AS TITLES GO, “Clouds ⇄Forest,” Yuko Hasegawa’s for the Seventh Moscow Biennale, is lyrical, if a little typographically challenging. While clouds and forest may intertwine, the former will never know what it means to take root, just as the latter will never take flight. Hasegawa meant this as a metaphor for a generational shift between what she terms “Forest Tribes”—artists using more or less traditional media—and “Cloud Tribes,” the children of this recent rootless era of networked communications and digital technologies. (The CliffsNotes version might call this “89plus.”)
Hasegawa’s brand of quiet grace and observation has earned her remarkable loyalty from the artists with whom she works closely, but professionally she holds a reputation as one of the few who can pull together a cohesive biennial in eight months—which was how much she was allotted for Moscow. In practice, it was hard to pry the “tribes” apart. Video installations by Cécile B. Evans, Susan Schuppli, Rohini Devasher, and Ryan Trecartin settled smoothly alongside Louise Drulhe’s Bitchain topographies, Aurora Sander’s sculptural ode to the woes of the Airbnb maid, or Gauri Gill’s gorgeous collaborative drawings, made together with Warli artist Rajesh Vangad. This synthesis was summed up smartly by artist Justine Emard and dancer Mirai Moriyama’s Co(AI)xistance. The film captures Moriyama interacting with an anthropomorphic robot, their movements wavering between courtship and confrontation. “I told him to just act like a human,” Emard said, with a shrug, when asked about the process. “It was important to me that this wasn’t sci-fi. I wanted to work with what we already have.”
But the wispy elegance of “Clouds ⇄Forest” couldn’t help but snag in the gnarly limbs of Moscow’s museum infrastructure, inadvertently revealing the discrepancy between the mistier denizens of the art scene, who cherish international mobility and visibility, and the more stationary institutions that would prefer to double down on their respective traditions.
The Moscow Biennale paradoxically contains both impulses. As a rule, the character of each edition has been inextricable from its location—whether that be the shiny, half-built skyscrapers of Moscow City; the cavernous hulls of Artplay; the bland hotel-lobby-like promenades of the New Manege; or the grand pavilions of the V.D.N.Kh., a sort of World’s Fair for the former Soviet Republic where curators Bart de Baere, Defne Ayas, and Nicolaus Schafhausen hunkered down in September 2015 for the ten-day art boot camp that was the sixth biennial. While suited to the occasion, the V.D.N.Kh. is currently undergoing a transformation into a Museum Island–style complex centered around a showcase space for ROSIZO, the Ministry of Culture’s exhibition export arm, which is, as of last spring, also directly overseeing Russia’s National Center of Contemporary Art and its network of regional outposts. (Those in the know can only give thanks that ROSIZO gained curator Alisa Prudnikova in the bargain, as there could be no better guiding light for an otherwise dimly lit bureaucratic beast.)
With V.D.N.Kh. occupied, and progressive-minded institutions like Garage and V-A-C preoccupied with their own programs, it wasn’t quite clear that there would even be a Seventh Moscow Biennale until late January, when the Ministry of Culture launched a two-day volley of press releases announcing both the roster for the Russian Pavilion in Venice (another looming uncertainty) and the Moscow dates, curator, advisory board, and location: the State Tretyakov Gallery’s modern and contemporary wing, just opposite Gorky Park on the Krymsky Val.
The New Tretyakov (as it’s commonly known) wields a formidable—often mind-blowing—collection, picking up with the clear-cut jaw-droppers of the Russian avant-garde and carrying through the greatest hits of socialist realism, the cheap shots of Sots Art, and a tepid attempt at the present. Alas, institutional might does not always translate to available power outlets. The building was designed to showcase paintings and the occasional pedestal-bound sculpture, not the complex multimedia installations Hasegawa required. Blackout curtains were brought in to carve out narrow corridors between viewing spaces, enhancing projections but rendering navigation treacherous. The biennial’s supposed centerpiece was Björk’s Digital, a series of six VR experiences departing from the singer’s 2015 Vulnicura album, but each time I circled back to the installation it was either not functioning or comically over capacity.
As Hasegawa explained, Björk is someone who makes very personal work using cutting-edge technologies, which meant she was neither forest nor cloud. This might explain her perplexing billing in the original announcement as a “special guest,” a designation shared with her ex, Matthew Barney, and Olafur Eliasson, ostensibly the most famous artists on the roster. (It made one wonder if the branding had been workshopped with the artists before it hit the presses.) For whatever reason, shortly after the press blast, Barney canceled a performance that would have bridged the September 12th grand opening of Cai Guo-Qiang’s “October” at the Pushkin Museum and the biennial’s September 18th launch. Instead, visitors had to negotiate the sudden downtime, making me long for the days when the Biennale’s parallel program pumped the city with bright-red banners and bad reception wine.
Speaking of signage, on the Biennale’s opening day, the facade of the New Tretyakov was branded with the massive slogan “the Pride of Russia”—referring not to the Biennale but to the metallurgical expo lumped in the other half of the building. Meanwhile, across the street at Gorky Park, Beyoncéd strains from Frank Ocean’s “Pink and White” sailed over the streams of young hipsters, still a week too early for the Garage’s epic Takashi Murakami solo. This stark generational divide reverberated even more strongly at the Monday morning press conference, when Tretyakov director Zelfira Tregulova trumpeted the exhibition as one “of art, not artistic illustrations of social or political issues.” Which would be . . . bad?
This clash of muddled conservatism with international ambitions had coursed through the previous evening’s lecture by esteemed art historian Sergey Khachaturov, as part of the Biennale’s educational program. Tasked with answering whether there is such a thing as “pure art,” Khachaturov turned to Orest Kiprensky’s beloved 1827 portrait of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, the muse strumming in his ear. The critic then proceeded to tick off three “pure” geniuses of our time—James Turrell, Bill Viola, and William Kentridge—before venturing a fourth: Kirill Serebrennikov, the prominent dissident director of the Gogol Center, currently in prison facing trumped-up charges of embezzlement and fraud. Serebrennikov’s “Little Tragedies”—a staging of four of Pushkin’s plays—had opened to unequivocal raves days before the biennial’s opening, despite the pronounced absence of its director.
If Khachaturov’s definition of “genius”—Serebrennikov excepted—rang distinctly of the forest (or perhaps a privileged suburban garden park in Phoenix), it is reassuringly far from representative of the tastes of Moscow’s Cloud Tribes, which are graduating in ever-higher numbers from institutions like the Rodchenko School, the Institute of Contemporary Art (launched in 1991 by Moscow Biennale founder Joseph Backstein, but now primarily fronted by artist Stas Shuripa), and Anatoly Osmolovksy’s BAZA institute. The question is, What are all these young art students to do, now that the financial sucker-punch of international sanctions and heightened visa restrictions has added ever more obstacles to the game of Frogger that is “making it” in the international scene (or, at the very least, to an e-flux)?
To shed some light, I met the enterprising young curator Sasha Burenkov at the Moscow NCCA, where the choreographic collective Isadorino Gore’s Alexandra Portyannikova and Daria Plokhova were just wrapping up a performance workshop. Burenkov guided me through the show on the Shiryaevo Biennale (a one-day progressive exhibition on the shores of the Volga, not far from Samara), before we ventured to ISSMAG, a project space specifically conceived by Dishon Yuldash to cater to emerging artists. Run more as a labor of love than a gallery, the venture is on its third location in three years. As Yuldash confessed, there is such a thing as too much success. After opening in a ritzy window vitrine in downtown Moscow, ISSMAG moved to the empty NIIDAR factory, where flocks of the young and beautiful would descend just to hang out. “After all the good clubs closed, there hasn’t been anywhere to go, so we would open an exhibition and have three hundred people there to party,” Yuldash recounted. The move to a two-story garage was partially intended to shift the focus back to the work itself, though ISSMAG is still struggling to find a sustainable format. “In a moment like this, you don’t have a right to close this kind of space,” Burenkov reasoned. “It has to keep going somehow.”
On my way back to the New Tretyakov, I detoured through Zaryadye Park, the thirty-two-acre “urban wilderness” designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, landscape architects Hargreave Jones, and the Russian bureau Citymakers. Moscow’s first new park in several decades, Zaryadye, occupies the empty lot directly across from Red Square and the Kremlin. Until 2006, the site had been host to the three-thousand-room Rossiya, once the world’s largest hotel and arguably also one of its most soul-sucking. (Granted, most of my memories of the place involved having to routinely produce my passport and keycard while wandering through its labyrinthine halls to prove I wasn’t a prostitute—an accusation my twenty-year-old self found mildly flattering.) A High Line on steroids, Zaryadye Park features four climate zones, representative of Russia’s various regions, as well as an outdoor amphitheater, a panoramic bridge, the site of the future philharmonic, a 4-D theater, and an ice cave containing an installation by artist Alexander Ponomarev—the grizzled “captain” of this year’s Antarctica Biennale.
The park had rushed to open in time for the September 9th “City Day,” commemorating Moscow’s 870th birthday. Putin made a point of driving his own golf cart from the Kremlin across Red Square to preside over the festivities. The enormous fanfare might have been aimed at taking the edge off the park’s cost: supposedly to the tune of some $250 million—a number nearly echoing the 250 million visitors recorded in the park’s first weekend. Alas, amid the frenzy, ten thousand exotic or endangered plants were destroyed or pocketed. Just two days after the opening, administrators soberly announced that the park would be undergoing immediate restoration, opening several hours late that first Monday, and that entrance from here on out would be allowed only in fifteen minute intervals. (And the ice cave? “Come back in October!” a security guard scoffed.)
By the time I reached the New Tretyakov, a similar entrance system was in place, with security guards attempting to temper the surge of guests, who pooled around the museum mezzanine’s model of Tatlin’s tower. Biennale organizer Tatiana Nemirovskaya spotted me in the crush and expertly extracted me from the champagne-fluted masses, spiriting me off to an elevator to the fourth floor. While this meant working backward through the exhibition, the route allowed me to follow the logical progression of the collection, from Aristarkh Lentulov’s prismatic rooftops, Boris Kustodiev’s voluptuous absurdities, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s brooding portraits, to Aleksandr Deineka’s melancholic monuments to the human form, where I ran into Garage chief curator Kate Fowle admiring the strapping goalkeeper mid-save. “It’s actually really great that everyone has to exit through the collection,” she mused.
The path also allowed me to catch the handful of Biennale works installed within the collection. In particular, I appreciated the two Hussein Chalayan suspended sculptures of torsos melting into motion just in front of Lyubov Popova’s 1915 relief The Jug on the Table. Their harmonious coexistence gave an inkling of the exhibition Hasegawa might have delivered with more time, had she the luxury of playing to the museum’s strengths rather than fighting its limitations. As it were, I contented myself with admiring the clouds nestled within the forest, grateful I didn’t have to pick sides.