RA+C is always very passionate about connecting our readers to the institutions and individuals promoting Russian art and culture all over the world. This week Marina Maximova met with Elena Zaytseva, a writer and curator of the Pushkin House. Previously a curator in the contemporary art department in the Tretyakov Gallery Elena told us about art and curatorial scene in both countries and her recent show with Alina Bliumis ‘Amateur Bird watching at Passport Control’ and gave us a few suggestions on where to find Russian art in London.
RA+C: We have been following your practice for a few years already and are always very impressed by your work. Could you tell us a bit more about your most recent exhibition with Alina Bliumis at the Pushkin House. The topic of the show is very urgent not only for the UK going through the Brexit, but also for the whole world experiencing the growing pressure of the national questions. How did you come up with an idea for this exhibition and how did you start working with Alina?
E.Z.: Thank you very much for your appreciation of our work at Pushkin House. I should say at the beginning that all the projects I curated there were organised together with the brilliant team of the Pushkin House. We discuss different aspects of the show and bring it to the completion together with these competent and enthusiastic people.
Alina Bliumis’ show ‘Amateur Bird watching at Passport Control’, indeed, touches on the topic which is very intense at the moment, but does it with artistic wit and elegancy. New York-based artist Alina Bliumis was introduces by Natalia Nikitina and Boris Groys last winter when they recommended to have look at her work. I browsed through her portfolio and when seeing the ‘Birds’ instantly thought that it would be timely to show it in London this summer. The project includes 43 etchings with images of all birds that adorn the passport covers of different countries of the world. The contrast between the freedom of movement that birds enjoy and the the restrictive function of the document they decorate is striking here. The difference in style and type of the birds is also very impressive. We can see a lot of imperial eagles, originated from Roman Legion standards, in the countries of what we call ‘Global North’ and diverse and beautiful birds of paradise on the Global South. So in a gentle way the exhibition touches on the problem of national identity, domination and control. But what is more it comments on the problem of our relationship with nature. For example, why did Mauritius government choose an extinct bird Dodo as the national emblem?
RA+C: You have been working with the Pushkin House for a few years already. Could you tell us what you find the most attractive and successful aspects of the organisations and what challenges did you face representing the Russian culture abroad?
E.Z.: The Pushkin House has a long tradition of politically independent work; this organisation was established by the Russian emigres after the Second World War as an alternative to official cultural institutions set up by the Soviet agencies. And so it has operated independently, no one can dictate or influence it. But the fact that the House is dedicated to Russian culture is a challenge.
We live in a global world and the artists I work with are part of international art scene or are on the way to become its part. They don’t frame their work within the national identity and the public of London which is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world doesn’t expect them to do so. The Pushkin House understands this problem as a challenge and responds to demands of today’s world. Quite often we talk about our projects in terms of Post-Soviet domain. For example, the exhibition ‘Amateur Bird Watching’ doesn’t fall comfortably in the category of Russian art as it shows work of an artist who is Belorussian-born, was educated in New-York and Toscana, lives in New-York and is represented by a French gallery. Later this year we are planning a duo show of two women artists – one from Russia, another from the UK.
RA+C: You yourself are working across the borders. You started you career in Russia, where you worked in the Tretyakov Gallery. Are there any significant differences between the curatorial work in Russia and in the UK?
E.Z.: The profession of curator is a product of the Western system and I don’t see much difference in basic principles of work of curators here and in Russia. Curatorial work here and there is informed by the same theory. However, the conditions of work in Russia are different as the contemporary art system is relatively young there and there is a problem of censorship that curators face. But the quality of curatorial work is very high in Russia; you can see clever, imaginative and well informed exhibitions put together with a great attention to details.
RA+C: How would you compare contemporary art scene in Moscow and in London? Do you think there are lessons that art practitioners of each country can learn from each other?
E.Z.: Both scenes are very interesting, diverse and vibrant. In Russia I can see the growing process of decentralisation. Some 15 years ago Moscow and St.Petersburg were the only cities in Russia where most of art events happened; back then the artists who hoped to develop their careers had to move in either of those cities. Now there are very interesting art processes in Voronezh, Perm, Ekaterinburg, Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk – and the list of these new centres is growing. I think it is a very positive process. As well as in the UK the art moves to the north, such places as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester are hugely important for art of this country.
However, I am concerned that we have huge asymmetry in the way art and theory moves from the “West” to the “East”. There is a huge interest in international art and theory in Russia, all important books are translated very fast from European languages, but the flow of texts and art works in the opposite direction is scarce. I see it as a challenge and task of my work to increase the flow of art knowledge from Russia to West.
RA+C: What are the biggest challenges that young artists and curators are faced with when coming to work in the UK?
E.Z.: As the systems of art and education are different here and there, it is important to understand the system you are going to operate in. It takes time, but the cultural differences are also an interesting issue which you can address in curatorial work, especially when working for such organisation as the Pushkin House.
RA+C: We of course know that the Pushkin House is a major destination for the lovers of Russian art in London. What other institutions in London or in the UK would you recommend for our readers interested in Russian culture?
E.Z.: Tate Modern has recently opened a room of Irina Nakhova, it is a must go place for those who are interested in history of Russian art of the 20thCentury. In collaboration with the artist Tate reconstructed the ‘Room #2’(1982) which was one of the first total installations in Russian art. There are two organisations I should also mention – Calvert 22 who work with the post-Soviet and Eastern-European art and culture and White Space Gallery that works with Russian and Eastern-European art and photography. These institutions as well as Russian Art and Culture and the Pushkin House, have bookshops in which you can find books on Russian art, culture and history – including some rare titles.