Masters on Masters: When the Biennale Goes Meta (Russian Pavilion; Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli)

There is nothing unusual about famous gallerists curating national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, but it is another thing to have Mikhail Piotrovsky (the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) curate his country’s pavilion by inviting artists to engage with the history of the museum and its collection, thus turning the Biennale pavilion into a commentary on the Hermitage.  Piotrovsky has orchestrated a complex metacommentary on the relation of the national pavilion to Russia’s “national treasure” that houses the works of many of the world’s Renaissance and Baroque masters—French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish.

The Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale features the work of renowned film director Alexander Sokurov and theater artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Both artists have their own histories with the museum. In 2002, Sokurov made his experimental historical drama Russian Ark (shot in one 96-minute take inside the Hermitage and Winter Palace), and in 2016, the Hermitage exhibited Shishkin-Hokusai solo-exhibition, Wish You Were Here. Rather than simply presenting their own work, exhibited in the museum or influenced by it, both artists created installations that explore the two works by Rembrandt that take up the theme of the biblical story of the prodigal son. Sokurov reexamines The Return of the Prodigal Son (completed in 1669), which was already featured in his film. Shishkin-Hokusai introduces the figure of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Brothel (1637) in his animatronic installation, but in this version, the prodigal son appears to enjoy himself squandering his inheritance. Sokurov’s and Shishkin-Hokusai’s works are not just a tribute to the influence of the museum and the old masters, but a rethinking and restaging of the subjects of these famous paintings in the light of our own troubled times.

Alexander Sokurov, installation view of “Lc 15:11-32,” sculptural, painting and video installations at the Russian Pavilion at the 58thVenice Biennale, 2019. Publicity still from the State Museum of the Hermitage.

Taking its title from an apocryphal curse—“May You Live In Interesting Times”—the 58th Venice Biennale’s curator Ralph Rugoff invited artists to explore art’s potential to be “a guide for how to live and think” in a “polarisedage when popular communication platforms favour ever more reductive memes and the bandwidths of public discourse have grown increasingly narrow.”(Ralph Rugoff, “May You Live In Interesting Times,” Catalog essay in May You Live In Interesting Times: Biennale Arte 2019. Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 2019, 23-24. ) The role of art for political and social engagement has been the subject of fierce debates.(Here I am referring to Claire Bishop’s critique of the “social turn” in, or theories of socially engaged art such as Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion of “relational aesthetics” and Grant Kester’s “compassionate identification,” and Jacques Rancière’s critique of art as a critical practice or an anti-aesthetic.  See Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship(New York: Verso, 2012) and Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible,translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004). ) While Rugoff explicitly rejected one-dimensional politically activist art in favor of art that “challenges existing habits of thought,” many critics found the Biennale’s theme and selected works were “preaching to the converted”(Laura Cumming, “Venice Biennale review—preaching to the converted,” The Guardian, May 12, 2019: ) in a “lukewarm, nebulous edition” that comes across as “a passive rundown of received tastes dominated by the United States and Britain.”(Jason Farago, “A Biennale Baffles: Review,” The New York Times, Vol. 168 Issue 58327, C1-C2. ) Adrian Searle began his scathing review in The Guardian by pronouncing the Biennale “dumb art for dumb times,” but ended by pointing out that it was less about being cursed by “living in interesting times” than it was about living through “the last days.”(Adrian Searle, “Mawkish Monuments and the beach from Hell: Our verdict on the Venice Biennale,” The Guardian, May 12, 2019: Searle like many other artcritics saved their scarce words of praise for the two Golden Lion recipients. ) Maybe this is why so many critics felt an overwhelming sense of disorientation and calamity. However, the two golden lion recipients—LA-based artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa for The White Album; and composer Lina Lapelytè, dramaturg Vaiva Grainytè, and theatre director Rugilè Barzdžiukaitè for the live-performance opera Sun & Sea (Marina) at the Lithuanian National Pavilion —were not only singled out by critics as exceptional, they also directly engaged one of Rugoff’s two propositions: to address either “the resurgence of nationalist agendas across the globe,” or the Anthropocene.

The Russian Pavilion, too, drew mixed reviews. It has been described as an “overcooked mess,” indulging in “Rembranditian gloom” (Searle), “a massive advertisement” for the Hermitage (The Art Newspaper) that “has nothing to do with contemporary art” (Sergei Popov); but also as “the most beautiful exhibit” (Artscope), or as a “subterfuge, a way of smuggling in contemporary issues under the cover of spectacle” (Art Monthly).(Cristina Ruiz, “We’ve chosen the best of the art in Venice, now here’s the worst: We’ve seen a lot of exhibitions in the city so you don’t have to,” The Art Newspaper,May 10, 2019: Sergei Popov, the CEO of Pop/off/art Gallery, in a Facebookpost, quoted in Meduza, May 15, 2019: Nancy Nesvet, “False Facts on Display by Artists: Day Two at the Venice Biennale,” Artscope Magazine, May 11, 2019, Chris Clarke, “Review of the Venice Biennale,” Art Monthly, June 19, 2019, 427.) No doubt Piotrovsky’s involvement with the Hermitage has shaped the thematic responses by the two invited artists as well as the other featured artists (Yelena Zhukova, Lydia Kryukova, Alexander Zolotukhin, and students from St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts). Piotrovsky’s curatorial introduction to the pavilion admits as much: “The museum loves to tell stories about itself. Every art show culled from the Hermitage’s own collection is a recounting of stories about the museum’s history.”

The presence of the Hermitage is felt immediately upon entry: the museum literally stuck its feet at the entrance of the exhibition since upon entry we are met by the sculpture The Feet of Atlant, a replica of the feet of one of the ten caryatids that support the portico of the New Hermitage. Carved from grey Serdobol granite by the sculptor Alexander Terebenev in 1848 for the first public entrance to the museum, the Atlantes have become the symbol of the museum itself. Sokurov and Shishkin-Hokusai also explore the works of Dutch and Flemish masters held in what can perhaps be considered the most significant collection of the Hermitage. Sokurov’s project Lc 15:11-32, named for the episode in the Gospel of Luke which recounts the parable of the prodigal son, is located on the top floor of the pavilion, while Shishkin-Hokusai’s The Flemish School is located on the pavilion’s lower floor. Unlike the dramatically lit feet of Atlas, cut off at the knee, Sokurov and Shishkin-Hokusai do not simply copy and disassemble the works they engage, but rather deconstruct and reassemble them, asking us to think about how we can learn from iconic works like those of Rembrandt, and make them speak to our own ethical and environmental crises without using the outcomes of past events or moral narratives to make judgments about present actors and situations.If these works tell stories about the museum, connecting Russian culture to the rest of the world, they do so in a circuitous manner.

Rembrandt painted two versions of the prodigal son: one when he was young and successful—a self-portrait that shows him enjoying life with his wife Saskia—and the second,The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669), completed just before his death, when he had lost everything—his wife, and all but one of his four children, his wealth, and reputation. Sokurov turns to this late painting of the Dutch master for inspiration, and with this he asks us to imagine just who this son would be today, and how he would be received by his father (his family, or homeland). Clearly Sokurov envisions this figure as a soldier who not only squanders his or her life but who also lays waste to the historical treasures of the world itself. Can there be redemption for these men and women, or the fathers, families, and nations that send them out to do their bidding, as the biblical parable suggests? Is compassion possible in the face of such violence, and is human compassion enough in “the last days”? These types of preoccupations fill up the space of the main gallery on the second floor.

The spiral staircase descending to the lower floor takes up the center of the main gallery space upstairs, directing visitors to move around it in a circular motion. Sounds of warfare seem to emanate from the stairwell, spilling over into the gallery space, and setting the tone for Sokurov’s exhibition. Two video installations have been installed on one side of this large central room, both collages set in bombed-out buildings and desert war locations. On the other side of the staircase we find two paintings—an enlarged reproduction of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman (1654) and an unfinished version of The Return of the Prodigal Son. Easels, mannequins, ladders, tables, and empty wooden frames line the walls, giving us the feel of being in a studio rather than a gallery; and in the middle, on either side of the stairwell, stand two life size sculptures modeled on Rembrandt’s painting, both made of unfinished clay. These two large clay figures appear as if the prodigal son and his father had emerged from the painting to take physical form, though they now stand apart in suspended animation. Both father and son face each other at a distance, simultaneously suggesting an inevitable, potential, or impossible return.

Alexander Sokurov, Installation view of “Lc 15:11-32,”, clay and mirror reinterpretation for the sculptural rendering of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669). Image courtesy of the author.

In the smaller room just beyond the main gallery, there are two more sculptures, copies of the same clay figures that appear reunited (as they were in the original Rembrandt painting). And as is the case in the original, the son kneels at his father’s feet, resting his head on his father’s chest. He is lovingly embraced by his father. Sokurov has placed a mirror behind this sculptural copy, making it appear as if the spectators have replaced those other figures depicted in Rembrandt’s painting—the older (resentful and judgmental brother), the family accountant, the devoted servant, and the mother. In his artist’s statement, Sokurov acknowledges that the exhibition is both “eclectic” and “excessively serious.” His homage to Rembrandt casts and recasts The Return of the Prodigal Son in a variety of different media, from drawings to paintings, clay sculpture, and video installations. Aside from the various copies and interpretations of Rembrandt’s famous painting, Sokurov situates his interpretation at the intersection of many entangled stories about modern warfare, family and social relations, personal doubt, religious belief, and the role of the artist in a destitute time. Yes, the prodigal son is one of three parables told by Christ to the Pharisees, and the figure of Christ even appears in one of Sokurov’s videos alongside two faceless soldiers who are set on fire, but this Christ in the video is the controversial, human, despairing Christ in the Wilderness (1872), painted by Ivan Nilolaevich Kramskoi (1837-87). Rather than choosing a more iconic vision of Christ, Sokurov has selected this less known image from the intellectual leader of the Russian Democratic Art Movement (1860-80) as a clear reminder of how art and artists have challenged official state politics and the pedagogy of institutionalized religion.

Kramskoi’s psychological study of Christ, which resides in the Tretyakov Gallery (not the Hermitage), mirrors the enlarged replica of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman that hangs across the gallery. Both figures seem to watch the moving (video) images of war and carnage that are cast in sharp fiery (red, orange, yellow and white) contrast to the murky earthly hues of the Rembrandtian palette. These forlorn figures are capable of nothing other than looking on or resigning themselves as human devastation grows in front of them. Hence, this is no simple story of compassion, forgiveness and redemption. The soldier—rather than Christ, the prodigal son, the forgiving father or the faithful but resentful brother—is the central figure.  These are the sacrificed figures, which do not always return. “These are people with chaos in their heads,” according to Sokurov, people “utterly disoriented, with no integrity of being, all inextricably mixed-up…in their mind and in their conscience.” As much as Sokurov might want to see the biblical subject matter as providing an important ethical message, his installations also ask a different, more poignant question about the role of religion in creating destitution, a time when soldiers, including Christian ones, end up criminalizing compassion. What can biblical lessons offer us once religion has been weaponized?

As we descend the staircase, we find a different yet complementary iteration of the story of prodigal son, replete with mechanical images of opulence, indulgence, and spectacles of a rather seedy kind, bathed in red light, and played out in mechanical gestures. If Sokurov’s installation leaves us to contemplate the temptations of power and greed that cast doubt on either divine or human redemption, then Shishkin-Hokusai’s The Flemish School offers a vision of temptation focused on the prodigal son’s indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh, his squandering of his resources, and his predicable, if not compulsive, consumption of opulent spectacles. Shishkin-Hokusai’s signature plywood sculptures of cut-out human figures appear alongside and inserted within the distorted plywood re-constructions of Jacob Jordaens’s painting The Bean King (1638),(The Bean Kingrepresents the traditions and lore of ordinary Flemish people who celebrated the festival of the Three Magi every 6thof January. According to tradition, a large pie was served with a single bean hidden within.  The one who found the bean was declared king, and he got to choose his queen and court (jester, cook, treasurer, advisor, secretary, and musician). While beans symbolized the guiding star that leads to Christ, the festival was seen more as a bacchanal full of drinking, carnivalesque satire, imitation, and laughter.) Bartholomeus van der Helst’s Nieumarkt in Amsterdam (1666), Frans Snyder’s The Fish Stall (1618-20) and his The Fish Market (1620s). The floor, walls, and ceiling are also built entirely of plywood, painted to match the floor, walls and ceilings designs of the Hermitage and its collections. This black ink painted on raw plywood gives the whole installation a rather cartoonish effect. Yet, these are not simple two-dimensional drawings and designs, but kinetic sculptures that mechanically spin, jump up and down in five-minute intervals, light up in neon orange and red strings, and move across the wall.

Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. Installation view of his kinetic-sculpture that brings together Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Brothel (1637), Jacob Jordaens’s The Bean King (1638), and his own signature plywood figures, featured in his exhibition The Flemish School for the Russian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. Publicity still from the State Museum of the Hermitage.

Each of the reproductions mentioned above is a collage that has been layered with figures from other works. Thus, installed within the reproduction of Jordaens’s The Bean King is the image of Rembrandt copied from his self-portrait (Prodigal Son in the Brothel), making it seem as if Rembrandt is seated at the table raising his glass to the bean king. Shishkin-Hokusai’s own miniature figures also appear in the painting, animating their sequence of events by running across the canvas, jumping from Rembrandt’s raised hand, and landing on the large pie served at the revelers’ table. Another large figure stands outside of the frame, seemingly reading the paintings’ curatorial description. The loudest and most attention-grabbing reproduction is Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam. Helt’s late painting of an old woman pushing a cart full of vegetables to market, the carcass of a slaughtered pig, and children gathering to watch one child blowing up the pig’s bladder, is hardly visible. Instead we see three rows of life-size wooden spectators, mostly men, that almost look like they came out of the belle epoch or a 1930s cabaret, with bowler hats and pin-striped suits standing in front of the work. The few women are dressed in black, with black leggings.

Shishkin-Hokusai. Installation view of his animatronic figures that dance before a distorted, plywood remake of Bartholomeus van der Helst’s Nieumarkt in Amsterdam (1666). This image is mine as well.

All of these figures are attached to a pole, and each one seems to have joints at the elbow, hips, and knee, allowing them to appear as if they were springing up and down every five-minutes. In the meantime, these animatronic spectators wait in the dark, in squatting position, some even with their hands tied behind them. Then, all of a sudden, they are lit up in red, and a few start to jump, clattering as they land. At some point all of them move in unison, crashing to the ground in a rhythm, perhaps in order to give us a sense what it is like to view famous paintings in a museum, stand in line, or jump up to see over the crowd in front of us. But the mechanical nature of the installation also questions our role as spectators, asking us to think about our own mechanical behavior as we move through the galleries at the Biennale. Unlike the mirror provided in Sokurov’s installation, Shishkin-Hokusai’s figures do not just reflect us:  there are few women, they all seem to come from a different era, and some even seem to be shot full of holes, as if they had been used for target practice. The differences between us and the mechanical crowd serve to remind us that the original works, cabaret, and maybe even our contemporary spectacles are not always made to attract us as spectators.Master works are often made for target audiences, powerful patrons, and wealthy collectors. Some have out of date, if not reactionary, ideas about gender, pleasure, and what constitutes success.

Aside from its giant Atlanteanfeet, parodic birchwood floors, and ceilings made of plywood, the Hermitage slips into the background in Shishkin-Hokusai’s two installations. However, its presence can be felt in the complex way in which they coalesce around the figure of the prodigal son. Shishkin-Hokusai’s work is full of biting humor. His figures enter into the reproduced works of the Nertherlandish masters in a caustically playful manner—some of his characters cast lines in Snyder’s The Fish Stall trying to catch fish off the table, while other characters, naked women, stand on top of the poles, looking down at the male figures dancing below. There is no such humor or critical play in Sokurov’s exhibition: it exudes grief and despair. Even the moment of compassion, repentance, and redemption (the tender embrace of the son by his father) is challenged by the presence of the mirror that not only doubles the gesture as a possible act of duplicity, but also introduces the spectators into the scene, putting them in the place of the onlooker, who possibly doubles as the resentful brother.

While Shishkin-Hokusai comments on our insatiable drives to satisfy bodily pleasures, Sokurov casts doubt on human salvation.What makes the Hermitage’s presence in the Russian Pavilion less accessible to the general public is that it asks us to know something about the history of art and its artists; to understand that every work of art takes inspiration from other works and from other thinkers’ understanding of humanity and religion; and that while every work has its patrons, only some have collectors that protect and preserve them. Piotrovsky offers a meta-commentary on the many vicissitudes of the art world, but such commentaries require reflection. We tend to forget how much time, learning, training, technique, influence and inspiration go into all the works we see at the Biennale, otherwise we might not so heedlessly dismiss them. The role of the art critic is often seen as diametrically opposed to the mission of the museum—the latter taking its time building up a collection, staging its history and curating its meaning. The art critic’s job then is to make quick, sharp observations that often read like headlines (“Masters on masters”), or caustic one-line put downs (“dumb art for dumb times”), but this is not the kind of criticism that helps us understand the role of art in desperate times. If nothing else, Piotrovsky has managed to show us a deeper sense of the time at work in all the artworks see at the Biennale, inviting spectators and critics to spend more time contemplating these works rather than making quick judgments about them.

Articles in this special issue:


Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli
Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli is a film and media scholar whose work focuses on representations and theorizations of violence in film, media, and social media. She has worked on the question of nation building, ethnocentrism and sexual violence in the Balkans and Eastern Europe; Nazism, Fascism and the Holocaust; Surveillance and social media; Digital art and experimental cinema and the uncanny; and the emergence of new forms of politics through social media.