vladimir bulat on Fri, 18 Feb 2005 16:24:27 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] Dialectical Materialism: un comentariu despre Bienala de la Moscova

Un comentariu despre Bienala de la Moscova
             de — Claire Bishop


02.15.05   Dialectical Materialism  Moscow  

Colorful rumors and breathless warnings about the perils of visiting the
Moscow Biennale are circulating with predictable alacrity. According to the
grapevine, a Dutch installation techie was found dumped outside the city,
groggy from Rohypnol, and corrupt police are supposedly extorting money
from foreign visitors under the pretense of "visa checks" (though flashing
your press pass might deter them). And then there's the biennial itself,
plagued with controversies and troubles. The full list of artists was
announced mere weeks ago, whereas the lineup of usual-suspect Euro-curators
(Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez, and
Hans-Ulrich Obrist) had been in place since last spring. Most of these
power players arrived days before the opening, leaving the bulk of the
preparatory work to coordinating curator Joseph Backstein. That's to say
nothing of the tiff between Backstein, head of ICA Moscow, and Russian art
gatekeeper Viktor Misiano, editor of Moscow Art Magazine and chief lobbyist
for the biennial—a clash that prompted the latter to be ejected from the
team after Backstein asked the Ministry of Culture to dismiss him. This did
not sit well with young Russian artists, some of whom signed an angry
petition objecting to Misiano's ousting—to no avail. Backstein won the
bureaucratic battle thanks to support from artists Oleg Kulik and Tatiana
Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes of the
collective AES+F.

All this debâcle sounded irresistible: a one-size-fits-all prefab biennial
parachuted into a freezing-cold city that the local writer David Riff has
memorably likened to "a monkey in a suit of armor." Absolutely not to be
missed—even if, like me, you decide to go one week after the opening, too
late for all the parties.

So how is it? If you forget the main scandal that's preoccupying
politically minded Russians (the $1.5 million budget and where it went) and
the abysmal title ("Dialectics of Hope"), then the Moscow Biennale is a
great show of new contemporary art that would do any city proud. But the
Muscovite audience, accustomed as it is to homegrown art stars displaying
yBa-style tactics of brash spectacularism (Kulik, AES+F, Vlad
Mamyshev-Monroe), is apparently underwhelmed by its understated austerity.
The fact that nearly all the artists are totally unfamiliar to viewers here
doesn't help; even Sergey Khripun, director of XL Gallery (the White Cube
of Moscow), told me he'd only heard of five.

With forty-one artists, all under thirty-five, the biennial amounts to a
mini-Manifesta, and the two main sites can be seen in a few hours. The old
Lenin Museum and the Shchusev Museum of Architecture are a short slither
away from each other over compacted snow and black ice around the Kremlin.
In the former, Gelatin's Zapf de Pipi addressed the extreme temperature
(and queuing and Lenin) via a makeshift outdoor toilet on the third floor,
which featured a vast ugly stalactite of (possibly real) orange urine
plunging down toward the courtyard. Another hit was David Ter-Oganyan's
This Is Not a Bomb, a series of pseudoterrorist contraptions secreted
around the building: ticking clocks, wire and batteries taped around
pumpkins and jars of pickles, etc. Most of the video work is relegated to
the Shchusev Museum, where you'll also find a special installation by
Christian Boltanski in which his rediscovered Odessa roots (lots of black
coats hanging in a decrepit reconstructed palace) prompt him to fuse
uncannily with Kabakov.

On Sunday night I hooked up with Elena Zaitseva, cocurator of "No Comment?"
(an exhibition of young Russian artists in a paper factory), in the
concrete chic of Maki-Kafe. She's philosophical about the "corruption"
surrounding the biennial because what matters, she says, is the enormous
and energetic parallel program that it has catalyzed. On Monday I tackled
this program, some of which was infernally hard to find, as I had to
contend with illegal cabs (i.e., hitching a ride in a Lada for a hundred
rubles), erratic street numbers, endless courtyards within courtyards . . .
It took me at least an hour to track down Gallery WAM, but I was rewarded
by having the relics of Moscow Conceptualism enticingly explained to me by
artist Yuri Leiderman. WAM's show is an appetizer to the best exhibition in
town, "Accomplices" at the New Tretyakov (curated by Andrei Yerofeyev).
This history of collaborative and interactive art gives a brilliant
overview of how the scene has developed here since the '70s and shows how
the collective spirit is still vital today, from the aggravatingly
ubiquitous Blue Nose Group (three hairy blokes in bad underpants) to Radek
(in which Ter-Oganyan is involved).

By Tuesday I was ready to tackle Viktor Misiano at the Pushkin Café, and I
began to understand that the controversies around the Moscow Biennale are
not primarily aesthetic but political. Although Misiano argues that six
curators of this caliber and intelligence should have reinvented the
biennial format in a radical way (and he's right), what's really at issue,
as he sees it, is a "neoliberal" government and a moneyed elite too eager
to co-opt culture in order to facilitate markets and look global. Although
the show contains excellent works, the circumstances of its production are
highly troubling. Even left-wing political theorist Boris Kagarlitsky,
author of the book from which "Dialectics of Hope" takes its title,
publicly dissociated himself from the exhibition when he saw how it was

As with most peripheral biennials, there's a trade-off here between wanting
culture to represent a perfect ethical model and an awareness of the
pragmatic realities of getting an event off the ground. The biennial may be
a disappointment to many Russians, but the (self-funded) parallel program
is more intriguing than anything a team of big-budget curators could have
devised. If that energy can be channeled into the next biennial, we should
see real fireworks.

—Claire Bishop

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