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Analysis & Opinion
10.02.11 My School, Art School
By Elena Rubinova

For the last two weeks of January one of Russia’s secondary schools, located in a residential area in southwestern Moscow, was turned into an exhibition venue showcasing works by 58 young and established artists. The project, called "Residential District. School ?109. An Open Lesson” was implemented by Moscow artist and gallery owner Marina Zvyagintseva in collaboration with Yuri Samodurov, a curator at the National Center for Contemporary Arts (NCCA).

Public art was institutionalized the world over in the 1960s and 1970s, but some 30 years ago, even in most Western countries, modern art in public spaces was seen as a provocation or a necessary step to integrate new art into the quickly moving reality. Displaying art in public areas is now seen as an especially effective means of increasing people's awareness of contemporary art. In many European cities, be it Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels or even somewhere like provincial Strasbourg, the public space is so saturated with modern art that the question of whether art invades territories other than museums or galleries is no longer relevant.

Until very recently, the art scene in Russia existed mostly separately from society. The channels of communication were fragmented and obeyed the strict canons inherited from the late Soviet years, with a clear distinction between official and underground, nonconformist art. The showcasing of contemporary art objects in public places spurred heated debate in society, and this art still has a ways to go before it conquers both physical spaces and the people’s minds.

But there were several breakthroughs in the past few years. Artist and curator Marina Zvyagintseva, who lives in one of the residential districts on the outskirts of Moscow, is famous for her call upon the “genius loci.” In 2009, within the framework of the 3D Moscow Art Biennale, she successfully implemented an interactive open-air installation project aimed at bringing art to the people and developing street spaces, though with a focus on the outskirts. Over 70 contemporary Russian artists were invited to participate, and each produced a unique art object out of an ordinary iron bed. The exhibition "Residential District. School ?109. An Open Lesson” has become another milestone on the way of culture coming closer to society.

“Would you like to know why our school, as an educational institution, agreed to such a project?” asked Eugen? Yamburg, the principal of school ?109 famous for his liberal views, at the opening of the exhibition. “It’s our attempt to broaden the consciousness of schoolchildren. Real modernity and an open dialogue with the world are impossible without contemporary art.” Marina Zvyaginstseva, a big advocate of public art principles, supports this claim. This is her third project of this kind, and speaking at the “Contemporary Art and the School” roundtable she emphasized that “art is an institution that transfigures the mental landscape wherever it crosses reality. Modern art has many connotations, but the ability to read and understand them comes gradually. This is what we want children to experience during the project.”

Almost 200 exhibits presented a wide range of contemporary art, with an emphasis on sculpture, installation and video. Thanks to the curator’s effort, the project fit into the school context organically. Some of the objects were commissioned for the exhibition, others were displayed in compliance with the contextual principle of public art. Remarkably, children of all ages continued going to class on the premises that were fully transformed into an art installation.

Furthermore, the exhibition became a workshop on contemporary art for students, teachers, parents and art lovers. It fully achieved the main goal set by the project’s curators: to provoke inventive cultural activity among the youth that is yet to discover modern art. Some high school students worked as guides, taking numerous visitors on tour and sharing their own newly acquired perceptions of contemporary art.

The visitors delved into the art world right in the school yard, where wooden sculptures, called "Rooks" by Nicholas Polissky, were placed in the snow as if they were guarding the nearby monument to the Russian singing poet Bulat Okudjava. An enormous diary made of concrete by Marina Zvyagintseva was installed right at the entrance to the building, followed by her gigantic work called “A Puzzle” that all children were able to play with in the hall. Inside the school cloakroom, Alexander Brodsky, an internationally renowned Russian architect and one of the leaders of the "paper architecture" movement of the 1980s, created an image of the “home, sweet home” that one would want to return to.

On the opening day the cafeteria became the setting for a performance called “School Breakfast” by Masha Chuikova. Together with the students she worked on creating real sculptures by turning ordinary food into art objects. The library hosted sculptures by Leonid Sokov titled "Stalin," and a project called the "Gloomy Picture of the Gulag" by Lyudmila Vasilovskaya and Anna Redkino. Many other well-established artists like Anne Brochet, the group Blue Noses and Leonid Tishkov took part in the exhibition. "I would hardly say that half of the projects represented here are a big art revelation. They are site-specific and locally responsive, with a plain reflective message,” said artist Mikhail Kosolapov of ABC group, also a contributor to the exhibition. “But the social importance of the project can’t be underestimated. This event can lead to many changes in the future."
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