IT WAS ALREADY DUSK by 3 PM last Friday as I slid/shuffled my way across the icy Patriarch Bridge to the Red October Chocolate Factory. The venue had been famously brought into international art-world consciousness in 2008 as the site of Gagosian’s second foray into Moscow; now it was host to the city’s newest contemporary art fair, Cosmoscow (or “CosmosCow,” as friends couldn’t resist calling it).
Touted by the leading newspaper Kommersant as “a little piece of Art Basel in Russia,” Cosmoscow was initiated by collector and first-time fair director Margarita Pushkina and dealers Vladimir Ovcharenko and Volker Diehl, who are, somewhat curiously, listed as “consultants” in the official fair program. “Obviously, it’s a first attempt,” Diehl explained. “If anything, we proved you can pull off a fair in Russia that’s up to European standards.” Of course with Cosmoscow, everything is relative—not just to “the West,” but to ArtMoscow, the fair’s notorious older sister. Tales of corruption and dysfunction tend to overshadow the older fair’s sparse but splashy sales. Cosmoscow was calmer (no fur-swathed fashionistas or fabled Chechen collectors with grocery bags full of cash), more organized (despite being thrown together in just a few months), and more “average.”
“It’s like an average art fair in your average European city” one Russian participant proclaimed proudly. Non-Russians weren’t quite so enthusiastic: “Yeah, it looks great,” one dealer mumbled, “but where is everyone?” While the fair had seen to everything—from transport and customs clearance to accommodations and visa support—those dealers with visions of Roman Abramovich dancing in their heads were disappointed. The mostly German contingent (Contemporary Fine Arts, Galerie Neu, Nordenhake) sat sullenly through a very quiet “collectors’ preview.”
Kaj Forsblom, a veteran of the ArtMoscow scene, was in high spirits: “Two years ago, we were one of eleven foreign galleries who couldn’t get their work through customs. We had to tape up printouts instead. Turned out very conceptual, actually . . . ” A quick glance at his booth—two big Damien Hirsts, a Gary Hume, and a massive Julian Schnabel self-portrait propped against the wall—furnished evidence that the process had gone much more smoothly this year.
At Leo Koenig, visitors tittered over Tony Matelli’s lifelike bronze weeds, sprouting through the adjoining Winckler stand, and Ridley Howard’s tiny, candy-coated nudes, their soft spell disrupted by the rash of red dots beside them—some of the few visible at the opening. When I asked Claudia Milic whether Simon Lee Gallery had a specific “Moscow strategy,” she shrugged: “Color?” “And glitter!” visiting dealer Emanuela Campoli added, tilting her head toward a sparkly John Armleder.
Local galleries weren’t the only ones spiking their booths with recent Kandinsky Prize nominees and laureates. One could check out Tatiana Akhmetgalieva at Forsblom or Alexander Brodsky at Matthew Bown. “Why would you show Russians here?” I asked Bown, whose Berlin-based gallery specializes in Russian and Ukrainian art. “I can’t help it,” he sighed. “I hung other pieces, but the artists keep arriving with works, and I just can’t turn them down.” At Triumph Gallery there was also a solo show of the Young Artists of the Year, the collective Recycle. The booth featured an industrial-size tire whose tracks were cut with hieroglyphic depictions of figures working, resting, and, well, fucking. “What more is there to life?” dealer Dmitry Hankin mused, giving the tire a lazy push in its sandbox to show the copulating couple again.
In a far corner of the fair, an empty booth had been taken over by the project WC, a collaborative initiative formed by artists including David Ter-Oganyan, Sasha Galkina, and Zhanna Kadyrova. I asked Vladimir Logutov which piece was his. “The mirrors,” he said, pointing to one wall of the booth. “When we got here, we thought it looked too small, so we added them to make the space seem larger.” Eventually the ban on indoor smoking (“How American of us,” artist Valery Chtak huffed, casting me a sidelong glance) forced everyone outside. Or almost everyone—when I returned later to the WC squat, it was empty except for Ter-Oganyan, who was slumbering peacefully in a purloined chair. “We decided to leave him,” shrugged artist Misha Most. “You know, like an installation.”
Eyeing a crowd of football fans congregating around a New Year’s tree (the Soviets stole Christmas), I decided it would be safest to skip the fair’s afterparty, which had been freshly rechristened on the program from “10:30 PM Dinner” to “Vodka Party on the Red Square!” Something told me that free vodka in the world’s most obvious tourist trap didn’t mix with the nationalists’ chants of “Russia for Russians.”
By 3 PM the next day, my phone was buzzing with text messages about another kind of riot, this one in support of the artist group Voina, whose Jackass-style antics had gotten two of its members arrested on December 5. Since then, they’ve become a Russian cause célèbre, rousing emotions among the old-school Moscow art world. (Banksy has also since chipped in $125,000 for Voina’s defense.)
As very real racial tensions erupt across Russia, it may be a stretch to herald tipping over cop cars and spray-painting a giant phallus on the Palace Bridge as “the return to political art.” I found a much more revolutionary rejection of society in Collective Actions, whose archive was on view as part of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Andrei Monastyrski (basically a sneak peek of this year’s Russian pavilion in Venice). I arrived in time to catch the Art Foundation of Victoria brunch in honor of the exhibition. The VIP crowd was intimate, to say the least—though it did include what may have been the fair’s sole foreign collector, a kindly gentleman from Düsseldorf—but everyone was appreciative and patient with the artist’s constant thwarting of expectations (and the odd choice of lasagna as the brunch entrée).
That evening, Cosmoscow treated its guests to an afterparty at ArtAkademia, where weary dealers were revived by the sounds of Russian’s synth-pop poster children Tesla Boy. Despite limited facility with English, the group managed to stretch a full-length single out of the variegated whinings of the words “I want to make love with you all night (all-l-l ni-i-ight).” For those still hungering for a taste of the true cosmopolitan Moscow, this New Age Fun with a Vintage Feel served as an excellent dessert.