Yekaterinburg, Russia

Jan St. Werner with Michael Akstaller, Oliver Mayer, and Jürg Andreas Meister, Robodynamic Diffusion (RDD), 2021, mixed media, dimensions variable. From the Sixth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Jan St. Werner with Michael Akstaller, Oliver Mayer, and Jürg Andreas Meister, Robodynamic Diffusion (RDD), 2021, mixed media, dimensions variable. From the Sixth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art.

Sixth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art

Multiple Venues

Chalk it up to the fatidic power of art (or is it curation?) that the conceptual title for the Sixth Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, “Thinking Hands, Touching Each Other,” along with its motto, “A time to embrace and to refrain from embracing,” were originally formulated long before the global age of Six Feet Apart and obsessive hand sanitizing—yet in beautiful synchrony came to take on a whole new level of complexity by the time the show’s fruition brought around endless reckonings with pandemic border politics and distancing protocols. In the end, the exhibition succeeded in bringing together fifty-two artists and collectives from twenty-three countries, presenting seventy-six works scattered around a decentralized confetti of eight venues. The Germany-based curatorial trio of Çağla Ilk, Assaf Kimmel, and Misal Adnan Yıldız wistfully referred to this Biennial’s edition as hausgemacht, homemade: both as inexorably shaped by the restrictions imposed by circumstances and as a rebellious celebration of the messy and unsystematized side of life in all of its disordered glory.

The curators centered Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) as a pivotal point for the entire exhibition. This dystopian novel tells a story of a totalitarian society whose complete embrace of industry and logic jettisons emotion and individual creativity as dangerously unclean. Perhaps in this spirit, some of the show’s borrowed spaces remained fully operational in their normal capacity throughout the Biennial’s run, signaling an embrace of the confusion that comes from holding an exhibition at a working optical and mechanical plant, post office, and circus. The last proved to be an untidy site not only because of lingering aromas of manure and animal hides, but also because its inclusion among the biennial’s venues caused Alisa Gorshenina (aka Alice Hualice), one of the region’s brightest art stars, to publicly withdraw in protest of what she viewed as a tacit condoning of the notorious record of animal exploitation at the Yekatarinburg State Circus. Her act of refusal was followed by a string of further withdrawals and condemnations. As it turned out, the curators handled the site’s thorny nature well and thoughtfully, not only by rhetorically emphasizing the suspension and reorientation of the circus’s regular practices in the service of art and contemplation, but also in the specific lineup of works placed around the venue’s spaces. Stefan Kaegi’s video Temple du présent: Solo for an Octopus, 2021, for instance, stages the animal as protagonist by focalizing its sensitivity to touch and its highly evolved decision-making capacities, while Jimmy Robert’s mesmerizing performance Under Amour, 2021, comprised a flowing series of kung fu–derived animalistic poses.

At the automated machining facility of the Ural Optical and Mechanical Plant, messes and transgressions of a more traditional kind came courtesy of Anton Stoianov’s mock-Minimalist Untitled, 2010–12—composed of delicately ombré layers of differently soiled white ankle socks—and of the architecturally interactive sonic-intrusion robot Robodynamic Diffusion (RDD), 2021, by Jan St. Werner with Michael Akstaller, Oliver Mayer, and Jürg Andreas Meister. Projected in a loop right across the entrance to the Yekaterinburg Post Office, Sriwhana Spong’s This Creature, 2016, takes its title from the way early-fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe, known as the author of the first autobiographical text written in English, referred to herself in her book. The video’s starting point was a failed request to handle the oldest known manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe at the British Library. That desire and the refusal of tactile connection inspired Spong’s sensuous perambulations around London’s Hyde Park and her encounters—erotic to the point of silliness—with its statuary that are documented in the piece. The work illustrates well an observation by one of Zamyatin’s characters that could also have served as a perfect encapsulation of this biennial’s overarching message: “If human foolishness had been as carefully nurtured and cultivated as intelligence has been for centuries, perhaps it would have turned into something extremely precious.”