The Culture Industry

Kate Sutton at the 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Art

Left: NCCA Ekaterinburg director Alisa Prudnikova. Right: Curator Marc-Olivier Wahler with a Russian choir at the Levikha House of Culture. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

LAST MONTH, a stalwart crew of art critics, academics, and enthusiasts huddled in the cold rain on the border of Europe and Asia to celebrate the opening of the second edition of the Ural Industrial Biennial of Art. The project is the crown jewel in the waning empire of Russia’s National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA), which actively maintains outposts in Saint Petersburg, Nizhnyi Novogorod, and Kaliningrad, but generally only makes the papers with its yearly Innovation prize. In the face of competition from private ventures like the Garage and the Strelka Institute, NCCA has struggled to keep its foothold, and is currently watching plans for its government-funded, architecturally aspirant Moscow museum get shelved. “They tell us now is the time to find an old factory, not to build something new,” director Mikhail Mindlin explained over breakfast at our Ekaterinburg hotel. “The reality is, the time to find an old factory was five years ago. Now there just aren’t any old factories left anywhere near Moscow.”

Meanwhile in the Urals (the mountainous region dividing Europe from Asia), one can’t take two steps without tripping over an abandoned industrial complex, which is precisely what gave NCCA Ekaterinburg director Alisa Prudnikova the idea for the biennial. Blonder and bubblier than one might expect of a native Siberian, Prudnikova is proof that women don’t have to don a balaclava to make a mark within the Russian art scene. An advocate for the idea that there’s more to the world’s biggest country than its stock-villain capital city, she’s also helped advertise that Ekaterinburg—currently a dark-horse candidate to host Expo 2020—was once the center of the international industrial project, with monstrous factories springing up overnight, giving birth to myths of Stakhanovites and the boundless might of the Soviets.

“The second of anything is always tougher than the first,” Prudnikova confessed before the press conference. “The question now isn’t can it happen but why is it happening? And what about this biennial makes it ‘industrial’?” To tackle the latter, Prudnikova rallied an impressive showing of the region’s cultural institutions, who each contributed their own exhibition—from paintings of women workers wearing skirts in the foundries to cosmetics labels aimed at educating the new worker population of the 1920s that cleanliness was next to comradeship. The biennial’s residency program put visiting artists directly in touch with the production process in factories throughout the Sverdlovsk Oblast, allowing Leonid Tishkov, for instance, to create a swooping tower of defunct blades from an ice-skate manufacturer, or LA-based artist Yelena Zhelezov to fashion a wearable suit from an indigenous stone whose specific properties enable it to be melted and shaped to contain radioactive waste. Nicholas Fraser simulated the export of the market economy by teaching metallurgical workers how to play softball, while local artist Timofey Radya built a sculpture on the top of a slag heap in Degtyarsk, a company town still celebrated for its visit from President Nixon and his wife.

Left: Iara Boubnova. Right: Artists Ira Korina and Lise Harlev.

It all clustered around a central exhibition, installed at the Uralsky Rabochi Typography in Ekaterinburg. The show’s curator, Moscow-born, Sofia, Bulgaria–based Iara Boubnova (whom locals nevertheless persisted in introducing as “the foreigner”) plucked her title from a line of Joseph Brodsky’s: “The Eye Never Sees Itself.” This claim aside, the exhibition was aggressively self-aware, returning over and over again to art’s inability to supplant other disciplines—namely, history, politics, or sociology. While modestly scaled to just one floor of the former printer, the show was festooned with all the trappings of this season’s biennials (Anton Vidokle? Check. Raqs Media Collective? Check. Slavs and Tatars? Check), while still taking time to linger on contributions from less exposed artists like Lise Harlov, Agnieszka Kurant, and collagist Olga Kroitor.

Boubnova’s slender show (with less than thirty total participants) still faced a gargantuan task: clearing Russia’s notoriously convoluted customs. The majority of the works were more or less held hostage at the border, released on a case-by-case basis that lent a performative aspect to the installation process. For instance, the Oriental rug that made up Slavs & Tatars’ Prayway was confiscated after officials declared it “highly unlikely” that the collective would hold biennial organizers in such high esteem as to “gift” them such an exquisite carpet.

Boubnova remained in admirably good spirits, despite the empty walls. Her curatorial walkthrough was a gracefully negotiated choreography of “Behind us, you should be seeing . . . ” and “To the right, there is supposed to be . . . ” We paused to peek into the facility’s narrow kitchen, where two women hunched over an antiquated sink, scrubbing. “This isn’t a work,” Boubnova deadpanned. “But it might as well have been.”

Left: A woman interacts with a work by Nedko Solakov. Right: A slag heap in Degtyarsk.

Perplexingly, one of the works that did clear customs was the IRWIN banner proclaiming TIME FOR A NEW STATE, which was last seen getting pulled from Viktor Misiano’s “Impossible Community” exhibition in Moscow after municipal censors found it too . . . suggestive. When I pressed Boubnova to comment, she shrugged: “I think the most politically provocative work here is actually the boxes”—a work by Nedko Solakov that invited visitors to take out frustrations on a pile of cardboard. “People here have grown up terrified of touching an artwork, let alone kicking it. And now, of course, people are so scared to express political opinions. I think this proposition is very subversive.” A young woman in earshot took this as a cue to gingerly poke the box closest to us with the toe of her boot, then beamed back at us.

That afternoon, we boarded a bus to tour some of the surrounding areas where the artists-in-residence were working. Casually crossing the Europe/Asia border, we pushed on toward Degtyarsk and the slag heap site of Timofey Radya’s installation, where we were greeted by the welcoming committee of a local dignitary, a miner in full work getup, and the Mistress of Copper Mountain, a popular character from regional folklore, who bestows favors more or less on par with the Sea in old fisherman’s tales. This Mistress pointed to the top of the heap, where we could barely distinguish the figures congregated around what we supposed to be the installation. Slag heaps are by nature—or rather, the lack thereof—not designed for press junkets, and the near-freezing rain did not ease the climb. By the time we had scrambled to the top, Radya was planted in the mud, his face in his hands; the sculpture he had worked the past two weeks to build had, only moments before our arrival, tumbled down the other side of the slope. A few brave journalists peeked over the edge to gauge the carnage, while others lamely complimented the view. I asked Radya if he would mind posing for a photo, and he looked at me (justifiably?) like I was insane: “Just take someone else’s photo and say it was me. It’s not like anyone will ever know the difference.” He burrowed his head further into his arms, muttering: “Or ever care.”

Left: Art historian David Raskin. Right: Remnants of Timofey Radya’s work.

What goes up, must come down, even in Siberia. After a truly nerve-wracking descent, we traveled to the legendary Uralmash plant, whose adjunct museum, the Orgzhonikidzevsky Cultural Center, was hosting an exhibition curated by the Hermitage’s Dmitry Ozerkov. The show brought young Russian artists like Ivan Plyusch and Andrey Kuzkin into conversation with Fischli & Weiss’s The Way Things Go, a piece that, in the context of the day, took on more relevance than the curator perhaps intended.

The next morning kicked off with a two-hour bus ride to Nizhnyi Tagil. If, as art historian David Raskin observed, we seemed to be going backward all week long, our first stop at the Levikha House of Culture confirmed his hunch, flanked as it was by a red star and sickle, with a statue of Lenin dead center. Street vendors squatted in the foyer. Upstairs, a folding table offered plates of greasy cabbage pies and Nescafe in plastic cups. Before we could indulge, we were pushed into the theater, where we were serenaded by a choir of elderly Copper Mountain Mistresses and their equally aged accordion accompanist. Back out in the entry hall, paintings of local abstractionist Alexey Konstantinov were propped up against the furniture and along the radiators, occasionally catching light from the mirror ball strung up in one back corner (explaining the “Disco Club” sign affixed to one of the doors). Boubnova sighed: “This is really the last frontier of tourism, isn’t it?”

Russian Museum curator Olesya Turkhina shuddered in response. “You have to understand, it’s still the Soviet Union here. These are the people who did the impossible, who built factories overnight so the rest of us could have the Soviet Empire. They worked harder than the human body is made to work, and for what? This ‘disco club’? Workers selling rip-off underwear in the Palace of Culture?”

Left: Artist Ivan Plyusch. Right: Russian Museum curator Olesya Turkhina.

By the time we reached Nizhnyi Tagil, the rain had made it too treacherous to tour the metallurgical plant itself, so instead we drove slowly through the city’s two main thoroughfares, circling Fox Hill (alternatively known as Bald Hill—the words for “fox” and “bald” are near twins in Russian). As nothing grows in its volcanic soil, the peak is capped by a tiny chapel that doubles as a symbol of the town. Our tour guide was careful to always call it “the tower,” which piqued my interest as to its current function. “To be honest,” she replied, “it’s sort of become a toilet. I mean, everyone goes to the hill to celebrate weddings or hold picnics or parties, and, well, see for yourself—there are no trees up there.”

We took her word for it, instead gathering down by the river to watch Nicholas Fraser’s Ground Rules, which pitted teams of workers from Nizhniy Tagil Metallurgical Works in a near-epic softball match. Fraser may have done an admirable job teaching the workers the rules of the game, but he neglected to educate the fans. (“Why didn’t he just teach them poker?” someone muttered. “That would have been more American.”) As the token American, I tried to explain the concepts of pitching, strikes, and balls, and the nuances of the strategic bunt. “I get the hitting,” artist Diana Machulina said, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “But why all the running?”

Left: Nicholas Fraser's Ground Rules. Right: NCCA director Mikhail Mindlin.