WHEN CRITIC BORIS GROYS heard that this year’s Moscow Biennale would be called “How to Gather?” he reportedly replied: “Simple. As enemies.”
This sentiment saturated the event’s closing keynote, which was delivered last Thursday with moderate fanfare by Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece (and sometime desk editor of Witte de With’s online journal, WdW Review). To start, Varoufakis acknowledged the occasional upsides to conflict, quoting Orson Welles’s famous line from The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Turbulent times may inspire great art, but they can be hell on institutions. The question of not only how to come together but why has prompted a rethinking of this September’s crop of large-scale exhibitions in Russia and Ukraine, two countries embroiled in a conflict-by-any-other-name. Cut loose from most government funding, the Moscow Biennale morphed into a ten-day program of lectures, screenings, performances, and works-in-process, while the Kyiv Biennial refashioned itself into “The School of Kyiv,” a series of similarly fluid, theme-based initiatives (“The School of the Lonesome,” “The School of the Displaced,” etc.), convening over two months in Kyiv and a network of outposts, from Trondheim, Norway, to Tbilisi, Georgia. Over in Ekaterinburg, the Third Ural Industrial Biennial—which enjoys relative autonomy under the umbrella of the Ural branch of Russia’s National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA)—decamped from its former home in the Uralsky Rabochi Typography (“We gentrified it,” NCCA’s Elizaveta Yuzhakova shrugged, as we passed the hipster burger bar nestled in the factory’s foyer) to another of the city’s Constructivist landmarks: the Iset Hotel. Now defunct, the hotel was originally built in the early 1930s as part of Chekist Town, a utopian housing community for Cheka, the brutal forerunners to the KGB. In other words, the biennial was still “industrial,” just another type of industry.
Intrigued by the idea of a happy ending for state-sponsored assassins (or at the very least, communal day care), I prefaced my visit to Moscow with a day trip to Ekaterinburg, where the biennial’s China-based curators, Biljana Ciric and Li Zhenhua, tackled the potentially loaded theme of “Mobilization.” Rather than directly engage the military connotations of the term, the curators ruminated on how bodies or political masses come together (albeit via separate exhibitions). Ciric’s exhibition fired off a formidable opening volley of works, crowned by Polina Kanis’s Work Out, 2011, a video showing the artist leading a group of elderly citizens in aerobics in the park, carefully feeding them instructions until she has them marching in step. For his contribution, Li summarized his skepticism through his exhibition title—“No Real Body”—if not through a series of sharp-tongued installations, from the !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s Random Darknet Shopper, a bot that blew its bitcoins on black-market goods, to Sergey Rozhin’s adolescent fantasy transposing a lone Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to a one-room apartment in Ekaterinburg. (Spoiler Alert: This involves a lot of pizza, Jennifer Lopez pinups, and suspiciously crusty VHS tapes.)
After checking out of the Iset, I made pit stops at the street-art gallery Sweater and the artist-run space Cultural Transit, where artist Sergey Polteryaev guided me through an exhibition playfully conflating an area of the city dubbed “Kuba” with its namesake country. The show spun the tale of a fictional influx from Havana to the Urals, complete with spurious interviews and a long, drawn-out narrative involving a portrait of Che Guevara that transformed into a painting of an old Siberian house after someone spilled vodka on it. It reminded me of something curator Vladimir Seleznyov had said earlier that day: “These mountains are full of myths.”
Back in Moscow, the biennial indulged in some mythmaking of its own, trading traditional white-cube venues for the Main Pavilion of the V.D.N.Kh., the All Russia Central Exhibition Hall, an open-air complex that vaguely resembles Venice’s Giardini, with pavilions dedicated either to individual Soviet republics or to products such as Oil or Wheat. In recent years, most of these pavilions have been colonized by kiosks peddling an icky assortment of patent-leather shoes, secondhand furs, or phone chargers, though with the reinvigoration of Russia’s Imperalist tendencies, several of the larger structures—the Main Pavilion included—have suddenly found the funds for face lifts. As I made my way down the newly spiffed-up grand promenade, I bumped into critic Brian Droitcour, fresh from a neighboring pavilion’s Cat Expo. “It was basically a room full of purebreds and then this guy who just really likes cats, who let you pet them,” Droitcour recounted. He glanced over at some of the biennial artists smoking cigarettes on the building stoop. “This is sort of a petting-the-cats kind of biennial.”
The Moscow Biennale almost didn’t see its sixth edition. Funding crisis aside, the institution faced considerable restrictions with its historical venue under renovation. Forbidden from touching the walls, curators Bart De Baere, Defne Ayas, and Nicolaus Schafhausen brought in architects MEL Studio to devise a system of substitute scaffolding, while mural painters continued their restoration work behind the transparent partition lining the back wall. The biennial was split into two ten-day sessions: the performance-heavy, “process” period, built around keynote lectures from speakers like Varoufakis, Ackbar Abbas, Saskia Sassen, and Rem Koolhaas, and the “documentation” period, which surveyed interventions from artists including Saâdane Afif, Keren Cytter, Isa Genzken, Gabriel Lester, Qiu Zhijie, and Luc Tuymans. Throughout the first session, these artists lingered about the pavilion, participating in free-form discussions, screenings, readings, and group lunches, as well as intellectual and physical “workouts.” (Going by Instagram, the last of these consisted of everyone running in a frenzied circle around the central performance space.)
The resulting exhibition’s exacting subtitle—“Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia”—was laden with the kind of ideological land mines one unpacks with extreme caution, if at all. While De Baere proudly wore his enthusiasm for the term “Eurasia” (his catalogue essay is an extended advertisement for his decision to rechristen the MuKhA a museum of “Eurasian” art), his audience was reluctant to buy into its potential. In the Russian context, “Eurasia” conjures a strain of radical thought that gained traction at the turn of the last century by indulging in some casually racist self-orientalizing on Russia’s part, advancing the idea that Russia is somehow “more” than Europe, rather than really contemplating that Eurasia might mean more than Russia. The term has recently been revived, albeit with the additional inflections of nationalist and neo-imperial nuances—basically that Russia should be “more,” period. This explained its popularity with sponsors, but also the wariness of artists to adopt the terminology. (Where was Slavs and Tatars, a collective born from this hesitation?)
Picking up on the Eurasian cue (and the money that seemed to materialize around it), many of the parallel projects turned to the edges of the former—knock on wood—Russian Empire. Among the most prominent was a sweeping group show surveying the greatest hits of Vladikavkaz’s Art Alanica exchange program, which spanned three stories in the base of Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolhoznitsa. (I assume the irony of filling a monument to labor with work largely from the Caucasus was intentional?) A more overtly self-aware critique came in the form of the “Kavkaz Pavilion,” which huddled beside V.D.N.Kh.’s Main Pavilion in a slipshod “extension” associated with the region’s lack of building restrictions. Organized by the Unbound, a loose association including artist Taus Makhacheva, anthropologist Gleb Berg, and curator Andrei Misiano, the show trades in stereotypes, drawing from personal experiences, YouTube videos, and the occasional artistic intervention (see Farhad Farzaliyev’s Azerbaijani Sandwich, the stack of wallets, car keys, cell phone, and cigarettes frequently spotted on dining tables), all set against a wallpaper backdrop of Chechen warlord-cum-president Ramzan Kadyrov’s decadent dining room.
While “Eurasia” has been widely dismissed as romantic fiction, Europe is beginning to look more and more like fantasy. “It’s not immediately obvious why I am here,” Varoufakis kicked off his keynote. (Funny, I was thinking the same about his opening act, a cover band featuring a girl in a cowboy hat bellowing “Smells like Teen Spirit.”) The self-professed “former finance minister of a bankrupt country” downplayed his considerable art-world cred, stockpiled not only during his tenure as a desk editor at the WdW Review or the time spent accompanying his wife, artist Danae Stratou, on research trips for her projects (including the Athens nonprofit Vital Space, which Varoufakis helped found) but also through his own writing, which is steeped in references to visual culture. If anything, he seemed relieved to be able to speak openly about art. Emphasis on openly. Not one to mince words, he was quick to let me know his stance on Documenta’s sojourn in Athens: “Personally I find it pretty offensive. Like depression tourism.”
Up at the podium, Varoufakis played to his audience. “Do you really want to have a glimpse at what’s wrong with the Euro? Well, take out a bill and look at it. What do you see? A very boring design.” Never mind the general absence of Euros in the house: He had us. “I’ll tell you a dirty secret,” he teased. “These archways and bridges you see don’t exist.” European Union representatives could not come to a consensus as to which of the continent’s treasures—from the Greek Parthenon to Cologne’s cathedral—to feature on the currency, “so they commissioned some third-rate artists to make fourth-rate work. We just had to look at the bill to know it would fail.” He used this observation to springboard into a larger point about how, when we look at a work of art, we often read it through the lens of its social and economic context, but when we look at economics, we read it as if it is an independent series of facts, not affected by culture. This, he warns, is a grave mistake.
Of course, the gravest mistake, in Varoufakis’s opinion, is the flimsy social architecture of Europe, where the numbing homogenization introduced by an unchecked market erodes rather than bolsters the public sphere. He spoke rapturously of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, which stages a momentary collision of two identical women living on different sides of the Berlin Wall. Varoufakis lamented that a movie like this would no longer be possible in today’s world, where, rather than forge a lasting bond, the two Veroniques would be pitted against each other in competition for the same dwindling resources.
When it came time for questions, most were run-of-the-mill “How would you save Europe?,” until someone raised the possibility that technology might reinforce the public sphere. “Technology in the social body is the equivalent of mutations in biology,” Varoufakis ventured. “We are at a crossroads. We could end up as Star Trek, the utopian society where no one has to work, they just get to sit around talking about problems, and when you want something to drink, you go to the hole in the wall, and there it is. Or we can end up as The Matrix, a world where we are enslaved by the machines we have created. It depends on the strength of our public sphere.”
While it may not have been the most direct route, it was the best answer I’d heard as to why to keep gathering. As for how? Consider it a work-in-process.