Space Race

Kate Sutton on “Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons” at the Garage Museum

Left: Artist Dragan Živadinov. Right: Garage chief curator Kate Fowle with curators Snejana Krasteva, Bojana Piškur, and Igor Španjol. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“DRAGAN, YOU HAVE to let Zdenka and I go. We would be so good in space!” Kate Fowle pleaded from the backseat of the black minivan, where she was nestled in alongside curator Zdenka Badovinac and artists Dragan Živadinov, Luchezar Boyadjiev, and Roman Uranjek. We were en route from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s temporary pavilion in Moscow’s Gorky Park to the buzzy Buro Canteen for a private dinner in honor of the February 5 opening of “Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons: Works from the Arteast 2000+ Collection.”

One of the founding members of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), Živadinov doubles as a cosmonaut candidate who has been to the stratosphere seven times and describes his day job as developing “the cultural policies of space.” The artist had spent that morning visiting the restricted-access Star City, about which he stayed casually mum. He did, however, indulge us by identifying the silver-haired gent he had been chatting with at the opening as Yuri Baturin—a two-time cosmonaut who currently serves on Russia’s National Security Council. “Before he started spending so much time with me, Yuri didn’t think of his research interests as having anything to do with art,” Živadinov proudly reported. “Now he’s a bona fide art lover.”

Space, Dragan. We were talking about space, and when you are going to let Zdenka and me go there,” Fowle reminded him. “I still haven’t committed to anything for the week before Venice.”

Left: Curator Defne Ayas. Right: Garage director Anton Belov and curator Nicolaus Schafhausen.

While that week may still be in limbo, Fowle, as the Garage’s chief curator, should have quite a busy summer, with the museum’s new Rem Koolhaas–designed building launching in June with a solo project from Rirkrit Tiravanija. As a send-off for the Shigeru Ban pavilion that the museum has occupied the past three years, the Garage delivered a power punch historical survey from the Arteast 2000+ Collection, which is maintained by the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, where Badovinac has served as director for more than twenty years. It’s an exhibition a long time coming, as Fowle explained: “This was one of the first projects Zdenka and I talked about when I was considering taking this job. This country has never had an exhibition that considers Russian artists in the context of the Eastern Europe scene.”

Cocurated by Badovinac, Garage curator Snejana Krasteva, and Moderna galerija’s Bojana Piškur, “Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons” uses the thematic division of “lessons” to structure selections from over sixty artists and collectives, loosely united by the shared experience of socialism (never mind how radically that experience might have differed for, say, Kazakhstani artist Yerbossyn Meldibekov and his Polish colleague, Katarzyna Kozyra). The exhibition punctuates genre classics like Ion Grigorescu’s seminal 1977 film Boxing, Marina Abramović’s controversial 1974 performance Rhythm 0, Mladen Stilinović’s iconic 1977 Artist at Work, and Sanja Iveković’s cheeky 1979 masturbation escapade, Triangle ,with projects from transition-era artists like Timur Novikov, Dan Perjovschi, Nedko Solakov and Chto Delat. The underdog vibes are strong here. See Krassimir Terziev’s 2005 Battles for Troy, an hour-long film that details the abominable treatment of Bulgarian extras during the shooting of Warner Brothers’ 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle Troy. Three hundred extras, all built like demigods and darkly handsome in a duly ambiguous, “Mediterranean” way (read: swarthy), played the front lines of both armies simultaneously, for a fraction of the cost of Mexican extras—or, for that matter, the horses. In his candid interviews with the participants, Terziev provides a close-up of a “background” nation coming to terms with its purported dispensability.

Left: Curators Viktor Misiano and Andrei Misiano. Right: Escape's Valeriy Ayzenberg and Chto Delat's Tsaplya Olga Egorovna.

Practicing politics on a more performative level, NSK set up a temporary embassy in the center of the show as part of the lesson plan on “The Power of Collaboration.” Founded in 1984 as an umbrella organization encompassing other collectives like Laibach, IRWIN, and Živadinov’s cosmist-inspired Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre, NSK later declared itself a state, reinforcing the claim with its own postage stamps and passports (of which fourteen thousand have been issued so far). As Fowle filled out a passport application, IRWIN member Borut Vogelnik told me about the group’s recent visit to Nigeria, where NSK papers have been confused for viable travel documents by desperate asylum seekers. Artists met with would-be applicants to clarify, taping the at-times heartbreaking interactions. “We explained that this was just an art project, but then somehow rumors got out that we were only saying that to trick people into not applying,” Vogelnik said, with a sad shake of his head. This clash of artistic intention with real consequences was one of the rare encroachments on the exhibition’s implicit eternal-underdog narrative.

More in keeping with the party line was the following evening’s “United Through Adversity” panel, which convened eleven artists and curators at the Garage’s impressive education center. According to moderator Krasteva, the panel’s goal was to untangle the contradiction of the exhibition title, with its implication that freedom could ever be constrained by grammar, let alone a concrete definition. Within minutes of Krasteva’s deft opening salvo, curator Viktor Misiano declared “freedom” to be a concept wholly dependent on its context: “The only way to judge its relative value is to understand its function within a specific situation.” Boyadjiev broke from semantics, indulging a romantic account of how, in the 1980s, he confused liberty with scenes from American movies. “Freedom is for beginners,” he concluded, to appreciative “mm-hmms” from almost all of the audience. Almost all. “I have to contradict you, my friend,” Živadinov cut in. “Freedom is not for beginners.” The artist then lapsed into a somewhat harrowing account of the time spent in prison for an unspecified artwork. “Sorry to voice such a conservative viewpoint, but after being confined in a tiny cell with two murderers, force-fed through tubes in my nose because I went on a hunger strike, I started to understand what it meant to truly wish for freedom.”

At this point, the elephant in the room—Russia’s “present circumstance” or “current situation” or however else it was phrased—took a break from its snooze. Audience members threw out sloppily packaged comparisons between the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Balkan Wars, until conversation inevitably veered to the subject of boycotts. Krasteva instinctively thrust the microphone at Olga Egorovna, who, as part of Chto Delat, led the charge in protesting last year’s Manifesta. At a loss for what to say, Egorovna waved the mic to her neighbor Misiano, momentarily forgetting that, as one of the founders of Manifesta, Misiano remains chair of its board. Realizing her gaffe, Egorovna blushed, but the curator kept his response genial, swearing that he would have been disappointed had artists just accepted a prescribed infrastructure without challenging it. At this point, Boyadjiev brought up Piotr Piotrowski’s quote: “Democracy is not Viagra.” “Maybe we can just wrap this up by agreeing that freedom is not Viagra?” he grinned. Perhaps not, but it sure made for some rousing discourse.

Left: Kate Fowle applies for NSK citizenship. Right: Artist Evgeny Granilshikov and curator Anastasia Shavlokhova.

Left: Artist Ira Korina, writer Gleb Napreenko, and curator Snejana Krasteva. Right: Artists Anatoly Osmolovsky and Oleg Kulik.

Left: Artists Borut Vogelnik, Yuri Albert, and Luchezar Boyadijev. Right: Artists Evgeny Granilshikov and Taus Makhacheva.

Left: Choreographers Nina Gasteva and Tania Aristova with curator Katia Krupennikova. Right: Curator Alisa Prudnikova.

Left: Curator Zdenka Badovinac (left). Right: Garage's Anastasia Mityushina and artist Nikolai Ischuk.