Yekaterinburg, Russia

1st Ural Industrial Biennial

Ural Worker Printing Press

Sean Snyder’s film Exhibition, 2008, appropriates footage from the Soviet propaganda film Noble Impulses of the Soul (1965). We see Ukrainian agricultural workers standing before reproductions of paintings from Dresden’s Staatsgalerie in the 1960s; a group taking part in a seminar discussing art; the director of a provincial museum declaring that creating art institutions is “not less significant than the construction of a factory.” Snyder has, however, eliminated the original film’s didactic elucidations and edited the historical material, and his film thereby manages to offer a startlingly timely assessment of the potential of art, its social function, and its reception.

Exhibition was one of the many works on display by fifty-two artists and filmmakers in the First Ural Industrial Biennial, subtitled “Shockworkers of the Mobile Image.” Snyder’s work was typical of the show’s deconstructionist approach, its thematic focus, and the emphasis on works in reproducible media. The curators, Cosmin Costinas, Ekaterina Degot, and David Riff, are conscious of the role of biennials in propping up the self-understanding of the international art system as well as spurring on regional development and self-definition. “Of course,” they write in the introduction to the catalogue, “art is (still) a propaganda machine, and its biennials are temporary agitprop factories”—factories that tend to spring into action wherever there is a vacuum, as in Yekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk, which in Soviet times was the pride of the USSR’s industrial heartland but now is facing decline. The exhibition revolved around the notion of the “shockworkers”—especially productive Soviet laborers of the ’30s, who played a leading role in the development of industry and were a recurring motif in the art of the time, for example in Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens’s Song of Heroes (1932), included here. In this show, the idea of “shockwork” was used to refer to the production and distribution of increasingly mobile images—which assigns art a role that is certainly ambiguous: We’re well acquainted with the role immaterial creative work can play in the deregulation of labor. By such means, the show pulled off a clever gambit, connecting the art on view with a historical and concrete local context even as it facilitated a critical reflection on contemporary (and not only artistic) image production as well as the idea of labor. Also spot-on was the venue, the Constructivist building of the former Ural Worker Printing Press, where in Soviet times all the newspapers east of Moscow were printed—i.e., where the politically desired image of the Soviet Union was generated.

The range of works on display included contemporary interpretations of shockwork, for instance, Yael Bartana’s two-channel video installation Summer Camp, 2007, documenting the rebuilding of a Palestinian house demolished by the Israeli authorities; and Deimantas Narkevicius’s video exploring the architecture of a power plant, Energy Lithuania, 2001, which examines responses to the residues of bygone forms of production and life long after the workers have left their factories. There were also investigations of the synchronicity of various forms of labor, as in Praneet Soi’s slide installation Notes on Underdevelopment, 2010; of their virtual-artificial embellishment, as in Christian von Börries’s film The Dubai in Me, 2010; and of the deferral and in part suspension of (artistic) authorship via the circulation and continued processing of “poor” images accessible to everyone, as in Andrei Monastyrsky’s installation podjachev’s Channel, 2009–10. Critical reflection on the role of culture in the development of capitalism was exemplarily showcased in Chto Delat?’s epic musical video The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010, which follows Brechtian traditions in staging the debate surrounding the construction of the controversial Gazprom Tower in Saint Petersburg. The show did not always sustain the high level of intensity established by these works, but its productive theme made it one of the most exciting exhibitions of the fall season.

Astrid Wege
Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.