PRINT November 2010


reports from Moscow

AES+F, The Feast of Trimalchio (detail), 2008–, HD digital projections, photographs, sculptures, dimensions variable. Shown: Triptych 1, Panorama 3, 2010, ink on paper, 35 1/2 x 88 1/2". Photo: Claire Oliver.

IN MOSCOW, ideological struggles take place over cocktails. At one such soiree, I was approached by Olga Sviblova, the grande dame of the Moscow art establishment, curator of the city’s Photobiennale and director of its ambitious new Multimedia Art Museum, which hosts the art school where I teach. It was obvious she was appalled. “I was told you’ve been teaching students dangerous ideas,” she whispered. “One says you teach them Marxism!”

By “you” she meant me and my colleague David Riff, and we have indeed been reading modern art history through the lens of Marxist notions. Our school is named after Aleksandr Rodchenko, after all. I tried to console Sviblova by saying something about Marxist theory being commonplace in Western universities, a mainstream thing not to be scared of, but it only made things worse. She thought I was being sarcastic and started to scream that she hated all things mainstream, fashionable, and glamorous—including Marxism.

Contrary to Sviblova’s assumption, poor Karl Marx is hardly fashionable in Putinist Russia, but the exchange was not about that. The word glamour has had an unexpected life in Russia. It was eagerly adopted as soon as it arrived, though now there is a stigma attached to everything deemed glamurny. Among the exhibitions falling into this category are some imported ones, like the presentation of François Pinault’s collection at the Garage: Center for Contemporary Culture in 2009 and Gagosian Gallery’s 2008 show at the Red October chocolate factory, as well as homemade presentations of Russian artists—for instance the posh AES+F video bonanza at the Garage earlier this year. In truth, however, it seems that this obsession with glamour (I found my students hesitating to print their photos in eight-by-twelve-inch format because they were afraid it would be considered too glamurny) betrays a fixation on form, an inability to speak about art’s message or to read its meaning.

This strange mix of overt aesthetics and repressed politics is the defining characteristic of the Moscow art scene today. This summer, when Riff (again), Cosmin Costinas, and I were preparing the First Ural Industrial Biennial in Ekaterinburg, a city undergoing fierce neoliberal transformations, one word in our press release was struck out by the organizing institution, the National Center for Contemporary Arts. We had to change the indecent word capitalism to the euphemistic new order. The latter term raised no objections—as if the order were Corinthian or Doric.

Maybe it is. The contemporary Russian scene seems obsessed with “true art” and “form.” Critics speak enthusiastically of “professionalization,” “high quality,” and “visual coherence.” Some artists violently deny their work has any political meaning and insist that their semantic horizon embraces nothing but their personal emotions or sometimes, for a change, issues of life and death.

Under the Russian “new order,” contemporary art plays, or wants to play, an important role in neocapitalist “normalization” and depoliticization. It is supposed to give the country a sleek and smart facade, to impart a sense of shared identity to the new elite. Contemporary art, hardly popular among the masses, is now imposed on them by the state almost as socialist-realist novels used to be (in a less totalizing way, of course). The state initiates new biennials, and the local bourgeoisie starts enjoying them. Last year, the National Center for Contemporary Arts got funding for a glitzy new seventeen-story museum in central Moscow (and proudly announced Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers as probable first acquisitions). Well lubricated with oil money, the lethargic Russian art scene is much more internationally integrated than when it was lively and poor. There were short-lived rumors recently that the Garage was to hire a foreign curator; Hans Ulrich Obrist was the first star lecturer at the new Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design (a PR-driven hub of “creative industries” that in 2009 ousted the last cluster of independent nonprofit art spaces); and at the opening of the Kandinsky Prize nominees’ exhibition this fall, one could have spied Robert Storr, a new jury member—a little lost in the crowd, a little confused, not completely sure he was in the right place, but still present. This kind of peaceful convergence with the bearers of power and with the rest of the world was a utopian horizon for several generations of artists who had struggled to get legitimation from the state since the mid-1980s. Now their dream has come true. Or false.

The artists and curators behind the current fad of neoformalism do not come across as flamboyant or full of energy. The emotional tone of Moscow is one of passive resignation. Smiles are sad, and “Who are we to change the rules?” is the implicit motto. Intermissions of the Heart, 2009, Olga Chernysheva’s recent 35-mm film remake of a well-known Russian painting (Pavel Fedotov’s Encore, Once Again!, 1851–52), reflects this atmosphere—a man lies on his bed in a dark room with the TV on, playing with his dog, who endlessly jumps over a stick. The man, like a typical Moscow artist, is somnolent, self-absorbed, and secretly contented with his life. As a curator constantly looking for artists, I recently realized that the one thing almost totally absent from today’s Russian art scene is institutional critique: The art world here has no desire to reflect on itself (or, perhaps, no ability to do so).

Olga Chernysheva, Intermissions of the Heart, 2009, three stills from a color film in 35 mm, 2 minutes 24 seconds.

The reasons for this are historical. The unofficial art scene of the late ’80s and ’90s was based on a wish to defend and legitimate contemporary art as an innovative, autonomous practice, opposed to the traditional taste of the Soviet petite bourgeoisie. This attitude gave a heroic twist to any art or institutional activity and instilled a sense of solidarity in the art community. The self-proclaimed sense of an avant-garde in danger, forgotten since the times of early modernism in much of the world, lent a lot of charm to the beginnings of the contemporary art scene in Russia.

But such common cause faces dissolution when, as everywhere in the world, contemporary art becomes a staple of middle-class taste. Still, the Russian art scene is not ready to abandon this illusion and embrace other ethics. While on the one hand, Moscow’s art spaces (Winzavod, the Garage) are turning into populist hangouts with a strong accent on design and consumer “creativity”—a simplification of the Tate Modern model—on the other, the neoliberal order has appropriated the elitism of the unofficial scene and so gives the art crowd the illusion of being better than the rest of society.

I would argue that such a sense of superiority bestowed by art is what drives, for example, the most discussed Moscow enfant terrible curator, Andrei Erofeev, who, in May of this year, after a long trial, was fined approximately five thousand dollars for offending Orthodox believers with his 2008 exhibition “Forbidden Art.” Erofeev declared that he meant to bring attention to political, moral, and religious censorship, but the exhibition was not widely accessible (not put online, for example) and obviously not addressed to a broad audience—just to the art crowd, foreign journalists, and, last but not least, the state and church authorities whom Erofeev was eager to irritate. Even more striking was that Erofeev chose the Andrey Sakharov Museum and Public Center as the location for his show—an institution with a clear democratic educational mission (the museum’s then director, Yuri Samodurov, was sentenced along with Erofeev, to a slightly higher fine), putting this institution, already fragile politically, at serious risk.

During the trial, Erofeev did not get much support from his colleagues—let alone from artists, some of whom organized a reconciliatory show of neoreligious art in a functioning church. But the argument of Erofeev’s supporters, echoing Erofeev himself, was that artists have unique rights to “experiment” and to “provoke.” Strange as it might seem, almost nobody claimed that critique, including critique of the church, is a right of every citizen, not just of artists.

In his conviction that contemporary art is a special phenomenon with special rights, Erofeev has an unlikely ally, another enfant terrible, in this case for being closer to power than anyone else in Russian art circles—Marat Guelman. This gallerist turned museum director has always been guided by the dictum “You don’t know it yet, but you need contemporary art,” and under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency—as the Russian state embraced the idea of “modernization for the happy few”—it works especially well.

In 2008, Guelman created a museum of contemporary art in the previously serene city of Perm. As is true of many Russian art venues, it is not really a public institution (with, say, dedicated curators), but rather an impressive space filled with the ambitions of its founder. I did, however, organize a show there myself this summer (of contemporary Ukrainian art, for which I would never have gotten a budget in the capital) and would be only happy to believe in the future of the museum if Guelman were to continue at its head. But he is now expanding his know-how of Bilbaoesque transfiguration to other Russian cities. His newest target is Skolkovo, an elite research center outside Moscow known as Russia’s Silicon Valley, which is supposed to have not just a special state budget and liberal visa regulations but even its own legal system. Guelman is said to have won the unofficial government “tender” and to be responsible for Skolkovo’s whole cultural politics, whatever they may be.

These two major figures of the Russian art scene, Erofeev and Guelman, share a taste for the clownish, adolescent, and sexual (rather than genuinely political) buffooneries of the Blue Noses Group, for example, who better than any of their peers express the tragic dimension of the contemporary Russian artist as a jester of the Putin regime, tolerated but controlled, tormented but well fed. Yet young artists do not seem to believe—as not only the Blue Noses but many others until recently seemed to—that the only way to express political critique is to show their naked body parts. Russian contemporary art is experiencing a dramatic paradigm shift, if not a schism. While the older generation—to which Guelman, Erofeev, and even the Blue Noses belong—still sees itself as fighting for a common cause aloof from the ignorant working-class masses (with whose foibles they can nevertheless flirt, as the Blue Noses do), younger artists refuse to share this “establishment” position and are starting to see themselves as “artist workers” who actively seek audiences outside the art world.

This is in part because we are now witnessing the first generation of artists and curators (often from outside Moscow) who were too young to have their apartments privatized for free in the 1990s and so are forced to struggle with enormous rents and the price of life in the capital. What is new as well is active self-organization. During the past two years, the most interesting shows in Moscow were put on by artists without a curator—one of them was “The Conquered City,” at the Regina Gallery in 2009, which was organized by a group of Russian-Ukrainian artists including Ilya Budraitskis, Aleksandra Galkina, Nikolai Ridny, and David Ter-Oganyan. The exhibition was an acute social and political portrait of contemporary urban space and its atmosphere of regulation and anxiety. Among this group of artists there is political awareness, as well as the force and energy of protest—evident in Galkina’s Drawing Is Hard, 2009 (shown on another occasion). In this video, she uses a disturbingly and loudly creaking felt-tip pen to “shoot” furiously at crude drawings of a state building, a car, a target, a Christmas tree, and other items. Instead of an empty neo-aestheticist formalism, the younger generation is ready to embrace “popular” figurative imagery, narrative art, drawing, and even Soviet-style didactic museum installations, to which one of the new artist-curators, Arseny Zhilyaev, has recently turned. In his shows at Proekt_Fabrika last year (“Machine and Natasha” and “Labor Movement”), he tried to address contemporary labor conditions. It is telling, however, that his cocurator, Sergei Khachaturov (an art historian and a critic for a neoliberal newspaper), portrayed their undertaking as a more formal and less political reconnection with the legacy of the Russian avant-garde.

Chto Delat?, The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010, still from a color video, 36 minutes.

In this context, it is impossible to ignore the only well-known Russian group that explicitly positions itself as pursuing political art—Chto Delat? Now as famous outside Russia as Ilya Kabakov, and certainly politically articulate, Chto Delat? fills an enormous gap in the Russian art scene—if not in Russian society. Those who live in Russia cannot help but notice that the much-vaunted social activism of the group mostly takes place in and for the West, even if its latest work, The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010, addresses a local issue: the proposed construction of a corporate skyscraper in Saint Petersburg and the ensuing protests. When Chto Delat? stresses its commitment to critical art, it might set the accent on critical, but art is what young Russian artists hear first. They are disenchanted with the group’s insufficiently radical artistic politics (given its deep entanglement in the international network of nonprofit art institutions) and often see the group as opportunists who do not sufficiently question their own practice. Among Russians, the group’s textual mural The Perestroika Timeline, 2008–2009, shown at the last Istanbul Biennial, represented a collection of embarrassingly enthusiastic truisms. If things continue as they are, however, and anti-Communism, willful amnesia, and the falsifying of Soviet history remain state policies, banalities will become revelations very soon.

Russian artists see themselves as facing two mutually exclusive career paths: one in Russia, for which the work has to be formally satisfying, slightly melancholic, and politically abstemious; or one elsewhere, where it is preferable to be politically engaged on the left, to didactically quote the Russian avant-garde, and to have prodigious social skills. Are there any other options? Perhaps, but they require a much more radical severance with the notion of art (especially contemporary art, and especially the safe haven of institutionally sanctioned critical art) than even Chto Delat? is ready for. There are other artists in Russia who have managed to survive the current social and artistic despondency (or euphoria, if you like). But it has required rule-breaking artistic behavior, such as that of Andrei Monastyrski, Conceptual art veteran, theorist, and leader of the Collective Actions Group, who now claims that what he has been doing all along—performances with a limited number of spectators or without them—is not art but “existential practice.” He has recently transferred his activity to YouTube, where he has adopted the name and biography of Semyon Podjachev (a long-dead, obscure early Soviet writer), and where he shows his own performances as well as a maverick selection of bizarre videos. He has found a fan in a local businessman (with the name of the second Soviet astronaut), Gherman Titov, who not only started a program of publications documenting the entire textual heritage of Moscow Conceptualism but has also become a practicing artist himself.

It was recently announced that the Russian pavilion in Venice next year will feature a show of Monastyrski and the Collective Actions Group, curated by Boris Groys. Let’s see how much contemporary art Monastyrski can take, and how much of his strange practice the art world can stomach.

Ekaterina Degot is an art historian based in Moscow.