Immaculate Conceptualism

Kate Sutton on the 5th Moscow Biennale, Ilya Kabakov, and John Baldessari

Left: Moscow Biennale curator Catherine de Zegher. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton) Right: Garage Center for Contemporary Culture founder Dasha Zhukova with Derek Blasberg. (Photo: Nikolay Zverkov)

“LOOK FORWARD and you should see a large spaceship.” Not a sentence one hears every day, but in the new urban paradise of Moscow’s Gorky Park, the Buran test shuttle is one of a few remaining anachronisms. Our crew of internationals—in town for the Moscow Biennale and banner exhibitions of Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari—had boarded the sightseeing train and was now ambling slowly past the ping-pong courts, salsa-dancing platforms, co-working hubs, and the site of the future Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, a Rem Koolhaas/OMA venture due next year. Winds of change, indeed.

In the current debate over the excesses of Putin’s regime, it is tempting to overlook that some of the recent reforms have left the country for the better. For all the justifiable outrage around the notorious “homosexual propaganda” law, the extent to which this legislation has affected the organized art world remains questionable, at least in the capitals. In Saint Petersburg, the city where the amendment originated, the only additional obstacle the Rizzordi Art Foundation faced in staging New Academy salon queen Bella Matveeva’s paintings of explicit, pansexual orgies was that it had to apply an “18+” rating to the gallery entrance. (“All Ages” is designated as “0+.”) Other, more immediately evident efforts include the revitalization of Gorky Park and the clearing of kiosks and food stands from the streets. While inconvenient for those in need of cheap eats or cigarettes, the latter move has restored dignity to the metro stations and those massive Stalinist buildings that have slept the past few years under a blanket of advertising banners.

“Is it me or are all the Latin letters disappearing, too?” Amei Wallach wondered from her window seat on the train. The filmmaker was in town to premiere her documentary on Kabakov, whose tête-à-tête exhibition with El Lissitzky has just traveled from the Van Abbemuseum to the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (née the Moscow House of Photography). While the third week of September ostensibly belonged to the biennial, Kabakov and Baldessari had stolen the show. The odd couple came together Wednesday night for a conversation cohosted by MAMM and the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, on the neutral turf of the House of the Artists. The theater was packed to capacity. Dasha Zhukova nestled between Olga Sviblova and Emilia Kabakov in the front row, while Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi and the Metropolitan Museum’s Nicholas Cullinan traded notes behind them. Curators Kasper König and Charles Esche staked out seats from the stairwells, alongside artists Dmitry Vilensky, Keti Chukhrov, and Yuri Albert, the last of whom would soon be giving a talk of his own as part of the Garage’s series “Why I (Don’t) Love Baldessari.”

Left: Garage Center for Contemporary Culture chief curator Kate Fowle with artists Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari and Serpentine chief curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. (Photo: Nikolay Zverkov)

On stage, Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Garage’s freshly minted chief curator Kate Fowle assumed their positions as moderators, but these iconic artists would need no prodding. What followed was something like two shticks in the night. In one corner, a reluctant “9-5” artist, who goes into his studio every day (if only to nap), and who wakes up at 3 AM worrying that he’s making “trinkets for rich people”; in the other, an introverted children’s-book illustrator who became an accidental figurehead for a whole underground movement. Both supposed father figures of Conceptualism, neither could agree on what the term meant. In the Soviet context, “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” forged a heroic escape from the dominant political ideology; the word is worn like a badge of honor. Meanwhile, the California-bred Baldessari scorns the C-word altogether, attributing it to “lazy journalists.” Kabakov seemed to accept the hushed reverence around him, beaming humbly through the ovations that greeted every pronouncement; Baldessari maintained that he is “an artist with a little ‘a.’ ” “I realize this may make me the bad guy…” he half-kidded, before steering the conversation toward education, harping on the indulgences of art schools only to have Kabakov make a stand for the indispensability of traditional technical training. Obrist for his part sat in uncharacteristic silence, scribbling away on a piece of paper as the artists repeatedly tried and failed to find a common language.

“It was like two entirely different worlds on stage,” marveled Garage director Anton Belov. “Kabakov was using ‘I’ to mean ‘we,’ and Baldessari was using ‘we’ to say ‘I.’ ” As for they? Kabakov had just asked Baldessari about the place of the audience, when an elderly gentleman picked his way through the crowd to the stage, where he demanded a microphone. Yury Zlotnikov, an abstract painter from Kabakov’s generation, felt compelled to correct a few things the more renowned artist had glossed over in his self-mythologizing account of the ways things were. By the time organizers convinced the interloper to put down the mike—“It isn’t your evening”—the point seemed moot. (“Is Zlotnikov the new Brener?” one headline blared, perhaps unaware that the former once caricatured the Moscow Actionist instigator as akin to “a young man who wants to kill an old lady.”)

Left: Manifesta's Hedwig Fijen and Elena Yushina at the Garage. Right: Moscow Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein.

The next morning was significantly less eventful, as curator Catherine de Zegher, Joseph Backstein, and Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky unveiled the Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, now relocated to its (purportedly permanent) home in the Moscow Manege, a massive, sunlit hall whose brigade of windows complied with de Zegher’s stated theme, “More Light.” The Belgian curator had used the exhibition to make a case for contemplation, advocating a “slow present”—a radical enough notion, if only the present weren’t so pressing.

“Catherine’s background is in feminist art, and she has made some truly important contributions,” one artist confided. “But presented here, without the protest? It looks like a bunch of embroidery.” Beyond the prevalence of stitches, silks, and sewing patterns, the exhibition embraced natural imagery, with an overt gorgeousness that overpowered most political content (such as the images of torture and suffering fashioned into butteflies by Parastou Forouhar). At a roundtable featuring all Belgian artists (“We couldn’t resist,” de Zegher clucked), David Claerbout lauded the “walk in the park feeling”: “Nothing here is really trying to address you very hard.”

The next day, visitors were treated to an actual walk in the park (à la Gorky) for the Garage’s opening of Baldessari’s “1+1=1.” The artist’s first outing in Russia, the exhibition brought together his most recent series, forty-four paintings that played a guessing game with art history, mixing and matching snatches of iconic images with film and song titles, or the names of other artists. Some of the riddles were relatively simple (a Matisse fishbowl in Warhol drag), but, for all Baldessari’s posturing against art education, he proved to be impressively well versed in the subject. “Rob Storr has guessed the most right out of anyone, and he only guessed nine,” Fowle confessed, as I stood stumped in front of what may have been a Courbet and a…?

Left: Artist Trevor Paglen with the Garage's Snejana Krasteva and chief curator Kate Fowle. Right: Artist Yuri Albert.

On opening night, the line to enter the exhibition stretched all the way down the length of the Shigeru Ban–designed temporary pavilion. Engineered of cardboard and steel, the building is estimated to last between three and ten years. (Quite the margin of error there, but enough to last them through the arrival of the new Koolhaas venue.) Casting an admiring eye along the wood-planked floor, writer William Smith remarked: “You would think stilettos would get stuck in this.” “Oh, they do, believe me,” a voice of experience, Garage’s Brittany Stewart, assured him.

Out on the terrace, DJs Nick Cohen and Taras 3000 kept a steady stream of guilty-pleasure pop playing while the Absolut bar served up special “Double Play” cocktails, a dubious aquamarine concoction. “That’s the one!” artist Trevor Paglen laughed, reaching for a martini glass. “I see Roman must have stopped at Costco on the way over,” a visiting writer riffed, waving away a tray of shrimp rolls. At that moment, Abramovich himself casually strolled past, the surrounding Muscovites now acclimated to his presence, and vice versa. Zhukova, meanwhile, had absconded with Derek Blasberg to pose for pictures out on the lawn.

All in all, it was a marked evolution from the slick glitz of the Garage of yore. Indeed, Fowle’s arrival is a sign of a more public-minded institution, with a focus on education, an archival library in the works, and a publishing program translating critical texts by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, and John Berger into Russian. Other initiatives include stipends for emerging local artists and research grants for the international community (current recipients include Anton Vidokle, who is probing the depths of Cosmism, and Koyo Kouoh, who is investigating the links between African filmmakers and Moscow film schools). Also in the works is a curatorial training program, modeled after the Independent Curators International, for which Fowle remains director-at-large. Fowle looked me straight in the eye: “The idea is that in five years, we”—motioning to herself and Belov—“won’t be here. There is so much talent here in Russia—just watch out!”

Left: Chto Delat's Olga “Tsaplya” Egorova and Natasha “Gluklya” Pershina at dinner at Strelka. Right: Kirill Belov with Garage director Anton Belov and John Baldessari.

Left: LACMA curator Lauren Bergman at dinner at Strelka. Right: Light Industry cofounder Thomas Beard with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Nicholas Cullinan.

Left: Filmmaker Amei Wallach on a tour of Gorky Park. Right: Artist Julie Mehretu, dealer Lissa McClure, and artist Jason Young.

Left: Pinchuk Art Centre's Bjorn Geldhof at the Manege. Right: Artists Gosha Ostretsov and Olya Kroytor at GLAZ Gallery.

Left:  Biennale artist Dmitri Venkov and Antonia Baever at the Garage. Right: Manege director Andrey Vorobyev.

Left: Curator Olga Sviblova. Right: Biennale artist Samuil Stoyanov with curator Iara Boubnova.