Moscow Biennale under new management AS. 

Urals Industrial Biennial lures International Artists to EkaTerinburg. 

Заоблачные леса (‘Forests beneath the Clouds’) is the ecological-sounding theme of this year’s 7th Moscow Biennale, which takes place at the Manezh from September 15–October 28.

‘It’s between the forest and the clouds that new meanings and masterpieces are created’ explains Curator Yuko Hasegawa, head the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. What her intriguing show will contain remains a secret for now, but will ‘focus on the forest as a metaphor for people seeking to plant roots in new places’ – with clouds representing the Internet.

The Manezh is a huge space that requires great ingenuity to fill. Hasegawa has the track record to suggest she can pull it off: she curated the Istanbul Biennale in 2001 and Sharjah Biennale in 2013, and was Commissioner for the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003.

The first two editions of the Moscow Biennale were boldly held in midwinter. Queuing in the February snow in 2007, to don a safety helmet before packing into a workman’s lift to ascend to the 21st floor of the unfinished Federation Tower, epitomized the endearing adventurism of the Biennale’s early years.

The main venue in 2009 was the smartly-revamped Melnikov tramshed (now the Jewish Museum) that briefly hosted Dasha Zhukova’s Garage, where Jean-Hubert Martin’s show Against Exclusion was stylish if conventional. A raw edge returned when the Biennale invested the newly revamped ArtPlay complex near Winzavod in 2011. The last time the Moscow Biennale was held in the Manezh was in 2013, when Catherine de Zegher’s show More Light majored on vast installations, with giant-screen videos in the basement. The 2015 Biennale – an under-budgeted, last-minute affair in the Central Pavilion of VDNKh – swept legendary Joseph Backstein, founder and leading light of the Moscow Biennale since 2005, into well-earned retirement. Hopes are high that this year’s new management will get off with a bang.

Having attended every Biennale since 2007, I would hesitate to assert that the big central show will be the chief attraction, however. The Moscow Biennale’s idiosyncratic charm and unforgettable energy derive from the dozens of satellite shows staged in all manner of venues across the city, often in places far from any Metro or even bus stop.  The craziest was Dormitory District in 2009: a parade of iron bedsteads decorated by individual artists and installed along the sidewalks of the remote Volzhskaya district of southern Moscow. On the day I visited, towards the end of the display’s month-long run, unscrupulous metal merchants were furtively shunting off these esoteric artworks as scrap iron.

Two years ago the Biennale drew me to the amazing Kinopanorama, a circular concrete cinema built in 1959 in such an obscure  corner of VDNKh that I had failed to notice it on six previous visits to the sprawling Stalinist complex.  And I got hopelessly lost trying to track down a derelict textiles plant called Trekhgornaya Manufaktura, a fifteen-minute hike from Ulitsa 1905 Goda Metro station and its elephantine outcrop of Socialist Realist demonstrators. The plant 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 missed the entrance by about 400 yards.

The exhibition was ironically entitled Nadezhda (Hope) and had been put together by Simon Mraz, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow. I was the only person there. Highlights ranged from a 15-foot Art Deco metal pine-cone by Ira Korina, entitled Ivanovo, to Dmitry Kawarga’s Norilsk Substance: 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 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 every few minutes to refuel the artwork with a large bottle of mineral water. The puddles promptly started to grow, looking more toxic than ever.

The Moscow Biennale overlaps this year with the 4th Urals Industrial Biennale, which runs September 14–November 12 in Ekaterinburg (and a clutch of other regional cities including Chelyabinsk, Satka, Tyumen and Nizhny Tagil).

This year’s theme is New Literacy and the principal venue is the three-floor, 12,000m2, 1960s Ural Toolmaking Plant on the lake-like banks of the River Iset, where chief curator João Ribas from Portugal is promising to unleash 70 artists from 20 countries.

With the help of a million-ruble (£13,000) production grant from the Sinara Foundation, new works have been commissioned from a clutch of young regional artists, including Alexander Bazhenov, Sergey Poteryaev, Lyudmila Kalinichenko and Fyodor Telkov (from Ekaterinburg) and Alexey Shchigalev (from Perm), along with the ten-person LAP (Life As Performance) group from Nizhny Tagil. Organizers say that, in all, the eight-week biennale will feature 300 artists from 70 countries.

I visited the Urals Biennial in 2015, when the main show was held in the Iset Hotel, whose semi-circular groundplan purportedly apes the outline of a Soviet Sickle. It was built as a Secret Police residence in 1932 before being transformed into a hotel in the 1950s. The audacity of packing art into 76 rooms of a Constructivist hotel needed seeing to believe.

Another 2015 highlight was Katya Bochavar’s exhibition Factories – Direct Speech at the Ekaterinburg branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art, which organizes the Biennial. Bochavar filled five rooms with different arrays of regional industrial products: metal plaques, pottery, rusting iron, bricks and metal bars. The play of light and shadows created in a room hung with perforated iron sheets was awe-inspiring (see below).

The principal industrial venues in 2015 were Ural Khimmash, a suburban chemical plant, and the crumbling halls of the Dom Pechaty printing-works on Prospekt Lenina, a blockbuster avenue lined with a battlefleet of Constructivist buildings, including a Post Office shaped like a tractor.

Despite the abundance of monuments to its Soviet past, there is a whiff of non-bolshy independence to Ekaterinburg that comes partly from being nearly a thousand miles from the capital and partly from having a maverick Mayor, Evgeny Royzman – elected against the Kremlin candidate in 2013 after claiming the city was being ‘run by outsiders.’

Interested in Russia’s amazing contemporary art scene? Join our International Editor Simon Hewitt for the special Russian Art + Culture Biennale Tour from September 14-20.