Moscow biennial curator and artists explain why we shouldn’t boycott Russia
While critics cry out against the country’s draconian anti-gay laws, cultural exchange is still important
By Sophia Kishkovsky. Web only
Published online: 09 September 2013
Despite recent controversy over the country’s restrictive anti-gay laws, the curator of the Fifth Moscow Biennale says this is not the time to reject Russia. Her comments follow similar responses from the organisers of the Manifesta biennial, as critics call for a cultural boycott.
“I feel I am responsible to keep the platform going,” the Belgian-born Catherine de Zegher tells The Art Newspaper. The latest edition of the contemporary art exhibition opens on 19 September at the Manege Exhibition Hall.
De Zegher says that the biennale’s organisers have not placed any restrictions on what she can show. She adds that “only one or two” artists, whom she refused to identify, said they would pull out of the biennial because of the situation in Russia, but she convinced them to reconsider.
Visitors, however, are unlikely to see much art that aggressively confronts the country’s conservative laws. “I’m not a big believer in provocation,” De Zegher says. “Art that is very provocative is like fast food almost. It flares up, then it’s finished. Of course I do believe in activist gestures, and movement and action, but I think art works in a different way.”
Her comments echo those of the veteran German curator Kasper Konig, who is organising the next edition of Manifesta, Europe’s roving contemporary art biennial. Speaking at a news conference at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg on 5 September, Konig said the 2014 biennial will avoid “cheap provocations”. A petition calling for the biennial’s organisers to choose another city, postpone or cancel the exhibition has drawn nearly 2,000 signatures. Manifesta has responded with a statement on its website, expressing concern about the anti-gay laws but stressing that the biennial is based on “dialogue with those with whom we may disagree”. The biennial’s founding director, Hedwig Fijen, says that isolating Russia is wrong “especially as it deprives younger people of access to a broader scope of voices and points of view”.
“I think the 20th century was very much about shock and awe,” De Zegher says. “We’re entering another age, where there is more about collaboration, collective thinking.” Artists at the biennale are addressing controversial issues, she said, “but they are in nobody’s face”.
In the Moscow Biennale for example, the Chechen artist Aslan Gaisumov’s work touches on the intersection of religion and secularity, Islam and its relationship with Western culture, but does so with a sense of the “ambiguity of the negotiation between cultures, between religions, between the sexes, between ethnicities”, she says.
The Polish-born artist Gosia Wlodarczak, who has been working in Australia since the 1990s, is coming to Russia for the first time for the biennial. She explains why foreign artists should come to Moscow now by recalling her days as a student in Poland, when Communist rulers tried to crush the opposition Solidarity movement with martial law.
“I remember how important it was when anybody actually came [to Poland] instead of avoiding us. Every visit from somewhere else meant that people cared instead of just abandoning you, leaving you to your own,” the artist told The Art Newspaper as she worked on her intricate glass drawing installation in Manege, where the Kremlin is always in sight next door, outside the windows. “Every visit was like a contribution, and every exchange of dialogue was valued, because that’s how things change.”
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