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by Matthew Bown
Two years ago the main show of the Moscow Biennale was on the umpteenth floor of an unfinished tower in the Moscow City skyscraper development. You accessed it very uncomfortably, in midwinter, by one of two external service lifts or up the unheated stairs. Today that tower is still unfinished and the developer, Shalva Chigirinsky, is financially prostrate. This year's biennale, organized by Josef Backstein, which runs Sept. 25-Oct. 25, 2009, has done better. The main exhibition, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, is in the cozier accommodation of the Melnikov Garage, a splendid 1920s hangar revamped by Dasha Zhukova with a little help from her friend, Roman Abramovich, and lent out for art purposes by the landlord, Rabbi Berl Lazar. Visitors to the opening of the biennale were also able to visit ArtMoscow, Russia's most important contemporary art fair, which ran Sept. 23-27, 2009, in the city’s Central House of the Artist expo hall.

A few well-informed grouches are saying that Jean-Hubert Martin's show, unambiguously entitled "Against Exclusion," is merely a rehash of what its curator has done elsewhere. That may be so. But for a Moscow audience it is apt and largely successful. It brings to Russia hitherto-unseen artists from Asia, Africa and other non-western centers, and mixes them up with some well-known Russian and western names. It's elegantly installed on walls of white and dark gray, selectively lit, and contains much intriguing and seductive work. There's no obvious esthetic emphasis, but Martin seems to be interested in process and materials, in contrasts of ancient and hyper-modern technology, and in optical illusions.

A hanging piece by El Anatsui glows entrancingly like a great expanse of bejeweled and gilded undergrowth. Opposite, a huge Greek temple is drawn on the wall with packaging tape by Valeri Koshlyakov. Alexander Brodsky has installed an entire model city of mirrored towers in a welded mass of garbage containers. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Old Persons' Home -- highly realistic models of old men circulating aimlessly in motorized wheelchairs -- seen at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2008, gets another outing, and seems to be delighting everyone.

The mix is beguiling, although the curator's devotion to obscurer artists and corners of the world and to uncomplicated anti-colonialism is not always convincing in this context. Some of the unsophisticated art on display -- the paintings of aborigine artist Doreen Reid Nakamarra, for example -- is out of its depth. Any kind of humble or third-world experience, or anti-imperialist intention, is apparently regarded by Martin as the last word in quality-control: the show's nadir is three indifferent paintings of warships by Jose Bedia portentously entitled Killing In The Name Of.

Elsewhere, accompanying texts feature inept attempts to create western-style discourse around pieces of folk art: the work of wall-painter and bead-artist Esther Malangur, from South Africa, we are told, has encouraged other artists to introduce airplanes, televisions and light-bulbs into their work. Er, so what?

And some works are coals to Newcastle, a misjudgment of the Moscow context. Afghan carpets featuring airplanes and other military technology have been on sale at Ismailovo Market here for 20 years. William Kentridge projects an excerpt from a transcript of the public denunciation of Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin in the 1930s that can scarcely be news to a Moscow audience, and surrounds it with animated films that seem to trivialize the horror embodied in the written words.

I was in the cafeteria gazing idly at Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's piece when another elderly gentleman, a real one this time, capsized over a table and lay on the floor, unable to move and staring glassily upwards. His wife or girlfriend sank down beside him, wailing. Perhaps you would like me to write that it was merely the logical completion of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's masterpiece, or a contemporary Pietà, or some such, but in fact the blood spreading on the floor was genuine, the fallen man was not made of fiberglass, and the accident was a discomfiting rent in the arras of contemporary art glamour. I picked up the gentleman's glasses. The genial Finnish art dealer Kai Forsblum cradled the unfortunate man's leg and, to pass the time as we waited for assistance, he told me about the unfolding disaster that is ArtMoscow.

Moscow's chief contemporary art fair has been beset by problems this year. First the organizers, ExpoPark, in the teeth of the economic crisis, doubled the participation fees. This caused a mass boycott by galleries and ExpoPark backed down. But by then the timetable was spoiled and the decision was taken to open the fair during the biennale. It was an unwise choice, because the fair is now a minor attraction. But that is not all. 

Several non-Russian galleries using the services of a Swiss transport firm, Forsblum's among them, found their work held up at customs for the duration of the fair. Forsblum hung his stand with color copies of the paintings by Ross Bleckner, Donald Sultan, Terry Winters and others that he had been hoping to show. Other galleries left empty walls with an explanatory sign. Of course, Russia being what it is, the reasons for this fuck-up are murky. According to one affected gallerist, Albert Benamou, from Paris, the problem was that the freight documents were wrongly filled in: a weight of two tons was given instead of four, "paintings" were classified as "graphics" and so on.

According to Dora Stiefelmeier of RAM (radioartemobile) Gallery, from Rome, the real reason was sabotage. Stiefelmeier told me that she had been informed, on very high authority, that her mistake was to use a non-Russian carrier. Of course, these explanations are not mutually exclusive: the first may be technically correct whereas the second may give the underlying cause. Whatever the truth, this is a dangerous fiasco for a fair that is already struggling. Will any foreign galleries at all come next year? And it may be that the nightmare is not yet over: I understand that the Swiss firm's Russian partners will prevent the release of the art back to its owners until they are paid for their abortive efforts.

In any case, foreign participation at the fair was pretty limited: a handful of galleries from Western Europe, and a handful from the ex-Soviet bloc, including Inessa Rinke's Riga Gallery, where the focus was on the neo-surrealist gray-toned figure paintings of Eva Iltner; and the Tsekh Gallery, from Kiev, which showed a large and quite mind-boggling print made in Microsoft Excel by Alexei Sai. No galleries at all came from North America, and the fair itself was half the size of last year's, occupying one floor in the Central House of the Artist rather than two. Vladimir Ovcharenko's Ridzhina Gallery, one of Moscow's tiny band of internationally active galleries, chose not to take part.

The most notable newcomer was the freshly-minted Art + Art gallery, a joint venture between businessmen Andrei Gertsev (of AST publishers) and Alexander Svetakov (of Absolute Group) and artist Georgi Puzenkov, who memorably (or should that be forgettably?) spammed half the alleyways in Venice with his digital images of the Mona Lisa during the biennale there four years ago. In its stand at ArtMoscow and also in its new space at the Vinzavod art center the gallery mixed work by Western post-war masters -- among them Peter Halley, Patrick Heron, Sean Scully and Pierre Soulages -- with paintings by Puzenkov himself. Puzenkov explained that the aim of the gallery was to promote art that relied on the eye, not the ability to read accompanying texts. I asked him how he justified showing his own work at the gallery. He referenced Damien Hirst's self-generated Sotheby's sale and said, "If it works, it works." Well, why not?

ArtMoscow re-opened a major fissure in the Moscow art world, between the rumored-to-be very rich Triumph Gallery and its stable of artists, on the one hand, and the Moscow conceptualists on the other. The latter are led into battle by the critic Ekaterina Degot, but presided over by the Long Island eminence grise, Ilya Kabakov, Russia's most expensive contemporary artist. Degot's review of ArtMoscow on Open Space, a highly influential Russian-language arts website, published during the fair, described the Triumph Gallery's several stands as a "growing tumor" that it was best to avoid. It's hard to conceive of a greater rudeness, and it was not fun to be sitting next to Triumph's co-owner Emelyan Zakharov just after he received this news.

This conflict last flared up at the time of the Kandinsky Prize award in December 2008, when Triumph Gallery artist Belyaev-Guintovt, who is accused of neo-Fascist sympathies, took the prize [see "The Kandinsky Prize," Feb. 4, 2009]. Despite the skepticism of much of the Moscow art world (I have respect for Triumph's willingness to challenge the ancient conceptualist hegemony, although I don't warm to the nostalgic realism it presents as an alternative), the Triumph stands were popular.

Intrigue surrounds the video-objects -- like futuristic arcade game consoles -- made by one Tanatos Banionis. Ask who you like in the Moscow art scene and they will say that it's a self-generated project by Triumph's owners, Zakharov and Dmitri Khankin, constructed by artisans unknown in a foreign land. I put this claim to Khankin and he said the idea was "fucking nonsense" or, in the more concise Russian, khuinya. And yet the "artists" who make up "Tanatos Banionis" for some reason don't want to be known. Who, really, has ever heard of that? Well, the only other time I came across an artist who didn't want to be known it was a mysterious émigré by name of immi -- he was claimed to be on the run from dark forces, he painted exclusively soccer balls, and he was indeed the alter-ego of his gallerist.

ArtMoscow was overshadowed not only by the biennale's main show but by several other events in the biennale program. In the Red October chocolate factory, a handsome pile on the Moscow river embankment, Maria Baibakova's Baibakov Art Projects, whose co-curator is the American art historian Kate (Katya) Sutton, opened a solo show by Luc Tuymans of paintings based on images from surveillance cameras. This exhibition is big news for Moscow, as indeed it would be anywhere. Each painting over a certain size was assigned its own security guard.

The guards were presumably an insurance requirement, but they were a feature which excited legendary Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov enough for him to pull out his camera. After snapping the Tuymans security detail, he went round the corner to a second BAP show, by the artist Olga Chernysheva, and discovered that it consisted of photographs of, well, security guards, life-size and quite compelling in dour black and white. Mikhailov returned somewhat crestfallen. It's a profoundly reflexive world we live in, in which curators anticipate the response of their sophisticated public and stage back-up shows to prove it. Or that was the effect. 

Inevitably, given Baibakova's status as a social lioness (she is the daughter of oligarch and art collector Oleg Baibakov), the vernissage of the Tuymans show was a high-society event, but the cynosure was in fact the diminutive and entirely unfashionable figure of Zurab Tsereteli (an old-school artist and art-world grandee, president of the Academy of Arts and director of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art), who toured the premises in an electric-blue suit.

Martin Scorsese couldn't have devised a more striking mise-en-scène. Not since the days of Evelyn Waugh's mythical bottle-green bowler-hats has there been such a startling fashion statement. You can't underestimate Tsereteli: after all he has managed to establish a huge symbol of Orthodox Christian culture on the New Jersey shore in the form of his Tear of Grief sculpture. He and the 24-year-old Baibakova, who a couple of days earlier was showing President Medvedev's wife Svetlana round the Guggenheim Museum in New York, greeted each other like old friends, which for all I know they are. Before the biennale ends, BAP will open another important event, a show by Paul Pfeiffer entitled "Perspective Machine."

Also at the Red October factory: "New Old Cold War," a show of works by artists of the former Soviet bloc curated by Yuliya Aksenova and Garolina Novak. Not notable on the whole, but it features a striking 3 x 10 meter hymn to, or parody of, socialist realism by Diana Machullina. Moscow painter Sergei Kalinin told me that gallery-goers these days are so attuned to texts and odd funky objects that at the opening they scarcely noticed this vast canvas.

In the same building the Marat Guelman-curated project "Russian Povera" has a showing in Moscow after its first outing at the River Station Hall in Perm, a city of 1.2 million in the Urals about 700 miles east of Moscow, where Guelman, Senator Sergei Gordeev and the local government are establishing a museum of contemporary art. Among stand-out works in "Russian Povera" are Dima Gutov's scrap-metal reliefs, inspired by oriental calligraphy, and Anna Zheud's plaintive sculptures that seem to reference plants, consisting of steel rods emerging from concrete blocks.

In essence, Guelman's project is an authentic idea: much Russian art is indeed constructed from basic or impoverished or downright rubbishy materials. Certain artists -- Brodsky, Petr Bely, the architect Nikolai Polissky -- belong to this movement, if such it is, as a matter of course. But I'm not sure it can claim philosophical coherence in the way of the Italian Art Povera of the 1960s. And Guelman's influence is so strong (for 15 years he ran one of Moscow's most important galleries of contemporary art) that a number of artists with no discernible history of a povera esthetic appear to have adapted their work to fit. A peril of our over-curated art world.

Oleg Kulik, whose extreme performances (for example as a crazed dog attacking visitors to an art fair in Vienna) made him the driving force of Russian art in the ‘90s, first made his name as a curator with projects involving the slaughter of a pig and other delights in the Ridzhina Gallery. Nowadays it is not at all clear what Kulik is -- curator, artist or, just maybe, a drop-out? Well, I can't blame him for preferring to hang out in Tibet pursuing eastern-style enlightenment with dealer Alex Lachmann rather than making a career by, for example (to take one notorious photo-work), copulating with dogs.

But Kulik is the despair of his dealer, Elena Selina of XL Gallery, because of his reluctance to produce new work. She hoped that the huge retrospective that she organized last year might galvanize him. Not so: if anything the curator-gene seems to be predominating. At the previous biennale Kulik organized the mega-show "I Believe," which pretty well upstaged the main event. This time round he has created a project called "Spatial Liturgy" in the department store, TsUM.

The show spreads over two floors. On the first, you wander through a labyrinth of carelessly hung white sheets lit by orange light and discover, occasionally, some random objects, some found, some made, arranged in a half-assed kind of way, as if by someone with ADD. Is that the intended effect? A sign on the wall explains that "Spatial Liturgy" is "a meditation on the sacral themes of the 1960s-2000s Moscow contemporary art (based on the Moscow contemporary art, mainly in the form of actions and performances)." Why the biennale can't employ a native English-speaker to translate its texts is a mystery.

On the next floor this manifesto begins to make sense: recreated performances by Kulik and others are back-projected onto the walls of cuboid constructions; these cubes are further shrouded in gauze and plastic film, and the spectator wanders between them watching the monochromatic antics. It's kind of interesting, but the installation is technically scrappy to no obvious end, and it's also frustrating. For example, when I see one silhouette bashing another silhouette over the head with a bunch of flowers, I'd like to know whose performance that was, and we are not informed. Perhaps the info would interfere with the intended sacralness. The impression is of a practice-run rather than a fully implemented project.

The other major event of the biennale was the Saturday evening openings (on Sept. 26) at Roman and Sofia Trotsenko's Vinzavod Art Centre, a complex of warehouses and catacomb-like basements which, despite the spiraling rents, has become the hub of contemporary art in Moscow. Here I bumped into a few foreigners, among them David Thorp, former Turner Prize judge who curates the outdoor sculpture shows at the Frieze Art Fair, and Valerie Hillings and Nic Iljine of the Guggenheim. In fact, the number of foreign visitors to the biennale openings was disappointingly small, but included Victoria Gelfand (Gagosian Gallery), Frances Morris (Tate Modern),  Betsy Carpenter (Walker Art Center),  Massimiliano Gioni (New Museum of Contemporary Art) and Jane Sharp and Julia Tulovsky (Zimmerli Museum).  

At Vinzavod, Guelman Gallery is showing paintings on transparent plastic and scrap-metal sculpture by Valeri Koshlyakov. Ridzhina Gallery presents a beguiling black-and-white film of adolescent boys leaping into water by Sergei Bratkov. Alexander Brodsky has a vast installation in an otherwise unused cellar featuring gnome-like figures hunched in front of braziers, which on closer inspection turn out to be strips of cloth illuminated by colored lights and blown by fans: I don't know if I was disappointed by that or not.

In another usually empty warehouse space, Alexander Ponomarev, who presented an actual submarine at this year's Venice Biennale, hooked up a lot of bicycles to the carcass of an airplane and people, including biennale director Josef Backstein, pedalled like crazy to try and turn the lights in the plane on: I believe the set-up was wired to make failure inevitable. Art + Art gallery, when I went in, had a busty girl surrounded by photographers, although it wasn't clear whether the girl was making art or a spontaneous display for the paparazzi, and the celebrated movie director Pavel Lungin was visiting. 

In the Proun Gallery, run by Marina Loshak, which is renowned for its shows of 20th-century Russian art, Ekaterina Degot and Leonid Tishkov have installed their project called "Kudymkor, Locomotive of the Future." The exhibition excavates the life of a forgotten Russian avant-gardist, Petr Subbotin-Permyak, via old damaged canvases, photos, drawings and other historical items. Subbotin-Permyak is not really a forgotten figure, in fact, but an obscure provincial artist who was never really known. The effect is of a museum display. Such is the art world we live in that one's immediate reaction to this is: fake artist! But in this case -- I think -- one would be wrong.

Before saying goodbye to the biennale for another couple of years I paused at the door to the Proun Gallery to watch the people come and go. A lot of the most elegant girls on this chilly evening were wearing very expensive sleeveless fur jackets: a new fashion, as far as I can tell. Eager to expand my Russian vocabulary I turned to Proun Gallery curator Katya Inozemtseva and, pointing to an exquisite creature walking past in one of these things, asked, "What are they called?" "Prostitutes," was her instantaneous reply.

The day following the Vinzavod jamboree I got a call from the BBC Russian Service in London. They wanted to know: isn't Russian contemporary in crisis? Isn't public interest shriveling? Aren't those girls Dasha (Zhukova) and Masha (Baibakova) just a couple of rich useless airheads? I felt bad, because what I thought didn't seem to fit the BBC narrative, but I just had to say no, no and no. The biennale is a success, the best yet; ArtMoscow an ignominious failure. 

MATTHEW BOWN runs the Matthew Bown Gallery in Berlin as well as, a Russian art blog.