The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art’s opened its new home in Moscow last week, first to a large envoy of international press and VIPs, and then, come Friday, to the public, who waited calmly in a line that stretched around the shimmering Rem Koolhaas–renovated building into the expanses of Gorky Park. Admission was free that day, though you had the feeling that people would have lined up anyway.
The building attempted to replicate the social and spatial generosity of its Soviet heyday, when it was a restaurant designed to seat 1,200 people. Koolhaas first encountered a ruin—overgrown with foliage and obscured with graffiti. Instead of razing the building, he and his firm OMA restored its two stories, the first of which had an open-air floor plan. They then wrapped both layers in a translucent polycarbonate facade that seals the museum off from the park, save for a ribbon of glass here and there, and a dramatic 30-foot-long door that can be raised or lowered about as easily as the garage door on a suburban home. The idea was that this door would both activate the space with a strong Brutalist axis while maintaining a porous boundary between the museum, the park, and the people of Moscow.
Once inside the 58,000-square-foot space, you first encounter two monumental paintings that read Come to Garage! in Russian. The works, by Erik Bulatov, were commissioned for the opening and are two of the largest done in Russia in a century. Past them, however, one sees what will surely be the institution’s defining installation: a Soviet mosaic showing a woman floating up into a fractured sky. It is damaged yet radiant, a testament to the twentieth century’s dashed utopia.
From that center atrium, one could head left into “The Family Tree of Russian Contemporary Art,” an exhibition organized by Sasha Obukhova, who is in charge of the Garage’s 200,000-volume archive. By comparing notes left by artists and thinkers of the period, she hoped to create an exhaustive list of the Russian avant-garde since the Great Patriotic War—a difficult task, especially when one realizes that any documents that made their way through the Soviet tumult are now in private hands—hands wary to let them go, especially to a private museum bankrolled by one of new Russia’s most visible billionaires. For many, it’s all too easy to link the Garage to founder Dasha Zhukova, and then to her husband Roman Abramovich and then to either his Chelsea F.C. or his yacht Eclipse, both of which were quite expensive. Hopefully, programs like the archive and Garage Teens Team, which teaches local students museum and curatorial methodologies, will do much to correct this myopic line of thought.
The second floor hosts the bulk of the exhibitions. For the opening, there seemed to be a decisive move toward the interactive and the didactic—works that don’t fit into the matrix of object ownership that defines the art market. (Art Basel, it is perhaps worth mentioning, opened the following week, and many were heading straight to the Swiss city from Moscow.)
To present the museum as a place for public leisure—after all, it is in a park mainly known for its carousels and paddleboats—Rirkrit Tiravanija installed 15 ping-pong tables for public use. As the balls cascaded down the steps to the ground floor, guests ate freshly cooked pelminis (Russian dumplings with cream sauce), and balled Tiravanija’s silk-screened t-shirts into their tote bags. Or, they stood in line for not one but two Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms. Kusama’s immersive environments, which use mirrors and twinkling lights dangling from thin cords, have been a hit on both sides of the Urals. Yet within the historical and curatorial context of the Museum’s opening, her inclusion was a flash in the pan. That said, Kusama hinted at the possibility of artists taking on more interesting projects outside the museum walls by wrapping nearby trees with red and white fabric.
Located on the other side of the second floor, a spate of exhibitions represent the ongoing Garage Field Research program—a platform for artists examining obscure or forgotten aspects of Russian culture. For one exhibition, Anton Vidokle looks at the 19th-century Russian philosophy of Cosmism, which he unpacks through his film This is Cosmos! and a wall of original drawings he hung from the period. Then there is “Face to Face: The American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959/2015,” an exhibition à clef centered around a Cold War–era show of American art and pop culture held in Moscow, and the effects it had on Soviet life. With today’s rising tensions between Moscow and Washington, this exhibition couldn’t be more timely. The Field Research program, which dovetails with the Garage’s education and archival departments, doesn’t just underscore the necessity of this museum, it sets it apart from other private institutions around the globe.
Some things don’t change, but others do. Gorky Park, for instance, has seen days of imperial grandeur, the utopian spirit of Soviet Sundays; and then, after the dissolution of the USSR, a swift decline into blight. But you wouldn’t know it today. Upon leaving the OMA building, it’s a quick, pleasant walk to the Shigeru Ban Pavilion, the Museum’s home for the past three years. Inside is Katharina Grosse’s Yes No Why Later, one of her wild painting installations that stretches from wall to wall. The German artist, who famously uses a spraygun to extend her painterly gesture to an architectural scale, has included three trees—roots and all—atop an uneven surface of canvas and dirt to blur the distinction between museum and park. The effect is quite sublime, though curators caution against wearing heels while traversing its craggy peaks. In September, Grosse’s show will go down, and the pavilion’s cardboard columns will begin to disintegrate.
Back in the OMA building, as well as off-site, the most audacious and poetic project of the bunch is still underway. Taryn Simon worked with ROSATOM, a state-owned nuclear energy company, to vitrify a cube of nuclear waste, the dimensions of which match Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square, exhibited a century earlier. When the cube is no longer radioactive, it will be presented in a waiting nook on the first floor of the Garage. This will occur in 3015. The building might not be around, but the cube will. In a society as tumultuous as this, there’s something stirring about the institutional long game. Here’s hoping the Garage door is still open.