BY Valentin Diaconov in News | 20 SEP 10

1st Ural Industrial Biennial

Ekaterina Degot, David Riff and Cosmin Costinas curate an intriguing new biennial in Ekaterinburg, Russia

BY Valentin Diaconov in News | 20 SEP 10

They call Ekaterinburg a ‘millionaire’, a common moniker in Russia for a city with more than a million inhabitants. Because of its size, in the Soviet times it had several economic privileges, among them a single-line subway system; more importantly, Ekaterinburg was one of the most radical training grounds for Stalin’s industrialization movement, and the city’s huge factories are testament to totalitarian rule and its drive for achievement at the price of human lives.


These days, Ekaterinburg has another connection to millions: it is one of the richest provincial cities in Russia, a centre for natural resource business and a meeting place for white collars from all over the world. The city is rapidly growing up – literally – as more and more skyscrapers rise. Night life is thriving – people generally look less depressed than in other regions of Russia. All in all, a perfect place for another biennial that could emerge as a welcome alternative to the Moscow Biennale (which was inaugurated in 2005).


Indeed, the 1st Ural Industrial Biennial provides a number of new strategies. First, the main project is curated by a team of extremely forward-thinking individuals – Ekaterina Degot, David Riff and Cosmin Costinas – who are are redder than anyone who’s ever been involved in a project this large since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The central exhibition is different to last year’s 3rd Moscow Biennale, ‘Against Exclusion’, in almost every respect. While Jean-Hubert Martin curated that exhibition as a show about art around the globe, providing visual thrills for the young, old and uneducated alike, Degot, Riff and Costinas centre on Ekaterinburg’s past and present – and try to redefine art of the digital age along the way.



Their biennial is titled ‘Shockworkers Of The Mobile Image’. A ‘shockworker’ (udarnik) is a term that was invented in Soviet Russia to refer to a worker that could exceed his/her daily work quota. Shockworkers made more money and were almost godlike heroes of industrialization. Now, the curators argue, the artists are the new, post-industrial working class in a society that values futile attempts at creativity and encourages everyone to relent to the urges of one-and-onlyness and self-expression.


Degot recently wrote a column for the website she edits,, that was filled with disgust at the ‘creative class’ – designers, copywriters, managers and PR people who consume contemporary art as a form of high-class, fashionable entertainment. In a recent interview, David Riff was equally (if not more) dismissive of the concept of art as a ‘toy’ for well-off adults. So instead the team have opted for an intellectually relevant but highly unspectacular exhibition based on works that can be reproduced and/or transmitted through the digital media.



‘Shockworkers Of The Mobile Image’ is situated in the centre of Ekaterinburg, in a beautiful Constructivist building in which the local newspaper was once printed. It is an art work in itself, with pieces of rusty equipment that look like props for Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23).


The collages of pop idols and semi-naked girls that employees glued to the walls for entertainment have been left untouched. These folk art pieces are appealing in a Richard Prince kind of way, and the curators have complimented them with collections of Internet nudes and prostitute ads. Otherwise, long and vast corridors host videos and pieces by several well-known artists, Yael Bartana and Hito Steyerl among them. But the bulk of the exhibition consists of people less known, East European and Russian artists.


Overall, the Biennial looks undecided. It opens with a film, Song Of Heroes (1932), by Dutch director Joris Ivens, that was shot in Ekaterinburg at the start of the industrialization. Ivens, like most of the leftist intellectuals of his time, somehow managed to ignore the problems of industrialization, and made something of a propaganda movie. So, the curators criticize the histrionic gaze and try to demythologize the state-controlled workers’ movement in USSR. But there’s a catch: they are leftist themselves, so is it possible to draw a line here? Riff thinks that the early phase of industrialization is a ‘fetish’ for the western left, and the Ekaterinburg show introduces – or so he thinks – a historical dimension. OK, then printing a large copy of Brazilian muralist Tarsila do Amaral’s Os Operarios (1933) is not fetishizing? Or it is normal because there was no Stalin figure in Brazil?


And how are the ideals of the modern artist–shockworker to be set? If the creative class is not the audience, then who will attend the exhibition? Contemporary art is not big among the working class. Biennials are made and consumed by creative people, so how will an assemblage of intellectually appealing work will change the situation? A welcome respite from the stream of unanswered questions was provided by a performance, The Tube (2010), made according to notes specifically written for the Biennial by Ilya Kabakov. Against the backdrop of an amplified wind machine, a poet and a musician tried to overcome the noise by reading and playing, but with every attempt they sounded more and more muted, until there was silence coming out of their mouths. The performance was the most straightforward depiction of industry versus culture in the show: either you listen and watch, or you work – there’s no middle-ground.


There is little to enjoy in this show from the visual point of view, but one can argue that ‘Shockworkers Of The Mobile Image’ was not made to be enjoyed. According to Degot, the curators will be satisfied if the audience will watch the videos, learn something and draw their own conclusions. Events from the ‘Special Programme’ of the Biennial, curated by Alisa Prudnikova, the Biennial’s commissar, were much more viewer-friendly. Different factories have opened their doors for specially commissioned works. At the textile factory, Tatiana Ahmetgalieva (from Saint Petersburg) is showing textile portraits of local workers on semi-transparent pieces of cloth, referencing rows of faces that were part of the ‘shockworker’ glorification in the Soviet times. And at the Uralmash, the biggest industrial complex in Ekaterinburg, there was an important insight into the visual environment of the worker. It was a large foundry with numerous wardrobes of local workers, painted over with naive and realistic landscapes or copies from Russian paintings by the factory’s staff artist Gennady Vlasov. Refreshing to see what the workers actually liked (or even like to this day), what images provided the necessary escape route from the monotony of the machine.