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
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…