One of the few overt signs of social turmoil in “More Light,” the main exhibition of the fifth Moscow Biennale, was contained neatly on a shelf near the show’s entrance. For Protest (2012), Irish artist Tom Molloy created a miniaturized mob from hundreds of black-and-white photographs of demonstrators at political rallies. A sign-waving individual had been carefully cut out from each image and folded to stand upright, pop-up-book style. Tea Partiers and fanatical homophobes joined Occupy Wall Street supporters and peace activists in a chorus of contradictory agendas; each message was neutralized within a gray spectrum of visual noise.
Staged in the Moscow Manege, a 19th-century building in the shadow of the Kremlin, “More Light” was, overall, anything but noisy. Amid scattered (and unsuccessful) calls by foreign artists for a boycott of the biennial to protest Russia’s draconian laws targeting its LGBT community, curator Catherine de Zegher created a visually unified space of quiet contemplation. In contrast to the recent biennials in Istanbul and Porto Alegre, “More Light” was remarkably devoid of anything that could be considered an explicit provocation, save for such expressions of unrest as those rendered with Molloy’s aloof skepticism. While many of the local art galleries hosting satellite biennale programs were forced to announce potentially offensive content with prominently displayed “18+” warnings, the main exhibition, which included work by 72 artists and collectives from more than 40 countries, felt appropriate for all ages: heavy on puppetry and fiber art, and punctuated seemingly at every turn by whimsical wall drawings of zeppelins, butterflies or bicycles by the trio of Andrea Bianconi, Ricardo Lanzarini and Mark Licari.
Invoking Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, the curatorial literature cast the exhibition’s tranquil “space-time” as a subtle critique, a stance against a frenzied world sped up by “harmful technology” and rendered placeless by the homogenizing forces of global capitalism. These are, of course, familiar complaints, but also strange ones to offer at an event so embedded within the international art market and its attendant swarm of curators, artists, writers and collectors.
Perhaps as a nod to local context, imagery evoking the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde was prevalent, if purged of any hint of radical utopianism. With Chariot (2013), Russian artist Valery Koshlyakov re-created a chariot prop from the 1913 opera Victory over the Sun. The exuberance and earnestness of the original Futurist spectacle was undercut by Koshlyakov’s ramshackle cardboard-and-Styrofoam construction. Alexander Brodsky, a Russian architect, similarly imagined an entrance to the Moscow subway—once a proud monument to the Soviet public—as a dilapidated wooden shack marked by a neon “M” and surrounded by a sea of crumpled silver foil.
If the politicized utopias of earlier generations had (apparently) failed, “More Light” was content to offer something like a retreat from the dehumanizing forces of contemporary existence. The exhibition’s prevailing vision was that of a simple life grounded in nature, community and spirituality. Among the awe-inspiring depictions of pristine forest landscapes was Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation Horizontal (2011), a massive six-channel projection of a giant fir tree oriented horizontally and gently swaying in a breeze. Ritual time pervaded several works, including Laroussa (2011), a video by Tunisian duo Selma and Sofiane Ouissi depicting choreographed hand movements they observed in a remote North African village.
Even the exhibition’s grandest gestures were rendered in a minor key. The Chinese artist Song Dong’s Waste Not (2005) presented the entire contents of his mother’s Beijing home. The clothing, furniture and household goods—all arranged in tidy grids—suggested less a pathological case of hoarding than a kind of monument to the security offered by material acquisition for a family that persevered through the Cultural Revolution and Beijing’s tumultuous urban growth.
To be sure, there can be strength in the simple and seemingly naive. Vyacheslav Akhunov’s Sowing Document: Garment Pattern (1975) is an actual tailor’s book in which the Soviet artist inscribed Marxist-Leninist propaganda, re-presenting the state’s grand ideological statements as ornamental embroidery. Using supposedly playful forms can also provide cover for subversive content. Masasit Mati’s video Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator (2013) parodied the brutality of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime using finger puppets to stage scenes of torture. But too often, “More Light” erred toward the trite, precious or sentimental, as in work by David Claerbout, Erin Manning and N.S. Harsha. It is certainly laudable, as de Zegher insists, to slow down the process of looking at art. But it is also important to maintain the sense of urgency, often missing in “More Light,” that makes looking at art so necessary in the first place.