Chip Off the Old Bloc

New York

Left: Kate Gilmore and company performing Through the Claw. Right: New Museum curators Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

DIFFERENT PEOPLE have different ways of coping with the heat of a New York summer. Last Wednesday night at the Pace Gallery on Twenty-second Street, Kate Gilmore and her flowery smock–clad crew of like-minded women vented the frustrations of many by hurling pounds of shit-brown clay at the walls. They didn’t actually scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They didn’t say anything, too pooped, as it were, from the effort involved in pitching so much gunk so forcefully without pause.

The performance, Through the Claw, continued as the gallery filled with people escaping a sudden, equally pummeling downpour that throttled the streets and bent trees in the wind. Most were actually there for the opening of “Soft Machine,” a group show of artworks gathered to signify the kind of psychological control mechanisms at work in the William Burroughs novel of the same title.

The rain cleared and cooled the air for the opening of curator Massimiliano Gioni’s “Ostalgia,” at the New Museum, which was hot enough. “Did you see my bombs?” asked David Ter-Oganyan, whose makeshift “explosives,” fashioned out of bottles and gourds, were stashed like unattended bags in corners and behind other works in a show that includes the work of fifty-six artists from twenty countries of the former Eastern Bloc, circa 1970s to the present.

Left: Artists David Ter-Oganyan and Anatoly Osmolovsky. Right: Artist Charles Atlas.

Ter-Oganyan is one of many young Russians and Slavs who rushed the museum with the enthusiasm of captives who had just been liberated from their oppressors, the same impression created by the exhibition’s artworks, most of them totally unknown on these shores. (Ditto the installation of Charles Atlas’s Joints Array, a ’70s-era, fragmented video portrait of a deconstructed Merce Cunningham installed on the ground floor. It’s terrific.)

The title of Gioni’s show borrows from a German term expressing a certain longing for the days of Soviet rule before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when people had jobs and the Stasi made the rules of behavior clear. But at the New Museum the term is ironic. None of the artworks in this absorbing exhibition profess any great affection for the bleak circumstances of life behind the Iron Curtain. But they do give evidence of a vibrant underground that embraces the idea that rules were made to be broken.

A couple years in the making, “Ostalgia” has been financed mostly by a two-year-old foundation named Victoria—The Art of Being Contemporary (or VAC), a philanthropy supporting contemporary art projects in Russia. Funded by the deep pockets of Russian billionaire businessman Leonid Mikhelson, its mission includes moving new Russian art into the global discourse with shows like Gioni’s. (It also cosponsored, with the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, “Modernikon—Contemporary Art from Russia,” the show that Francesco Bonami and Irene Calderoni organized as a collateral event of this year’s Venice Biennale.)

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Right: Tatiana Trifonova and Victoria Mikhelson.

“This is exactly the sort of thing the New Museum should be doing,” said museum trustee Manuel Gonzalez, as we perused a large number of ’60s documentary photographs by Boris Mikhailov, snapshots of young Ukrainians, many of whom are pictured naked and in compromising positions, making the best of some very impoverished circumstances.

Mikhelson’s interest in contemporary art was spurred by his nineteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, who came for the occasion with her mother, Tatiana. He was also inspired by VAC’s director, Teresa Iarocci Mavica, who arrived with her very tall and engaging eighteen-year-old daughter, Greta Mavica. Mikhelson père, the younger Mavica said, is not a celebrity-seeking oligarch like some other known Russian art bigwigs; he prefers to let his daughter, a student of contemporary art history, have all the fun. She is the face of the organization, and it is really Mavica (mère) who runs it. “I went to Russia twenty-five years ago to study political science,” said the Italian-born Mavica at a dinner for the artists at Pulino’s. “I can’t really explain why I stayed, but now I’m happy to be doing this.”

A vanilla-suited Bernard Picasso, who has also supported Russian artists, arrived with ultrachic dealer Almine Rech and dug into pizza and baked ziti with meatballs. The opening also attracted Barbara Gladstone, the dealer who represents two of the more widely known artists in the show, Andro Wekua and Mirosław Bałka; Whitney curators Donna De Salvo and Chrissie Iles; and Helene Winer, whose Metro Pictures gallery shows “Ostalgia” artist Paulina Olowska. But most of the other artists present were scruffy young things who did not express a longing to be anywhere other than New York. For example, Nikolay Oleynikov (“Call me Nik. I’m Nik!”) had a heavy New York Yankees medallion hanging from a chain wrapped around one wrist. His five-artist Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?) collective puts out a politically minded Russian-English newspaper and produced an amusing time line for the show that is painted on the walls of the museum’s fifth floor.

Left: Greta Mavica and VAC director Teresa Iarocci Mavica. Right: Christie's Amy Cappellazzo with Joanne Rosen.

I was seated at a table with Moscow dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko of Regina Gallery, whose son Mike oversees the family’s Mayfair outpost in London. Four of their artists, including Pavel Pepperstein and Victor Alimpiev, are in Gioni’s show. Vladimir, Mike told me, had been a banker until twenty-five years ago, when he met a young artist who so impressed him that he retired from banking and went into the art business. “It’s a sad story,” said Mike. “Because the artist died when he was only twenty-seven.” He didn’t say what caused the death, but the gallery has been a going concern ever since.

He spoke of Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, and its move next year to a historic building she is restoring in a public park that will be even bigger than the one she’s in now. He credited the Center with stimulating Moscow’s taste for contemporary art, though galleries remain few. “The Rothko show last year had lines of people around the block waiting to get in,” he said. “It was very impressive.”

Outside the restaurant, Ter-Oganyan, Oleynikov, and Anatoly Osmolovsky provided a steady supply of duty-free cigarettes for tax-oppressed locals like Gioni. “It’s such a shame,” Gioni deadpanned, as he slipped a Russian Parliament out of Ter-Oganyan’s proffered box. “Tomorrow we have to de-install the whole show.”

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Nikolay Oleynikov. Right: Curator Manuel Gonzalez with artist Jose Iraola.

Left: Dealers Arne Glimcher and Marc Glimcher. Right: Artist Mirosław Bałka.