A SALTSHAKER, A BRACELET, and a romantic folklorist painting of a prophetic bird walk onto a wooden stage: That’s the premise of Taus Makhacheva’s Way of an Object, 2013, a marionette show featuring replicas of three items from Dagestan’s Gamzatova Fine Arts Museum engaging in museological debates as they bemoan their fate as passive exponents wrenched from their original contexts. While the traditional Avar “horned” salt box and Kubachi wedding bangle mourn the loss of their specific cultural use-value, the miniature Viktor Vasnetsov painting whines that it’s the one who should really be complaining, having ended up exiled to Dagestan, as part of a late 1920s push to redistribute museum holdings from Moscow to other Soviet republics, all in the name of forging a unified cultural landscape for the world’s largest country.
It didn’t take. To this day, culturally speaking, the country now known as the Russian Federation still maintains at best an unwieldy grasp on its sweeping territory—home to nearly two hundred nationalities and one hundred distinct languages. So far, the most substantial efforts at expanding artistic representations of Russia have been made by the National Center for Contemporary Art, which maintains outposts in locales such as Kaliningrad, Vladikavkaz, and Yekaterinburg, the last being arguably the most internationally minded. (Its Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art is set to open its fourth edition this September, with a show curated by Museu Serralves director João Ribas.)
But the NCCA has been on shaky ground in the wake of a series of scandals that left the organization subsumed last summer by ROSIZO, a Kremlin-friendly bureaucratic behemoth of an exposition company. The Moscow Biennale hangs in a similarly nebulous state. Its seventh edition—to be curated by institutional salve Yuko Hasegawa—was confirmed only in late January, just a day after the organizers of the Russian Pavilion in Venice broke an increasingly awkward silence, at long last unveiling plans to present the mildly baffling combination of Grisha Bruskin, Recycle, and Sasha Pirogova.
Enter the Garage Triennial. Unlike the Moscow Biennale—or its precocious little sister, the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art—this museum-based exhibition models itself after the Whitney Biennial, sending a team of six curators on site visits around a country that spans eleven time zones. (And you thought America was hard to see.) As Garage director Anton Belov tells it, the idea spun out of conversation with the museum’s chief curator, Kate Fowle, who was contemplating a trip to Vladivostok, not realizing it was a nine-hour flight.
Of course, like any ambitious undertaking, there were a few qualms. In the spirit of inclusiveness, the six curators—Katya Inozemtseva, Snejana Krasteva, Andrey Misiano, Ilmira Bolotyan, Sasha Obukhova, and Tanya Volkova—originally formed a list of 120 artists, almost double the final roster. “Kate Fowle took one look at this first list, and asked, ‘And where exactly do you plan to put all of that work?’” Belov recalled, grinning.
The pruning process required some excruciating, sometimes inscrutable decisions. For instance, while Moscow is irritatingly well-represented (with some token “Siberians”—Evgeny Antufiev, for instance—having long since relocated to the capital), there was scant mention of the country’s Second City, Saint Petersburg. “The thing is,” newly minted Garage curator Valentin Diaconov reasoned, “Saint Petersburg already has its own scene, its own infrastructure and institutions and functioning galleries. I think when the curators were trying to determine what types of artists might benefit most, it just didn’t make sense to give those slots to Petersburg artists.”
So why didn’t they trim the Moscow offerings? After all, everyone loves Pavel Pepperstein, but to give such a well-represented figure a massive wall seemed a little excessive. Diaconov just shrugged with his trademark tact, but another insider put it more bluntly: “I’m not even sure any of the curators bothered to visit Saint Petersburg.” That would certainly give a different spin to the triennial’s tagline: “The country, as you’ve never seen it.”
Another conflict arose over whether to include Crimea. “Technically it’s part of the Russian border,” Obukhova stated, carefully and firmly, at the press preview. During the research process, the curator had traveled there personally, carrying on discussions with the otherwise orphaned art community. While no Crimean artists were officially included, some of those conversations will be brought to Moscow in April as part of a special seminar on what is to be done with Crimea. It was an unexpectedly elegant solution to a truly messy problem.
Slightly less elegant was the triennial’s cluttered hang. The bilevel space was broken down into thematic groupings by individual curators, from “Master Figures” to “Personal Mythologies” to “Street Morphology,” which included street-art commissions by artists such as Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai and Kirill Kto in the surrounding Gorky Park. Of these subchapters, Misiano’s “Fidelity to Place” was a standout, including: Makhacheva’s marionettes; Sergey Poteryaev’s playfully ahistorical collages of the Ural village of Staraya Utka (Old Duck); Aslan Gaisumov’s recovered house numbers from his partially destroyed hometown of Grozny; and Vladimir Seleznyov’s charming Metropolis. Nizhny Tagil, 2016, an immersive installation that filled a room with emptied milk cartons, sardine cans, shoe boxes, and other trash that the artist gathered around his Ural hometown. When the lights dimmed, masterfully applied glow-in-the-dark paint transformed this scattered garbage into a surprisingly cohesive cityscape.
Downstairs, Krasteva’s “Common Language” section kicked off with several “schools” by the crowd-pleasing Krasnodar-based ZIP Group. Each institution was consigned to its own wooden structure: the School of Aromatherapy and Luscious Painting offered visitors a chance to “paint” a mountain landscape with air fresheners, and the School of Minimalism and Cleanliness suspended solid-colored towels like monochrome banners. Meanwhile, the School of Futurism and Martial Arts reassigned classical Constructivist poses’ fresh political applications as “protest aerobics,” coining moves like the “baton block” or “barbwire squats.”
Upstairs, the Vladivostok-based artist collective 33+1 also constructed a separate structure to block off their collective display. “Originally I offered to have 33+1 do the entire triennial,” artist Pasha Shugurov told me. “But the curators only gave us this small space. Maybe next time . . . ” He guided me around the crowded installation, rattling off unknown artists until we came to a large mottled canvas affixed with a death certificate. “It’s titled The Last Painting,” Shugurov explained. “The artist threw himself from the tallest skyscraper in Yekaterinburg and landed on the canvas.” The story seemed a little too horrific to be true—though the American in me skipped straight to the potential biohazard part—when the cool twinkle in Shugurov’s eye suggested that the “33+1” of the collective’s name might be more like “33-in-1”: Shugurov.
With all this—and a full program of film screenings to boot—it was easy to forget that the triennial wasn’t Garage’s only offering this spring. The museum’s main foyer was consumed by The Tail Wags the Comet, a hulking new, multilevel installation by the extraordinary Ira Korina, who, along with Makhacheva, is on tap for this year’s main project at the Venice Biennale. Upstairs, a group show delved into the institution’s impressive archives, while, outside, the Garage’s Rem Koolhaas–designed facade was crowned with an Ugo Rondinone rainbow. As part of the museum’s extensive inclusivity program, children from nine cities across the country had responded with fifteen hundred pictures of their own rainbows, which were hung on a wall in front of the museum’s entrance. During the press conference, Belov stressed the importance of the rainbow as a symbol of all things “happy” and “joyful.” Somehow, it took me a full half-hour to remember that “happy” had another synonym more closely associated with the rainbow.
In the run-up to the triennial, Russia’s social-media set fretted over the possibility of too much Moscow representation. But the Thursday-evening opening was true overkill, with cameos by almost all the city’s principal figures from several decades. Besides the sixty-plus triennial participants jostling for cocktails were artists including Dmitry Gutov, Yuri Albert, Olga Chernysheva, Vladimir Dubossarsky, Sergey Bratkov, the Blue Noses, Sasha “Palto” Petrelli, Gosha Ostretsov, Lyudmila Konstantinova, Olga Bozhko, Valery Chtak, Misha Most, and EliKuka. Garage founder Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich kept to the café, where they were surrounded by friends and well-wishers. Meanwhile, prodigal provocateur Marat Guelman was back from Montenegro, where he had retreated following some high-profile adventures in Perm. Other known rabble-rousers Andrey Erofeev and Dmitry Khankin traded notes upstairs, while rising curatorial powers Katia Krupennikova, Alisa Bagdonaite, Daria Parkhomenko, Anastasia Shavlokhova, and Ekaterina Perventseva scoured the grounds for new names. Fledging gallerist Mariana Guber-Gogova and her twin, Madina Gogova, culture minister of the Republic of Karachaevo-Circassia, showed up in support of Artwin Gallery artist Anya Titova, while XL gallery veterans Elena Selina and Serge Khiprun poked around Korina’s multiple spaces. Dealers Sadie Coles and Eva Presenhuber were on hand for Rondinone, while international curators Zdenka Badovinac, Sally Tallant, Maria Lind, Beatrix Ruf, and Boris Groys flew in for the Garage’s advisory board, convening the next day.
In the interest of furthering international exchange, the Garage Museum had devised travel grants for curators. The program was highly competitive. More than 130 applicants vied for ten slots; at least three recipients chose to delay their travel, slightly undercutting the brunch in their honor planned for the following morning. Perhaps this was for the best. As happens with a scale of this event in Moscow, things got more and more “festive.” With the Marriott Grand signing on as a sponsor, agreeing to host all the artists, curators, board members, visiting critics, and assorted guests, all roads—no matter how convoluted—eventually led to the same hotel lobby.
While I never made it past the lobby that night, many who did crammed into a hotel room on the third floor to celebrate triennial artist Mayana Nasybullova’s birthday. In line for coffee at the curator brunch the following day, Nasybullova showed me cell-phone footage of the scene, where artists Olya Kroytor and Sveta Shuvaeva bounced on a bed beside Korina, Diaconov, and assorted members of Chto Delat. Every other available space was occupied by artists from all corners of the country. When the room reached capacity, the party spilled down to the pool and hot tub, with several artists seemingly forgetting their speed dates with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ruf, scheduled for bright and brutally early the next morning.
Also in line for coffee, Poteryaev peered over my shoulder at the video and nodded approvingly: “This is the real triennial.” We then swiped forward to some pseudo-elicit shots of artists in hotel bathrobes, requisite jacuzzi pics, and an epic bout of couch-wrestling. The country, as we’ve never seen it.