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by Matthew Bown
Crumbling and poorly lit, Moscow’s late-Brezhnev Era Central House of the Artist is no place for a contemporary art fair, whatever nostalgic appeal the structure might have to the local art crowd, who have defended it constantly against developers, including Sir Norman Foster. But there it was nonetheless, the 14th annual ArtMoscow, Sept. 22-26, 2010, set up in the same space as myriad trade shows and a Christmas arts-and-crafts fair, where holiday shoppers might obtain a pair of embroidered felt bootees.

ArtMoscow escaped the débacle of last year, when works belonging to several foreign galleries failed to clear through customs in time and spaces were left empty or decked with photocopies. However, that kind of experience can't have encouraged foreign participants. This year 36 galleries took part, but only nine came from countries outside the former USSR.

The so-called VIP opening was subdued with few VIPs in evidence beyond the usual crowd that makes the local scene what it is. Members of Moscow's famously champagne-swilling glitterati were absent, perhaps in part because the champagne itself, served for some reason with croissants, was in short supply. Even many Moscow art-world luminaries gave the opening a miss, lured instead by "Modernikon, Contemporary Art from Russia," an exhibition organized by Francesco Bonami and Irene Calderoni that opened at the same time at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin.

Overall, ArtMoscow's underwhelming opening, its modest catalogue and its handful of exhibitors all spoke of an event living a marginal and precarious existence.

At the entrance to the fair was Tzarina Bellflower, a work by Elizaveta Berezovskaya in the form of a huge glowing inflated flower-head, which had been commissioned as part of a small but interesting parallel program of lectures and shows. Visitors could enter the flower from one end and, having penetrated to the other, sit down in its enclosed space and listen to music: the work functioned as both sculpture and sound-environment, similar to the womb-like Pipilotti Rist film-viewing room in the Hoffmann Collection in Berlin.

Berezovskaya showed regularly at Moscow's Aidan Gallery five to ten years ago but her work hasn't been seen much since; perhaps this appearance marks her return to regular activity. I had showed her work myself about five years ago, in my gallery on Davies Street in London. Then, we discussed financing for her piece: a pair of giant illuminated red perspex lips, hanging from the ceiling and reflected in a huge lip-shaped mirror below. I offered a small sum, maybe because I felt, quite irrationally, that she -- the daughter of oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- ought to be able to make a contribution. In the event, constrained by the meager budget, she decided to fabricate the entire work in Russia. I objected. "But how will you transport it? It will cost a fortune." The reply: "It will come on private jet."

The preview was too early to talk of sales, but I quizzed a few dealers about the state of the market in the post-Soviet space. Inessa Rinke, of Rigas Gallery from Latvia, whose stand was focused on the silver-toned erotic paintings of Eva Iltner (priced at €6,000-€15,000), attested that the market in Riga is in a forlorn state. The main excitement of her summer, she said, was watching the glistening super-yachts of the Russian oligarchs –- Abramovich, Shvidler, Aven -– riding at anchor in the port.

Natasha Sheiko of Tsekh Gallery, Kiev’s leading contemporary gallery, told a similar tale. Nearly all the buyers in her fine high-ceilinged post-industrial space in Kiev hail from Europe or Russia, while Ukrainian demand remains very weak. Sheiko also reported that Viktor Pinchuk, the man who brought international contemporary art to Kiev, has slashed his exhibition budget, and the opening of his new museum is still unscheduled.

The state of woe in Ukraine was borne out incidentally on the stand of another Kiev gallery, Collection Gallery, where a large work by Ilya Chichkan, Ukrainian representative at the last Venice Biennale and arguably Ukraine’s most adored artist, was available for a mere $15,000. At the Fine Art Gallery booth, paintings by Masha Shubina -- who happens to be Chichkan's wife as well as winner of last year's Pinchuk Art Center special prize -- were priced at $10,000.

Masha told me that her Pinchuk prize, money apart, consists of work experience in Antony Gormley’s London studio. So, one of Ukraine’s better-known young artists has been rewarded with the job of making coffee for the spindly maestro. He's a lucky guy.

In good journalist mode, I tried to interview a couple of people. I asked Nic Iljine of the Guggenheim Museum what he thought of ArtMoscow. He looked at me like I was deranged and asked, "Are you joking?" I began to hope I was. Then, in an attempt to help, he added that he liked some works and disliked others. Nic is much more eloquent in the soon-to-be published collection of art-world-insider essays, A Hedonist’s Guide to Art, assembled by this magazine's own sometime London correspondent, Laura K. Jones, in which he relates the tale of Vladimir Putin’s behind-the-scenes visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "I’ll probably get arrested for that," he quipped, only half-joking.

Unfortified by my interview with Nic, I moved on to Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography. I asked her for a few words. She indicated a line of people queuing up to talk to her, at the end of which I should take my place. By the time I met Vasili Tsereteli, director of the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, I had given up on the celebrity interview and instead photographed him with his wife, Kira Sacarello, in front of two classic photos by Oleg Kulik at the XL Gallery stand.

Among all the museum shows running parallel to ArtMoscow, the stand-out is "ZEN d’APT: The Gender History of Art in the Post-Soviet Space, 1989–2009," curated by Natalia Kamenetskaya and Oksana Sarkisyan at Tsereteli’s museum on Petrovka Street. This thorough, fascinating and revealing survey of art by women included artists too numerous to mention, but I was struck by Penalty Shoot-Out, a huge embroidered wall-hanging by Ira Waldron which mixes art stars and footballers as names on football shirts. It sounds almost too straightforward but it's beautiful to behold.

ArtMoscow had a glut of photography and photography-based works. Amid the vast shiny School-of-Gursky photos that predominated, I particularly liked the modestly sized photographs by the Berlin-based Russian artist Julia Kissina, whose series "When Shadows Cast People" has also been published as a book of the same name. These pictures, on view at Moscow's Pobeda Gallery, were all shot from her Berlin flat, looking down into the sunlit street. Presumably the time of day is early morning or late afternoon: shadows of passersby stretch across the surface of the picture, adumbrating weirdly elegant figures: the passersby themselves, foreshortened, are bright ragged blobs. It's a seductive updating of Rodchenko.

The Guelman Gallery stand was completely devoted to prints by the Blue Noses, mostly from their "Mask Show" series (prices start at €6,000), which depicts politicians, celebrities and other media creations engaged in farcical sexual activity via the fine art of collage. I was glad to see that the kind of harmless humor that got me arrested at Sheremetevo airport in 2006 is now treated in Moscow as, well, harmless humor.

The fair’s largest stand belonged to Moscow's Triumph Gallery, which was operating here in partnership with Joe La Placa of London's All Visual Arts. La Placa artists such as Wolfe von Lenkewicz were mixed in with the Triumph stable, among them AES+F and the controversial painter of the "national idea" Alexei Belyaev-Gintovt.

Next to Triumph was Marina Gisich from St Petersburg, whose display included small boxes by Marina Alekseeva: something like miniature stage-sets which incorporated film-projection of some kind: impossible to photograph well but beguiling to behold. The most elegant stand, to my mind, was that of Palma de Mallorca-based dealer Horrach Moya, which showed a single beautiful piece, Dreams under the Shelter of the Night, by Jorge Mayet.

Among the other foreign exhibitors, Finland’s Forsblum Gallery, which has been working with the Russian scene since the 1980s, brought flower-themed works by Donald Sultan, Ross Bleckner and HC Berg. The only Russian artist Forsblum showed was Irina Zatulovskaya, who makes paintings on scraps of iron retrieved from the roofs of Moscow's rotting old buildings.

Centerpiece of the exhibition at Knoll Galleries from Vienna and Budapest was a large stone sculpture by Tony Cragg, titled One Way or Another and priced at €300,000. Moscow's Art + Art displayed in its booth a poured-paint abstraction by Ian Davenport. But it has to be said that such nice non-Russian things were exceptional at ArtMoscow.

The most startling booth was Nicola Von Senger from Zürich, with its display of prints, photos and a painting by Terry Rodgers, who assembles erotically costumed (or semi-costumed) male and female models, stitching the individual poses together into a chaste bacchanal. Highly accomplished from a technical point of view, Rodgers’ work presents a challenge to interpretation: Are these merely beautiful people faffing around in their undies, or are the paintings some kind of allegorical tableaux? The ideal after-party, perhaps?

By the end of Saturday, the last full day of the show, many galleries were stating zero or very low sales. Ruth Addison of Triumph Gallery said the fair was "slower for us than last year, when we had an unexpectedly good result." An exception was Frolov Gallery, which told me it had sold ten works, most by photographer Ralf Kaspers (price range €40,000-€80,000), but also a beads-on-canvas work by Russian artist Olga Soldatova (€25,000).

The official ArtMoscow sales total, based on "provisional calculations," is €2.4 million in completed sales and a little more than another €2 million in reserved works. In addition to Frolov Gallery, other top-selling Russian dealers included Aidan Gallery and Triumph Gallery; top-selling foreign galleries were the Barbarian Art Gallery from Zürich and the Shiraishi Gallery from Tokyo.

ArtMoscow has tried every which way to make itself relevant. It used to be held in May, but has recently shifted its scheduling to run at the same time as the Kandinsky Prize, the Moscow Biennale and whatever else might be happening in the autumn. The trouble is, ArtMoscow is overshadowed by anything and everything. The Kandinsky Prize survey, presented on the floor above the fair in the Central House of the Artist, presented many works of work of greater interest, notably for me Alexander Brodsky's sculpture-installation The Way, inspired by a Russian sleeper train.

Commercial gallery shows that opened the same week as ArtMoscow at the VinZavod Art Centre, including solo shows by Ilya Chichkan at Guelman Gallery and Daniel Richter at Regina Gallery, were far more substantial than the offerings at the fair. ArtMoscow doesn't have the excuse that it at least brings to Moscow examples of work by major contemporary artists who otherwise remain unseen there: it brings very few.

No wonder then that plans are afoot to set up a rival event, notably one spearheaded by Vladimir Ovcharenko, owner of Regina Gallery, and Berlin dealer Volker Diehl, which may take place before the end of this year. Another such project, I am told, by the director of ArtParis, Lorenzo Rudolf, is also in the pipeline.

The question for these people is: are ArtMoscow’s problems due to its poor management, or is Moscow always going to be a stop-off too far for the great majority of international galleries and collectors?

MATTHEW BOWN is an English art dealer with a gallery in Berlin and an office in Moscow.