A last-minute offer of lunch with Maria Baibakova, the 23-year-old proprietor of the new Red October Chocolate Factory art space in Moscow, is an easy invitation to accept. Arriving in London after continuous travel from New York to Venice to Basel to Zurich to Moscow, Maria is a beacon of energy. Over fish and Chablis at the Brown’s Hotel in the heart of the Westend on a bright morning in June, she graciously held forth on a variety of topics involving contemporary art in Moscow.
Born at the end of the Soviet regime, she moved with her family to the U.S. in 1996 to avoid the unfolding chaos. Her father is, of course, the extremely wealthy Oleg Baibakov, a former executive of the mining company Norilsk Nickel, who now dabbles in real estate development. Baibakov’s substantial art collection has been developed and is maintained by his daughter. So far this holding, which includes works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, is kept private and, according to Maria, has no "ego" to its inception.
Educated at Barnard College in New York, an experience she enjoyed, and at the Courtauld Institute, London, one she enjoyed less so, Maria has gone on to found Baibakov Art Projects at the Red October Chocolate Factory in Moscow, an enterprise for which she is also director and chief curator. She describes herself as "one of those Russian kids of the new generation, educated and professionally trained in the West, who are now returning home to help change their country. A lot of my friends are doing this in business and finance, and I am doing it with art."
Baibakov Art Projects was launched in 2008. Exhibitions had already been held in the 3,000-square-meter space, most notably by Gagosian Gallery back in October 2007. As the credit crunch kicked in, delaying the apartment development planned for the site, Baibakova took the opportunity to pursue a more long-term undertaking there. To date Baibakov Art Projects has hosted three exhibitions and 11 projects, involving a total of approximately 50 artists.
The mission, Baibakova says, is to develop Russian interest in contemporary art as well as to provide a platform for the artists. "I hope to transform this Russian need for explanations; people need to engage visually because we are involved with a visual culture. It doesn’t need to be threatening." Socialist Realism is still taught in schools and Maria has encountered some hostility from the older generation of critics, but she is more irritated by journalists who are not prepared to engage with the art and focus on the celebrity culture that has arisen around the contemporary scene.
Maria is not easily intimidated and is quite able to deal with the slippery local bureaucracy in Moscow. When opening an exhibition early this year with partner Sotheby’s, she was confronted by an honorable member of the Moscow fire department, who promptly informed that her red carpet did not meet the required anti-inflammatory standard. The gentleman was perfectly happy to illustrate this by setting fire to the said carpet, guests or no guests. Baibakova was able, thankfully, to bring matters to a swift conclusion in the manner typical to such cases, and the exhibition was able to proceed.
Russian artists that have exhibited with Baibakov are meeting with increasing success on the international stage. Just in my own patch of London, Pavel Pepperstein has signed on with Sutton Lane, Gosha Ostretsov with Paradise Row and Andrey Bartenev with Riflemaker. Back in Moscow, Baibakov Art Projects continues to get A-list artists for its exhibitions. The forthcoming exhibition at the Red October Chocolate Factory is a solo show for the Belgium artist, Luc Tuymans. The artist’s approach to thorny historical issues, such as the Holocaust and the legacy of colonialism in the Belgium Congo, could well provide the kind of bridge to European post-modernism that Moscow art enthusiasts are looking for.
Titled "Against the Day," Tuymans’ exhibition takes inspiration from Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel of the same name. Two new works in the show, Against the Day I and Against the Day II, feature a haunting, lone figure, an image that was frozen on videotape and transformed to canvas by Tuymans’ distinct hand. Maria said that she was concerned that her Muscovite audience was more literary than visual, and "would rather read about the art than see that art." Now they can do both.
"Luc Tuymans: Against the Day" opens at Baibakov Art Projects in Moscow, Sept. 25-Nov. 8, 2009. See www.baibakovartprojects.com/en/
SIMON TODD is Artnet’s London representative.