Jeppe Hein, Spiral Labyrinth I, 2006, polished mirror plate, aluminum panel, metal frame. Installation view, Artplay Design Center. From “Rewriting Worlds.”

Jeppe Hein, Spiral Labyrinth I, 2006, polished mirror plate, aluminum panel, metal frame. Installation view, Artplay Design Center. From “Rewriting Worlds.”

the 4th Moscow Biennial

Jeppe Hein, Spiral Labyrinth I, 2006, polished mirror plate, aluminum panel, metal frame. Installation view, Artplay Design Center. From “Rewriting Worlds.”

SOME BIENNIALS, such as those in São Paulo, Berlin, and Istanbul, have at least one permanent venue. This usually means the country in question gives contemporary art and the critical thinking that goes with it (or so we like to believe) some kind of legitimate status, regardless of whether the physical space allotted to it is an embarrassingly corporate exhibition hall, a traditional museum, or a former warehouse. Other biennials are constantly searching for a space, physical as well as intellectual. The sites such biennials come to occupy are often places where the wounds of change are most evident: areas that are abandoned and forgotten, buildings that await sale, or a neighborhood where developers are eager for artists to enhance its reputation and encourage the flow of capital. The Moscow Biennale falls into the second category. It changes its location constantly, sometimes at the last minute. Its organizers declare proudly (and predictably) that this is evidence of the biennial’s “dynamism.” But in reality, it says more about the greed of the real estate industry and its initially fervent but quickly vanishing interest in art.

This year the biennial’s principal location was the Artplay Design Center, a former factory that now houses offices for architects, designers, and interior decorators, as well as a design school. The developers designated some 65,000 square feet as an exhibition space and made a large contribution to the biennial’s mostly state-provided budget, optimistically hoping, I was told, to recoup their expenses with commercial exhibitions of contemporary art after the show’s close.

The main exhibition, titled “Rewriting Worlds” and curated by Peter Weibel, seemed appropriate to this venue, since the art he chose was often dangerously close to design. Weibel based his concept on the notion of the “post-medium condition” and the idea that we live “in the age of the performative turn,” which he connects to the notion of “a new kind of democratic art in which everyone can participate.” But he did not erase professional boundaries by including any amateurs; on the contrary, he seemed concerned with preserving the idea of high art, with artists as pillars of expertise in the face of an avalanche of YouTube videos and other forms of mass art production. By no means as ambitious as its title sounded, the biennial was not an embrace but a rejection of the idea of changing the world rather than merely interpreting it.

Weibel’s exhibition featured mostly art made in the twenty-first century; there was no dusting off of older works as has become fashionable among biennials attempting to compensate for their almost inevitable role in the promotion of young or “emerging” artists. One encountered some big names—among them Rebecca Horn, Richard Hamilton, and Ai Weiwei, who presented Beijing: The Second Ring, 2005, a seemingly endless, melancholy video of Beijing’s traffic circle (which had a particular resonance here, as Moscow’s ring road exudes a similar dehumanized blankness). Artists from all over the world engaged their specific issues from various standpoints, but overall the show was weighted toward sensual rather than intellectual experiences. Among them were a mirror labyrinth by Jeppe Hein (Spiral Labyrinth I, 2006), a gas-mask-like device by the Russian collective Electro­boutique that revealed wonderful images of a tropical forest if the viewer stripped to the waist (Big Green Head, 2011), a sphere that changes color according to the color of the visitor’s eyes (Custom Made, 2011, by Olga Kisseleva), and a spinning plate that one had to stand on in order to unspool a projected text (Media Bubble, 2008, by Timo Toots). I might have discovered a deeper meaning in such gadgetlike works had there been more drama in their juxtaposition. For me, there was just one pairing that had the frisson of an important encounter—when Stan Douglas’s reconstructions of 1940s-style photographs, “Midcentury Studio,” 2010–11, faced off against Walid Raad’s Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, 2000/ 2002, an elusive documentary video about the 1980s and early-’90s hostage crisis in Lebanon. These two works together suggested the beginning of a dialogue on the relationship between truth and document, creating a disturbing break in the logic of accumulation of sensual pleasures (or displeasures) the show otherwise offered.

Looking at these sleek three-dimensional objects or installations presented in isolation, I found myself wondering, Has sculpture become the new painting? Is it now more dangerous than that so easily commercialized and commercializing beast—even to the extent that painting might now be let off the hook? More than most paintings, these artworks seemed to demand to be photographed, and, worse, to encourage viewers to think of themselves as their potential owners.

In fact, with so many slightly gimmicky one-liners, and with such a strong rejection of narrative—which was presumably deliberate, a way of going easy on the viewer—it turned out, after all, to be painting that revealed an unexpected complexity. Neo Rauch’s canvases, dense with allusions to the politics and aesthetics of an earlier era, suggested oblique commentaries on democracy and modernism. At least their tangled subject, difficult to decipher, required a different temporality. The same could be said about Susan Hiller’s superb Witness, 2010, which features numerous loudspeakers relaying stories of encounters with UFOs, demonstrating a surprising kinship with the role played by religious subject matter in Renaissance painting. Certain videos by Russian and post-Soviet artists (e.g., Taus Makhacheva’s The Fast and the Furious, 2011, about the subculture of Dagestan’s street racers, and Almagul Menlibayeva’s surrealist Transoxiana Dreams, 2011, set in the dead region of the Aral Sea) were also a breath of fresh air. And as one might have expected, the late Christoph Schlingensief’s installation Stahlweg I–XII (Steel Way I–XII), 2006, in which short films are shown inside grim metallic lockers, succeeded best of all at resisting objectification and the otherwise pervasive “fast art” aesthetic.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Transoxiana Dreams, 2011, color video, 21 minutes. Production still. From “Rewriting Worlds,” Artplay Design Center.

This being Moscow, it is not surprising that the main exhibition’s second venue was nothing other than a chic, upscale department store—TSUM (which has hosted special projects in previous editions of the biennial and might in the future become a regular venue). TSUM—whose owners also own the Phillips de Pury auction house—has an “Art Foundation” that runs an exhibition hall in an undeveloped section of its main building. Since there was no separate entrance, anyone searching for a dose of critical art had first to pass by all that glitters in the store itself. Since Artplay is huge, the space at TSUM was hardly necessary, but it created a convenient VIP section for sponsors who would never venture to less glamorous premises. Pointedly, Weibel put his most anticonsumerist and political statements here—among others, Ingeborg Lüscher’s commentary on “creative capital” in Fusion, 2001, a video of people in business attire playing a game of soccer; an installation titled Splitnik, 2010, by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas in collaboration with Tracey Warr, where visitors were invited to reflect about the future and Soviet Marxism; and The Grenelle Agreements, 2009, Moscow-based collective Learning Film Group’s wide-ranging reflection on the ramifications of the “betrayal” of May 1968 by the trade unions. Weibel also made this section of the show as interactive as he could, presumably in hopes that it would provoke It-bag consumers; but interactivity as it was proposed here was very close to being just another form of passivity. Writing a slogan on a satellite picture of a local building (in REMOTEWORDS, 2009–11, by Achim Mohné and Uta Kopp) is about as political as pressing the “Like” button on Facebook.

Strolling through this biennial, as through many others, one could not help but ask oneself whether mainstream cryptocommercial formalism and “critical” art are now completely entangled in the same dance. It is clear that interactive devices create a kind of contemporary feel we immediately recognize and find in some way appealing; but are we now also at a point where so-called critical art is itself merely telling us what we already know, providing intellectual satisfaction of the same kind?

The line of questioning was exacerbated by many of the almost seventy independent “special projects” that took place during the biennial’s run, where a fierce oppositional mood was in the air. This year, everybody wanted to pre­sent something “alternative” (I should admit that I co-curated one such project myself, “Auditorium Moscow”). The most obvious counter to the generic formalism of much contemporary art is of course activism, which was showcased in “Media Impact,” an exhibition curated by Tatiana Volkova. This was a chaotic and uneven show, but one that allowed visitors to make an accurate diagnosis: Society in today’s Russia is so deprived of political agency that it admires any sign of discontent, even if it is meaningless and destructive. Many of the works on view seemed a kind of Russian correlative to the recent London riots in the form of angry artworks. Two Moscow-based former members of the infamous Voina Group showed documentation of female activists kissing policewomen in Smooch the Cop!, 2011. (Voina called for a boycott of the biennial when they learned the work would be presented under the collective’s name.) A different type of discontent emerged in a petition circulated online by an artists’ trade union, proposing, among other things, that the curator of the Moscow Biennale should henceforth be voted in by direct democracy.

But the most controversial of the special projects, which set off an extremely tumultuous debate on the ethics of participating in an exhibition, was the “Arthouse Squat Forum.” Its curators, Katya Bochavar and Andrey Parshikov, invited various artists’ groups, teams, collectives, and initiatives and some individual artists to work in what they described as a “squat” and maybe even to live there for a while. But—although the project initially found an enthusiastic response among radical leftists, activists, anarchists, and protesters of all kinds—there was no escaping that the Arthouse was a future luxury housing development, envisaged as comprising some thirty loft-style apartments with an artistic (or even “collectivist”) flair and a commercial art gallery. The building was also still under construction when the show opened. Builders were working overtime, and it was they who had to live on the unfinished site: No squatting, even staged squatting, took place. Some artists withdrew from the show at the very last minute; others tried, in a rather clumsy way, to address the show’s problems by involving the builders in their performances. A fierce debate ensued on Russian art blogs, where anybody with work in any project connected with the biennial was gravely accused of collaborationism.

In the end, more than twenty group shows took place in the two buildings that make up Arthouse. They were generally installed in huge gray concrete spaces—with little light and no heating—which were accessible via dangerous staircases (children were not allowed onto the site). This “gray cube” environment perfectly symbolized not just the gray Moscow economy but the condition of contemporary art in a society with little or no truly public space, a situation to which artists have responded with an uncontrollable and desperate exhibitionism.

Ekaterina Degot is a curator and critic based in Moscow.