Yekaterinburg, Russia

Tala Madani, Mr. Time, 2018, video animation, color, sound, 7 minutes 9 seconds. From the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Tala Madani, Mr. Time, 2018, video animation, color, sound, 7 minutes 9 seconds. From the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art

Ural Optical and Mechanical Plant/ Coliseum Cinema

Originally published in 1912, Alexander Bogdanov’s short story “Immortality Day” was written in the shadow of Cosmism, a late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century school of thought that hailed scientific advances such as blood transfusions and the evolving understanding of genetic inheritance as stepping-stones to eternal life. Bogdanov’s wry narrative follows the interplanetary chemist Fride as he hits a midlife (early-eternity?) crisis, spurred on by the realization that, having dedicated centuries to the intellectual pursuits of astronomy, literature, and art, he had exhausted his brain’s capacity for engagement. Not only that, but while he may have figured out a way for physical bodies to live forever, emotional wiring is more complicated. Fride has sired some fifty children by at least eighteen wives and countless lovers, but he lacks the ability to form attachments to his offspring as their numbers increase. The dilemma, Bogdanov suggests, is that life’s value might just lie in its limitations.

Curator Xiaoyu Weng tackled this conundrum in the main project of the Fifth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, which boldly took on the theme of “immortality.” Rather than get bogged down by logistics or technicalities, Weng used the exhibition to speculate on what being human beyond the parameters of mortality might mean. With Russians constituting nearly one-third of the approximately seventy-five participating artists, the show—which unfolded over two spaces, the Ural Optical and Mechanical Plant and the Coliseum Cinema—was a testament to Weng’s extensive research into the local scene. More impressive, however, was her ability to make space for the coexistence of multiple narratives without losing the general plot. Life and death were not taken for granted here, but were introduced as infinitely malleable cultural constructs, locked into interdependence.

Cosmism reigned at the Coliseum Cinema, the smaller of the two venues for the main project. Generated by Anastasia Gacheva, Marina Simakova, Anton Vidokle, and Arseny Zhilyaev, an illustrated Timeline of Cosmism, 2019, wrapped an exhaustive chronology of the movement and its repercussions around the second-floor interior balcony. This general primer was fleshed out in Vidokle’s Immortality for All: a film trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014–17, and in Zhilyaev’s tongue-in-cheek total installation, Anton Vidokle De Cosmos Recreation Centre, 2016–19, which looked like one of those relaxation rooms they send you to after a mid-tier couples massage. The more or less predictable opener reached an unexpected crescendo in Claudia Martínez Garay’s multimedia installation Y no podrán matarlo . . . / And they could never kill him . . . , 2019, which poses a crude clay sculpture of the Peruvian cult actor Reynaldo Arenas, kneeling with upraised fists, before a screen on which his image, alternately real and computer-generated, is projected.

The bulk of the exhibition was mounted in a still-operational plant that makes lighting and optical devices, some for military use (the elevators were rigged so that visitors could only stop at selected floors). Along the industrial corridors, the spectacle of death billowed forth from Bruce Connor’s CROSSROADS, 1976, and broke into a swarm of paper butterflies for Carlos Amorales’s Black Cloud, 2007/2019, before pooling into the ice-blue candies comprising Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Revenge), 1991. It tumbled down escalators in Tala Madani’s unrelentingly gruesome seven-minute animation Mr. Time, 2018, then took on jubilant hues in the elaborate flower carpet, The Offering (Tapete de Flores, after KunstHalle Sankt Gallen), 2016–19, part of Jill Magid’s larger bid to liberate the archives of the architect Luis Barragán. It figured all too literally in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s caustic video The Class, 2005, which shows the artist calmly delivering a lecture on death to six partially covered corpses laid out on morgue trays. (After silence greets her triumphant conclusion that art can render death but “a feather in the wind,” she drolly surmises that her audience must just be tired after the long talk.)

The object that most succinctly captured the general thrust of the exhibition, however, was not an artist’s work, but rather a contribution from the biennial’s commissioner, Alisa Prudnikova, who had the factory produce a stoplight with three bulbs all emitting an unwavering green. Without red, the eternal emerald glow was soothing, but ultimately pointless.