GES-2 Energizing the Russian Contemporary Art Scene
by Elena Rubinova
Report on the grand opening of GES-2, the second city electric station, and the new cultural venue in the heart of Moscow
It is not often that the opening of a cultural venue in Russia gets so much media attention and international coverage. But the recent grand opening of Moscow’s GES-2 (the Russian acronym for the second city electric station) – a huge, more than 375,000 square feet of art space – redesigned by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano and his bureau (RPBW), has not gone unnoticed by the key international media players. And it is easy to guess why. A project of this scale and ambition, just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin, was initially destined to create a revolution on the Russian art scene as well as to house the biggest international art names. It will not take a long time to see if the venue has become the capital’s contemporary art calling card: the first season (4 December – 13 March 2022) called Santa Barbara hosting impressive works by the Icelandic artist and curator Ragnar Kjartansson is already on. ‘Big’ politics also played its role: the long-awaited inauguration ceremony was attended by the Russian President, Moscow Mayor and the Novotek gas company CEO and project investor, Leonid Mikhelson. It took over six years to complete the project that started in 2014, and according to Leonid Mikhelson, who spoke to Artnewspaper shortly before the opening, the initial investment of 300 million dollars almost doubled over the years.
Built between 1904 and 1908, the magnificent historical power station is located on Red October, an island in the heart of the Russian capital that has been redeveloped into a cultural space for the new generations. The new venue is an inspiring example of gentrification with an emphasis on its technocratic character which does not suppress but creates a sense of emptiness that has a dual effect – on the one hand, providing some vastness to unrestricted creative fantasy, and on the other hand, leaving visitors to navigate in this Meta Universe themselves. We also see Renzo Piano’s seminal design style, known from the time when he rebuilt the Pompidou Center in Paris the 1970s. Akin to the famous museum in the French capital, the former technical elements of GES-2 are shown in colour so that they stand out in the white-washed space: boilers, vents, pipes as well as the four brick chimneys replaced with the 70-metre high “Yves Klein" blue steel sustainable devices, activating natural ventilation and reducing energy consumption. However, the architect has kept many elements of the original building and even re-created some of them, such as a clock tower that was demolished in the Soviet era. The restoration also included redoing the roof with large glass panels and windows on all sides in order to flood the galleries with light, but also to give a sense of openness and accessibility.
Another important feature of Renzo Piano's approach is to embed his work in the context of a place. At GES-2, as homage to nature, a birch tree grove has been specially planted. Sonya Mezhericher, a young New York educated bilingual “mediator” and facilitator, who kindly toured me around the place, explained that several hundred birch trees were brought all the way from France and planted over the rooftop of the parking lot to create an “inner forest”. The connection with the Russian socio-cultural code can also be found in several other details: the theme of space and emptiness works here, and the white colour includes many associative rows – from snow to Malevich's Suprematism.
Birch Tree, Photo courtesy Nina Usova
The free admission venue is now a permanent home for the V-A-C Foundation founded in 2009 by Teresa Iarocci Mavica and backed by Leonid Mikhelson.
“Culture is the process of learning about the world around us, the world of other people, the world within oneself. In other words, culture is a means of direct communication between everyone and everyone, in the most diverse forms,” said Mikhelson in a statement, calling the GES-2 “a space of cultural communication open to all.”
The airy and full of light space of GES-2 looks like a gigantic laboratory where art is not only displayed ,but also created. This is Teresa Mavica’s core idea, drawing inspiration from the concept of the traditional Russian recreational centres that first came about in the late 19th century and were called ‘houses of culture’ back then. These cultural spaces were set out to encourage people to engage with the arts and actively participate in culture. In the early Soviet period, they were revived as palaces of culture. The aim of GES-2 is to be a House of Culture for everyone, a place where people want to spend time and come back to.
Apart from regular exhibition spaces, the vast interior includes multifunctional spaces such as an arts production centre with shops for working with wood, metal, ceramics and textiles, a section for children called the Atelier, a cinema house, a large library and book store, co-working spaces, audio and video studios and a 3D printing laboratory. Building ties with the community will certainly take time, but even the first season is meant to demonstrate this innovative approach to organizing art process.
One can see how the co-participation of performers and viewers works in the space of GES-2: the central event of the season is a project called “Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture” by the Icelandic multidisciplinary artist, Ragnar Kjartasson. American soap opera was hugely popular in Russia in the early 1990s. In an ironic re-staging the artist suggests we reflect on how and why cultural models that came from the West were given such a tumultuous welcome by the Russian public. Every day one episode is filmed in real time and in front of a real audience. The pavilions occupy almost the entire first level, and you can watch what is happening, both when passing by and when climbing up.
Most of the visitors I met are much younger than the TV series and prefer to take it as an entertainment rather than taking a second look at the reverberations of a TV saga. However, in parallel with the “Santa Barbara” re-shoot, the VAC curatorial team is launching a public programme dedicated to the major place of series in our time: experts from various fields of the humanities, curators and art critics will talk about the phenomenon of serial culture.
Santa Barbara re- shoot
Ragnar Kjartansson also curated the group exhibition titled “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!” where his own works are exhibited together with the works by fellow artists from different countries, including the only Russian artist, Olga Chernyshyova, whose black-and-white photographic series portrays bus drivers en-route to the Russian capital. The project title refers to the famous line from Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters, in which the three heroines repeated plea to leave for Moscow as a refrain. For generations it became a symbol of change and burning aspiration.
The exhibition features work by artists such as Theaster Gates, Jason Moran, Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, Dick Page, Elizabeth Peyton, Roni Horn, Carolee Schneemann and Unnar Örn to name a few.
Ragnar's own painting fills almost the entire wall from the first to the second floor. Each portrait depicts the same person: the artist Palla Haukur Björnsson in Speedo swim trunks, whom Kjartansson painted daily from life in the Icelandic pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in an attempt to combine performance art with real life. The viewer can see the real face of the model next to it in Björnsson's own video, Despair, which touches upon the relevance of time spent aimlessly.
Ragnar Kjartansson at the exhibition (Photo courtesy of Nikita Berezhnoy)
Artworks at the show
The current show includes many video artworks, but I found it impossible to skip one of them: the 2012 nine-channel video installation, The Visitors, by Ragnar Kjartansson, which was filmed at Rokeby Farm in upstate New York, a historical 19th-century house filled with a bohemian spirit. Inspired by its fantastic interior, Kjartansson invited his friends from the Icelandic music scene to collaborate and create a collective musical performance. The Guardian ranked this video first in their Best Art of the 21st Century list, with critic Adrian Searle calling it "a kind of extended farewell to romanticism". It is a contentious decision but The Visitors is certainly one of the most immersive and hypnotic video and sound art pieces I’ve ever seen.
The Visitors, 2012, by Ragnar Kjartansson,
Nine-channel video with sound, Music by David Por Jonsson and Ragnar Kjartansson
Collection of Migros Museum, Zurich
"When we believe" by American artist,Theater Gates, seeks to challenge the Western-centric ideology of Christianity and the relations between high and low.
Another project on view is called When Gondola Engines were Taken to Bits, a title that seems odd at first glance. It takes its title from a line in the song released on the eve of the millennium by the Russian music band, Mymui Troll. Harking back to the 1990s that were the time of re-discovery for Russians, it explores images and concepts of the carnival in Russian culture, especially its transformative and liberating power. Here, of course, Russian curators come on stage presenting different aspects of carnival culture – dressing up and self- expression through costume, mixing hi and low. The show includes handmade costumes floating on hangers from the ceiling and a photography series. The creators of new commissions consider carnival culture from today’s perspective. One of them is Ulyana Podkorytova with her multi-part project, “Tamotka”, that takes inspiration in the folklore traditions of the Russian North. The main character is dressed in wooden armour reminiscent of ancient Russian architecture. The plot of performance and video is inspired by the folk tales of the region where traditions remain strong.
Costumes from the video Tamotka, 2021, Textile, wood and fishing line
Tamotka , 2021, by Ulyana Podkorytova, Video commissioned by V-A-C Foundation
The co-founder and director of the V-A-C Foundation Teresa Mavica emphasized many times that GES2 is neither a museum (though it could easily become one, since the Foundation built a rich collection of contemporary art over the years), nor a Kunsthalle aimed mainly at the exhibition activity. Diversity and openness are key to the new venue operation mode. The December schedule looks really packed: next weekend there will be a pop-up vintage clothing show and store, a stand-up comedy night, and the start of a cinema program called "Time Machine 1986-2000" showing films from Russia and other countries. And this is just a fragment of a much broader picture - the cultural program of GES-2 is planned for five years ahead; today even many museums cannot afford it. We can hardly predict whether GES 2 can really give a new impulse to Russian contemporary art, but one thing is almost certain – the "House of Culture" has all chances to become a must-stop venue for any visitor to the Russian capital.
(All photos and videos are courtesy of Elena Rubinova unless mentioned otherwise.)
Elena Rubinova is a Moscow-based art journalist working across media, professional philologist, teacher, and translator. She started her career as an English language teacher before joining ABC News as a translator and producer. She has produced documentaries for BBC, National Geographic, Arte, Discovery Channel to name a few, including the three-part series The Art of Russia (BBC2, 2009). She has been a regular contributing writer for Russian magazines and on-line media such as ArtandYou, Artguide, Dialogue of Arts, International Life, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russia Profile, Passport Moscow.