'Frightening' price tag and soap opera drama: Moscow’s GES-2 House of Culture opens opposite Kremlin

Power plant arts centre backed by Russian billionaire makes its long-awaited debut with a “dream exhibition” for Ragnar Kjartansson and a carnival in four acts

Architect Renzo Piano has converted a 1907 Moscow power station into GES-2 House of Culture, a free-admission venue for the V-A-C Foundation Photo: © Michel Denancé

Architect Renzo Piano has converted a 1907 Moscow power station into GES-2 House of Culture, a free-admission venue for the V-A-C Foundation Photo: © Michel Denancé

“After two years of pandemic, naturally we can’t wait any more,” says Teresa Iarocci Mavica, the dynamic Italian curator who is leading preparations for GES-2 House of Culture, a vast new arts centre opening on 4 December in a former power plant opposite the Kremlin in Moscow. It will be a permanent, free-admission venue for the V-A-C Foundation, which Mavica co-founded in 2009 with the Russian natural gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson (whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at nearly $30bn).

V-A-C previously had a “nomadic” presence in the city, producing “contemporary art interventions in non-artistic institutions and public spaces”, says Katerina Chuchalina, the foundation’s chief curator. Now, the power plant building, which was originally scheduled to open in 2020, houses exhibition and performance spaces as well as creative workshops—designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop with an emphasis on sustainability.

After a year-long delay, the finishing touches to GES-2 have been made during Moscow’s recent semi-lockdown. As at all museums in the capital, visitors will have to present QR codes at the entrance proving their immunity to Covid-19 via either ­vaccination or recovery from the virus. Staff will have to do the same, says Mavica, who is proud that the foundation’s workforce has a vaccination level of 87%, 2.5 times the overall rate in Russia.

Mayhem in the making

Since plans for the opening season were announced in 2019, the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson has been working on Santa Barbara (4 December-13 March 2022), his recreation of the eponymous American soap opera that became a huge hit in post-­Soviet Russia. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Kjartansson has been overseeing production remotely via Zoom. The “living sculpture” will involve the daily re-enactment and filming of Santa Barbara at GES-2, starting from episode 217, the first broadcast in Russia in January 1992.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s Santa Barbara is billed as a living sculpture—a live recreation of the American soap Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

“The work is the making of the work,” Kjartansson says, “not just filming but mayhem, the beast of production”. He describes the project as a “dream exhibition” and a “crazy adventure”, working with Russian actors and the show’s original creators. Santa Barbara “weirdly resonates” with everything from the pandemic to the geopolitics of growing up in Iceland. Kjartansson even learned that Jerome Dobson, who co-wrote the soap opera with his wife Bridget, was acquainted at Stanford University with Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the 1917 February Revolution that toppled the Russian tsars. “There are so many meanings to Santa Barbara that I find hard to understand myself,” Kjartansson says. “It’s a project that I got totally enchanted by. As someone raised in Iceland, I have an identity between Moscow and Washington. In my childhood we were driving a Lada and watching American movies. As a child of socialists, the Russians were always the good guys in the Cold War to me.”

In parallel, Kjartansson and his partner Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir have curated To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, a group show including paintings by Elizabeth Peyton in conversation with a sculpture by Sigurjónsdóttir and Kjartansson’s interpretation of the vandal attacks on Ilya Repin’s 1885 painting of Ivan the Terrible in despair after killing his son. Kjartansson says as an art student he dreamed of becoming “a historic painter like Repin”.

“Russia is a big, complicated giant of culture and power that I have been in awe of since I was a kid,” he says, describing the opening of GES-2 as the beginning of “a very committed, beautiful institution”. Speaking four weeks before the unveiling, he anticipates “shock when I come to Russia and it’s actually a reality”.

Ragnar Kjartansson Photo: Rafael Pinho

The curatorial programme—launching with five seasons under the title Holy Barbarians—has also evolved with the pandemic to give greater emphasis to local artists. “We put a lot of effort into rethinking the opening programme to help the local context, to re-inject some positive energy into the crisis that Covid had brought with it,” Mavica says. A new addition is called When Gondola Engines Were Taken to Bits: a Carnival in Four Acts, which “reflects the carnivalesque in Russian culture, through the medium of exhibition, dance, rave parties and stand-up shows”.

Part of the carnival will cross over to the foundation’s Venice space, a converted 1800s palazzo, during the art Biennale next year. “While the Moscow and Venice programmes are quite autonomous, it is equally important for us to complement them,” Chuchalina says.

GES-2 spans 41,000 sq. m on Moscow's Bolotnaya Embankment near the Kremlin Photo: © Michel Denancé

A “frightening” price tag

GES-2 already became a lightning rod for public opinion this summer with the outdoor installation of Big Clay No. 4, a 12m-high sculpture by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer that a Russian comedian likened to a “pile of shit”. Mavica diplomatically views the outcry as a “very healthy sign” of public interest in art.

There is no contesting the grandeur of the venue, which spans 41,000 sq. m on Bolotnaya Embankment. In 2018, Mavica had put the cost of GES-2 at around $300m. At a 2019 news conference, ­Mikhelson would say only that “the ­frightening figure in my mind has doubled”, without specifying the initial amount. “I have no idea of the exact figure,” Mavica told The Art ­Newspaper in November.

GES-2 is located near the site of anti-government protests that began in 2011 and have since been crushed. Historically, the area was “not accessible at all while the power station was functioning”, Mavica says. “The proximity of the Kremlin also made it very formal, while our intention is to open up this part of the city and make it permeable and dynamic by turning it into a place where all kinds of people want to be.”

• For an in-depth discussion on the GES-2 museum and the wider political situation in which it has been constructed, listen to The Week in Art podcast here