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Issue 118

Trans-Siberian Express

Recent developments in Russian and Chinese contemporary art

BY Ekaterina Degot AND Carol Yinghua Lu in News | 01 OCT 08

The 798 Space gallery, Beijing, 2008

EKATERINA DEGOT As a Moscow-based art critic and curator, I’ve recently witnessed an explosion of interest in contemporary art and the willingness to finance exhibitions. The same officials who, only two years ago, regarded contemporary art as ‘the usual bullshit we need to show if we want to be Europeans’, now stress the importance of the art market. Take the recent opening of The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) in Moscow, for instance, which is run by Daria ‘Dasha’ Zhukova and financed by her boyfriend, Roman Abramovich, who seems to want to become Russia’s answer to François Pinault. Everything at the launch party was stylish and sober (except for the performance of guest musician Amy Winehouse) and even a few Conceptual art veterans were invited – including Andrei Monastyrsky, Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina – one of whom observed that ‘a strong desire for contemporary art’ was in the air. Originally designed as a bus garage by the Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1926, The Garage offers almost 9,000 square metres of exhibition space – raising the question of what can fill it. How would you say this compares to what’s happening in Beijing?

CAROL YINGHUA LU Currently, there aren’t any state-run museums dedicated to contemporary art in China. The country’s contemporary art scene only really emerged in the late 1970s, but since then, as in Russia, it has gone through several phases in its relationship with the government. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, contemporary art developed rapidly with the influx of information from the West and the newfound intellectual freedom that accompanied the end of the Cultural Revolution. But following the exhibition ‘China/Avant-Garde’ at the National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989, when the artist Xiao Lu fired an unauthorized gunshot at her own mirrored sculpture, the contemporary art scene was forced underground and denied access to mainstream cultural institutions for most of the 1990s. Then in early 2000, the contemporary market began to surface and prosper as the Western world showed increasing interest in Chinese art. Slowly, art was welcomed back into state museums and began to attract local buyers, most of whom belong to a generation that has reaped its wealth from the sectors of entertainment, antiques-dealing, energy production and, especially, property development. A few years ago, the garage collector Guan Yi’s collection of over 500 important installations and Conceptual art works by Chinese artists attracted a lot of attention. He has been talking about opening his own museum for a few years now, but has been hesitant because China doesn’t yet have any laws regulating private museums. Other collectors have built their own museums in cities outside Beijing, where land is cheaper and where it is easier to realize their visions. In June 2008, I was invited to visit Mongolian collector Cai Jiang’s private museum, built in the middle of the desert in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. It’s surrounded by a man-made lake and 100 villas designed by 100 international architects – a project overseen by the artist Ai Weiwei. Like many such projects, the collection and museum are part of a bigger scheme involving property developments, publishing and other commercial ventures. In general, there seems to be a phenomenal rush to build these kinds of private museums, which in turn generates an increased demand for art production and art professionals. Is this happening in Russia too?

ED This sounds very similar to the current situation in Russia, although it’s happening on a much smaller scale than in China. Russian artists who have been to China say: ‘We have Winzavod [a popular, post-industrial contemporary art centre in Moscow], but China has ten of those in every city!’ From the 1950s until the 1980s censorship prevented many artists from exhibiting publicly, so they showed in apartment exhibitions and artists’ communities. With the institutional turmoil of the 1990s and the absence of a market, artists concentrated primarily on performance-based works. Gradually, after 2000, contemporary art became fashionable amongst the nouveau riche and an important status symbol for the government. At the opening of the first Moscow Biennale in 2005, the culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi jokingly referred to contemporary art as ‘bullshit’, but by the time the second Biennale took place in 2007, it was considered an important national event. You could say that contemporary art in Russia runs the risk of becoming a glamorous smokescreen for an undemocratic state. What you say about collectors wanting to establish their own museums is a well-known phenomenon here too. Igor Markin, a businessman from Moscow, recently established the first Russian public museum for contemporary art, Art4.ru, which opened with a garage sale-like installation that didn’t even display the artists’ names alongside their works. Needless to say, Markin only exhibited Russian artists (the art market in Russia still functions as a self-promotional tool), but the collection is not bad if you like art that functions as a kind of joke, which seems to be popular among Russian collectors. But Markin, like many others, does not feel completely safe. Recently, Vladimir Nekrasov, the wealthy owner of a Russian cosmetics company (and an important collector of modern art), was arrested for tax evasion. There were rumours that he was offered his freedom in exchange for the donation of his enormous collection to the newly renovated Konstantinovsky Palace in St Petersburg which is part state museum and was a private residence for Vladimir Putin during his presidency. Here, contemporary art functions as a symbol of both power and wealth, which are increasingly equivalent in present-day Russia.

CYL Contemporary art is also a glamorous smokescreen for the government in China. For instance, the local Beijing council initiated the Beijing Biennial six years ago in the hope of attracting the same levels of attention as the Shanghai Biennial, which has become a successful marketing tool for the city. The Beijing Biennial, however, is poorly conceived and organized by the government-run Association of Fine Artists. It resembles a third-rate art fair and no one on the contemporary art circuit really cares about it. Art works are generally wildly overpriced in China. A young artist who hasn’t yet had a museum show might get around £55,000 for a sculpture, and for established artists the prices are even more outrageous. Most of these artists made a name for themselves with a few important works in the 1990s, but their ideas haven’t really moved on since then. They have lots of gallery shows and their art is often seen in auction houses, but its quality is questionable. There seems to be a keen interest in inflating the prices so that both the buyers and the artists profit. It’s sad because it sends out the false signal to younger artists that market validation means everything.

ED Although the Russian government tries to use contemporary art as a tool for creating the appearance of modernity, it nonetheless delegates financial support for the sphere to private capital. As in China, there is no state museum of contemporary art and all the larger private art initiatives are controlled, at an ideological level, by the state. This ‘delegation’ looks like a state assignment – just as Abramovich was ‘elected’ governor of the remote district of Chukotka and shortly thereafter began financing the GCCC. The situation is similar to Soviet times, when an apparatchik could rule agriculture one day and high culture the next; the only difference is that now Abramovich pays out of his own pocket. Whereas in the 1990s Russian oligarchs like disgraced magnate Vladimir Gusinsky were creating media empires, now they’re focusing on contemporary art, which is considered more chic and politically less dangerous. Recent rumours even suggest that Putin was advised to describe his alleged new girlfriend, who has no professional background, as a contemporary art curator. It is only half-jokingly estimated that the contemporary art audience in Moscow is composed of 95 percent students and five percent oligarchs. The oligarchs prefer to buy through auction houses rather than commercial art galleries, however, since they see the latter as too accessible to the public. This explains why Western and Russian galleries organized several condensed and exclusive VIP versions of art fairs this year in spaces that were strictly off-limits to the general public (a private palace, a yacht club, a shopping mall in an exclusive celebrity enclave near Moscow). Another recent trend is the phenomenon of ‘independently wealthy artists’, who are mostly the wives or girlfriends of the rich male bourgeoisie. One of them, Julia Milner, the wife of a dot-com magnate, represented Russia at the Venice Biennale in 2007. (Of course, her selection might well have helped resolve the eternal headache of financing the exhibition.) These artists dress in Gucci, yacht in Saint-Tropez, and aren’t concerned with institutional critique or the Marxist leftovers that dominate the contemporary art scene in Moscow. They also don’t intimidate collectors. In fact, they are just like them – which makes the whole idea that art is complicated and challenging, and something that one has to learn about, completely redundant.

Ekaterina Degot is a curator based in Moscow. She is working on an exhibition on the art economy in Odessa, Ukraine, and is editor-in-chief of the art page of a new online Russian cultural newspaper www.openspace.ru. She teaches at the Alexander Rodchenko photography and multimedia school.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a writer, editor, curator and contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Beijing.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.