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Postcard from Moscow

by Amy Sherlock

Vadim Zakharov (artist) and Udo Kittelmann (curator) at their exhibition 'The Last Stroll through Elysian Fields', Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 1995

Moscow seems to have been in the news for all of the wrong reasons recently. The trial of opposition activist, Alexey Navalny, accused of embezzling state funds but guilty of speaking out against President Putin began in Kirov last week; there continues to be intrigue in the case of Alexander Perepilichnyy, the businessman who sought refuge in the UK after denouncing corrupt state officials to Swiss prosecutors and dropped dead whilst jogging near his Surrey home late last year; and, last month, another self-exiled anti-Putin billionaire, Boris Berezovsky, committed suicide in London after having lost to Roman Abramovich in what was supposedly the most expensive legal case involving individuals in history.

We know that there are a lot of Russian billionaires in London; they have become an accepted, if in some quarters begrudged, stratum of the capital’s society. And we have an idea of what people are doing in Moscow, or at least what people are buying in Moscow, now that it has opened itself up so brazenly to the desires of consumer capitalism. (The most surreal moment of my recent trip there was window-shopping at Dior whilst looking across Red Square to Lenin’s tomb.) But the Russian Federation also preserves a certain sense of mystery: Moscow remains a city that feels slightly furtive and unknown.

Udo Kittelmann, Stella Kesaeva and Vadim Zakharov at the Russian Pavilion press conference held at the Stella Foundation

I was in town last month for the press conference announcing that Vadim Zakharov will be representing Russia in the national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The pavilion is to be curated by Udo Kittelmann, Director of the State Museums in Berlin: the first time in the pavilion’s 99-year history that a non-Russian is to hold the role. The conference and dinner was held at the Stella Foundation, whose director, the eponymous Stella Kesaeva (wife of billionaire tobacco magnate Igor Kesaev) is the pavilion’s commissioner. Kesaeva’s appointment raised hackles in certain quarters when it was first announced three years ago, but the 2011 pavilion, curated by Boris Groys and dedicated to Andrei Monastyrski and the Collective Actions group was very well received, seeming a timely reminder of the participatory and performative practices of late-Soviet Conceptualism. Perhaps often overshadowed on the international (and, indeed, domestic) stage by the better known Fluxus or Art & Language movements, this staking a claim for the group’s significance came at a moment of renewed interest in participatory practices and the turn towards performance and the ephemeral that we have seen in recent years (not to mention a corollary suspicion of the art-object-as-commodity, following 2008’s economic crash).

Collective Actions, Pictures, Moscow Region, February 11, 1979

The work of Collective Actions is fascinating because of the very specific economic, social and political context that it grew out of. The greatest collective, the ‘workers of the world unite’, promised by Socialism was a long-since failed Utopia by the late 1970s and early ’80s, and Collective Actions were working out what collaboration might mean in a symbolic economy in which values were shifting and confusing, as the ideological tenets that underpinned them collapsed. Collectivism cast a long shadow over Soviet art-making, right from the early avant-gardes, who aspired to free art from the bourgeois context in which it had come to be mired and to create an aesthetic language that would not only be accessible to all, but that would also shape the new society. Zakharov is of a younger generation of the Moscow school than Monastyrski and has been living mostly in Germany since around 1990, but he is not being glib when he tells me that there is too much of the ‘I’ in most artistic production today when there needs to be a return to the ‘we’. For Zakharov, the artwork is a process of collaboration and dialogue – he dislikes the term ‘curator’, and shuns the implication that Kittelmann will be merely arranging his works according to a preconceived schema. Rather, the pavilion, which will host a new commission, has evolved in ‘partnership’. Kittelmann and Zakharov are long-time collaborators, having met in Germany in 1988 and been involved in projects together since then (notably 2003’s Monument to Theodor W. Adorno in Frankfurt, the philosopher’s city of birth).

Vadim Zakharov, Monument to Theodor W.Adorno, 2003, installed in Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz, Frankfurt

Much has changed in Moscow since Zakharov first left the city. The Stella Foundation itself is, in no small way, the product of the rampant individualism unbridled by perestroika. Across town, the same is true of Garage, the arts foundation of Dasha Zhukova (partner of the aforementioned Mr. Abramovich), with which comparisons are inevitable. Currently located in Gorky Park, in a specially commissioned temporary pavilion designed by Shigeru Ban, Garage will move to the newly renovated and expanded site of the park’s former Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year) later this year.

Where Stella Kesaeva is resolute in her championing of Moscow Conceptualism, the programme at Garage is more consciously international-user-friendly: when I visited they were showing Philipe Parreno’s 2012 film Marilyn, first presented at the Fondation Beyler, Basel, last year; later this month the space will be taken over by the fifth edition of the Museum of Everything. Marilyn: no need for a surname; no need for translation; a figure that transcends borders and eras (not to mention curtains, even iron ones). The film is a beautiful and melancholic attempt to trace the contours of her ghost as it pans through the empty set of a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where the actress lived in the 1950s. It is accompanied by a soundtrack of her words, modulated by a computer and an enormous robotic arm that copies out snippets of the handwriting in an endless loop. The suggestion that all individual acts can be replicated according to set of algorithms or computational formulae prevents Parreno’s elegy from becoming saccharine: but the whole affair is as straightforwardly easy on the eye as the eponymous absent heroine.

Philipe Parreno, Marilyn, 2012, film still

As to what is going on the ground with regard to artists currently working in the city, it would seem that neither Garage nor Stella Art Foundation are the places to find out. And whilst I don’t doubt that each organization’s professed intent to develop the city’s cultural scene is both genuine and necessary, given the absence of any significant state investment, there seems to be a divorce between their aspirations to raise Moscow’s cultural profile internationally and the lack of any young contemporary Russian artists in their programmes. Monastyrski and Zhakarov are artists from a provocative, highly intelligent and perhaps slightly overlooked school and Kaeseva’s Venice pavilions are a worthy corrective in this regard, but a back-to-back double whammy of late-Soviet conceptualists will inevitably beg questions about their heir apparent (or lack thereof?). Kaeseva, who will also commission the pavilion in 2015, refused to be drawn on the question of whether there are any artists currently working in Moscow that might take up the baton. A slightly disheartening statistic in this regard – of the handful of (all male) Russian artists that will be exhibited in Massimiliano Gioni’s main exhibition, none were born later than 1973. The number is up on 54th Biennale, where the single (young, female) Russian representative in Bice Curiger’s main exhibition was Anya Titova, though her contribution was unmemorable, and she seems to have since dropped off the radar. Ilya Kabakov, also one of the leading figures in the Moscow conceptualist group (though, a long-term US resident, he has by now been making work outside of Russia for far longer than he did in it) is by some margin the most expensive living Russian artist (after the sale, in January this year, of a collection of 40 of his paintings to none other than Roman Abramovich). So where is the post-Soviet generation?

Rendering of the new Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Gorky Park, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA on the site of the former Vremena Goda restaurant (location shown on photograph from 1970)

Both in the Russian Pavilion and at Garage, there seems to be a piecemeal reclamation of the Soviet past at work, which cannot but feel slightly perverse coming from those who profited most from the USSR’s dismantling. Garage started out inhabiting the shell of a 1920s bus terminal designed by the constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov. Its new Gorky Park site will preserve many of the original restaurant’s 1960s prefab features. The renovation is being carried our by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, and it may be Koolhaas himself whose statement about the project on the gallery’s website best summarises Kaeseva’s project too, in all its ambivalence: ‘We were able […] to explore the qualities of generosity, dimension, openness, and transparency of the Soviet wreckage and find new uses and interpretations for them.’

Correction: this article has been updated from the original text, which incorrectly stated that the work of two dead Russian-born artists would be included in the main exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale. The artists in question, Hans Josephsohn and Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, were born in East Prussia. frieze apologises for any confusion.

About the author

  • Amy Sherlock's photo

    Amy Sherlock is reviews editor of frieze and is based in London.