Weaving between the legs of a colossal metal spider, a crowd descended on the Garage Center for Contemporary Art. A private opening for “Structures of Existence: The Cells,” a stunning Louise Bourgeois survey, was unfolding inside. The guests—from the chic young women wearing cocktail dresses and vibrant sneakers to the tony older set sipping champagne—could have been anywhere: in Bilbao, where the exhibition will travel in March, or in Denmark, where it will reappear next October.
But this was Moscow, a city that for many Americans conjures images of cold-blooded, caviar-guzzling oligarchs, gun-toting gangsters, and grim Stalinist apartment blocks.
“It’s so cosmopolitan. I wasn’t really expecting that I guess,” said Philip Larratt-Smith, a New York-based curator, scanning the surprisingly familiar scene. “It’s like every airport has the same duty free.”
And yet, two weeks in Moscow and the art world interloper marshals more and more evidence that she’s not in Venice anymore. There are the Stalin impersonators, for one. Posing for tourists near Red Square, they’re a startling sight (it’s hard to image men with small black mustaches pulling off the same gig in Berlin), signs of the city’s complicated relationship with its past.
You’d be surprised how many people here remember Stalin fondly, said a foreign correspondent friend, and how much faith they place in Putin and his foreign policy. “It’s a battle between the television and the refrigerator,” he continued, evoking a Russian idiom to describe the competition between propaganda and hard economic reality. “Right now the television is winning, but in the end, it’s always the refrigerator.”
The sixth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, which ran from September 22 through October 1, was staged in a Stalinist temple consecrated to the history of the Soviet Union—a once blaring television. The surrounding park, VDNKh, was a former fairground celebrating every branch of Soviet industry and agriculture, from cosmonautics to corn. The pavilions now share the skyline with an enormous neon Ferris wheel, their dignity slightly undercut by a new amusement park. Some have even become boutiques.
The biennale’s visitors approached the central pavilion like ants inching toward a wedding cake, an extravagant architectural confection blending Neoclassical and Soviet ideas on how to impress. Towering white columns shoot up to a vast golden frieze depicting a hammer and sickle flanked by flags and spears. Above these, another tier of soaring columns support another golden frieze with another hammer and sickle, crowned in turn by a dramatic golden spire leading to a star. Subtlety was not a Soviet priority.
Inside, the imposing building was stripped of all pomp. Scaffolding rigged with lights and wires covered the scuffed plaster walls and plywood masked the floors. The few pieces of physical art—including a site-specific painting by Luc Tuymans and a photograph by Isa Genzken—looked as though they’d been abandoned by former occupants in a rapid evacuation. The bathroom was in a nearby MacDonald’s. (“Just look for a big yellow M,” explained an earnest young staff member.) If the rawness of the biennale was jarring at times, the makeshift setup lent it a rare and compelling sense of urgency.
In fact, the curators had originally planned the exhibition for Manege, a magnificent former riding academy and infantry hall near the Kremlin, where the month-long 2013 edition took place. The collapse of the ruble, however, slashed the biennale’s budget from $2.5 million to $800,000, forcing the curators to whittle programming down to 10 days and focus on ephemeral projects, screenings and lectures. (Ironically, the same economic downturn has made it easier for young artists to live and work in Moscow. For the first time since the 1990s, squats have materialized in empty, elegant buildings in the city center.)
Much of the exhibition was devoted to performance art. Visitors wandered through the echoing rooms, flinching occasionally at what sounded like gunshots. (One piece, it turned out, involved the inflation and deafening destruction of white balloons.)
There was a schedule of such events, but relying on it proved to be a rookie mistake. Take the performance by Taus Makhacheva involving acrobats and Social Realist paintings. It was slated for 5:30 p.m.
“It already happened,” said a dispassionate blond staff member at 5:15.
“But…it’s scheduled for 5:30.”
“It already happened,” she repeated firmly.
Surrendering any real expectations, I drifted through the post-apocalyptic space and settled on a block of gray foam. Some employees were scraping sticky tape residue off a wall incised with large, oval holes. Suddenly, arms and wooden instruments popped out of them and began playing. The string quartet, organized by Dutch artist Gabriel Lester, performed classical compositions for half an hour, and while the significance of concealing the players’ bodies remained somewhat elusive, the music imbued the cavernous space with warmth, even drowning out the cannonade of balloons.
Like the biennale’s main exhibition, certain satellite projects—including the Bourgeois survey at Garage—were not immune to the complications caused by Russia’s politics.
At the vernissage for “Structures of Existence,” Howard Read, whose gallery represents Bourgeois in New York, noted that the show had shrunk since it debuted at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Several lenders, he said, declined to send their works on to Moscow for “political reasons.”
“It had something to do with Russia or Putin, I don’t know what it was,” he said, “but the Pompidou declined, the Guggenheim declined, MoMA declined.”
Kate Fowle, the chief curator at Garage, cited less fraught motivations. Some of those institutions, she said, were simply reluctant to part with their works for more than a few months. Other museums, however, roundly refuse to send art to Russia. MoMA, she said, declined out of solidarity with those seeking the repatriation of sacred Jewish texts held in Moscow. (Because of that ongoing legal dispute, Russia has prohibited state museums from loaning work to the United States since 2011, and it has been reported that some American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have consequently cut off lending to Russia.)
“Because there’s a lot of Jewish supporters of someone like the Museum of Modern Art and they basically want this Jewish book, there has been a stand off between [museums] in loans,” Fowle said.
While MoMA declined to comment on this particular instance, a spokesperson said that it reviews all loan requests on a case-by-case basis.
The biennale tackled political discord head on. Operating under the unwieldy name “How to Gather? Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia,” the main exhibition defined itself as a “think tank” concerned with international relations. A few satellite shows, including “Another Part of the New World,” a group exhibition mostly of Spanish and Latin American artists at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, explicitly addressed the dangers of absolute power and the loss of cultural memory.
The biennale’s closing keynote speech came from Greece’s charismatic former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. A large, attentive audience crammed onto the plywood bleachers, perched on the scaffolding, and stood as he delivered a characteristic fireworks display of charm and cultural references, bouncing from Bertolt Brecht to Star Wars to “Hotel California.”
Varoufakis called for the arts to challenge the dissension wracking global politics, a topic haunted by the Syrian bombing campaign Putin launched the day before.
“Art and music are far from benign features that sit decoratively on top of civilization,” he declared, going on to paraphrase Picasso. “Painting is meant to act as a weapon against the enemy…the enemy not being other people, the enemy being discord.”
“You folks in here should be feared by the powerful in our society,” he continued. “If you’re not, you’re not doing your job properly.”
It was a familiar rallying cry, but one that overlooked the many masterpieces funded by monarchs and Medicis. Varoufakis qualified his point after the talk: “Yes, but you can’t be doing it for the money,” he said. “That is why Damien Hirst will never be a real artist. He would not know what an artist is if one hit him over the head with a blunt instrument.”