Thin Red Line for Russian Artists and Stop-Gap Policy for Museums
by Elena Rubinova
In less than three months the wave of international sanctions against Russia has radically changed both the museum environment and the contemporary art scene
The statue by Urs Fisher on Bolotnaya Embankment in Moscow
When the sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, called Big Clay #4, was installed in Moscow last summer, it was meant to be something of a curtain-raiser for the new House of Culture (GES-2), one of the V-A-C Foundation flagship projects. Big Clay #4 was not going to be a permanent fixture of Moscow, but just the first one in a row of temporary art objects in that spot. Now this is highly unlikely – after 24 February the V-A-C had little or no choice but to suspend its international projects. The sculpture still stays on the Bolotnaya Embankment as a metaphor for artistic creativity. And as a symbol of recent times when Moscow’s thriving cultural and art scene attracted many visitors.
Shortly after the military campaign, Italian curator Francesco Manacorda announced his resignation as Artistic Director. The Venetian V-A-C space, Palazzo Zattere, also stopped all activities saying, “It is impossible to continue holding exhibitions and running public programmes in the context of the unfolding tragedy.” The famous Icelandic artist and performer Ragnar Kjartansson, whose theatrical piece ‘Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture’ inaugurated the much-anticipated GES-2 opening in December 2021, also quickly distanced himself from the venue, symbolically located just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The V-A-C Foundation founder Leonid Mikhelson, the Novotek company CEO, the largest non-state-owned natural gas company in Russia, is currently under sanctions like many other representatives of the Russian business elite. Foreign artists whose works had been on display at GES-2 were followed by some Russian contributors like Evgeny Antufiev, who asked for his works to be removed from GES-2. AES+F, the video art collective, formerly based in Moscow has also halted all projects in Russia “until this regime is no longer in power”.
Moscow GES-2 stays open as a community cultural hub and an innovative space for various events, but the empty walls speak about the changes better than words.
(Photo courtesy of N. Usova)
Throughout April and May, the House of Culture presented a new music project ‘Tuning’ that explored the interrelation of music and architecture. Through audio installations and concerts the audience was able to experience the medieval and romantic music coupled with pieces of contemporary composers. Recently, the Canzoni of the Venetian composer and chief organist of St. Mark’s Basilica Giovanni Gabrieli sounded out alongside works by the young Russian composers, Svetlichny and Filanovsky. The former V-A-C staff continues to grapple with the demise of the ambitious project that was meant to turn it into the capital’s contemporary art calling card for international art exchange. For now, it is obviously a matter of the past.
Video _ music project or stills
The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was the first museum to announce that it had stopped work on new international exhibitions, the closest of which were scheduled for March and April. “We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place,” the official museum statement said. Since February 26 “normality” has not been back with most of the curatorial staff having left the country. However, the Garage continues its archival projects and operates as an educational centre offering screenings and workshops.
“The scientific department and library stay open for researchers interested in the art of the Soviet period and Russian contemporary art. Our main project – the Russian Art Archive Network launched in 2017 continues and our regional partners recently came for the regular meeting of the Archive School. As for the rest, the Garage is in hiatus, and even our social media has not been updated since the end of February”, says Valery Ledenev, an art critic, researcher, and editor at the Garage Archive and Research Department.
While Ukrainian artists are sending a strong message through the Ukrainian presence at the 59th International Venice Biennale that had opened in the end of April, the Russian pavilion built in 1914 and one of the grandest in the Giardini, will remain empty in the coming weeks. Two Russian artists, Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, declared that they would not represent their country at the pavilion and pulled out; their Lithuanian-born curator Raimundas Malašauskas also resigned. Their decision was supported by many, including a Russian-born, now Berlin-based artist Vadim Zakharov, once the participant of the Biennale, who came to the Biennale opening and protested against the situation in a solo picket holding an 'anti-war' poster next to the empty pavilion.
Vadim Zakharov in a solo picket in front of the empty Russian pavilion in Venice
(Photo from the artist’s FB page)
The war of sanctions hit the museums – they have to frantically revise exhibition schedules and find alternative projects.
The State Hermitage was no exception when Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, has not publicly condemned the war. The western world has isolated the Hermitage Museum through cultural boycotts. Among the international institutions that have broken off its relationship with the museum include the Hermitage Foundation U.K., dedicated to funding and promoting the Hermitage through charities, the Hermitage Amsterdam, and the museum’s International Advisory Board comprising former and current museum directors.
Mikhail Piotrovsky at the opening of “Max Ernst. Paris Years” in June 2018
Mikhail Piotrovsky, whose new book release in London was also postponed, said that the museum will concentrate on expanding its international connections outside of Europe. The annual Hermitage Days will continue to be held in Russia, China, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
The State Tretyakov Gallery cancelled the retrospective of Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, which was supposed to run from April to August 2022. The heirs of Christian Boltansky, who was a descendent of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, have postponed the artist’s first-ever exhibition in Russia scheduled to open in April at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in St Petersburg. The international response is evident, but what is less obvious – yet equally important – is the internal censorship that came quite soon. The Tretyakov Gallery prematurely suspended Grisha Bruskin's exhibition symbolically titled “A Change of Decorations”. What was so special about the show that caused such an overreaction? Bruskin is one of the greatest living Russian-American artists with an international reputation – his art can be seen at MOMA in New York and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
(Photo courtesy of Ivan Novikov-Dvinsky, Tretyakov Gallery)
The installation at the Tretyakov gallery included a 2017 multimedia installation the artist had created for the Russian pavilion at the Venetian Biennale as well as other works from different periods. It was organized as a series of scenes in nine halls, like nine different stages that considered various aspects of political philosophy from the individual and authorities, collective and personal memory, and religious traditions and contemporary life. It is a “metaphor of the new world order” as the artist calls it, displaying blurred borders, migration and relations between a man and a state.
"For Bruskin time does not fall into separate categories like present, past or future - they all meet in one point, where a kind of paralysis occurs [. . .] It's emblematic that the exhibition is being shown on Krymsky Val, just steps away from the Museon Park, which has become an open-air museum of sculpture from the Soviet era. It is innate to Bruskin's art --- to be contemporary in any epoch," says Ksenia Vorotyntseva, a Moscow-based art critic who covered the exhibition. Apparently, she was not the only one for whom the show sounded too timely.
Sculptures from the Soviet era at Museon
According to the official version, the exhibition was closed for "technical reasons", but the ARTGUIDE magazine wrote, referring to its internal sources, the decision was made “over the complaints of the Ministry of Culture”.
Mystical Horseman, 2019. (From the author's collection)
What is even more surprising is that the information about the project was removed from the museum website, as if the exhibition had never taken place.
Interview: Ksenia Vorotyntseva
Camera: Sergei Petrov
It would be naïve to think that the international art market did not react to the unprecedented situation the world is going through – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams called off Russian art auctions almost immediately. The future of Cosmoscow, Russia’s leading international contemporary art fair, traditionally taking place in September (see reviews of Cosmoscow 2020 and Cosmoscow 2021 on artamour) is yet unclear. As the Russian troops approached Kyiv in early March, Simon Rees, since 2019 the artistic director at Cosmoscow, cut off ties with his institution. Cosmoscow did not openly condemn the Russian invasion but publicly acknowledged that “the human and political tragedy that is happening concerns absolutely everyone.”
While international players are making their moves, a clear signal was sent to the Russian gallerists and art dealers participating in the ART MOSCOW Fair that took place in the Gostinny Dvor in April – if you do not go along the line with the official stance, measures will be in place. Oleg Kulik, a popular Russian contemporary artist who has long made provocative art (his performances in which he acted like a dog and other animals brought him international acclaim back in the 1990s), is now facing a prison sentence over a 2018 expressionistic sculpture “Big Mother” he exhibited through Frolov Gallery.
(Photo: Open sources)
Following claims by Russian officials that the sculpture mocked the sacralized post WWII statue “Mother Russia Calling” in Volgograd, an investigation is now under way. The artist is accused of “rehabilitation of Nazis”, but Kulik denies any political motivation. He stated that his sculpture was not inspired by “Mother Russia Calling”, but by his separation from his wife. Interviewed by the Russian media, he contextualized the sculpture within his rather questionable theories on modern gender relations.
From media outlets, activists and journalists, to human rights champions and artists – dozens of people have been ensnared by Russia's law on foreign agents, which dates back to 2017. Since February, as Russia launched its systematic crackdown on opposition to date –- hundreds of thousands fled the country (sociologists estimate the figure as 300,000 over the past two months). Alongside other educated young Russians, hundreds of artists decided to leave the country. Among them is Victoria Lomasko, an internationally renowned graphic artist who documented protest movements for years expressed her 'anti-war' stance very clearly. She left Russia two-and-a-half months ago and is currently in Belgium with her striking new mural The Changing of Seasons.
“When we heard the news about the 'war', we immediately realized that it meant a total collapse of everything – it changed our lives and the life of the country for years to come, if not forever. It was hard and dangerous for me to work in Russia even before the war, but after the 'invasion' we observed a very fast transition to a real dictatorship. It was clear that my art was unimaginable there,” Victoria said, speaking to artamour. She is convinced that a personal choice comes before one's belonging to any nation. ”I now believe this even more strongly. Those who support Putin's regime and those who have the courage to oppose it create different universes,” she continues.
The first sketches for “The Changing of Seasons” were done way before the turning point of February; back in 2020 the production company Clin d’Oeil Films started to make a documentary about Victoria and agreed that the finishing scene would portray her painting a mural in Brussels.
(Photo courtesy of the artist Victoria Lomasko)
“When the 'war' started, I decided to keep the left side of the composition depicting the dictatorship in Russia, but changed the middle ground and the right side. The centre now depicts the war in Ukraine, Bucha. The right side represents my vision of a desirable future,” the artist explained. Her poignant and striking work was well-received at the presentation in Brussels on Difference Day (World Press Freedom) and is now travelling across the city to be shown at different venues.
Some other artists I’ve spoken to in the past two months feel angry and confused in the current maelstrom, while others have continued to protest against the war despite the risks. St Petersburg artist Alexandra Skochilenko was arrested for a daring performance in which she allegedly replaced supermarket labels with messages protesting against Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine. Skochilenko now faces up to 10 years in jail on charges of “discrediting” the Russian army. Following a Bansky-like strategy, a Moscow street artist, known as Zoom, has recently installed his work in central Moscow – the garbage cans with inscriptions “peace, culture, economy” to symbolize everything being turned into trash.
(Photo from the artist’s FB page)
The situation caught Mikhail Molochnikov, a graphic artist with a stunning imagination and filigree technique, in his studio in central Moscow. While many young artists were fleeing from the country, he was working on his “Alphabet” series creating images of the Armenian letters. He has been practising Tibetan Buddhism for years and in his works he repels the ideas of avant-garde combining them with Eastern Gnosticism and meditative practices. Unlike the younger generation of Russian artists, whose reaction to the ongoing events was instant and sharp, Molochnikov, now 59 and the father of three, is more restrained.
“As I am a Buddhist I take my art practice as a meditation and no matter what happens, I go on with my art trying to make the world better. Of course, as a human being I feel compassion toward all living creatures that are suffering, and not only humans. Also, I have another type of existential experience – we belong to the late Soviet generation of artists who saw censorship and know how to deal with it. In the 1980s we attended exhibitions that took place in private flats and lived quite an intensive art life that evolved independently from the official Soviet Art.” the artist explained, speaking to artamour. “Young artists whom we see leaving the country are too rooted in the material world and it’s hard for them to sustain. Unfortunately, many people, even those who are educated and considered to be intellectuals, feel confused or hugely influenced by propaganda clichés. We live in the epoch of transformation – whether we like it or not and those. But I’m sure we will live till better times – in a couple of years, for sure.”
Mikhail Molochnikov, from the Alphabet series. 2022
(Photo courtesy of the artist)
All stop-gap measures work for some time. However, it is not clear how the art world will exist without collaborative projects, traveling and joint exhibitions, not to mention scholarly and scientific collaboration. Ekaterina Kartseva, an art market expert, curator, and publisher, did a short survey in April, asking key Russian gallerists and dealers about the impact of the current political and economic situation on their business.
“In short, everyone agrees that the Russian art market will remain isolated for a long time, cut off from international art circulation and Western trends. At the same time, others hope that this isolation will become an impetus for a greater demand for Russian artists in the domestic market, and that the global upheaval, which has at all times been a significant impetus for the development of art, will lead to the emergence of new forms.”
We won't have to wait for too long to see it happening.
(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.