Dreams or reality? Contemporary art in Moscow, summer 2014
A Time for Dreams: Fourth Moscow International Biennale for Young Art
The Museum of Moscow
26 June – 10 August 2014
One Place Next to Another
Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, Moscow
18 June – 24 August 2014
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Russians, like the rest of the world, are split in their attitude toward contemporary art: some like new ideas and challenges offered by art that does not look beautiful or even appealing; others are threatened by it, considering its subversive nature destructive of their basic values and beliefs.
Unlike much of the “civilised” world, however, they think about their art collectively and with verve, judging their lives and wellbeing by visual signs that are accepted into the public realm and/or officially approved. Authorities can hardly afford to ignore art because it carries a lot of weight emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes the best way to keep it in check is to control the sources of its funding. These thoughts come to mind when looking at some exhibitions of contemporary art in Moscow this summer, which send mixed messages to the occasional visitor. On the one hand, there is the Fourth Biennale for Young Art, which, contrary to its promising premise (how can one go wrong with anything “young” in the age of opportunity?), is disappointingly eclectic and unfocused. On the other, there is a smaller, but much more effective exhibition at Winzavod, featuring international artists in mid-career. One all-embracing exhibition focuses on dreams, the other on a narrowly described “reality”.
The Fourth Moscow Biennale for Young art, entitled A Time for Dreams, unites around 100 local and international participants under the age of 35, chosen from more than 3,000 artists who submitted applications to the website.1 The main project occupies the courtyard and two floors of one building of the Museum of the City of Moscow, a complex of imposing structures centrally located on the Garden Ring near the Park of Culture metro stop. In addition to the main venue, there are also several subsidiary locations throughout the city, comprising strategic projects, special projects, collateral events and an educational programme. Taken in its entirety, the biennale is a gargantuan undertaking, which, apart from artists, involves several curators, city officials and art institutions, among them the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA).
The exhibition is unusual because it undermines many of our ideas about biennales. First, and most obviously, it discriminates on the basis of age, defying the common wisdom of letting young talent prove itself by time and devotion, rather than work that looks interesting but may or may not make a difference to others or become a stepping stone in the artist’s career. Second, having originated in Moscow, it looks somewhat incongruous in a country plagued by a controversial relationship towards contemporary art and the west: while it is supported by various government agencies, including the ministry of culture of the Russian Federation and the department of culture of the City of Moscow, the best art on display challenges the status quo defended by the government’s official line.
The uncertainty of the biennale is reflected in its title, which is ambiguous enough to suggest not only Martin Luther King’s prophetic hope of civic liberation and enlightenment, but also escape from reality into a powerless realm of personal wish fulfilment. By invoking King’s famous speech, David Elliott, the curator of the biennale, hoped to reassert the values of “inalienable human rights to equality, dignity, freedom of expression, decency, warmth, common sense, intelligence, and love”.2 This formulation is amorphous enough to keep the exhibition from making a definitive statement about anything that really matters. Instead, it addresses everything and nothing, giving prominence to ironic and/or self-reflective forms of expression.
We can see the purpose of this biennale as not to present a united front of any sort, but to offer an opportunity for young talents to show their work to the public. From this point of view, it succeeds. It has a catalogue and an excellent website, where each participant in the main project has a separate page with an image of included work. There are some that attract attention. Foremost among them is the ZIP Group, a collective of artists from Krasnodar, who presented the Civil Resistance Project, consisting of multiple objects designed to stage mass demonstrations or individual protests against authorities. These objects range from a large command tower and a booth of individual picketing (BIP),installed in the courtyard of the Museum of Moscow, to a sprawling action model of an occupation of a a city centre, complete with arrows indicating the way a crowd moves during a demonstration. A monitor next to the model plays a video of one such action in which an artist/protester encased inside a BIP is fielding questions from the crowd. The action (and the recording) end when he is led away by a policeman. All ZIP objects are hand-made of roughly hewn wood and resemble speakers’ towers and kiosks designed by Constructivists, such as Gustav Klutsis and El Lissitzky.
Other works of note include Oleg Matrokhin’s sculptural installation Phlogiston: Epitaph, lamenting the passing age of beauty; Sylvia Javén’s Someone Else, a partition made of almost transparent lace, which divides the second floor of the museum; Olya Kroytor’s collages culled from Soviet newspapers and her performance Point of Support, in which she enacts a visual equivalent of phallic omnipotence by standing on a four-metre-high narrow column, covered from head to toe in attire resembling a burqa, which may reference so-called “black widows”, female suicide bombers who have been terrorising Russia since the early 2000s. Among the photographs, the best focus on exploring their subjects’ identities: Natalie Maximova’s intimate and touching portraits of Russian transgender people; Svetlana Yerkovich’s series of images of women wearing panther-patterned clothing; and Kate Elliott’s observant installation The Study of Peter Pan, which does just that – minutely and patiently studying a teenager’s face in a series of close-up photographs and a single-channel video, as if trying to discover a mark of transition from boyhood to manhood. Among video-makers, Chinese artists stand out. Another Modern Artist by Li Ran and Morning by Chen Zhou are finely acted and captivating stories of non-events in the protagonists’ lives.
While the biennale’s main project leaves much to be desired in terms of its conceptual focus, the so-called “strategic projects” located in the MMOMA on Ermolaevsky Lane offer a much more comprehensible curatorial plan, which consists of six mini-exhibitions curated by different people and divided by geographic regions. Among the display of art from Azerbaijan, Thailand, Ukraine, Pakistan, and the former Czechoslovakia, the installation by artists from Azerbaijan stands out in its boldness and cohesiveness. Curated by Nailya Allakhverdieva and entitled Astar, it conveys the interest of these artists in the “essence of what occurs”, meaning, in their case, “personal freedom and opportunity for self-expression unfettered by ‘corporate ethics’ or ‘political correctness’”.3 Indeed, every artist in the group has a distinctly individual style and personality, united by their rooting in traditional culture, to which they react in various ways. Tahmina Ali shows striking pictures of female nudes, headless and in different states of undress, which provoke by the very fact of their clandestine production. Farhad Farzaliev exhibits his nostalgic Granny’s Vocabulary, a work that recalls his childhood by enshrining his grandmother’s favourite phrases in neon lighting and displaying the sentences against the background of Soviet mass-market textiles. Farzaliev’s and Zamir Suleymanov’s installations Summer Hit and Changli and His Army reference a failed air-conditioner factory in Baku, which closed because of competition from imported Chinese electric fans. There are also a few powerful works about the simultaneously destructive and seductive force of tradition, which includes Sitara Ibragimova’s heart-wrenching documentary Boy – Yes, Girl – No, where the artist interviewed women who gave birth to girls in the culture that privileges male heirs, and Samir Salakhov’s installation Wishing You the Same, providing a setting for a traditional Azerbaijan wedding ritual, overflowing with opulence and ornate detail.
Apart from main and strategic projects, the Biennale’s “special projects” include more than a dozen independently curated exhibitions, performances, and events in various locations throughout the city, which the biennale’s leadership placed under its umbrella. One of them, One Place Next to Another, is an exhibition at Winzavod, a centre for contemporary art located in a former wine-producing factory. Consisting of 23 international participants, including one art group, and co-curated by Anastasia Shavlokhova and Lukas Töpfer, the exhibition is a welcome counterpart to the sprawling indeterminacy of the display at the Museum of Moscow. The premise of the exhibition is the “focus on reality”, which Shavlokhova explained as “the analysis of the notion of space as a determinate set of rules for the interrelation of elements”, meaning by this “the creation of a field for communication”.4 Töpfer further elaborated the concept as engaging the idea of site-specificity in Miwon Kwon’s landmark essay One Place after Another. In this essay, Kwon suggested the notion of space as not as a specific locale, but as “the relational specificity that can hold in tension the distant poles of spatial experiences” of those who wander the globe in search for work and better life.5 Without illustrating Kwon’s text, the exhibition, in fact, explores the tension between the notions of time and space, metaphor and metonymy, the cosmopolitan “after” and the local “next”, attempting to find a relevant equivalent of relational specificity in art available in Moscow at the moment.
The curators succeeded in putting together a captivating installation in the former wine cellar at Winzavod. First of all, the choice of place for the exhibition is ingenious: it is situated in a cavernous and cold space with no natural light, located three storeys underground. The space is remarkable because it is extremely contained: not only is it separated from the outside by thick walls and the lack of light, but also because of the difference in temperature – summer is usually hot in Moscow, so it is a relief to find yourself in a cold cave for a couple of hours. It is into this modernised cave that visitors are invited to discover their own truths about reality through art. The way to do so is both visual and conceptual, through reflection and observation. Individual works, especially videos, are powerful enough to stand by themselves, but their impact is enhanced by juxtaposition with the surrounding exhibits. “Spaces for dialogue”, then, are created across the space itself: between adjacent works and the ones at a distance, but that are still extant in our memory. In order to approach the imposing Pedestal: Practice of Exclusion by Nikita Kadan, a monument to all deposed and desecrated monuments in the former Soviet bloc, the visitor to the exhibition has to get through a line of Julius von Bismarck’s threatening Omon, consisting of 16 life-size mannequins of fighters in the special force unit in Russian police. Sometimes the allusions and suggestions are not so obvious, as when a visitor passes from Kadan’s perfect white monolith to starkly Post-Conceptual paintings on tiles by Michael Müller, five in total, and then to The Third Lagoon, a chaotic wooden camp by the ZIP Group. While Kadan’s and Müller’s works are united by bared-down Minimalist-inspired visuals, the ZIP Group presents a complete opposite to the logical sequence of its neighbours’ visual styles: they erected a makeshift camp constructed out of wood and materials found at hand, looking as if its inhabitants left it a minute ago and may return shortly. A broken tile in the one painting by Müller closest to the ZIP installation may serve as a passage to the improvised order of the ZIP creation, but it is up to the viewer to figure out the “relational specificity” of this particular set of works.
By choosing the space strategically and matching it with their concept, the curators of One Place Next to Another succeeded in putting together an exhibition that engages and provokes, at the same time that it gives each artist an opportunity to present the work to its maximum advantage. Despite its small size and its subordinate relation to the larger and more ambitious biennale, reality once again proved itself more potent than dreams. Perhaps the situation in Moscow this summer highlights the unavoidable quandary of all biennales: even though they rarely succeed as cohesive events thematically, they provide great opportunities for artists and curators to showcase their work.
2. The Stuff of Dreams by David Elliott. In: A Time for Dreams, published by National Centre for Contemporary Arts and Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 2014, page 51.
3. Strategic Projects/Astar by Nailya Allakhverdieva. In: ibid, volume 2, pages 57-58.
4. Focus on Reality by Anastasia Shavlokhova. In: One Place Next to Another, published by Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, 2014, page 7.
5. One Place Next to Another by Lukas Töpfer. In: ibid, page 8.