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  • “Imitation” democracies produce “imitation” art
    June 28, 2005
    By Viktor Misiano

    Alexi Kallima's Metamorphoses,2005 was on show in the first Moscow Blennale.

    From Editorial and Commentary:

    Sotheby’s April sale of Russian paintings and works of art made history as the highest grossing sale of Russian art ever (see p.58). Russia’s growing number of new rich, whose income has soared with the high prices for natural resources such as oil and metals, is driving a boom in sales of traditional Russian paintings and works of art, but what of the contemporary art scene in Russia?

    The most accurate definition of Russia’s political system in the post-Soviet era was coined by the Russian sociologist Mikhail Furman who described it as an “imitational” democracy. He perfectly characterised the current situation, where rulers appear to be democratically elected but are, in fact, highly autocratic. As a corollary, authorities are trying to develop the art world in Russia as a superficial imitation of a Western model, what can only be described as an advertising display designed to attract foreign visitors, but without giving real freedom to curators and artists. Because substance is less important than surface to them, there is still no coherent cultural policy in Russia. The government is unwilling to fund artists’ projects, travel or residencies, which would go some way toward providing the intellectual infrastructure that exists in the West and in many Eastern countries. Russia’s art schools are teaching the same stuff they were teaching 15 years ago—and museums are still waiting to be reformed. There is not yet an adequate network of independent curators, critics and journalists to sustain the Russian art world. There are very few contemporary art books published in Russia; only 10 books on contemporary art that can be described as adhering to professional standards have been published over the past decade, almost all of which were sponsored by Western foundations.

    At the same time, there is a certain vitality in the Russian art market at the moment—a group of five galleries opened in Moscow after the fall of Communism and have survived despite all the upheavals of the 90s, and now they are being joined by newcomers (see p.56). It is thanks to these private galleries that Ilya Kabakov’s recent show was organised at the Hermitage. Furthermore, a group of contemporary art collectors have just formed an association and are running a non-profit exhibition space in Moscow. This is good news, but it is not enough to transform a country as enormous as Russia.

    We must not forget that most Russians were educated under Communism and the only art they are trained to understand is Socialist Realism. Popular taste is still typified by what could be described as “glamour trash”: appealing, high-profile works of art that are considered a new luxury good to decorate the houses of the super rich—nothing too complicated or conceptual. There is a new breed of collectors who are new to the world of art, ready to to take risks and willing to buy contemporary art, but, their lack of knowledge leads to stupid purchases. There are some ludicrous examples of new “collections” which have been established in Russia but which are, in fact, full of fakes or very poor art, because the collectors who assembled them do not really have the background knowledge to understand what they are doing. It will take time for the public to become educated in the field of art; but it is early days—Russia has a history of talented collectors, such as the 19th-century Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov, so I am hopeful that we will one day re-establish our cultural roots.

    Meanwhile, without an informed public, there is no real incentive for artists to produce meaningful work, or if there is, it is not encouraged by those in power. To re-establish the authentic values of contemporary art and a real critical discourse we need more funding for scholarship, and international study.

    The recent Moscow Biennale which closed in February is a good illustration of the Russian government’s approach to contemporary art. Indeed, it is a unique illustration of the how the authorities here function, as is it practically their first endeavour in the contemporary art world.

    Before I was made curator of the biennale, I invited international curators to a conference to discuss the idea of a “major project for Russia”. Harald Szeemann, Robert Storr, Rene Block, Francesco Bonami and Hans Ulrich Obrist, among many others, came to Moscow in 2004. The discussions we had made a great impact on the local art scene and revealed the complications and controversies that are part of staging a modern biennale in a country like Russia. The results of our discussions were supposed to be published, in Russian, in a book to accompany the biennale. This important project was scrapped by the authorities. It was too intellectual and complex for them; it asked too many awkward questions. The book has now been published thanks to a small foundation set up to support the heritage of non-conformist underground art and culture in Russia. In other words, Harald Szeemann’s last publication was banned by Russia’s new cultural authorities and only appeared in print thanks to funding provided by former dissidents.

    The topic chosen for the biennale was “Dialectics of hope”—the title of a book by the prominent Russian Marxist thinker Boris Kagarlitsky. Ironically, Kagarlitsky spoke out against the misuse of his words by the new Russian elite to construct the country’s new ideology, and he distanced himself from the biennale. Of course, there was no relationship between the real meaning of Kagarlitsky’s words and the art on view in the exhibition, and this was borne out by a petition criticising the biennale’s organisers signed by 40 artists and critics.

    The biennale was paid for by the Russian government in a clear attempt to create a Western façade for the new Russia. The exhibition was wanted by the government and paid for by the government. It was practically imposed by the government. Some $2 million was spent on the blind reproduction of a Western biennale. Western “brand names” such as Nicholas Bourriaud and Rosa Martinez were brought in to give the event a seal of Western acceptability and, it worked in that sense: many international visitors came, and there was significant international coverage. It was a media event which imitated other similar events.

    Even the timing of the biennale was chosen for purely cynical reasons. January is the coldest month of the year, when few people would wish to visit Moscow, except perhaps a few foreigners to whom it might seem an exotic experience. The authorities decided this would be the perfect time for Moscow’s first biennale. Why? Because January is the month when two years’ culture budgets cross over; they could spend all of the money set aside for culture in 2004 and the entire budget for 2005 on this one event. All monies for any other artistic endeavour in 2005 have been frozen: no residencies, no research, no exhibitions, no publications. Yet it is precisely projects such as these that Russian artists and critics are desperate for. It is a shame that so much was spent on an imitation biennale, when artists, curators and galleries could have been encouraged to produce something genuinely new and interesting instead.

    One final thought. The biennale consisted of an exhibition of work by 40 young artists. The Russian art world is asking how such a modest exhibition could cost $2 million? Was the budget another victim of our “imitational” democracy? n

    The writer is editor of Moscow Art Magazine, and was curator of the Moscow biennale before resigning over differences with the authorities. He was speaking to Emma Beatty.