LAST THURSDAY, Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture at long last reopened with a survey of works from François Pinault’s collection. According to curator Caroline Bourgeois, the exhibition’s title, “A Certain State of the World?,” was punctuated long before the economic crisis; nevertheless, over the past few months, this question mark has presided over the Garage’s activity––or, more fittingly, inactivity, as the space has remained closed since its much-feted Ilya and Emilia Kabakov retrospective last September. In the time since, the Moscow art world has occupied itself by inventing more and more outlandish conspiracy theories (implicating the Chelsea football team, rumored to be distracting Garage sponsor Roman Abramovich, and the Jewish Community Center, which was said to be plotting to take over the building) and speculation as to whether the Garage would ever reopen at all increased with the Pinault show’s delays.
Rumors were effectively laid to rest at the opening, which came with the announcement that the Garage will also host the Moscow Biennale in September. Those still casting doubt on the center’s credibility were stunned by the solid and thoughtful exhibition, which offered works by stars like Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as by younger artists such as Adel Abdessemed, Pierre Huyghe, Cao Fei, and Francis Alÿs. (The works by thirty-three artists accounted for only about 5 percent of Pinault’s megacollection.) Many of the artists—including Koons, Sherman, Abdessemed, and Johan Grimonprez—were on hand to witness their works’ installation in the historic Melnikov Garage, formerly one of the city’s largest bus stations and now an oversize art playground under the direction of twenty-seven-year old Daria “Dasha” Zhukova.
While one of the principal subdivisions of the exhibition was titled “The Society of the Spectacle,” the show––and, more surprisingly, its opening––was notable for its restraint. Stilettoed socialites, a few accompanied by artists and the usual suspects, streamed through the roughly ninety-thousand-square-foot space, sipping champagne and smiling politely for the cameras in front of Subodh Gupta’s Very Hungry God (which itself seemed more subdued than during its previous installation outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice). Abramovich, Zhukova’s partner, made a token appearance, as did several other power players, but the frenzied oligarch spotting of last September was confined to one or two journalists and the few dealers who were still able to afford the ticket. Gone was the atmosphere of excess that had permeated the Kabakov opening. Also absent were a number of the Moscow art world’s central figures, including representatives from four of the so-called Big Five galleries, among them Aidan Salakhova and XL Gallery’s Elena Selina.
The exhibition’s opening was followed by a symposium, which featured an eagerly anticipated, invite-only conversation with Koons. Openly adored by the Moscow masses, Koons nevertheless left the packed audience scratching their heads at his messages of “total acceptance” and “objective art.” More than a few of the participating artists could be heard grumbling about the second part of the symposium, which featured Openspace editor Ekaterina Degot in discussion with Bourgeois and (for lack of better phrasing) “all the other artists.” While the majority of the two-hour conversation might have been lost in translation (with French, English, and Russian batted back and forth over a crackling sound system), it certainly had its moments. In particular, Francesco Vezzoli charmed the audience when he drew a comparison between his use of celebrity and Koons’s Michael Jackson works; the dapper Italian found it important to add, “I personally do not like to claim that I have integrity.”
Integrity and credibility were something of a theme for the weekend, as the art center looked to establish its reputation in the international circuit. While dinners hosted by Christie’s and Haunch of Venison offered a chance to unwind, the generally subdued tone of the exhibition and its events indicated that Moscow is ready to host exhibitions of this caliber and that it can do so without the gilded excess that seems to have become synonymous with the city. Those who might lament this change of atmosphere can take heart, however: The Garage’s rumored summer exhibitions of David Lynch and Christian Louboutin promise there is still a place for heady extravagance.