Pussy Galore

Kate Sutton on the 7th annual Innovation Prize

Left: ArtPlay's Alina Sapyrkina with artist Zurab Tsereteli and NCCA director Mikhail Mindlin. Right: Innovation director Christina Steinbrecher. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

ON APRIL 3, less than a month after Russia’s highly contested elections, its National Center for Contemporary Art awarded the seventh annual Innovation Prize with a ceremony in Moscow’s sprawling Artplay complex. Even the more outspoken opponents of the administration had no issue showing up to the event, whose state-funded purse has doubled to $100,000 this year, with the top honor—for Best Work of Art—carrying a $27,000 award.

The politics of the NCCA (which has outposts in Saint Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, and Nizhny Novgorod) have never been cut and dry. Once seen as the dowdy older sibling to ArtChronika Foundation’s Kandinsky Prize, last year Innovation earned itself an international reputation after nominating, ousting, and eventually honoring the collective Voina for painting a giant penis on the drawbridge directly across from state police headquarters in Saint Petersburg, an action the art group called A Dick Held Captive by the FSB.

This year, Voina—busy curating the Berlin Biennale?—has ceded the spotlight to Pussy Riot, the all-female punk rock group whose guerrilla concerts have been all the rage on Russian social networks. On February 21, the band broke into the Church of Christ the Savior (the sacred seat of the Russian Orthodox Church) and performed an anti-Putin punk prayer, with the charming liturgy: “Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin / Bitch, you better believe in God.” In the days following, first two, then three members were arrested on the relatively minor charge of “hooliganism,” though the women—all young mothers—have been forced to endure five weeks’ imprisonment after the court pushed back their original trial date from March 5 (the day after Putin’s titular triumph). If convicted, the women face sentences of up to seven years. Human rights advocates have seized on the case, organizing mobile exhibitions on buses and concerts in support of the grrrls, whose “hooliganism” has now been recast as grand gestures of feminism. For its part, the Orthodox Church continues to use air quotes when referring to the accused as “feminists,” while the Union of Orthodox Women has issued a statement warning against feminism in general as a plague that would maliciously deny women “their right to self-sacrifice.”

Left: Members of Pussy Riot in Moscow's Red Square performing the “Putin Pissed Himself” song. (Photo: Anna Artemyeva). Right: Artist Alexander Brodsky. (Photo: Artem Savateev)

Anyway, on with the show: This year, the Innovation Award Ceremony was set in a massive hangar, which art insiders recognized from the Fourth Moscow Biennale, when curator Peter Weibel pumped new-media projects into its vast concrete hollows. The ceremony itself was conducted over multiple screens and live feeds, all fixated on the hosts, artist Aidan Salakhova (whose recent decision to transition her gallery to a nonprofit has been greeted as a death knell for the Moscow art market) and Bolshoi Gorod editor Filipp Dzyadko, who prefaced the evening with the disclaimer that he knew nothing about art but thought that Pussy Riot should be freed.

I received online invites to join the “flash mob” outside—a bit of a misnomer, as it turns out, as the result was more of an exercise in decorating with human bodies. Dancers in white jumpsuits were stationed on the scaffolding, which was visible through the wall of windows. The volunteers were instructed to stand stoically and then break into cheers upon the announcement of the nominees, but over the course of the three-hour protest, more than a few resorted to other means (passing bottles, break-dancing) to keep warm in the subzero temperatures. Noting that volunteers were paid five hundred rubles each (roughly $17) for the entire affair, critic Valentin Diaconov speculated that this was exactly the type of person who could be paid to attend progovernment rallies. Cynicism aside, it would seem some volunteers really were just there to dance (or at least to do so, judging on the windmill busted out midceremony in the second row).

Onstage, the handsome head of NCCA, Mikhail Mindlin, introduced Innovation’s new director, Christina Steinbrecher, the same twenty-nine-year-old curator who has been brought in to revitalize both ArtMoscow and the House of the Artists. Along with the five main categories (Work of Art; Theory, Criticism, or Art History; Curatorial Project; Regional Project; and the New Generation Prize), the ceremony also features several guest awards and piggyback prizes. Stella Art Foundation’s Nikolai Molok announced that the foundation would soon host e-flux’s time/bank project, then awarded artist Roman Mokrov a grant for summer travel. “What artist wouldn’t want a trip to fuckin’ Documenta?” Molok concluded, to titters from the audience. In Russia, cursing on television tops any wardrobe malfunction, but I was more scandalized by the thought of socialite-patroness Stella Kesaeva baking banana bread with e-flux’s Anton Vidokle.

Left: Artist Andrey Kuzkin. Right: Regina Gallery's Vadim Ovcharenko with Innovation MC, Aidan Gallery's Aidan Salakhova.

In one of the evening’s more dramatic moments, Victor Misiano beat out Ekaterina Degot and David Riff for Best Curatorial Project for his exhibition “Impossible Community,” which began as a retrospective of the Escape group and devolved into a rueful examination of whether collective practice is inherently doomed to fail. Misiano himself was a no-show, which shouldn’t have been a surprise (he’s been operating from self-imposed exile in Italy for several years now), except that this time Misiano was in Moscow, delivering a much-publicized series of lectures on curating. Escape’s Liza Morozova accepted the award in his stead, tepidly apologizing for the curator’s slight: “He’s so rarely in Moscow these days, you must understand how busy his schedule is when he’s here.”

In another nail-biter, Taus Makhacheva beat out Mokrov and photographer Alexander Gronsky for the New Generation title. Her two-year project, The Fast and the Furious, puts a feminist spin on drag racing in Dagestan. She pimps her ride in old fur coats and blacks out the windows so that curious onlookers and fellow competitors can’t see her inside. Anyone who has watched this work make the biennial circuit should have seen this award coming.

The Work of Art category, however, was a tough call. Notoriously evasive Siberian collective Where the Dogs Run eschew group exhibitions in general; they were nominated for a work in which they invited a babushka to sit and knit in the gallery. For his contribution, Andrey Kuzkin packed the entire contents of his studio—from sketches and metal scraps to half-eaten gingersnaps—into metal boxes, which were then welded shut. Stripping down completely (tossing the clothes he was wearing into the last box), the artist gave himself a ceremonial bath with a washbasin, then changed into clothes purchased by his gallery. After much ado, guest jurors Marc-Olivier Wahler and Kristoffer Gansing honored established architect Alexander Brodsky for his Cisterns, a work in which the artists hung gossamer white curtains along the windows of an abandoned water tank, to understated, elegant effect.

Left: Innovation laureate Taus Makhacheva. Right: Curator Marc-Olivier Wahler.

“They should rename the prize Conservation,” Kuzkin later cracked to artists Oleg Dou and Evgeny Antufiev, who were staking out with their own gonzo-style coverage of the event. That evening, the duo also outed Triumph Gallery co-owner Dmitry Hankin as the alter ego of controversial columnist Kitty Obolenskaya, who in this month’s Interview Russia ran an art-world exposé to rival Morley Safer’s on 60 Minutes. (The byline—“It’s All Lies”—ran under a still from the Bravo series Work of Art.) The identity-reveal may explain Obolenskaya’s fantastically misogynistic “Woman’s Day” column, which urged aspiring Russian female artists to tart it up and find a sugar daddy, or else kiss those dreams of Documenta goodbye. (And who wouldn’t want to go to fuckin’ Documenta?)

In any case, hats off to Makhacheva (and Steinbrecher, and, yes, maybe even Pussy Riot); it takes balls to be a woman in this country.

Left: Artist Evgeny Antufiev, sporting one of his own works. Right: Aidan Salakhova. (Photo: Artem Savateev)

Left: Artist Linda Hilfling and Kristoffer Gansing, artistic director of Transmediale 2012. Right: Innovation nominee Where the Dogs Run.

Left: Hermitage 20/21 curator Dmitry Ozerkov and Moscow Museum of Modern Art director Vasily Tsereteli. Right: Winzavod director Elena Panteleeva.

Left: Critic Valentin Diaconov. Right: Jara Boubnova, curator of the 2nd Ural Industrial Biennale, and Joseph Backstein.

Left: Tsereteli Zurab accepting award. (Photo: Artem Savateev) Right: Artist Yuri Avvakumov with curator Elena Sorokina.

Left: Artist Liza Morozova accepting award. (Photo: Artem Savateev) Right: Garage curator Yulia Aksenova with curator Elena Yaichnikova.