Moscow Diary: What to Make of this Year’s Biennale (Article)

Three things are clear from the 3rd Moscow Biennale. Firstly, different countries have different standards. The international art community, on the one hand, content with the sense that Martin has little left to add to his place in the history books – and, indeed, that the biennial format per se may already have exhausted itself – met it with almost complete indifference.

Foreign guests were in the low dozens. Coming straight after the Istanbul and Lyon biennials, Moscow passed through the press almost without mention. But in Russia, Jean-Hubert Martin’s “Against Exclusion” met with almost universal rapture. Never before had a curator of such status put on a show (judging by plastic capabilities alone) of such quality in Moscow; never, indeed, had the city been so filled with so many exhibitions at the same time, in special projects and parallel program shows numbering well over a hundred.

Secondly, it seems that contemporary art, the state, and the public can go together without either putting curators on trial or staging esoteric nationalist “marches against contemporary art” as they have this year. The main exhibition enjoyed around $3 million in government funding. It and the satellite shows were visited by over half a million people – double the number two years previously.

Thirdly, contemporary art may finally be becoming more than the cliquish, often scholastic activity for a select few hundred people. In one indication, Oleg Kulik and his hermetic beard beat out Megan Fox for the cover of that week’s issue of Afisha, the city’s most popular lifestyle-entertainment magazine. Furthermore, advertising for the exhibition made a rare appearance alongside the abundance of charmingly tacky posters urging citizens to have babies above the escalators in the metro, on the way to the heroic Socialist Realist murals of the halls.

Martin may not be the first person to realize or act on it, but he is certainly the first to write it large: what has traditionally been ‘excluded’ from Russian contemporary is neither art from outside the traditional white-walled axis – this is what makes his exhibition more than a remake of Magiciens de la Terre – nor contemporary art’s place in public discourse, but the public itself. Russia is after all not a country that produces casual art lovers, but rather seasoned ones. Your typical art history student will tell you contemporary art is all about searching for beauty and eternal, transcendental values; your average gallery-goer is perfectly capable of failing to recognize artworks as such. Institutional critique leaves them cold. A cursory scan of the press in most any language would give the impression that art in the country is half-controlled by an oligarch consortium, with the rest under the control of an enthusiastic bunch of naïve foreign investors with only passive knowledge of the playing field. Etymologically speaking, the Russian word for “modern” actually means “contemporary,” which doesn’t help either.

This is Martin’s strength—he understands that public very well. His exhibition was a brilliant manifestation of art as showpiece; a montage of attractions with all the bells, whistles, bright colors, and animals (for some reason there were a lot of these in particular) of the fairground. It must be said that most of it was done exceptionally well. Not a single work looked out of place (although, with that title, what could?); the Russian artists looked no worse than their better-known counterparts (is that an achievement?); unusually for a biennial, there was hardly a work worth objecting to (bar AES+F and Spencer Tunick—both of whom deliberately stretch personal taste – so their position far outside of mine is no criticism).

But the zoo comparison doesn’t end with the chickens, turtles, snakes, insects, and birds (just sticking to the live ones). Some wall texts were as obvious as panels detailing the habitat and diet of the grizzly bear, while somehow much less informative. Did you know that homosexuals still face persecution around the world (Wolfgang Tillmans), that language can determine consciousness (Mike Parr), or, best of all, that we live in some kind of undefined flow of information (Braco Dmitrijevic)? Does that give any real pause for thought? Or, for the more advanced among you, does that mean those crafty critics and curators had been fooling you with their ten-dollar discourse – contemporary art really is as simplistic and banal as all that?

I am thus loath to say that, while the fact that Moscow finally hosted an exhibition this well-made and visited by this many people is a Good Thing, it is still some distance from an achievement. Muscovites – particularly the younger ones – are clearly eager to find out what contemporary art is, and in great numbers at that. But it is not certain whether there was much more to learn from “Against Exclusion” than that it is a lot of different things of varying origins, form, and quality (as the enormous parallel program confirmed), all going on at the same time.

This leads me to the exhibition’s weak point. If, in the past, Martin’s goal has been to de-exoticize art from forgotten parts of the art world, he has in this case succeeded in de-politicizing art from everywhere. The social criticism in Cheri Samba’s paintings disappears between a chicken coop and a set of rusty skips hiding glass skyscrapers. Next to each other, Pavel Pepperstein’s subtle, futuristic commentaries on the post-Soviet construction boom and the phantasmagoric drawings of Frederic Bruly Boubaré disappear into pure psychedelia. Martin’s intent was presumably to demonstrate parallel artistic practices in differing cultures, but when the bar for the viewer is set this low he practically equates them – with little to come away with as a result.

That is, indeed, the problem with discussing the Biennale in a medium like this one; the fact that the average reader of this publication would have had little to take away from “Against Exclusion” is beside Martin’s point. The issue is what the general public took away with it, and whether it will prove sufficient to bring them back. As such, one is inclined to see this (superficially, at least) successful Biennale less as yardstick for Russian art’s development than as an acid test. The quality of future installments – and of the parallel program in particular – will be defined by events far beyond its scope: those such as the development of art schools like Moscow’s ICA and St. Petersburg’s PRO ARTE; an increased number of non-commercial testing grounds for young artists and curators like Winzavod’s START program; and, most importantly, concerted efforts from top to bottom at prolonged engagement with the general public – all of which will take years to grow and force the 3rd Biennale’s effort to be viewed longe durée. Critic Ekaterina Degot is right to wish for an event more along the lines of Documenta, a “festival for moving intellectual thought forward” – but that will require, foremost, more of something approaching intellectual thought in the first place. It has little to mark it as a be all and end all; but as a beginning, optimism still certainly has its place.

For related texts, please see: The 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (Exhib. Review) and Jean-Hubert Martin on His Upcoming Moscow Biennale (Interview)

Max Seddon is a writer and translator with a longstanding interest in Russian culture, and until recently was art critic for the Moscow Times. He does not belong to any sort of military unit and as such is not ‘based’ anywhere.