Russia, newly fearsome and obscure, is very much in the news, but not for reasons that invite open cultural exchange. America’s Cold War adversary for four frosty decades, Russia—then called the Soviet Union—underwent a brief glasnost, or period of transparency during the late 1980s and early 1990s. What followed afterwards was its polar opposite. To borrow a phrase from William Styron, today the largest country on earth exemplifies the idea of darkness visible.
As official Russia has become increasingly hazy to the world—especially in this age of botnets, human trolls, and dezinformatsiya, or disinformation—its scrappy journalism and independent culture have often worked overtime to reveal themselves. Now the Garage Triennial of Contemporary Art, a massive new exhibition held for the first time in Moscow, arrives to shine a light on an underexplored part of Russian culture—its contemporary art. The show is correctly billed as the biggest survey of contemporary Russian art ever. In a fitting twist, it is also slated to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Hosted by the eight-year-old Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the fledgling triennial boasts a number of plutocratic advantages. Held in a recently redesigned Rem Koolhaas building in Moscow’s Gorky Park, the museum is principally supported by two of the planet’s most powerful Russians: collector Dasha Zhukova and her husband, the oligarch Roman Abramovich. Besides deep-pocketed influence, the museum also possesses global ambitions. As opposed to previous Russian biennials that introduced international artists to local audiences, the Garage Museum’s triennial aims to place Russian contemporary art squarely on the international stage.
Logistically speaking, the triennial is an impressive feat of organization and research. Unlike the Whitney Biennial—which rarely strays beyond America’s major urban centers to find its artists—this exhibition went to Siberia and back to tackle what it calls “the immensely complicated notion of national and cultural identity.” The challenges of such a project are daunting: the land mass of Russia encompasses 100 languages and nearly 200 nationalities, and borders 14 countries (15, if you believe ex-Alaska governor Sarah Palin).
To this end, the Garage Museum dispatched a six-person curatorial team to crisscross the country (Note: it takes 11 hours to fly from Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea, to Vladivostok, which borders China and North Korea). Led by chief curator Kate Fowle, the group visited 42 cities and towns across 11 time zones in the curatorial equivalent of The Amazing Race.
The Garage Triennial’s chronological starting point is 2012. That was the year vote rigging during the 2011 legislative elections sparked waves of pro-democracy protests across Russia. New draconian laws went into effect after Vladimir Putin returned to power the same year, penalizing unauthorized demonstrations, curbing press freedoms, and limiting freedom of speech. Ironically, private museums thrived during the same period, confirming what the triennial literature awkwardly calls “contemporary art’s latent potentiality.”
The new triennial, which features 68 artists who range in age from 19 to 69, does what many similar art festivals do but better—it identifies notable talents while capturing a bracingly expressive slice of the zeitgeist. Additionally, though, this show brims with fresh energy and hardy optimism. This is in part due to a decision by the six exhibition curators to curb what one organizer called their “thematic fantasies.” Consequently, the exhibition manages something rare. It gets out of its own way while presenting a warts-and-all version of the curator’s graciously under-theorized selections.
Gathered beneath an Ugo Rondinone rooftop sculpture of a rainbow spelling out the hopeful words “Our Magic Hour”—the sculpture is the sole artwork on view created by a non-Russian and is echoed by other rainbows painted by disabled children—are artworks of every imaginable stripe and conceivable media. Grouped into seven self-explanatory categories the curators call “vectors”—the groupings are “Master Figure,” “Personal Mythologies,” “Fidelity to Place,” “Common Language,” “Art in Action,” “Street Morphology,” and “Local Histories of Art”—the exhibition’s various artworks occupy every inch of the museum, often in Kafkaesque, boundary-pushing ways.
Take, for instance, “master figure” Pavel Shugurov’s mini-pavilion for a pseudo-organization he’s christened the Union of Artists of Russia. A “group show” that includes work by Shugurov’s 33 aliases, it crams, among other types of work, wall drawings, urban photography, expressionist paintings, and a documentary video into a white cube that measures three by three meters.
Another nonsensical gesture that contains multitudes is Monstration. A public happening that takes place every May Day since 2004, the gathering deploys flags, placards and banners to promote causes like “Up With Hope” and “Back of Dog Day.” The fact that the event lands its chief organizer, the artist Artem Loskutov, behind bars annually, invokes the dark satire of figures like Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the absurdist classic The Heart of a Dog.
Though that last work is included in the “Art in Action” portion of the exhibition, several other artworks in other sections address politics at least as memorably. Among these are a group of photographs by Anastasia Bogomolova documenting her efforts to inhabit both the landscape and day-to-day routine of forced laborers in the Bakal Labor camp, a postwar gulag (the photos’s greenish tint reflect their immersion in nettle soup, the wild grass that was the steady diet of most of the camp’s inmates). A second standout is Aslan Gaisumov’s installation “Numbers.” A wall mounted arrangement that consists of 50 metal plaques taken from existing homes in Grozny, the work documents the city’s missing houses by omission—that and the many lives lost during the decade long Second Chechen War.
If few other pieces match the sheer pathos of Gaisumov’s installation, the show contains other artworks that sound complementary notes of hard-bitten post-Soviet resilience. One of them is Evgeny Ivanov’s series of portraits of his late friend, Oleg Formin, a Siberian street musician with rubberized Jerry Lewis features. Another is a large-scale reproduction of the Krasnodar studio of 65-year-old Mikhail Smaglyuk. Besides looking every bit a stage set for the movie Hugo, this version of the Russian tinkerer’s workplace is full of poetic whirrs and whistles—one piece consists of a bouncing money sack with wings that springs up and down from the ceiling and is titled “Easy Come, Easy Go.”
These and many other works in this rousing exhibition shine a light into cultural landscape that has long been both historically rich and richly underexposed. This, in fact, is the Garage Museum Triennial’s biggest contribution to Russian contemporary art: sunlight, and lots of it.
The Garage Triennial is on view at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 14, 2017.
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