No punning on Putin
Fourth Moscow Biennale shows fewer political works
By Sophia Kishkovsky. Web only
Published online: 01 November 2011
MOSCOW. “Rewriting Worlds,” the fourth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (22 September-30 October), displayed unintentional synergy with Russia’s bizarre political scene, opening just two days before prime minister Vladimir Putin announced he would be rerunning for the presidency. The announcement at a congress of United Russia, the dominant Kremlin-controlled party, plunged Russia’s intellectual and ruling elite into debates about whether the move signifies a return to the late Soviet-era stagnation of general secretary Leonid Brezhnev, or whether it offers much needed stability on the path to modernisation.
The announcement coincided with the opening on 24 September of one of the biennale’s special projects, “Media Impact: International Festival of Activist Art”, held at Artplay Design Center, Moscow’s latest arts and design hub on a former factory site. Several works on display at Artplay were among the few in the biennale to reflect the current economic and political climate, including P.I.G.S., 2011, by Paris-based artist collective Claire Fontaine, a map of the debt-ridden countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain assembled out of 360,000 matches that were burned at the end of the biennale, and Earth Report, 2010, a series of mini-installations by South Korean artist Kijong Zin, which focus on the geopolitical and ecological threats of globalisation.
The other half of the main exhibition was held in an exhibition hall at TSUM, a luxury emporium. Mercury Group, which owns TSUM, has a controlling stake in Phillips de Pury. Disappointingly, anticipated events such as the arrival of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist, who was invited to attend, did not materialise.
The biennale divided critics and commentators. Some described the exhibitions, curated by Peter Weibel, the director of the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, which focuses on multi-disciplinary works, as bland or off-the-mark in artistic terms. “Maybe it’s connected with the fact that people think you need to show something lightweight in Moscow, not burden it with anything too serious,” said Milena Orlova, an art critic, who noted that another commentator had described it as a kind of festival of “gadget art”, with many interactive works.
Others felt that it has also fitted well into the current context of Russia’s alternately angst-ridden and cynical trajectory. “In general, the theme is very good, but I am not certain that all the items displayed reflect this theme,” said Aidan Salakhova, an artist who opened Moscow’s first contemporary art gallery during Perestroika, and now creates controversial works on Islamic and women’s themes and their intersection (see our Venice reports).
The Azerbaijani-born, Moscow-based artist ran into trouble with the Azerbaijani government over her sculptures, which were on show in Azerbaijan’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “As in the days of the Soviet Union, we live in two realities,” she said of the convergence of the Moscow Biennale’s theme and the Russian government’s behaviour. “The government is always trying to rewrite reality. About 95% of what we see on TV, in mass culture, is very bad taste and kitsch. It seems the state is deliberately following a policy of bread and circuses, and it's very bad circuses.”
Under Brezhnev, the underground contemporary art scene flourished despite (and partly because of) state pressure. Under Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, the president of Russia, contemporary art is often promoted as a symbol of Russian modernisation—until it is deemed to have gone too far, as in the case of the art collective Voina, who spray painted a penis on a bridge that rose up to point at the headquarters of the Federal Security Service in St Petersburg.
Voina received a major state-backed contemporary art prize in April, even as it was being taken to court for “criminal mischief”. The case was dropped by prosecutors on 21 October. The group caused some controversy at the biennale after it objected to its inclusion in “Media Impact: International Festival of Activist Art”. Voina said that another artist's work had been misrepresented as one of its own, and called for a boycott of the biennale.
Despite previous attacks on art that critiques religion, Electroboutique’s Big Talking Cross, 2011, an electronic airport departure display cut to the shape of a cross, has gone unharmed by Russian Orthodox activists who have previously lashed out against contemporary art exhibitions at the Sakharov Museum. Created by the artist duo, Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin, it has quietly emerged as one of the biennale’s signature works.
Joseph Backstein, the biennale’s commissioner, who has been instrumental in all four editions of the biennale, dismissed the Voina controversy, but said it was naive to expect that anything will change in Russia anytime soon.
There were no puns on Putin at this year’s biennale, such as the Blue Noses Group’s irreverent mockery of him, George Bush and Osama bin Laden that appeared at the first biennale in 2005. “It’s no longer funny,” said Backstein. “This is what the country is like.”
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