefully unsuited to the New Tretyakov (and not helped by wires trailing around like spaghetti – I hope some of that $3m insurance is set aside for treating twisted ankles.)
The New Tretyakov has a giant foyer, an enormous inner courtyard, and vast landings on its three upper floors: five spaces perfect for sculpture. The Biennale makes hardly any use of them. The surfeit of video and photography is counter-balanced by a paucity of sculpture and installations. Does this reflect Hasegawa’s personal taste, the fact she was originally planning for the Manezh but ended up at the New Tretyakov, or the relative affordability of video and photography?
A bit of all three, no doubt. But an opportunity wasted.
Given the last-minute change of venue, Hasegawa can hardly be blamed for conceiving a show ill-suited to the New Tretyakov. A museum is no place for a Biennale, least of all when its own exhibition halls are commandeered for the purpose and their splendid collection of Russian Contemporary Art dumped in the cellar for half a year.
The venue has always been crucial to the Biennale’s impact. It was Joseph Backstein’s distinctive policy to change it each time. After the symbolism of the abandoned Lenin Museum (2005) and a half-finished Moscow City skyscraper (2007) came the excitement of 2009, when Roman Abramovich had just hurled millions at a derelict Melnikov masterpiece and Jean-Hubert Martin’s stylish if unadventurous exhibition in the Garage was the best of the Biennale main shows to date.
It’s been downhill ever since. The Catherine de Zegher show at the Manezh in 2013 was better than those staged at ArtPlay (2011) and VDNKh (2015), but the Biennale lost its soul and individuality a decade ago, when it shifted from February to September and began seeking out ‘respectable’ venues.
You might have expected this year’s Biennale to establish some sort of synthesis with all the new institutions I mentioned earlier. There was little evidence of that.
Dasha Zhukova’s new Garage, just over the road, had nothing on at all when the Biennale opened (the Garage launched its own Triennial earlier this year – is there an element of rivalry here?). Only one floor at the Ekaterina Foundation was open; its Dmitry Gretsky/ Evgenia Katz Living Space show was not part of the Biennale programme. Nor was the MOSKVA-HAHAHA show at Art 4.ru (now home to auctions and selling exhibitions).
You wouldn’t necessarily expect the Impressionism Museum to be part of the Biennale – but the same applies to the Darwin and Biology Museums, which both hosted imaginative satellite shows (among a roster of offbeat venues ranging from the Institute of Bio-Organic Chemistry to the University Botanical Gardens). ArtPlay is contributing a single 12-day group show in October. The Multimedia Art Museum is showing the hardly contemporary Brancusi; the Moscow Landscapes at In Artibus date from over 50 years ago; the Realist Institute has Soviet-era painter Alexander Labas.
That leaves Vinzavod. Upstairs: Street Artist Misha Most, surrounded by wallfuls of psychedelic graffiti generated by a drone. Downstairs: Recycle, with a large, fluorescent 50-yard plastic tube containing a human conveyor belt. Both projects are fun, low-budget and ingenious.
This year’s Biennale ‘Parallel Programme’ (there were none of the ‘Special Projects’ that used to add additional variety) ran to a lip-smacking 69 events, although a quarter of these were shows in commercial galleries (only three of them – at Wordshop, Movie and Totibadze – connected to the Clouds/Forest theme).
I visited some interesting events that could have been part of the Parallel Programme but weren’t: Tino Sehgal at the Schusev Architecture Museum; Central Russian Zen, inspired by the Shiryaevo Biennale, at the NCCA (National Centre for Contemporary Art); the subtle little OKNA (Windows) show curated by Anna Russova and Mikhail Sidlin at the Zverev Centre; and the EliKuka group’s attack on the riverside apartment of Simon Mraz.
Regrettably, I did not have time to visit the Parallel Programme group shows at the Belyaevo, Vykhino and Nagornaya district exhibition halls – all well away from the city centre, and wonderful places to discover emerging Russian artists. I also missed out on a visit to Fabrika, a disused factory that is hosting no fewer than nine shows during the Biennale. I liked the look of the Roots exhibition at the State Institute for Art Studies in Kozitsky Pereulok (near the top of Tverskaya), headlined by that charmingly cerebral couple Tanya Badanina and Volodya Nasedkin, but it doesn’t kick off till October 17.
I ended up attending four Parallel Programme events. One was good, two were great and the last was a shocker.
The good one was Daria Irincheveya’s understated Empty Consciousness exhibition at Christie’s new Moscow premises. The great ones were both hosted by Vasily Tsereteli’s MMoMA (Moscow Museum of Modern Art): Rebel Land, a panorama of contemporary art from Vladivostok expertly curated by Alisa Bagdonaite, director of the city’s Zarya Centre; and Nepokorennye Prospect, an elegant survey of the artists who form an informal rooftop collective on the outskirts of St Petersburg. This runs until November 12, and the rooms devoted to Ilya Gaponov and Asya Marakulina are a joy.
The disaster was something called Itinerary Under the Open Sky, staged by an organization called Xolst that, ambitiously, styles itself a ‘creative association.’ The dozen or so twee paintings on show in a phoney bourgeois interior were so bad (see Moscow City, below) that I’m not even going to tell you where they are. Hopefully the exhibition will have been bulldozed by the time you read this.
Who on earth can have selected such nonsense for the Biennale’s Parallel Programme?
The Biennale’s Expert Council, that’s who.
This new, august body, chaired by Semyon Mikhailovsky and peopled by such luminaries as Olga Sviblova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Marina Loshak and Alexander Borovksy, ‘takes all creative decisions’ (as we read no fewer than three times on the Biennale’s homepage). The Council has more members than the Politburo. No successful organization was ever run by committee, starting with the USSR.
At least the Expert Council didn’t select the Alexander Shilov Gallery, whose hero celebrated the Biennale by unveiling a riveting portrait of drunken British spy Kim Philby.
One of the Expert Councillors is Joseph Backstein, who also retains the title of Honorary Commissioner. No new ‘Commissioner’ will be appointed, which is a bit like George Washington stipulating he should be the first and last President of the United States.
New Biennale boss Julia Muzykantskaya will doubtless circumvent this little problem by appointing an ‘Artistic Director’ as soon as her feet are far enough under the table. She has been shackled, in the meantime, by an ‘Expert Council’ for two reasons: (a) Backstein is reluctant to relinquish control of his Biennale altogether, and (b) her relative inexperience (I suspect her inexperience is one reason Backstein anointed her, along with her perceived ability to generate financing).
Muzykantskaya graduated from Moscow State University as an Economist/Sociologist and Political Scientist before taking a string of mid-ranking jobs at Vinzavod, the Culture Ministry and the VAC Foundation. But don’t be fooled. There is something of Vinzavod supremo Sonya Trotsenko about her crisp authority delivered with a modest smile.
Muzykantskaya says her arrival spells a ‘reboot’ for the Biennale and talks of a ‘re-set of relations with the state and sponsors.’
Time will tell, but Muzykantskaya has already shown her mettle. The problems of financing, scheduling and venue would have prompted any normal person to postpone this year’s Biennale. Muzykantskaya insisted it went ahead. She was right. If it hadn’t, it would be dead.
She’s lucky that dynamic Tretyakov boss Zelphira Tregulova speedily made the New Tretyakov available when the Manezh agreement hit the buffers. But luck is an essential leadership quality – and Muzykantskaya is the sort of person people are happy to help. And work for: I found her permanent staff (she calls them her ‘team’) invariably cheerful and courteous, despite being overworked; while the army of red-shirted guides-cum-helpers she hired for the Biennale opening remained wondrously upbeat in the most trying of circumstances.
Muzykantskaya’s desire to make the Biennale more user-friendly has led to a mobile app with a guide to the Biennale and Parallel Programme. This admirable initiative does not, however, compensate for the appalling five-page website (http://moscowbiennale.com) utterly bereft of images (although it does feature 63 logos of partners and sponsors – curiously, the Biennale itself has not bothered to design a logo of its own to mark its 7th edition). Nor does it compensate for the absence of a Biennale catalogue.
Yuko Hasegawa, I am told, has insisted the catalogue include photos of the works in situ, so it won’t be out until at least November. That sounds like a curator more concerned for her reputation than the interests of the public – who, I suspect, will also struggle to make sense of Hasegawa’s mission statement to ‘focus on artists as a creative tribe transitioning, expanding and dissipating, from forest to cloud, rebuilding the subjectivity of spectators and showing that creativity is vital to the creation of new environmental spheres.’
Presumably this gobbledygook sounds better in Japanese, but it is hard to square with Muzykantskaya’s stated intention to ‘show that contemporary art is accessible to all.’
The Moscow Biennale should stop kow-towing to ‘superstar’ curators from abroad when it has Simon Mraz on its doorstep and Artem Filatov down the line in Nizhny-Novgorod.
Mraz, Austria’s cultural attaché in Moscow, has shown contemporary art on an ice-breaker in Murmansk, a space observatory in the North Caucasus and, this September, in the Jewish Republic of Birobidzhan, created by Stalin in Russia’s Far East in 1931.
The unassuming, 26 year-old Artem Filatov is currently curating Обратно Домой (Back Home) in Nizhny Novgorod’s former Intelligentia Museum, a wooden house threatened with destruction. The eight-artist, minimal-budget show – which blends wit, variety, local history and cultural preservation into a quirky but irresistible cocktail – opened on September 15 (complete with 44-page catalogue), and runs until October 29. Filatov is also an artist of burgeoning renown. He was awarded the Crédit Suisse Young Artists Prize at the recent Cosmoscow, and is one the hottest and most versatile creative talents in the modern world.
The Moscow Biennale desperately needs a Mraz or a Filatov to sprinkle some flair and stardust on it. It should get back to Winter, where it belongs, and it should go somewhere really startling. I have attended every Biennale except the first, and have two indelible memories: queuing up in the snow to grab a hard-hat, then cram into the workers’ lift and clatter up to the 21st floor of the unfinished Federation Tower; and the blockbuster satellite show Bерю (I Believe) co-ordinated by Oleg Kulik, enfant terrible of the Moscow art scene, one freezing February night in the bowels of Vinzavod.
Both memories date from 2007. Such excitement has long gone. Backstein’s brainchild blends pleasantly but innocuously into the pulsating contemporary art scene of today’s Moscow – and has become just another bland, lookalike event on the global Biennale treadmill (to be joined next May by yet another biennale – in nearby Riga, Moscow’s favourite seaside resort).
Russians do Crazy like no one else. The Moscow Biennale needs to shock and awe.
‘I want to show everyone that contemporary art is not difficult, not scary and not always scandalous’ vows Muzykantskaya.
A whiff of scandal won’t do you any harm, Julia. With luck and radical thinking, your reboot might just succeed.
all photos © Simon Hewitt unless otherwise stated
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