Stranger in Moscow

The GES-2 House of Culture opens with dramatic flair

GES-2 House of Culture. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP via Getty Images.

“WHO THE FUCK told you to put up the barricades?! They look terrible! Remove those barricades NOW!” I am eating breakfast at KHLEB-2, GES-2's in-house bakery, half an hour prior to the official opening’s scheduled time. So high are the histrionics that I momentarily wonder if I’m witnessing some kind of special guerilla performance portion of the inaugural program. Housed in a historic power station just across the Moskva River from the Kremlin, the serially-delayed GES-2 House of Culture represents the crowning jewel and biggest permanent footprint of the V-A-C Foundation’s international, and previously largely ad-hoc, art production and programming network. (At 440,000-square-feet, it dwarfs its sister institution, V–A–C Zattere, which opened in a Venetian palazzo in 2017.) Later in the day, site architect Renzo Piano, Zooming on an AV setup that unwittingly made him look like a robotic superintelligence from a transhumanist future, will speak about symbolically and physically opening up the hulking space, followed by a meditation on theatricality and the Russian character courtesy of Ragnar Kjartansson. But my immersion experience seems to have begun early, as the aforementioned psychodrama unfolds between a yelling suit I take to be one of the House’s executive team and a terrified young woman coordinating the venue. Even “opening up” and removing barriers can be an occasion for violent passions (and toxic masculinity) in Russia—and what a perfect contrast to Kjartansson’s wistful, iterative durées.

I have always placed Kjartansson into an imaginary trinity, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ruben Ostlund, of Norse Gen-X melancholics. All three deal with the crisis of contemporary masculinity, and do so in attitudes of wry contemplation and observational impassivity. This is definitely the vibe that predominates once I finally make it inside the main building and down into one of its brand-new galleries. Occupying a vast portion of the space in the Kjartansson-cocurated (alongside his partner Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir) group exhibition, “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!,” is the artist’s own The End-Venezia, 2009, a salon-style hang of vibrantly colored paintings all depicting the artist Pall Haukur Bjornsson clad in a black-and-yellow Speedo and assuming various states of repose around a Venice apartment: Here he is practicing on his guitar, here reading a book, here smoking amid a sea of empty wine bottles. There are 144 paintings in total and they cover the entire surface of the gallery’s vertiginously high wall (the setup is visually striking, but does make one wonder how less monumental works will fare.) Positioned right in front of The End is Bjornsson’s own Angst (thrill is gone), 2007—a plinth-mounted video capturing the artist sitting alone and naked in an empty white cube, listening to Chet Baker’s “The Thrill is Gone” on a CD player. After seeing this piece—“a showstopper” per his essay in the exhibition’s catalogue—Kjartansson invited Bjornsson to model for his feat of performative durational painting at the 2009 Venice Biennale, resulting in the present array on GES-2’s wall.

View of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The End-Venezia, 2009. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP via Getty Images.

What does any of this (other than the fact that the works were, indeed, at some point brought To Moscow!), have to do with the show’s title? The best clue might be found in a peculiar, Janus-faced appreciation of the drama of the banal and the banality of drama that bonds Kjartansson and Bjornsson’s works, as well as a shared sense of existential longing. The exhibition in fact takes its name from a quotation from Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901), in which the yearning—on the part of its protagonists, Irina, Olga, and Masha—for the capital city is a central motif. Visiting with the Kjartanssons in 1990, director Jay Ranelli, a longtime family friend, arrived in Iceland from a sojourn in Moscow with the happiest of news: “They made it!” he announced, bearing a Polaroid of three McDonald’s cashiers lined up side by side, their nametags reading “Irina,” “Olga,” and “Masha.” While the original snapshot has since been lost, Kjartansson meticulously recreated the pic in his Three Sisters (Remake of Jay Ranelli’s Lost Photo from ca. 1990), 2021; the work now floats over the proceedings, installed under the building’s dome.  

Ragnar Kjartansson, Three Sisters (remake of Jay Ranelli’s lost photo from ca. 1990), 2021. Photo: GES-2.

Kjartansson, nowhere to be seen at the opening, is persistently rumored to be “generally around” by people mysteriously unable to share any further details on the artist’s stealthy perambulations. Much more available, and delightfully voluble, is the show’s cocurator—aglow in Watanabe silks and warm smiles. “As Ragnar really likes to say, ‘Never underestimate the power of The Pathetic!,’ Ingibjörg quips, before proceeding to do everything in her power to avoid talking about her own two pieces in the show: What Do You Really Mean?, 2020, a tall stack of gold-beveled paper topped by a sheet of stickers, some wrapping paper, and washers; and Lamb Consoles a Shepherdess Who Hides Her Face in Her Hands, 2016, which recreates, in drawing, an image found on a St. Petersburg flea market Christmas ornament.

By the time I catch up with V-A-C Foundation cofounder and director Teresa Mavica, I genuinely wonder whether she is more worn out by those punishing Valentino heels or by the endless questions about local politics and the privately funded center’s possible imbrications therein. “Does the foundation fear censorship?” “How boldly critical, if at all, would the program’s participating artists be allowed to be?” “Will there be an approval process, and would that process involve the local political actors?” “And what of LGBTQI+ rights, especially imperiled in the country today?” A few people notice the inclusion of a stand-up comedy stage in one of the exhibitions on site, and wonder how that portion of the opening slate might square with the country’s very recent crackdown on dissident comedians . . . For what it’s worth, the Foundation’s owner, billionaire gas magnate Leonid Mikhelson, is certainly known to be far from adversarial to the ruling regime. “Politics, politics, politics! We’re in the museum, surrounded by art, and no one wants to talk to me about what they actually see,” an exasperated Mavica tells me. “Politics is thinking about today, and we here are for thinking about the future. Do you know that more than half of our employees were born after 2000? This place is about them, and what they make of their history.”

Performers in Ragnar Kjartansson’s Santa Barbara, 2021–22. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

Just a few steps away, I have a brief conversation with one such employee, a young woman anachronistically shellacked in Aqua Net and pancake makeup. She is among the extensive cast of local actors employed by Kjartansson in the realization of his other project for GES-2’s opening program—a word-for-word, shot-by-shot recreation of one hundred episodes of Santa Barbara, the ’80s soap opera that premiered in 1992 on Russian television as its first American import. (It would go on to become the longest-running program in country’s history, finally going off the air in 2002.) “Did you grow up with the show?” I ask the lucky open call winner. “Does it feel surreal to now be inside it, like a real-life Pleasantville?” “Well, I was actually born in 1999, so I’ve never seen it. . .” she shrugs. “But my mom used to be totally addicted, so she filled me in before the casting—and I definitely know the expression!” The expression in question is Eto Santa Barbara kakaya-to, or This is some kinda Santa Barbara—said in bemusement at excessive displays of drama. This is exactly the kind of cultural penetration—whereby a foreign creative product becomes localized and mutates while simultaneously colonizing the native idiom—at the heart of Kjartansson’s durational performance, which allows the audience to interfere and make impromptu comments, the actors to bungle their lines and take an occasional step off the mark. “We actually staged an extra-special preview yesterday for the show’s creators, the Dobsons, but you won’t get to meet them,” the V-A-C’s artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, offers by way of an anecdote. “They are both very old, and very, very fragile, so they’re not up for any of this opening circus.”

This circus talk reminds me to backtrack to the maze of galleries downstairs for a closer look at the center’s third opening exhibition, “When Gondola Engines Were Taken to Bits.” Put together by the curatorial quartet of Maria Kramar, Andrey Parshikov, Olga Tsvetkova, and Elena Yaichnikova, the show examines strains of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque in local contemporary art and takes its title from Karnavala Nyet (No Carnival), a song by the iconic Russian rock band Mumiy Troll. The group shows up to perform in person at the opening concert later on in the evening, crooning the exhibition’s titular words to the delight of the crowd, fueled by the circulating flutes of Francois Secondé champagne and insulated from the icy blizzard raging beyond the glass walls. Downstairs by the coat check, a horde of Russian girls in stilettos too treacherous to take on the polished museum steps wait patiently for the elevator to arrive and spirit them away.

Architect Renzo Piano. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

V-A-C Foundation cofounder and director Teresa Mavica. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

Artist and “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!” cocurator Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

V-A-C Foundation artistic director Francesco Manacorda. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

A performer getting into makeup for Ragnar Kjartansson’s Santa Barbara, 2021–22. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.

GES-2 interior. Photo: Valerie Mindlin.