Provocateurs, Ghosts, Accomplices, and Starz

Whether the first Moscow Biennale accomplished its aims—to legitimize contemporary art in Russia and to thrust contemporary Russian art onto the international stage—is debatable, but it was certainly the most important art event in the city in many years.

Kulik’s photo of a dead Chechen terrorist, Madonna and Child (detail of Bus Stop), 2005, from “Russia 2.”


In the very center of Moscow, on Revolution Square, banners announcing the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art decorated the front of a Russian Revival–style brick building. The former Lenin Museum, closed in 1993, was about to reopen its doors.

Since the shrine to the first Soviet leader closed, the neighborhood around it has changed, as if time had gone backward. The Hotel Moscow, a Stalinist behemoth erected in 1935, has disappeared, reduced to a pit surrounded by a billboard fence. To the left of the museum, the 16th-century Resurrection Gate and the 17th-century Iberian Chapel, destroyed by the Bolshevik government to make room for parades and demonstrations, have reappeared, rebuilt in the 1990s.

Every Soviet schoolchild could recite a poem about the Lenin Museum, the “beautiful red building that looks like a palace,” where the “life of the great chief rises before our eyes.” The museum housed such curiosities as Lenin’s Rolls-Royce and his coat, pierced by the bullet of would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan. These memorabilia were sent to the nearby State Historical Museum; and the halls once filled with Lenin’s personal papers, photographs, and paintings reconstructing every moment of his life became home for a month (January 28–February 28) to the installations and video projections of contemporary artists.

Joseph Backstein, 59, the curator-coordinator of the Moscow Biennale, was a leading figure in the Soviet underground of the 1980s; today, he is an official, a deputy director of the ROSIZO State Museum and Exhibition Center. Backstein has organized shows in unusual spaces before. In 1988 he curated an exhibition-performance in a popular Moscow bathhouse, and in 1992 he presented contemporary art in the sinister Butyrka prison.

There isn’t a more symbolic place in Moscow for a contemporary-art biennale than the museum-shrine of Soviet ideology, but Backstein confessed that the choice of venue was based on chance. A few years ago, he and fellow organizers—art critic Viktor Misiano and ROSIZO head Yevgeny Zyablov—proposed the idea of a biennale to then–culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, who supported the idea. Then everything went wrong. The organizers fell out, and Misiano departed after an open exchange of emotional letters. In March of last year, the culture ministry was reorganized, and Shvydkoi was transferred to another job. Then the Manezh exhibition hall—the former Czarist riding school next to the Kremlin, which was to have housed the biennale—burned down on the eve of the Russian presidential elections. Backstein says he thought there was an evil spell on his project.

At this point, the Lenin Museum was suggested as a venue, but the status of the building was complicated, since the federal and city governments were arguing over its ownership. An agreement was finally struck. The federal government took the building, and the city received the empty Tsaritsyno palace instead, but officials of the State Historical Museum—which wanted to expand into the Lenin Museum—not only picketed the headquarters of the state-property commission but told the press that the Lenin shrine was too dilapidated to use for the biennale. In fact, they disapproved of the sacrilege about to be committed in its sacred halls.

Backstein was offered unsuitable space in the former All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievements, a once grand Stalinist complex far from the city center that has been partially transformed into a glitzy shopping mall. But he rebelled, arguing that one more change of venue would doom the biennale. He convinced officials that canceling the event would provoke an international scandal. Besides, he had already spent much of the allocated $2.5 million in federal funds. (Another $2.5 million came from the city.) There were few corporate sponsors. Representatives of a number of eminent enterprises listened politely to Backstein’s plea, expressed doubts about the first biennale, and said, “Maybe we’ll support the second one.”

By the time permission to use the Lenin Museum came through, Backstein had less than a month to prepare the building before the opening. Considering how little time was available to transport and install the works of 41 artists from 22 countries, he decided to follow the example of Peter the Great and call on Western labor. He invited Alexander Godschalk, a Dutch art coordinator with experience in international shows.

Godschalk says that installing an exhibition in Moscow was no different from doing it in any other city, although there were problems. One installation got lost in Helsinki and turned up two weeks late. A Dutch worker disappeared and was found by police in the snow beside the beltway in an intoxicated state, stripped of his passport, cash, and video camera.

There were other problems. Backstein wanted to set up installations in the Sparrow Hills (formerly Lenin Hills) metro station. One of them, a sound installation by American artist Trisha Donnelly, featured howling wolves. “I’ll never forget the expression on the face of the deputy director of the Moscow metro when I tried to explain to him why we would need to have the sound of wolves howling in the station,” Backstein says. In the end, only video was permitted there.

The works were selected by an international curatorial group consisting of Daniel Birnbaum (Sweden/Germany), Iara Boubnova (Bulgaria), Nicolas Bourriaud (France), Rosa Martí­nez (Spain), and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Switzerland/France). Their participation was crucial to Backstein. “I had two objectives,” he says. “To legitimize contemporary art in Russia and to legitimize Russian art in the international context.”

Some of the invited international stars—Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst—didn’t materialize, but last year’s Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller, was there with his 2003 video Memory Bucket, about a journey across Texas, with stops at the site of the Branch Davidian seige in Waco, and in Crawford, outside President Bush’s ranch. The presence of a Western artist who makes overtly political work struck Russians as ironic, since the Russian government had imposed restrictions on the art that would be allowed. Backstein was ordered to keep out any criticism of President Putin or the Russian Orthodox Church, or any mention of the war in Chechnya. Thus, political messages were indirect. The young Russian artist David Ter-Oganyan, for example, exhibited a Coca-Cola can wrapped in duct tape with an attached timer and a label reading “This is not a bomb.”

The Lenin Museum location inevitably provoked artists to make references to the former Bolshevik leader. The Blue Noses group from Novosibirsk contributed an installation consisting of video clips projected into open cardboard boxes, in one of which viewers saw the interior of the Lenin Mausoleum where the mummified leader coughed and tossed and turned. But the champion of sacrilege was the Vienna-based Gelatin group, whose photomontage depicted two lines—one of people waiting to pay their respects to Lenin lying in state in 1924 and the other of people waiting to enter the Lenin Mausoleum in the 1970s. In the photomontage, the lines of people merged, not to see Lenin, but to use a public toilet. A wood privy was constructed nearby, part of it extending out the window, and visitors were invited to take part in an act of collective creativity, producing an impressi
ve stalactite of frozen urine that hung over the museum yard.

It was Backstein, however, who created the most eloquent work about Lenin. In the museum’s great hall, he projected a film made by the famous Soviet director Mikhail Romm in the 1930s. On the wall of the huge dark room, the ghostly Great Bolshevik was summoned up, returned for a few minutes to his former shrine.

Altogether, more than 50 exhibitions filled the city in venues that included the Central House of Artists, the New Tretyakov Gallery, the Moscow House of Photography, and dozens of other museums, private galleries, and even artists’ studios and apartments, where the Soviet tradition of apartment exhibitions was re-created. Among the highlights were Christian Boltanski’s installation Odessa’s Ghosts, which draws on stories about the family of Boltanski’s father, exhibited in a ruined 17th-century building belonging to the Shchusev Museum of Architecture; “Invasion,” a program organized by Olga Sviblova, which included a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition and videos by the Israeli artist Michal Rovner; and Bill Viola’s video-sound installation Greeting, based on Pontormo’s The Visitationand appropriately shown in the more conventional setting of the Pushkin Museum.

Only six Russian artists were included in the biennale proper, but parallel events focused on the national art scene. Critic and curator Viktor Erofeev organized “Accomplices,” a fine, academic exhibition devoted to collective and interactive projects in Russian art from the 1960s to the present. A less modest effort, “Starz,” filled the private Museum of Modern Art belonging to sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. This show was supposed to encompass the Russian mainstream: four floors were divided among Vlad Mamyshev-Monro, a well-known artist-transvestite from St. Petersburg, who exhibited photos of himself impersonating historical figures; the AES+F group, showing huge, computer-generated, color photomontages of solemn children wearing white underwear; Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky, whose oversize paintings mock Socialist Realism; and the provocateur Oleg Kulik, whose most recent work is a naturalistic wax statue of Leo Tolstoy writing at a desk while a cageful of (real) chickens suspended overhead defecates on his head.

“Starz” may have been sensational, but it wasn’t risky. Moscow art dealer and political personality Marat Guelman was the risk taker, with an impressive exhibition called “Russia 2,” which featured all the subjects banned in the biennale. According to Guelman, the show was an attempt to create an alternative culture. “Putin’s Russia is a country of borders, nationalism, and religious ideology,” he said. “‘Russia 2’ is about art and private space. The main topic of the exhibition is freedom.”

“Russia 2,” installed in the Central House of Artists, featured such works as Avdei Ter-Oganyan’s critical commentaries on the conflict between contemporary art and the Orthodox Church, including an abstract canvas with the caption “This work was created to kindle religious animosity.” The artist (father of David) was not present; he fled the country in 1999, after being charged with blasphemy, and was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. AES+F and Kulik appeared here not as representatives of the Moscow mainstream but as politically engaged artists. Kulik’s photo of a dead Chechen woman girdled with explosives, propped up against a crumbling statue, was shown at the bus stop in front of the building.

“Russia 2” reminded some observers of the days of dissident art. It provoked a huge scandal. A group of Orthodox activists filed a complaint with the Moscow district court against both Guelman and Shvydkoi, who had nothing to do with the exhibition. They demanded an investigation of the activities of the organizers, who, the Orthodox group asserted, had wounded the religious feelings of believers. They particularly objected to Gor Chakhal’s painting The Sun of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which they claimed depicted Christ being burned, and Marina Koldobskaya’s video installation All That You Need, in which ads played on a TV screen whose edges were masked so that it had the outline of Christ’s face (based on a famous icon and instantly recognizable to Russians). The group’s letter to the Duma led to an inspection of the exhibition by a special commission headed by conservative member of Parliament Alexander Chuyev. As ARTnewswent to press, investigators from the state prosecutor’s office were interviewing artists who participated in the exhibition.

At the same time, the anti-Putin tone of the show aroused suspicion among the Moscow intelligentsia. Not long ago, Guelman was an active supporter of Putin, holding the post of deputy director of Russian State Television and participating in the president’s reelection campaign. Guelman says that times have changed. “Politics is dead in Russia. Politics is acts, but only Putin is allowed to act. Everyone else is free to make gestures.” People are angry about “Russia 2,” he claims, “because they can’t see the difference between gestures and acts anymore.”

Alexander Borovsky, head of the department of new trends at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, commented, “I’m becoming nostalgic for the naïve, postperestroika epoch of Russian contemporary art. It seems that today, its identity is divided between slick art for young Russian millionaires, like the works exhibited in the Tsereteli Museum, and the art of political provocation produced by Guelman.”

It’s not clear if Backstein achieved his goals, but visitors, Russian and Western, agreed that the biennale was the most important event in Russian art of the past ten years. And it seems that legitimization of contemporary art was at least partially achieved. In February Tsereteli, who is president of the Russian Academy of Art, awarded gold medals to the biennale organizers, as well as to the artists who participated in the exhibition “Starz,” in his private museum. None declined the award. Only one—Kulik—missed the presentation ceremony, his excuse being that he had to go to Mongolia to work en plein air.

Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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