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Analysis & Opinion
08.10.09 A Palpable Dose Of Art
By Elena Rubinova

On September 24 Jean-Hubert Martin, a prominent French museum director and curator of the third Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, along with Joseph Backstein, its commissioner, officially launched the main exhibition project, entitled “Against exclusion,” in the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (GCCC). The opening kicked off an event that promises to turn Moscow into a vibrant art scene for more than a month.

This year’s Biennale brought together some 100 artists from all corners of the world to display their work at more than 50 different locations around the city. If this was said about the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel or San Paolo in Brazil, it would have been nothing new, but a major exhibition of such scale and vast geography is a new phenomenon for Moscow. “The idea of supporting universal art is something that hasn't seen much development in Moscow. Since perestroika, you've seen many very good exhibits from Europe and North America, but fewer from Australia, Africa, Papua New Guinea. And I thought that it was time to show this art to the Russians," Jean-Huber Martin said at the opening.

The curator’s manifesto also explained that the show intentionally lacked a specific artistic theme, but “in the name of free creation, was meant to become a global art panorama.” Natalia Kolodzei, the executive director of the United States based Kolodzei Art Foundation, a curator and art historian specializing in art from Russia and the former Soviet Union, believes that the exhibition title “has a special resonance in Russia, with its cultural history that often picked and chose memories to suit the current political mood. The exhibit also gives the younger generation of artists an opportunity to explore beyond the predominance of single Western aesthetics,” she said.

Such marquee artists like India's Anish Kapoor and Anita Dube, Australia's Erwin Wurm, Switzerland's Roman Singer, British sculptor Tony Cragg, performance artist Marina Abramovic and Brazilian-born Vik Muniz are joined by newcomers from the East, artists from African villages and Afghan carpet weavers. The broad representation of international participants has not prevented Martin from inviting 12 Russian artists to take part in the main exhibition.

Some of them, like Valery Koshlyakov, Ivan Chuikov, Yuri Albert and Dmitry Gutov, associated with or influenced by second-generation Moscow Conceptualism, have been part of the global art scene for quite some time. But others, the curator believes, need to be better known on an international scale. The program includes over 40 special projects and seven special guest shows. The total exhibition area exceeds 10,000 square meters. “The previous Biennales also brought big names and interesting artists to Moscow. But this is the first exposition of such diversity and scale under a single curatorial vision to have made its way to Russia in recent times. This exhibition is extremely valuable because it speaks the language of art and vividly shows the contemporary art process,” said Olesya Turkina, a senior research fellow at the Department of Contemporary Art of the State Russian Museum.

Much of the expansive guest program and special projects, mostly planned by Joseph Backstein, the Biennale’s commissioner, are no less engaging that the main show. The viewer’s preference is the main criteria when choosing the world of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans at Red October, with a show of paintings based on images from surveillance, or the exhibition the "New Old Cold War" exploring the Cold War phenomenon and featuring artists from the former Soviet-bloc countries. Kolodzei believes that the other highlights of the program are “exhibitions of Joep van Lieshout and Alexander Brodsky at the Winzavod Art Center, Not Toys at the Tretyakov Gallery, Olga Chernysheva at Baibakov Art Projects, the second floor of Oleg Kulik’s Spatial Liturgy at the TsUM department store, and Russian Povera at Red October.”

The Biennale’s team also provided opportunities for projects from the Russian regions to be shown (“Kudumkar, Locomotive of the Future” at the Proun Gallery and a special project from the Urals, “Mars Field” at M’ARC), which is crucially important for encouraging cultural dialogue inside the country. Up until the past two to three years, Russia has been a desert in terms of contemporary art, except for Moscow and St. Petersburg, and it still has a long way to go. Young artists, such as Tatyana Ahmetgalieva, exhibiting at the Start gallery, or the solo installation “I Am” by Irina Steinberg, at Winzavod, have also found their place within the Biennale, and have already attracted the attention of gallery owners and critics.

The future of contemporary art in Russia depends on too many factors not limited to the success of this year’s Moscow Biennale. Turkina is fully convinced that “such events draw public attention and instigate the interest of the general public in contemporary art; their educational significance can not be underestimated. But in the long term perspective Russia needs more grants, more awards and cultural institutions supporting artists and the creative process. Otherwise contemporary art will still remain a stepson in our culture,” she said.

Since 2007, when the second Moscow Biennale was held, interest in contemporary art in Russia has grown apace. Finally, with at least three new exhibition spaces, the Russian capital became ready to host large-scale international projects. Financial support from the Ministry of Culture and the Moscow government also allowed the Moscow Biennale’s team to take the event up to a new level. The artists themselves, curators and critics see a great potential for it. “The Moscow Biennale is still young and has yet to have a large following outside of Russian art circles, but we already see that it is becoming a desirable destination on the international art circuit. I do believe that it will continue to expand its importance in the world art scene,” Kolodzei said. Most exhibitions of the Moscow Biennale run until October 25, but two more internationally recognized contemporary artists, France's Bertrand Lavier and British sculptor Antony Gormley, will visit Moscow later this year.
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