BY Max Seddon in Critic's Guides | 23 JUN 09


Despite a lack of institutions and an ambivalence towards the market, Moscow’s art scene continues to grow

BY Max Seddon in Critic's Guides | 23 JUN 09

Nash‘, the Russian word for ‘our’, carries a little more emotional weight in the original than it does in English. ‘Our people’ can mean like-minded ones, friends or just other Russians; when Russians talk about ‘our team’ or ‘our soldiers’, there’s only one country they have in mind.

But when Russians talk about ‘our art’, this adds another emotional dimension. Contemporary Russian art is produced in spite of financial turmoil, a post-Soviet institutional wasteland and the fact that Russia is not exactly an easy place to do anything productive. Those producing art are a rare breed here: Moscow’s art world has around 300 full-time jobs, and, though estimates vary, the number of practicing artists is even fewer.


The Collective Action group

In the latter decades of the USSR, a small handful of ‘non-conformists’ were forced to go well out of public sight. That could mean the woods, as was the case for the Collective Action group, or out of Russia altogether, which was the fate that befell Komar & Melamid, Erik Bulatov and many others. For many, the only real way to make a living as an artist was by illustrating children’s books; the only real platforms for dicussion were located the apartments of Igor Makarevich or Ilya Kabakov.


Oleg Kulik performance

After the brief international vogue for Soviet art died out at the tail-end of perestroika, it fell to Moscow’s nascent commercial galleries to start over. The minimal interest in art from Russia’s nouveau riche and almost total lack of state support saw many artists turn towards nihilistic actionism (as with Oleg Kulik’s infamous ‘human dog’ performances), while gallerists attempted to pitch unsellable art to nonexistent customers. Money had little to do with it – Aidan Salakhova’s gallery, for instance, did not sell a single contemporary work between 1993 and 1997.


Exterior of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art

It wasn’t until the end of the ’90s that a stable economy emerged, bringing with it the National Center for Contemporary Art and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1992 and 1999, respectively). These two institutions are just about the extent of the state’s support, and so the city’s art world is still largely what it was 15 years ago – that is, in the words of former ArtChronika magazine editor Nikolai Molok, ‘nothing more than a jamjar, with four galleries, three curators, two critics, and 30 artists packed into it.’ Without an institutional infrastructure or even a permanent physical home, the Multimedia Complex of Contemporary Art, for example, is completely powered by the superhuman enthusiasm and fund-raising abilities of director Olga Sviblova (curator of the last two Russian pavilions in Venice).


The National Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow

It is this kind of abnormal personal dedication that allows anything even resembling the western model to exist, though Russia still lacks a Tate Modern-style museum or an independent non-profit institution in the vein of P.S.1. This has far more to do with the lay of the land than the people on it: a combination of the largest population in Europe, a lack of institutions, property prices as inflated as London’s and an average wage comparable to Brazil’s, makes the gentrification process almost entirely impossible. Art spaces owe their existence and longevity to the benevolence of the landlord. This means that their futures are uncertain in the extreme, and, more often than not, these spaces inevitably make way for something more profit-focused. The ArtStrelka complex, which pioneered the independent non-commercial approach here earlier this decade, will this month make way for an as yet unannounced ‘entertainment facility’. Likewise, the Central House of Artists and the Tretyakov Gallery’s 20th-century wing have been threatened by giant blocks of luxury flats for the best part of a year.


The ArtStrelka complex

The counter-example is realtors Roman and Sofia Trotsenko’s Winzavod facility, a former wine factory renovated to include commercial art and photography galleries (including the ‘Big Four’ that were founded in the ‘90s: Aidan; Guelman; Regina; XL), design boutiques, cafés, artists’ studios, a beauty salon, as well as multipurpose exhibition spaces. Firmly established as the epicentre of Moscow’s burgeoning pseudo-subcultures, it is the Russian West 20s within four walls. Nonetheless, it is practically the only thing in Moscow remotely resembling an arts district, and has firmly engraved itself into the consciousness of a public that was – up until recently – barely conscious of art; even – as people astoundedly remark – gypsy cab drivers know where it is.


The Winzavod facility

But this surge of public interest in contemporary art – that, depending on who you ask, Winzavod either sparked or represents – has left Moscow’s art world largely unfazed, many skeptics maintaining that it is merely a fad. Though the annual ‘Museum Night’ was visited by 450,000 predominantly young people in its first edition last year, the vast majority of those are rarely seen at an exhibition the rest of the year. When they do, they often only stay long enough to take pictures of themselves pouting in front of the art. XL Gallery director Elena Selina, however, is more optimistic. After a succession of teenagers, confronted by Sergei Shekhovtsov’s Styrofoam installation Fahrenheit 392 (2009), asked, ‘Excuse me, where’s your exhibition?’ (something that apparently happened every day of the show), Selina noted that: ‘The more advanced ones ask, “What’s that?” And that’s the next step.’


Sergei Shekhovtsov, Fahrenheit 392 (2009)

Selina hopes that with time and repeated visits, this trend will develop into a broader, more refined appreciation. But, given the absence of institutions that could create this understanding, this is less a question of time than money. Winzavod, after all, is essentially a (highly successful) attempt to commercialize the ArtStrelka model; now that the financial crisis has halted the much-hyped ‘olig-art boom’ there is little other than small domestic works on sale. Gary Tatintsian, who moved his space to Moscow from Paris in 2005 and brought the likes of Vik Muniz to the Russian public, has not had a new show since September. Volker Diehl’s space, which became the first Moscow branch of a western gallery last April, has recently gone equally quiet after big-name exhibitions from Jaume Plensa and Jenny Holzer.


‘Unconditional Love’ (2009), a collateral event at Venice

Many in Moscow, however, hold that the arrival of money destroyed the spirit on which the Russian art world was founded. The two catch-all insults of the last few years have been to call exhibitions glamurny – an untranslatable neologism to describe flaunting wealth for its own sake – and their works ‘salon art’ (i.e. the phenomenon of producing art for sale). Critics will rush to judge a work or exhibition solely because of the amount of cash involved. Ekaterina Degot, a leading member of the anti-glamur brigade, can often be found on the OpenSpace website she co-edits writing things like ‘the art market destroyed everything that was good in contemporary Russian art’ and ‘the ‘90s are coming back. Hooray!’ (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute to OpenSpace.)


The opening of the Russian Pavilion in June

That suspicion of commerce even permeates some gallerists, many of whom (bar Triumph Gallery’s Emilian Zakharov, who openly declares that maximizing profit is his sole operating principle) take an almost indifferent view to the art market. There was no market in the ‘90s, the saying goes, but art developed nonetheless. And it will continue to, financial crisis or no. Russian art is slowly making steps towards its place in the sun: increasing numbers of Russian galleries are showing at international art fairs; the Moscow Biennale will hold its third installment this year under the direction of Jean-Hubert Martin; this year’s Venice Biennale featured a record number of Russian participants (albeit with varying degrees of success); while ‘A Certain State of the World?’, the exhibition of works from the François Pinault collection that re-opened Garage CCC in March, marked the first ever blue-chip international exhibition here. Of course, the financial crisis has undoubtedly harmed Moscow as much as elsewhere, but for Russians this is only the first one since the devaluation of the ruble 11 years ago. Back then, it was a testament to the Russian art world’s personalities that the scene managed to survive. That it continues today, despite everything, is just as impressive.