Second Moscow Biennale

Various Venues

Moscow in 2007 is at once a construction site, a ruin, and a cathedral. Beliefs teeter on top of ideologies, and skyscrapers soar beyond even the Stalinist imagination. Perched like oligarchs on high floors of the unfinished Federation Tower, soon to be the tallest building in Europe, were four of the five main exhibitions of the Second Moscow Biennale. While orange hard hats swarmed below, and mighty cranes swung chains just outside the glass walls, a team of Russian and international curators—Joseph Backstein, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martínez, and Fulya Erdemci—sought to give their audience a blueprint of contemporary critical discourse. Works by the cream of the canon, from Anri Sala to Gary Hill, looked out on the surrounding landscape, where various buildings housed thirty-five ancillary “Special Projects,” forming a sort of response. In addition, there were “Special Guests,” artists such as Valie Export and Jeff Wall, and a fifth “Main Project,” curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, called “USA: American Video Art at the Beginning of the 3rd Millennium.” This last exhibition offered the viewer a tantalizing feast of information, although individual works disappeared in the flashy din of the installation, located in a half-built wing of TsUM, Moscow’s most opulent department store.

Most interesting were the shows that toyed with their host city. “Left Pop (Bringing It Back Home)” gave outsiders a chance to present their own romanticized enthusiasm for Communist ideals. Declan Clarke’s captivating video Mine Are of Trouble, 2006, about the artist’s obsession with Rosa Luxemburg, read as an invitation to dialogue, but, sadly, it was not subtitled for Russian viewers. A bolder engagement with Moscow was ventured by artists once locked within its political orbit. “Monuments of Our Discontent: Expiration of Place,” a special project organized by Lithuanian curator Lolita Jablonskiene, featured several works that deal with the legacy of Soviet architecture. Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas’s Pro-Test Lab Archive, 2006, is comprised of neatly made models of a number of these ideologically defunct buildings (as well as other historical buildings in Vilnius) stacked on warehouse shelves. Among them sit television monitors that show actions and performances by the activist group Architecture Students’ Club (including a “game show” in which local residents are asked what they think should happen to the buildings now).

The eyes of most Muscovites were on “I Believe,” curated by artist Oleg Kulik. Installed in the cellars of the Winzavod (a former underground wine factory), the show ducked political concerns and plumbed the depths of the Russian soul instead. The exhibition paired new work by older artists with that of the younger generation, but the edgy irony of Sots Art was absent here in the earthy darkness. Ghostly operatic voices, interspersed with screams, emanated from scattered video installations; bright lights thinly pierced the dark, while looming objects and paintings struggled to compete with the smotheringly Tarkovskian atmosphere of the venue. Typical of the exhibition’s tone was Andrei Monastyrsky’s Darkness, 2007, which made deft use of the site. In a small, bare-bricked chamber surrounded by high-wattage lights, a low wooden platform leads the viewer to a piece of typing paper coyly stuck to the wall at the room’s far end. After the viewer has mounted the stage, however, the room turns pitch black. The lights switch on and off with some erratic correlation to your footsteps, and by the time you reach the paper your nerves are shot. The text recounts a meeting with an “important personality in the Soviet Union” who measured the artist’s aura and found it to be eight meters in diameter. This “aura” hung darkly over the rest of the biennial, but could the spirituality of Russia’s leading artists be motivated, in fact, by politics? Shying away from contemporary art-historical narratives, rejecting the opportunity for candid self-criticism, Kulik’s artists preferred to burrow back underground.

Emily Newman