Village People

Kate Sutton on the third annual Kandinsky Prize


Left: Artists Evgeny Antufiev and Boris Orlov. (Photo: Konstantin Rubakhin) Right: Artist Vadim Zakharov with curator Robert Storr. (Photo: Sergey Shakhidzhanyan)

IN 2007, Larry Gagosian brought Jeff Koons, Piotr Uklanski, and Richard Prince to Barvikha, the “Luxury Village” forty minutes outside Moscow, temporarily setting up shop upstairs from Alfa-Bank and across from the Lamborghini showroom. Few in the art public ever made the trek—unfathomable traffic and a lack of public-transportation options played at least some part—and most critics based their venomous reviews on press images. A certain disenchantment, then, greeted the ArtChronika Foundation’s decision to host the December 10 award ceremony for the third edition of its annual Kandinsky Prize in the Barvikha Concert Hall, where locals typically pay upward of five hundred dollars to see Ace of Base or Erykah Badu, knowing it’s safe to leave sable in the coatroom and their bodyguards in the Bentleys.

“So which one does Medvedev live in?” one young arts writer asked, ogling the line of mini-garch “cottages” across from the shopping center, in what are for all intents and purposes the slums of Barvikha. I explained that the real residences were in compounds much farther into the woods, where armed guards and twenty-meter-high walls kept most would-be gawkers out.

To help solve the transportation dilemma, Kandinsky Prize organizers arranged for a delightfully patronizing “ArtTrain.” I went with this option, sure it would be a good time (as only Russian trains can be), and certainly preferable to the possibility of sitting for two hours in traffic listening to remixes of the painfully popular single “Russian Girl.”

Left: Gathering for the ArtTrain at the Belorussky Voksal. Right: Artist Oleg Kulik admires artist Sasha Petrelli’s Overcoat Gallery on board the ArtTrain. (Photos: Sergey Shakhidzhanyan)

I arrived at Belorussky Train Station, where a trio of burly men sporting ArtChronika tote bags pointed me to the New Year’s tree in the center of the platform. A group of two hundred “creative types” had already gathered, though you could hardly identify anyone for the hats, hoods, and scarves (though I did spot Moscow Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein, hard to miss with his ever-present curatorial team). Thermoses of rum-spiked tea were passed from cluster to cluster, but it was little consolation against the subzero temperatures. “Who here looks warmest?” asked a friend. “We could go cuddle with them.” Winzavod Art Review editor Elena Panteleeva and I decided on artist-activist Anatoly Osmolovsky, whose Day-Glo orange jacket had that reassuring polar-expedition look, although Osmolovsky may be the very last person to whom one would suggest “cuddling.” (It was Osmolovsky who led a charge at last year’s prize announcement, leaping from his seat and bellowing “The shame, the shame!” when rumored Eurasianist Alexey Belyaev-Gintovt took top honors for his Patria-filia, a gilded ode to the Motherland. A public letter-writing campaign ensued, with art-world heavyweights like Ekaterina Degot and Boris Groys coming to blows over questions of freedom of speech and fascism.)

The move to Barvikha was obviously an attempt to avoid any of last year’s “unpleasantness.” The event was also clearly aimed at potential sponsors, a distinction evident when the ArtTrain rolled into town. Young Artist of the Year nominee Evgeny Antufiev and I could hardly maintain our composure as we filed down the road’s icy shoulder, while Maybachs and their tail cars whizzed past, bewildered at the spectacle of two hundred parka’ed proletarians on a field trip to the Luxury Village.

By the time the entire ArtTrain delegation made it across the “Rublevka” highway, the concert hall’s lobby was already full of the elegantly attired crowd and their over-Sprited cocktails. Shalva Breus, chairman of the ArtChronika Foundation, smiled reassuringly at collector and Alfa-Bank president Petr Aven, while notorious socialite Ksenia Sobchak, artist and dealer Aidan Salakhova, and curator Olga Sviblova posed for adoring paparazzi, making it clear that they themselves hadn’t taken any ArtTrains with their impossible footwear.

Left: Guggenheim curator Valerie Hillings and curator Olga Sviblova. (Photo: Sergey Shakhidzhanyan) Right: Zurab Tsereteli, head of the Artist Union. (Photo: Konstantin Rubakhin)

I sweet-talked my way into a Hennessey sans Sprite and then joined a conversation between Moscow Museum of Modern Art director Vasily Tsereteli and Young Artist of the Year nominee Sasha Frolova. A disciple of artist Andrey Bartenev, Frolova has made a name for herself—or several, really—performing with her group Aquaerobika, purring heavily accented lyrics—like “Come on, catwalk me / I’ll catwalk you” and “Mascara / Lover / Shower” (which all rhyme in Frolova’s English)—while decked out in revealing, candy-colored latex outfits, blurring the lines of naughty and naïveté long before the first Lady Gaga single dropped in Russia.

It took three “final warnings” to get guests out of the lobby and into the auditorium for the ceremony. The seat assignments played out Russia’s own “Power 100.” Through “connections” and some last-minute shuffling, I landed in row 3, where there were at least six empty seats between Phillips de Pury’s Svetlana Marich, controversial curator Andrey Erofeev, and me. The fact that invitations weren’t delivered until the day before the opening (a drama I became intimately acquainted with when the office girls accidentally put me on speaker instead of hold while they were strategizing how to reach “priority” guests) had little to do with this; in Moscow, it’s a truism that VIP actually stands for “Very Important but not Present.” At least until the afterparty.

Also absent this year were the foreign “celebrity guests.” Last time, the ceremony had been punctuated by performances from the Gao brothers, the Chapman brothers, and Marina Abramovic. This year, the committee decided to recognize local heroes Boris Orlov and Oleg Kulik as the guests of honor (although this may have had something to do with earlier plans for an Elmgreen & Dragset performance wildly exceeding the foundation’s financial capabilities).

Left: Alfa-Bank’s Petr Aven with Ksenia Sobchak. (Photo: Sergey Shakhidzhanyan) Right: ArtChronika Foundation chairman Shalva Breus. (Photo: Konstantin Rubakhin)

They did, however, manage to score a foreign keynote speaker. Whereas in 2008 Moscow veteran Boris Groys lectured on art and power, this year the foundation invited Robert Storr, who stuck to rhapsodizing about Kandinsky and the place of the “Spiritual/Conceptual” in contemporary art. “Bigger, shinier, brighter, more expensive—this does not mean better,” he declared, not waiting for his translator to catch up. (Someone should have reminded Storr where he was.)

Antufiev was the first winner of the night, taking the prize for Young Artist of the Year over fellow nominees Frolova and erudite up-and-comer MAKE. Antufiev is something of a dark horse, a self-proclaimed alien from Tuva, a Siberian province near the Mongolian border, where the artist lives in close quarters with his mother and sister, creating intimate and unsettling effigies: dolls woven from human hair and decorated with animal skulls, lost teeth, buttons, or dead bumblebees. “I guess I’ll thank my mom?” he said, when prompted to give an acceptance speech, then began describing a dream he’d had the night prior in which Prime Minister Putin had presented him with the award.

In the category of Media Project of the Year, Electroboutique’s Aristarch Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin won with CRITI-POP, which lauds the iPod as a source of artistic inspiration. The collective sent comely young curator Anna Belyaeva to accept the award on their behalf; her speech denounced a world where the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Artist Oleg Kulik and curator Anna Belyaeva, accepting the Media Project of the Year award. Right: Winzavod Art Center director Nikolai Palashenko. (Photos: Konstantin Rubakhin)

It was hard not to be touched when Vadim Zakharov opened his acceptance speech for Project of the Year (fellow nominees were Pavel Pepperstein and Nikolai Polissky) with a few words in honor of Olga Lopukhova, a much-loved curator who had died the day prior. From there, he launched into a tirade against the perverted values of a contemporary art scene that prioritizes being seen at Basel, Frieze, and Miami over recognizing its own heroes. Zakharov’s rant was somewhat dampened by the fact that the work that won him the prize centered around spilled porridge. “Conceptual” porridge.

I had managed to swing two glossy invites to the postparty dinner, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to get back to the city at 2 AM (suspecting that Barvikha might not be teeming with gypsy cabs like the rest of Moscow). Besides, the ArtTrain attendants had promised “warm beverages” on the way back.

It turned out that the beverages were not so much “warm” as “warming.” Plastic cups were promptly passed down the aisles, along with bottom-shelf vodka and barely potable tomato juice. I was somewhat surprised to see winner Antufiev across the aisle from me and flashed him a congratulatory smile. He leaned over and held out a fist. Unfurling his fingers, he revealed one of his crumpled bumblebees, whose wings he had painted yellow and purple. One can only wonder what a ten-thousand-euro prize even means to this kid, if anything. It’s a gratifying thought.