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by Kate Sutton
This year’s Art Moscow, May 14-18, 2008, opened to rather dreary forecasts, despite the undeniable buzz about Russian money sparking the international art market. Over its 12-year lifespan, Art Moscow has garnered a reputation for lackluster sales, near impossible negotiations with customs, and work with an unfortunate esthetic predilection for politics, pornography and idle provocation. For 2008, the contemporary art fair seemed to be facing a retrenchment, as a smaller number of galleries were invited to participate (45 as compared to 72 in 2007) and the space made available in Moscow’s Central House of Artists was drastically curtailed.

Nevertheless, the mood at the Art Moscow vernissage was upbeat among both visitors and participating art dealers. Artist Rostan Tavasiev, one of the nominees for this year’s Kandinsky Prize, observed that "the market seems confident," and added, "the galleries know they have clients. I’m glad to see that the fair is taking itself more seriously."

With 24 of the participating galleries based in Moscow, the city has clearly evolved past the five-gallery dynasty of recent years. If anything, the presentations by the "Big Five" dealers -- Aidan Gallery, M&J Guelman Gallery, Regina Gallery, XL Gallery and now Triumph -- were markedly subdued when compared to the flashier stands of up-and-comers like pARTner Gallery, Paperworks and GMG.

Still, Elena Selina’s XL, which remains the only Russian gallery invited to participate in Art Basel, assembled a strong presentation of works by gallery artists. A particular favorite was Alex Buldakov’s XXX Malevich (2004), a vid in which a suggestive soundtrack and simple animation gave abstract Suprematist compositions the air of an erotic narrative. Call it Proun Porn.  

While Guelman and Aidan offered up more or less predictable selections from their stables, Regina continued to expand its program from its original Russian and Ukrainian roster (including Sergei Bratkov and Zhanna Kadyrova) to include artworks by the Spanish pop-music star José Maria Cano and the German neo-expressionist Jonathan Meese (who has previously shown at Gary Tatintsian Gallery).

Triumph Gallery, which was founded two years ago, teamed up with Yakut Gallery to present re-workings of the pieta by a dozen artists, a daring choice. An enamel-plated sculpture from the AES+F "Last Riot" series stood watch over a stunning lacquered and whitewashed canvas by Petersburg painters Ilya Gaponov and Kirill Koteshov, and The Wounds of Christ (2005) by Damien Hirst.

While rumors of available paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat left some disappointed when none turned up, visitors were nevertheless pleased to see the quartet of Julian Schnabel paintings hanging at the booth of Galerie Forsblom from Helsinki. Split into two stands, the gallery also brought a pair of Bernard Vernet steel sculptures, a wooden bust by Manolo Valdes and an installation by Tony Oursler.

Another standout among the foreign galleries was Milan’s Pack Galleria, which has made a name for itself in Russia with Petersburg artist Petr Belyi (whose work is also collected by Miami bigfoot Marty Margulies). This year, Belyi was one of the fair’s biggest sellers, with his architectural constructions and metal emblems rapidly disappearing from the stands of both the Marina Gisich Gallery (from St. Petersburg) and Atelier No. 2 (from Moscow). At its Moscow space, Atelier No. 2 concurrently hosted Belyi’s "White Nights" show, a playful take on the second capital’s summertime ritual of raising the bridges.

If dealers marveled at Art Moscow’s mushrooming attendance, no one could have anticipated the overwhelming response to "Doutrart", an all-night festival of open doors at museums and galleries throughout the city, sponsored by Marka:ff, the private Russian contemporary-art foundation headed by Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich. More than 40,000 people passed through the seven buildings of the new Winzavod Contemporary Art Center, which houses Aidan, XL, Guelman, Regina, Atelier #2, Proun Gallery, Pobeda Gallery, and Gallery FotoLoft.

Visitors crammed into the new RIGroup Multimedia Complex for Actual Arts (MCAA), which featured Barbara Kruger’s four-screen video installation, Twelve (2007). Curator Olga Sviblova, who was­ responsible for the Russian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, provided translations of Kruger’s scripts, but few visitors needed help decoding the actors’ exaggerated gestures.

The newest addition to Winzavod, the MCAA was conceived and sponsored by Guggenheim Foundation board member Janna Bullock. The space is divided into two parts, with the largest hall dedicated to established international artists, and a smaller, second hall set aside for emerging talent. Here one could experience 26­-year-­old Ilya Trushevsky’s installation Sugar, a saccharine take on the trappings of the so-called "New Russians."

Mimicking garishly adorned gardens, Trushevsky planted a pink fluorescent fountain of soap suds in the center of the room. Leading up to the fountain was a walkway of glass bowls, each containing a live turtle sporting a rhinestone­studded shell. The entire room was blanketed with sugar or perhaps salt? The artist would not say, but whatever it was, it left a telling trail.

Winzavod is not the only site benefiting from the city’s enthusiastic appetite for contemporary art. Berlin dealer Volker Diehl inaugurated his new space, Diehl + Gallery One, with an exhibition of Jenny Holzer’s "Like Truth" (partially supported by Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, who also supported the Kruger piece). The show’s centerpiece was Monument (2008), which assembled 22 LED displays of Holzer’s "Truisms" into a column of light, casting multi-hued florescence along the white marble walls. The piece was supplemented by a selection of Holzer’s recent paintings of confidential documents. In their Russian context, the works reveled in their Suprematist echoes.

In the three years since opening in Moscow, gallerist Gary Tatintsian has played a pivotal role in introducing audiences to artists like Peter Halley, Stephan Balkenhol and Richard Prince. To correspond with Art Moscow, Tatintsian dedicated his downtown space to a new selection of paintings by George Condo, including a 2007 drawing scrolling the length of one entire hall.

Other highly-anticipated exhibitions in the city include Erwin Wurm at the Central House of Artists and Andreas Gursky at the Ekaterina Art Foundation. On a more somber note, the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art honored Dmitry Prigov, one of the most provocative and influential of the Moscow Conceptualists, who passed away in 2007. His installations, drawings, operas and textual works fill the museum.

Despite all the attention towards contemporary art, the most significant art event of May remains the World Fine Art Fair, May 25-June 1, 2008, at the Manege, the 19th-century armory that during the 20th century has been used as an exhibition center. The lavish fair includes classic modernism (Pablo Picasso’s 1956 stunner Man and Woman on the Beach, on view at Galerie Taménaga, and Marc Chagall tapestries at Jane Kahan Gallery) as well as 19th-century landmarks like a cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, priced at €2.6 million at Galerie Bartha & Senarclens.

The Paris antiques broker B. B. Steinitz presented an entire room boiserie at its booth, replete with magnificently paneled walls and wooden fixtures, while the Rudolf Budja Galerie offered up a selection of works by Andy Warhol, with a price list that topped off at €3.6 million for Holstentor (1980), part of the artist’s "German Monuments" series. Moscow’s "Big Five" also made a good impression at the Manege -- not to mention some of the fastest sales.

While business was slow during the first few days of the event, the participating dealers remained optimistic. Fair director Matthias Ruethmueller anticipated a crowd of at least 60,000 (nearly double that of Art Moscow) for the week-long event, a modest estimate if the opening night crowds were any indication. Despite a certain amount of doom and gloom on the global economic front, Moscow’s art market appears to be in high spirits.

KATE SUTTON is an American writer currently resident in Helsinki.