in Critic's Guides | 12 APR 05
Featured in
Issue 90


Moscow recently held its first international Biennale, the biggest exhibition of contemporary art ever to be held in Russia

in Critic's Guides | 12 APR 05

Ekaterina Degot: The first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art was entirely state-financed and almost entirely curated by non-Russians. Of the six curators only Joseph Backstein, responsible for overall co-ordination of the event, represented Russia – officially as well as by birth, as he is an employee of the Ministry of Culture. Steered safely through the vicissitudes of both the Russian weather and Russian customs, the inaugural exhibition was given a title nobody wanted: ‘Dialectics of Hope’. Western curators and critics thought this was too obscure, but for Russians its meaning was all too clear: ‘hope’ has now become a key term in neo-communist rhetoric, and the almost taboo Marxist term ‘dialectics’ sounds vaguely oppositional. Boris Kagarlitsky, a prominent sociologist and left-wing activist, from one of whose books the Biennale borrowed the show’s title, publicly renounced responsibility for it, expressing his anxiety that the Biennale would not be oppositional enough.
But a dialectic of hope is exactly what was set in motion. Now that the Biennale is over, the Moscow art scene is full of optimism – for more generous state support, for more television coverage and for less volatile curiosity from international curators. Yet these hopes are accompanied by fears. Unexpectedly all of the participants in the show, curators and artists alike (from the main programme as well as the fringe events), were awarded medals from the Academy of Fine Arts (a conservative institution run by the ubiquitous Zurab Zereteli, who seems to be hand-in-glove with the state authorities); a week later, works by several artists, including Russian medal-winners Oleg Kulik and Vlad Monroe, were threatened with destruction; according to state prosecutors, they represent ‘a criminal incitement to religious hatred’. In 2003 some of the same artists were involved in the ill-fated ‘Caution Religion’ exhibition, which was attacked by religious fanatics, but since then the tables have been turned and now the director of the small museum that hosted the show (the Andrei Sakharov Museum), human rights activist Yuri Samodurov, is facing five years’ imprisonment. Sometimes, as Russians are wont to say, ‘the right hand does not know what the left is doing’. While the recipients felt awkward about accepting these ludicrous medals (rather in the Neo-classical spirit of the 18th century), they did so partly to protect themselves in an uncertain future full of ‘dialectical hope’. Ultimately, however, the awards have to be interpreted as part of a desperate attempt by Zereteli to join the contemporary art in-crowd – and in this he succeeded, establishing it as something legitimate and even prestigious.
But in contemporary Moscow ‘prestigious’ definitely means expensive-looking, or ‘fat’. Generally speaking, Moscow feels it
is important to follow the latest fashions in film, music and food;
it is no longer possible to say that post-Soviet cultural customers
are simply too ignorant to accept contemporary art. No, they are au courant; but they don’t feel that they need installations – they can simply enjoy the glossy Prada versions. For contemporary art to survive in an economy where university professors are, to judge from their salaries, social outcasts, and the only sphere where money can be found (and lots of it) is in the mass media is, to say the least, difficult. Any public discussion is invisible and there is no state support for less market-compatible cultural spheres.
It appears that the Moscow art world would have preferred the Biennale’s main exhibition (in the former Lenin Museum) to include ‘stars’ – a combination of, say, Helmut Newton, Bill Viola (whose work was actually on show in the Pushkin Museum) and Jeff Koons. In Moscow, porno chic – and religious chic – is what is considered ‘respectful’ (a word that can help to soften the heart of any state official in the city). However, the curators of the show preferred to show younger local artists, a decision that was perceived by some Muscovites as too self-effacing. Some of the gallerists, dealers, collectors and even sponsors, who are all fervent promoters of Russian art, complained that they could have done better.
In fact, they did. The Russian part of the programme was definitely oriented to the local taste for ‘fat’, entertaining art. Gallerist Marat Guelman’s show ‘Russia 2’, which presented ‘oppositional’ art in Russia, was no exception; on the contrary, the strategic inclusion of jokes about Vladimir Putin did not necessarily make for intellectually satisfying art, although it did attract the curious. The cheerful ‘Art Kliazma’ outdoor festival was seductive, with beautiful weather, lots of vodka, some entertaining art and no bothersome concepts. This tendency culminated in the amusingly bombastic ‘Starz’ show, which included four of the most commercially successful Russian artists: the AES group, Oleg Kulik, Vlad Monroe and the painting duo Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, all of whom obviously intended to challenge the Biennale by proclaiming themselves eccentric but accessible stars for the Russian audience. It was curator Andrey Erofeev who did the best job – his show ‘Accomplices. Collective and Interactive Works in Russian Art of the 1960s–2000s’ at the Tretyakov Gallery presented some charming 1980s underground trash in absolutely the appropriate museum setting.
But does a Russian audience really want just to be entertained? The reaction of and to the Lenin Museum guards (one of whom appeared as a living art work in Tino Sehgal’s piece) revealed that Moscovites wanted above all to understand what these ‘important but unknown to me foreign artists’ meant to convey. The Russian public’s typical way of looking at work is to approach it conceptually, in a manner that is both friendly and severe – but they were not satisfied, firstly because the meaning (context and references) of the work was not made explicit and, secondly, because the works themselves did not seem to ‘express’ anything particularly specific – they were not conceptual enough. Over the last decade or so exhibition visitors have been confronted with the now well-established relational aesthetics approach to exhibition-making, which it is tempting to paraphrase as ‘we artists and curators had an extremely good time socializing here; now we are leaving behind some remnants so you can have your share of our enriching life experience’.
But the term ‘dialectics of hope’ did indeed make some sense here – about the ultimate aim of the communist ideal: how it was sought, and why it was not achieved. It is a pity the work of none of the artists, wherever they were from, really touched on this issue. A Soviet documentary from 1958, Zhivoy Lenin (Lenin is Alive) which, for some reason, the curators decided to project in the central hall of the empty former Lenin Museum, looked like a forgotten part of the old museum permanent installation – or a part of an intriguing biennale we have yet to see. Hopefully we will, in two years’ time.
Ekaterina Degot is is an art historian, curator and critic. She was the co-curator of Berlin-Moscow/Moscow-Berlin 1950-2000 at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2003.

Pavel Pepperstein: In most action films, the hero, in order to achieve his task, must gather a group together in which members never communicate with each other ‘beyond the business’. Once the group splits up everyone return to their worlds, unless there are problems with sharing the money, or dealing with the consequences of love or revenge. For artist micro-groups in Moscow ‘doing business’ is even more complicated – members tend to hinder rather than help each other in creating works of art or in furthering their careers. Nevertheless, they accept these inconveniences for the sake of continuing their groups’ existence. This is not, as suggested in the West, a sign of weakness, but one of pleasure, which derives from the Russian sense of blissful separation from the rest of the world – even if such pleasure may seem at odds with much contemporary art’s preoccupation with communication and collaboration.
Society in general, and the art-world in particular – or macro-groups – are making every attempt to make Moscow’s micro-groups extinct; if they are prepared to document their history, it tends to be of the retrospective ‘I will love you when you die’ variety. I prefer to examine the here and now. The new type of micro-group is almost invisible, even to its members. They have neither unity nor solidarity and it’s almost impossible to trace their footsteps during the coldest days of winter (although the winter is getting warmer), or in the drunken days of spring (although spring is sobering up).

Collective Actions (CA)
Since the 1970s the group Collective Actions has been closely connected with a field in the Moscow region, originally a farm, called the Kievogorskoe Pole where they enacted their performances (‘collective actions’ is a play on ‘collective farm’). The vast space and simple quality of the field were both the conditions and the content of these events. During the 1990s the field was divided up which put a stop to the CA’s activities for several years. Consequently, they became a virtual micro-group, mourning the loss of their site, moving from a ‘cultivation of emptiness’ towards a nomadic lifestyle. Their subsequent actions took place at the group’s second site – the Moscow Circular Highway, creating a micro-social circle of Moscow Conceptualists, the so-called ‘MANI circle’. This provided a rich environment for other micro-groups such as Fly Agarica, C3, World Champions, and Inspection Medical Hermeneutic.

Inspection Medical Hermeneutic (MH)
The MH was concerned with studying theoretical constructions, ideologies, artistic principles and the shifting borders between micro-social and macro-social spaces. Because the group, unlike CA, was the child of an exciting period of political and economical instability, it gave birth not only to one established circle but also to many new and unstable ones. These MH circles formed a sphere, which is now called The Circle of Psychedelic Realism or The Estonia Circle. On 11 September 2001 the MH moved into a category of virtual micro-groups (of whose existence we can’t be certain). It was a moment of destruction of the ‘mystical’ void between the ‘First’ and ‘Third’ Worlds, which for a long time was called the ‘Second World’. The MH became a micro-group that had lost its space. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out: ‘The closing of the research department is the first thing done by a large First World Company after it consumes smaller Third World Companies’. Now that Russia, at the beginning of the 21st Century, had finally became an affiliate of the international capitalist substructure, the Inspection MH, as one of the ‘research departments’ of the second world, was ‘shut’.

The FENSO group created a sense of fun and friendships: from LSD-wanderings in the woods to role-playing – knights, gangsters, hockey players, Zen-masters and English college-boys. Although the theme of friendship was practiced by many art groups, (including Fly Agarica, C3, The Forth Height), it was the FENSO group that brought it all together. A failure of these friendships looked like jealous revenge of the macro groups on the ecstasy and celebration of the micro-groups. Anton Smirnsky (former member of FENSO group) transformed his apartment into an installation-museum dedicated to the novelist Jane Austen and to her ‘novels of relationships’.

The group Russia was named after the house on Sretensky Bulvar, where it still has some lofts. During the second half of the 1990s, the Russia house was situated next to Ilya Kabakov’s former studio, and became a centre of fellowship and collaboration for a large circle of artists from Moscow, St Petersburg and Odessa. As a result of receiving almost no institutional support its members gradually moved out to the countryside. The group has now lost its subject matter and is ‘virtual’; gloomy symbolism considering that subject matter is ‘Russia’. The paintings of the group are among the most interesting things to come out of Moscow’s contemporary art scene. These modest paintings, which consciously attempt to dissolve into a multitude of other paintings, could be described as spiritual viruses that contribute significant disruptions into the smooth functioning of commercial Russian culture.
Other artistic groups such as the left wing, politically involved Radek and PG (its members translate its name as either Complete Shit, or Political Group) have also lost their objectives and moved into the virtual category. Their political dimension almost completely disappeared once it became clear that political openness in Russia was a facade. The PG group’s attempt to merge the psychedelic approach of MH with the political involvement that stems from the Moscow Actionists of the 1990s is interesting, but we are still not sure how successful they were.
Finally, Cloud Commission and Tartu are the most perspicacious micro-groups. From the very beginning they were virtual, representing their object (poetry), as completely lost and irrevocable.
In the last six years Moscow has been overtaken by overcrowding and an absence of free space and, symbolically, of any free-thinking. Moscow is being destroyed and no one is protesting. The same thing has happened to political freedom (which was real during the 1990s): all we can hear is apoplectic breathing, the ‘strange wheeze of fat men’ (while the rest of the population starves and is silent). The micro-groups had their own euphoric languages and were able to ignore the rest of the world, which provoked envy in macro-groups. A society that encourages this kind of envy creates a dangerous and painful position, suffocating itself through an absence of alternatives and restrictions of space and time.
Translated by Anya Stonelake

Pavel Pepperstein is an artist and writer based in Moscow and a co-founder of the Inspection Medical Hermeneutic group. With Sergei Anufriev he co-wrote a novel The Mythogenic Love of Castes (Moscow 1999). A longer Russian version of this essay appears in the catalogue of the exhibition Accomplices. Collective and Interactive Works in Russian Art of the 1960s – 2000s at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. He recently had a solo show at Sutton Lane Gallery in London.

Dan Fox and Jennifer Higgie: In Russia information is Byzantine. While post-perestroika capitalism runs amok, life for independent news sources is decidedly pre-glasnost. Impartial reportage from troubled outlying states is difficult to come by, and a number of newspapers critical of the regime have been closed down or gobbled up by newly moneyed oligarchs. In an interview with The Guardian, even Mikhail Komissar, head of Interfax, a news agency regarded with some suspicion owing to its proximity to the upper echelons of the government, remarked that Russia ‘is a difficult place to establish a media organization. Ten of our journalists have been killed in the past 15 years.’ Recently the Moscow News reported that the State Duma has stipulated that foreigners may be refused a visa if they have ‘shown disrespect’ for the country’s authorities.
Thus, reporting on the First Moscow Biennale – somewhat portentously titled ‘The Dialectics of Hope’ – is laughably incomparable to making sense of the situation in Chechnya or the recent scandals surrounding elections in the Ukraine. Nonetheless, rumour and intrigue characterized any attempt to find kernels of truth amid the chaos. One example of this was the surprise expressed by many people that Viktor Misiano – a writer, editor, director of the Contemporary Art Centre in Moscow and driving force behind initial plans for the biennale – was dismissed by the Ministry of Culture, at the request of co-ordinating curator Joseph Backstein, a decision that prompted protests from a number of Russian artists.
The intentions behind the Biennale are at once so commendable and so confused that any praise must be qualified by myriad ifs and buts. Above all, for a culture that has suffered such unforgivable restrictions on the production of art and free speech to hold a largely uncensored exhibition of 41 artists from 22 countries, along with a parallel programme of 25 special projects in museums, galleries and apartments across the city (most of which were organized and funded independently), is something to be applauded, inasmuch as it is an aid to combating both local insularity and the lazy misconceptions from abroad that keep Russian art at the fringes – just as long as its organization does not follow the slippery slope of the country’s early 21st-century leaders.
In their rambling introduction to the Biennale catalogue Backstein and his high-profile co-curators Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez and Hans-Ulrich Obrist announced: ‘We believe it is part of the role of the curator to place a certain reading upon events, to bring clarity to this chaotic world and to offer an interpretation about the state of contemporary art.’ Laudable, if slightly unreal sentiments; it was a shame they were tempered by the proposal that ‘we have to juxtapose the ghost of Lenin with the ghost of Christian Dior’, at best a flippant remark to make in a city suffering increasing authoritarianism, economic turmoil and corruption.
The main venues were the State Schusev museum of architecture, Vorobyevy Gory metro station and the down-at-heel former Lenin Museum, which, just off Red Square, is such a historically loaded site that it risked overwhelming the exhibition. Apparently the show was plagued by last-minute bureaucratic difficulties – permission to use the building, which had been closed for 11 years, was given only on 7 December. Described in the Moscow Times as an ‘elaborate bait’ for international visitors, a good selection of non-Russian artists including Tino Sehgal, Micol Assaël, Gelatin and Michael Beutler were shown alongside work by a few Russian colleagues: emerging artists such as Rostan Tavasiev and well-established Performance group Blue Noses (videos of ‘pranks, sketches and gags’ projected in cardboard boxes); and members of Moscow leftist artist group Radek, Alexei Kallima (a wall drawing of a fight between a soldier and a civilian morphing into a hammer and sickle) and David Ter-Oganyan (fake bombs distributed throughout the venue). Overall, the show suffered from a sense of haste: some videos were projected in light-filled stairwells or behind shabby curtains, for example. Equally, in the Museum of Architecture ambitious major installations by Christian Boltanski and Michal Rovner were held in close proximity to rooms of faded grandeur that showed a good cross-section of contemporary video and film, much of which, however, was also awkwardly displayed: for instance an extremely quiet Yang Fudong film projected next to a raucous video by Pilar Albaraccín. A recurring question seemed to be: with a budget of 43 million roubles (about 1,190,000 Euros), why was the bulk of the official Biennale so rough and ready?
The selection of local artists also seemed to be a sore point. Out of 41 official Biennale artists six were Russian – not necessarily such a poor percentage in an international exhibition, but many Russians we spoke to complained that none of the foreign curators had visited local galleries or studios during the selection process. One suggested reason was that there was a parallel programme of exhibitions across the city, which would deal with Russian art – a reasoning that, if true, would seem to reveal a relinquishing of responsibility and a lack curiosity towards the local art community by the visiting curators.
By contrast the parallel programme provided compelling viewing. ‘Starz’, at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art at Petrovka (organized by PhotoFactory, ArArAt and supported by The Modern City Foundation and XL Gallery), included a comprehensive overview of work – most of which took bombast and satire as a starting point – by some of the big hitters of contemporary Russian art: AES+F, Vinogradov and Dubossarsky, and Oleg Kulik. The rowdy and fascinating archival displays of ‘Accomplices. Collective and Interactive Works in Russian Art, 1960s–2000s’ at the State Tretyakov Gallery (which also houses an astonishing collection of Suprematist, Constructivist and Socialist Realist art) helped clarify historical precedents for contemporary Russian art. ‘No Comment? Art of Young Russian Artists’ was a crowded and lively show housed in a former factory that, on the whole, seemed less strident than the older generation, and, as a result, could have been an artist-run group show anywhere in London, Berlin, New York or Melbourne (and was no less interesting for it).
Just a few days in Moscow are not enough to glimpse the complexities of its multi-faceted art scene. One of the highlights, however, was the re-staging of Ilya Kabakov’s 16 Ropes at the artist’s former apartment and studio on Stretenksy Boulevard, where it had first been shown in 1984. Venturing through darkened courtyards and up endless flights of stairs to a small attic vividly evoked the clandestine ‘apartment shows’ so crucial to maintaining freedom for the artistic underground during the Soviet era. Detritus found on the Moscow streets hung delicately from strings in rows throughout the room, each piece tagged with a label transcribing snippets of overheard conversation. One seemed particularly apt: ‘There’s nothing worse than anticipation – let there be anything else, the worst thing even, just so as not to wait.’