Mission to Moscow

Brian Droitcour at the Second Moscow Biennale


Left: Architect Yury Avvakumov and Zdenka Badovinac, director of Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana. Right: Moscow Biennale curator Iara Boubnova with Art Basel director Samuel Keller. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)

Russians grew tired of the bread lines of perestroika and switched from queuing to crowding ca. 1993, a historical shift that visitors to the second Moscow Biennale experienced firsthand last Thursday, when getting into the opening meant ploughing through a dense mob outside. The venue—Federation Tower, an unfinished skyscraper in the city’s nascent financial district—has only one working elevator, so organizers controlled traffic with an outdoor checkpoint. Visitors rushed the entrance, some squeezing their way along the fence, making for an unpleasant half hour of pushing and shoving.

I expected as much—the same thing happened at a party at the building in November. “By now, all the curators have taken the secret underground exit and gone to the after-party,” said Semyon Mikhailovsky, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s adviser in Russia, as we stood chest to chest in the crowd. I pictured local art impresario and Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein climbing into the Batmobile and zipping off to the Philippe Starck–designed restaurant Bon for drinks courtesy of the European Commission.

Once inside, it was clear that while management has a few things to learn about crowd control, the first biennial’s curatorial errors had been rectified. Rather than letting six curators knock heads over a single space, autonomous territories on the nineteenth and twentieth floors were delineated for use by Backstein, Iara Boubnova, and Nicolas Bourriaud. A joint project by Fulya Erdemci and Rosa Martinez was added to the mix, but the design still looked cleaner and more logical than the earlier incarnation’s. And if, two years ago, staging an exhibition called “Dialectics of Hope” in the former Lenin Museum could have been construed as a jab at Vladimir Ilyich, then this year’s theme (“Footnotes on Geopolitics, Markets, and Amnesia”) dovetailed neatly with the location, an international center of commerce rising above the ruins of a Soviet industrial zone.

One blemish was “Through the ‘Painting,’” a bland exhibition installed one floor up. The number of quotation marks in the title is likely equivalent to the figures in the sum that the Russian Century Foundation paid to hang works from their collection in the Federation Tower so viewers would confuse them with the choices of celebrity curators (and many did, despite the signs designating it a “special project,” i.e., a second-tier show in Moscow Biennale hierarchy).

Left: Dealer and artist Aidan Salkhova with Moscow Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein. (Photo: Ignat Daniltsev/ArtChronika) Right: Artists Jordan Wolfson and Michael Portnoy. (Photo: Brian Droitcour)

The other exhibition conferred main-project status was “American Video Art at the Beginning of the Third Millenium,” an all-video installment of the traveling exhibition “Uncertain States of America.” It opened in an unfinished addition to TsUM, a high-end department store not far from the Kremlin. I was curious to know how the curators (Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist) felt about installing a show down the hall from Baby Phat streetwear. But since they were only in Moscow for a few hours on Wednesday—the time it took to make sure no one had screwed up the installation—I didn’t have a chance to ask.

As a whole, the Moscow Biennale represents an unabashed use of art as a promotional tool for commercial real estate. This was particularly evident at Winzavod, where on Friday a banner advertising space for rent was bigger and better lit than signs for the five special projects opening that night. Winzavod is a prerevolutionary winery undergoing conversion into office space for creative-class companies—including Moscow’s four oldest private galleries (Aidan, Guelman, Regina, and XL), which have worked steadily since the early ’90s and farm out local artists for biennials in Moscow and elsewhere. They debuted their new spaces that night.

The Tajik gastarbeiters reconstructing Winzavod were allowed to emerge from their subterranean camp to rub shoulders with the biennial crowd, but I wondered whether they should have been grounded for not completing their job in time. “The floors and the walls aren’t finished, even though I’ve been paying rent for months,” Aidan Salakhova, owner of Aidan Gallery (and an artist participating in Boubnova’s project at Federation Tower), told me earlier in the week. “There’s no way I can put expensive works in there.” She had to convince her artist, Elena Berg, to change her exhibition from objects to a sound installation.

Despite the setbacks, Salakhova was glowing when she hosted Friday night’s Art Basel party at the Apartment, one of those Moscow restaurants that declare their elite status with a location that is inaccessible by public transport. American and European artists partied by the well-lit bar, while Russian artists (those shy philosophers) sulked in dark corners. Nic Iljine, the Guggenheim Foundation’s director of corporate development in Europe and the Middle East, asserted his status as the most powerful man in Russian art (according to a recent rating by ArtChronika magazine) by throwing his own party in a VIP room.

Left: Critic Andrei Kovalev; Zelfira Tregulova, deputy director of the Kremlin Museums; and dealer Marat Guelman. (Photo: Ignat Daniltsev/ArtChronika) Right: Artists the TM Sisters. (Photo: Philip Tinari)

After receiving lime-green AIDAN GALLERY bracelets (supposedly tickets to the after-after-party), I negotiated gypsy-cab fares for three carloads of artists and we headed to Diaghilev. But the club’s bouncers refused to honor the bracelets, and the atmosphere soon reprised the scene outside Federation Tower the night before. I persuaded a small posse to follow me to a less pretentious bar unaffiliated with the biennial, but some artists—perhaps entertaining dreams of oligarch collectors—could not be convinced. “We need to get inside that club,” insisted Jordan Wolfson, and he and Michael Portnoy ran back to join the throng.

On Saturday, after stopping by some openings at the National Center for Contemporary Art (“Viewing of the Valie Export exhibition is not recommended for underages and for persons with unbalanced nerves,” warned a sign), I went to a cocktail party at the home of dealer Marat Guelman. His name last graced international news outlets in October after a band of thugs savagely beat him in his gallery for still-unclear reasons. (A few weeks ago, I asked whether the investigation had made any headway. He replied, “No, not really, but the police recently put a new detective in charge of my case.”)

I spent the evening in the study translating a dead-end debate between Wall Street Journal correspondent Melik Kaylan and two artists, Alexander Shaburov (of the Blue Noses) and Dmitry Gutov. Kaylan argued that Russian artists ought to take an anti-Putin stance in their work, while the artists themselves insisted they had more important things to think about. It made me think about the “Sots Art” show that opened Friday at the Tretyakov Gallery (incidentally, without the much-hyped Chinese section sponsored by Beijing dealer Xin Dong Cheng, marooned in customs) with works from the ’70s and ’80s that pleased Western audiences with their anti-Soviet stance. They shaped expectations of Russian art that linger today. I wonder how many more Moscow Biennales there will be before visitors stop looking for something similar, and before the “geopolitical amnesia” really sets in.

Left: Artist Anton Ginzburg. (Photo: Brian Droitcour) Right: Vasily Tsereteli, director of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, and Nicolas Iljine, Guggenheim director of corporate development in Europe and the Middle East. (Photo: Ignat Daniltsev/ArtChronika)

Left: Artists Yevgeny Svyatsky and Alexander Shaburov. Right: Artists Nedko Solakov and Tania Bruguera. (Photos: Brian Droitcour)