Dialectical Materialism

Claire Bishop on the Moscow Biennale


Left: Francesco Manacorda looking at Oleg Kulik's Starz, 2005. Right: Christian Boltanksi's Odessa's Ghosts, 2005.

Colorful rumors and breathless warnings about the perils of visiting the Moscow Biennale are circulating with predictable alacrity. According to the grapevine, a Dutch installation techie was found dumped outside the city, groggy from Rohypnol, and corrupt police are supposedly extorting money from foreign visitors under the pretense of “visa checks” (though flashing your press pass might deter them). And then there's the biennial itself, plagued with controversies and troubles. The full list of artists was announced mere weeks ago, whereas the lineup of usual-suspect Euro-curators (Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist) had been in place since last spring. Most of these power players arrived days before the opening, leaving the bulk of the preparatory work to coordinating curator Joseph Backstein. That’s to say nothing of the tiff between Backstein, head of ICA Moscow, and Russian art gatekeeper Viktor Misiano, editor of Moscow Art Magazine and chief lobbyist for the biennial—a clash that prompted the latter to be ejected from the team after Backstein asked the Ministry of Culture to dismiss him. This did not sit well with young Russian artists, some of whom signed an angry petition objecting to Misiano's ousting—to no avail. Backstein won the bureaucratic battle thanks to support from artists Oleg Kulik and Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes of the collective AES+F.

All this debâcle sounded irresistible: a one-size-fits-all prefab biennial parachuted into a freezing-cold city that the local writer David Riff has memorably likened to “a monkey in a suit of armor.” Absolutely not to be missed—even if, like me, you decide to go one week after the opening, too late for all the parties.

So how is it? If you forget the main scandal that's preoccupying politically minded Russians (the $1.5 million budget and where it went) and the abysmal title (“Dialectics of Hope”), then the Moscow Biennale is a great show of new contemporary art that would do any city proud. But the Muscovite audience, accustomed as it is to homegrown art stars displaying yBa-style tactics of brash spectacularism (Kulik, AES+F, Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe), is apparently underwhelmed by its understated austerity. The fact that nearly all the artists are totally unfamiliar to viewers here doesn’t help; even Sergey Khripun, director of XL Gallery (the White Cube of Moscow), told me he'd only heard of five.

With forty-one artists, all under thirty-five, the biennial amounts to a mini-Manifesta, and the two main sites can be seen in a few hours. The old Lenin Museum and the Shchusev Museum of Architecture are a short slither away from each other over compacted snow and black ice around the Kremlin. In the former, Gelatin's Zapf de Pipi addressed the extreme temperature (and queuing and Lenin) via a makeshift outdoor toilet on the third floor, which featured a vast ugly stalactite of (possibly real) orange urine plunging down toward the courtyard. Another hit was David Ter-Oganyan's This Is Not a Bomb, a series of pseudoterrorist contraptions secreted around the building: ticking clocks, wire and batteries taped around pumpkins and jars of pickles, etc. Most of the video work is relegated to the Shchusev Museum, where you’ll also find a special installation by Christian Boltanski in which his rediscovered Odessa roots (lots of black coats hanging in a decrepit reconstructed palace) prompt him to fuse uncannily with Kabakov.

On Sunday night I hooked up with Elena Zaitseva, cocurator of “No Comment?” (an exhibition of young Russian artists in a paper factory), in the concrete chic of Maki-Kafe. She's philosophical about the “corruption” surrounding the biennial because what matters, she says, is the enormous and energetic parallel program that it has catalyzed. On Monday I tackled this program, some of which was infernally hard to find, as I had to contend with illegal cabs (i.e., hitching a ride in a Lada for a hundred rubles), erratic street numbers, endless courtyards within courtyards . . . It took me at least an hour to track down Gallery WAM, but I was rewarded by having the relics of Moscow Conceptualism enticingly explained to me by artist Yuri Leiderman. WAM's show is an appetizer to the best exhibition in town, “Accomplices” at the New Tretyakov (curated by Andrei Yerofeyev). This history of collaborative and interactive art gives a brilliant overview of how the scene has developed here since the '70s and shows how the collective spirit is still vital today, from the aggravatingly ubiquitous Blue Nose Group (three hairy blokes in bad underpants) to Radek (in which Ter-Oganyan is involved).

By Tuesday I was ready to tackle Viktor Misiano at the Pushkin Café, and I began to understand that the controversies around the Moscow Biennale are not primarily aesthetic but political. Although Misiano argues that six curators of this caliber and intelligence should have reinvented the biennial format in a radical way (and he's right), what’s really at issue, as he sees it, is a “neoliberal” government and a moneyed elite too eager to co-opt culture in order to facilitate markets and look global. Although the show contains excellent works, the circumstances of its production are highly troubling. Even left-wing political theorist Boris Kagarlitsky, author of the book from which “Dialectics of Hope” takes its title, publicly dissociated himself from the exhibition when he saw how it was unfolding.

As with most peripheral biennials, there's a trade-off here between wanting culture to represent a perfect ethical model and an awareness of the pragmatic realities of getting an event off the ground. The biennial may be a disappointment to many Russians, but the (self-funded) parallel program is more intriguing than anything a team of big-budget curators could have devised. If that energy can be channeled into the next biennial, we should see real fireworks.