Blue Noses Group, Little Men
(still from 10 channel
video projection, 2004–05.)
Gelatin, Zapf de Pipi, 2005.
Irina Korina, Modules, 2005.
Ilya Kabakov, 16 Ropes, 1984.
Cao Fei, My father, 2005.
Oleg Kulik, from Deep into Russia, 1997.
from Sculpture Magazine, July/August 2005.
by Carolee Thea
Crossing Red Square, it is clear that Moscow is a city where past and
future confound the present: Kremlin walls, domed cathedrals, Versace
bays at GUM, and picketing protesters carrying red banners lettered
in Cyrillic. In a time when many Russian museums and cultural institutions
are threatened with closing for lack of funding, the cultural administration,
eager for the city to become a player in the 21st-century capitalist
information age, staged a biennial that provided some insights into
this confusing landscape. Joseph Backstein, the director of the Institute
of Contemporary Art in Moscow, was chief curator. His renowned team—Hans
Ulricht Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud,
and Rosa Martinez—tapped into local and global realities, attempting
to mobilize and attract the political and cultural communities.
The exhibition’s theme, “The Dialectics of Hope,” makes
an ironic play on a utopia never found under communism and now lost
to the pressures of capitalism. The main venues were the Lenin Museum
and the Schusev State Museum of Architecture. Satellite shows of Russian
art were sited at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art and the State
Tretyakov Gallery, plus 38 parallel projects. In the Lenin Museum,
some works commented on Lenin inside the building bearing his name.
Lenin alone remains sacrosanct in the wholesale revision of Soviet
history undertaken since glasnost. A compelling example of this was
Mikhail Romm’s documentary, Lenin is Alive which reeled nonstop
in the auditorium.
Blue Noses Group, a Russian artist collective, showed a series of projections
in cardboard boxes. Beamed from below, the images were of people in
antic movements. In one, a writhing figure of Lenin, dressed like the
entombed body, was literally turning in his grave. Confused by the
present, it seemed as if he wanted nothing more than to rest in peace.
The Italian artist Micol Assael often chooses hermetically sealed,
claustrophobic, dense, or hyper-charged spaces. In Sleeplessness, she
revealed a new mindscape concerning the future and past of the Lenin
Museum. Creating a cell of monastic simplicity, she replicated the
freezing temperatures outside with open windows and refrigeration.
Pinned to the wall was a picture of Lenin.Irina Korina, Modules, 2005.
On the second floor, the Austrian group Gelatin constructed an interior
wooden walkway cantilevered through a window to a toilet. Zapf de Pipi
invited visitors to contribute to a 20-foot pee icicle. The work made
formal reference to Ilya Kabakov’s The Toilets: Obscene Homes
Works by Irina Korina, Tino Sehgal, and David Ter-Oganyan provoked
dialectical tensions of material excess and formal concerns. Korina
constructed a purposely too-large wood sculpture of interlocking volumes
camouflaged with overlays of cheap decorative flooring and wall covering.
Her work filled the room it shared with the performance artist Tino
Sehgal, whose actors posing as museum guards performed strange repetitive
movements meant to disorient onlookers who might otherwise be drawn
into Korina’s object. Terrorism combined with the fate of the
object was a tactic for David Ter-Oganyan, whose This is not a bomb
scattered more than a dozen bomb-like devices throughout the museum.
The work referred to productivity as well as to the impending disappearance
of the formal object and the fate of the institution.
Referring to the conflict between past and future—and their own
countries’ engagement with Communism—Carlos Garaicoa from
Cuba and Cao Fei from Guanzhou province in China produced provocative
work of a different sort. Garaicoa suggested a possible conclusion
to the emptiness left by idle words and political ideas. Running down
a long corridor were glass vitrines containing multiples of Soviet
stamps overlaid with imagery from Cuban socialist propaganda. The vitrines
shared the corridor with Garaicoa’s altered photographs of Cuban
billboards. On each of these, pins and thread trace the outlines of
architectural dreams. Both the stamps and photographs are a call, as
is the work’s title, to transform the political speech to reality,
finally. Cao Fei’s My father consisted of a video, a group of
small identical sculptures, and two large fabric sculptures. The installation
related to her father, who was an official sculptor of Mao images.
In courtyards and structures surrounding the Schusev State Museum of
Architecture (where mostly video works were shown), projects by Christian
Boltanski and Michael Rovner were installed. Their works related to
the brutal past of Soviet Russia. Boltanski’s Odessa’s
Ghosts celebrated stories relating to the migration of the artist’s
grandmother from Odessa to Paris. The installation transformed its
space into a dimly lit capsule for family memories—such as the
garments suspended from the ceiling to depict those missing. The proximity
of Israeli artist Michael Rovner’s work to Boltanski’s
was well thought out. Her groups of minuscule (cell-size) people performing
synchronized movements are apt meditations on politically enforced
conformity and the eradication of human beings.
One evening of satellite shows included a visit to Ilya Kabakov’s
old studio, where his 1984 work, 16 Ropes was installed. An archive,
spatial database, and journal, it records memories. Composed of strings
holding objects in plastic with labels or vocal commentary, the work
morphs to accommodate new sites and memories. Kabakov is said to be
the father of Moscow Conceptualism—the subject for another satellite
show and one of the most interesting artistic trends in late Soviet
On the other hand, the “Russia 2” exhibition, paid for
by the established art dealer Marat Guelman, illustrated the new capitalist
Russia. Confusing art fair with biennial, Guelman featured only his
stable of artists. “Apartment Exhibitions,” in contrast,
was organized by the Radek Society, a group of friends who, from the ’60s
through the ’80s, met for readings and debates. Driving through
the blinding snow, we found Aleksei Kallima’s basement studio.
Here, in the dimly lit space filled with scruffy artist-types, videos
were viewed on small monitors. Alexei Beldakov’s video inspired
by the language of computer errors and viruses stood out. The contrast
of today’s technology and the unheated basement was that of old
ways and new media.
The show at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, “Starz,” in
all its garishness, celebrated a few contemporary Russian art-stars—Vladislav
Mamyshev-Monroe, AES+G, Vinogradov & Dubbossarski, and Oleg Kulik,
a radical artist whose abhorrence of the human condition is manifested
in his animal performances.
With this first (and proposed second) biennial, the founders not only
hope to find their place in the network of international art forums,
they also aspire to making Moscow a pivotal center for the region stretching
across Eastern Europe and the former USSR to Central Asia and the Far
East. Yet these grand goals are fraught with serious internal (not
to mention external) obstacles. The government has suggested that the
private sector should be the primary patron for the arts, but as The
Art Newspaper recently noted, “as yet, there are no tax concessions
to encourage private donors.” Backstein said that “We have
a very weak institutional art world in both Moscow and St. Petersburg
and there is no contemporary art museum. We also have a very conservative
art education with a Soviet infrastructure. To do something to move
this along, to help legitimize contemporary culture in this country,
motivated us to concentrate efforts on a big important project. It
seems very important for us to have a biennial to help modernize our
situation and to bring a new awareness.”
The opportunity to educate and enlighten artists, curators, critics,
institutions, politicos, collectors, and potential philanthropists
is one not to be missed. Yet success can be measured in small increments
contingent on aspiration and on echo. For now, in the absence of support
for arts organizatons and without strategies (such as Documenta 11’s “Platforms”)
to engage diverse and relevant groups, it seems a hollow move to simply
produce another mega-exhibition that briefly fluffs the vanity of the
city and amuses the elite.