Russia is trying to engineer its own contemporary art boom. But it is too much in thrall to non-Russian artists and curators—and runs the risk of ignoring its home-grown talentby Ben Lewis / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
A massive project is under way in Russia, comparable in scale and boldness to the construction of the White sea canal. The mayor of Moscow, big businesses and an elite of Russian art collectors are engineering their own contemporary art boom.
Someone kindly thought I was important enough to play a part, and so, at the beginning of March, I accepted an invitation to join a small group of British curators on a jolly to the second Moscow biennale. As we shuttled between art exhibitions and free dinners, I witnessed the early stages of a five-year plan to create a contemporary art market in Russia. It was exciting, but there was also something tragic about what was unfolding: its dynamic, which was at once naive, idealistic and brash, reflects not only the showy values of new Russia, but 500 years of doomed Russian efforts to graft western European sophistication on to its marvellous culture.
The organisers had certainly fallen at the first hurdle in their choice of title for the biennale: “Footnotes on Geopolitics, Market and Amnesia.” The suggestion of an inflated art boom—and of our forgetfulness about the last bust—displayed an ill-advised candour that wouldn’t be found at non-Russian art events.
If their first mistake was honesty, their second was over-enthusiasm. Most biennales have between one and four curators. The New Russians had assembled nine European super-curators, the new celebrities of the art world, yet none seemed to take the job seriously. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Daniel Birnbaum contributed a hall full of recent American video art, but they had overlooked the fact that the works had sound. The rows of televisions and projections created a dull hubbub in which none of the pieces could actually be heard. The biggest sections of the biennale were dramatically staged halfway up an unfinished skyscraper on the edge of Moscow. A pair of wobbly builders’ lifts ferried visitors to the 21st floor. There Nicolas Bourriaud curated “Stock Zero or the Icy Water of Egotistical Calculation,” while the Moscow curator Joseph Backstein delivered “The Origin of the Species (Theses on art in the era of Social Darwinism).” I was reminded that historical ignorance is a prerequisite for art curating: the era of social Darwinism was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not this one. No one, though, surpassed former Venice biennale curator Rosa Martinez, whose introductory text to her part of the exhibition began with this ludicrous recitation of Fukuyama: “The Fall of the Soviet Russia, which was organised around the idea of Utopia, marks the end of History…”
The aura of contemporary art, I discovered, is beginning to permeate Russian society. One evening I ended up at a party at Bon, a new restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. The stands for the lampshades were upended gold-painted Kalashnikovs. We were surrounded by stained-glass windows with faux Gilbert & George motifs and there was an enormous glass-fronted cabinet by the entrance full of Damien Hirst objects such as skulls. Tall Ukrainian girls stood around with plates of free caviar and vodka—which was lucky, because the cheapest bottle of wine cost £100. A beautiful slim dark-haired girl caught my attention. On her lap was a stash of photographs of her paintings, which she showed me hopefully—images of young female pioneers painted with plenty of trendy swabs of dripping paint in a well-planned style that combined eroticism and social realism.
Yet Russia’s version of the contemporary art boom need not be this crass. The best parts of the biennale were by Russian artists. There were the charcoal drawings of the Chechen artist Aleksei Kallima, magic realist landscapes with traces of war, Marlboro packets and Adidas tracksuits; there were the predictable but exuberant social realist paintings of New Russia by Vasily Tsagolov and Vinogradov & Dubosarsky; and the potent videos of Viktor Alimpiev, in one of whose works, “Summer Lightning,” a classroom of children tap their desks to create a sound like the bombing of Baghdad. There was even a show on the theme of oil—”Petroliana.” These were the kind of critical works exhibited by collector Marat Guelman, whose gallery was recently ransacked by Putin’s heavies.
Our trip was funded by a new company, backed by a group of Russian collectors, which is promoting exhibitions, building a Russian contemporary art website and is planning—implausibly—to launch a contemporary art television channel. I asked the managing director why the collectors were paying him to do this. “They think it will increase the value of their investments,” he said. I and the British curators had been invited in the hope that we would go back to Britain and organise exhibitions of Russian contemporary artists. This kind of marketing strategy has been used all over the world, but it was unusual to be able to see it so transparently and happening in real time.
Would the British curators now start to implement the third stage of the Russian strategy and exhibit Russian contemporary artists in Britain? “I think we can find room for one or two in our project space,” they murmured on the ride back to the airport.