The Moscow International Biennale for Young Art was always a strange beast. Today there are still virtually no grants and foundations in Russia that spend money on young artistic hopefuls, while gallery representation is rare because the gallery network gets sparser each year. But when the Biennale comes to town, the city hosts a plethora of shows at dozens of private and state-funded locations as part of the event’s special and parallel programmes. These shows constitute an overkill of art that begs the question: where do all these young artists hide, when it’s so hard to find space for exhibiting and making their work without being plunged into debt? The two previous Biennales for Young Art acknowledged this need for representation among emerging artists, but were populated so densely that you could find yourself on the brink of falling into an art work, like a modern-day, accident-based version of Stendhal Syndrome.
Luckily, this year’s curator, Kathrin Becker, of Germany’s Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, focused on setting an intellectual framework, not simply providing a location. Like a sympathetic professor, she tried to provide a suitable context for young artists’ work in this time of economic troubles and – as it happens – a growing oversimplification of images (a result of the fact that politically active communities, like Occupy, tend to get their messages out using basic combinations of words and images in their posters and slogans). Subtitled ‘Under a Tinsel Sun’, Becker built less an exhibition than an ethical system, a community where artists could contribute to the processes that are actualized by political activism.
Becker’s curatorial code of ethics was simple: first, acknowledge the importance of activism while referencing the most heavily publicized event of recent months – Artur Z˙mijewski’s 7th Berlin Biennale. Arseniy Zhilyaev, Russia’s current art star and the youngest post-Soviet artist to have a solo show at the State Tretyakov gallery, started the Biennale parcours with Art Belongs to the People (2012), a real tent with a slogan (starts with ‘o’, ends with ‘y’) on top. The installation looked fake, sure, and opportunistic, yes, and it didn’t work at all because the action around or in the tent only really occurred on the first day, when the artist paid some girls to stand with hand-drawn placards in support of the Pussy Riot group. For the remainder of the exhibition, the tent just stood there like a prop. Becker’s Biennale shared an artist with Z˙mijewski’s – Marina Naprushkina, a video artist and political activist from Belarus, who was represented by her work Belarus Today (2008), a piece about the official media of the authoritarian state, in which workers read out headlines from state-approved newspapers.
Second, Becker’s strategy was to present an impressive selection of documentary photography and video, with series from Mikhael Subotzky, Pieter Hugo, Ohm Phanphiroj, Anastasia Khoroshilova and other explorers of the world’s marginalized communities. The photos look emphatically alive, there are stories behind them – ones that are slow to emerge in mainstream media. Phanphiroj, for instance, explores the seedy world of Thailand’s child prostitution in ‘Underage’ (2010), preserving the models’ dignity by not sensationalizing (and thus marginalizing) their appearance. On the other side of the coin, Becker selected painters and sculptors whose work was less explicitly connected to politics, and tended toward a humble, vaguely formalist aesthetic. Untitled abstract drawings by Jorinde Voigt (2011), part geology maps, part cardiograms, set the tone. Becker probably did not intend to suggest a rift between handmade art work and lens-based work, but the absence of a human dimension in the former was glaring.
The show’s design was excellent, a quantum leap from its heavily populated predecessors. To counter the Brezhnevian chill of the Central House of Artists’ vast corridors, Becker employed a Russian architect, Sergey Sitar, to build a continuous flow of cheap and sombre plywood on the walls, a makeshift reality for the members of this sovereign art republic. Funnily enough, this state-within-a-state was not some anarchist free-for-all, but a democracy based on careful selection. Becker only partially employed the possibilities of an open call for the artists (the organizing committee received thousands of portfolios) and featured several mid-career artists. It would have been timely if hundreds of excluded artists had occupied the spaces left unused by the lucky few, but nothing of the sort happened: ‘Under a Tinsel Sun’ remained autonomous, suspended between the sacred value of an original object and the impulse to break free from institutional constraints. A conflict of our times, and one that the younger generation of Russia’s artists will have to face up to or live with.