“RUSSIA!” At Guggenheim in NYC

RUSSIA! 16 September 2005 – 11 January 2006, Guggenheim Museum, New York 

The exhibition RUSSIA!, which opened at the NYC Guggenheim in September 2005, has become the subject of heated debates among cultural commentators both in the West and in Russia. Because of the symbolic value of the venue, the show is catalyzing discourse about the state of affairs with Russian art, the post-Soviet condition, and the representation of Russian art in the West today.

The organizers of RUSSIA! rightfully claimed that this exhibition was “…the most comprehensive and spectacular showing of Russian art ever sent to the United States.” Indeed, the scope of breathtaking works of Russian art that one can see at the Guggenheim — from icons by Andrei Rublev to works by Russian artists of the 2000s — was truly remarkable and unlike any other exhibit of Russian art in North America.

The point of this text, however, is not to reaffirm or dispute the genius of Kazimir Malevich or Alexander Kosolapov, whose works can undoubtedly make any exhibition a hit (by creating a space of autonomic artistic excellence), but to consider the underlying politics that the phenomenon of the RUSSIA! exhibition reflects.

On the level of politics, this show is a remarkable example of post-ideological propaganda, a classic case of employing art for the purpose of pushing the agenda of a favorable representation of today’s Russia in the West. In fact, this exhibition is a milestone in the line of Russia’s attempts to claim its space in the post-“Cold War” world, misusing national cultural treasures as a means for the symbolic legitimization of its policies.

Following the proclaimed post-ideology of today’s Russia, this post-ideological, yet highly historicist exhibition showcases Russian art in its totality. Imperial Russian art, Socialist Realism, the historical avant-garde, and contemporary art are exhibited together, under the patronage of Russian president Vladimir Putin and thanks to the financial support from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation (a tycoon who personifies the new Russian business).

RUSSIA! has been praised by some and fiercely criticized by others. The supporters of the show comment on the impressive scope of the exhibition and the will of the show organizers to bring to New York important works of Russian art that have never been seen outside Russia or that are often misunderstood or dismissed as non-paradigmatic — for example, Socialist Realism. These supporters stress the educational aspect of the exhibition, exposing the public to such a vast array of Russian art for the first time ever.

The opponents of the Guggenheim exhibit typically aim their criticism at the new Russian PR machine and the implication of Russian art in the business of political legitimization. In addition to Russia-centric criticism, the critics of this exhibition also argue that the very idea of a “national show” is inadequate for the contemporary moment.

The representation of Russia as a specific, localized identity ought to be deconstructed because it unambiguously signals neo-colonial fetishization. As critic Elena Sorokina rightfully noticed, it is virtually impossible to image a show entitled “America!” claming to offer adequate representation for the fragmented identities that exist within borders of the USA. However, in the case of Russia, such a representation apparently seems acceptable to both the Guggenheim Museum curators and to the organizers from the Russian side.

The exhibition has helped to rejuvenate discussions about Russia’s place in the post-colonial discourse — after all, is Russia a colonizer or the colonized? The answer that the Guggenheim show gives is twofold. On the one hand, as far as the notion of national representation is concerned, RUSSIA! is a manifestation of neo-colonial attitudes applied to the defeated “evil empire.” In the exhibition, Russian culture is “packaged” as an exotic ethnic product. This practice of “orientalization” has been applied by Western art institutions to the former Socialist countries of Eastern Europe ever since the collapse of the Berlin wall.

The treatment that Russian culture received in the RUSSIA! exhibition shows that the former world superpower is increasingly slipping into the Third World. Russia is objectified and turned into an object of desire for the West — be it Imperial Russia, Communist Utopia, or the post-Soviet “wild East,” a land of opportunity for expanding late-capitalist markets.

Although in addition to the Guggenheim Museum’s curators, several Russian curators worked on the exhibition, the show as a whole has the distinct features of an exotic product. While curators of the Guggenheim Museum traditionally practice this type of representation of “other” cultures, for the Russian curators. it was perhaps an exercise in self-colonization.

Or perhaps the political implications of such a demeaning, exotic representation escaped the attention of curators from the Russian side because they were unfamiliar with discourses of institutional and post-colonial critique. Or perhaps they simply saw this exhibition as an exciting educational venue. Or the political agenda of legitimization of the current regime in Russia was more important at the present moment to Russian organizers than the narrative of national pride or a critical stand toward the West.

On the other hand, the RUSSIA! exhibition raises fundamental issues in the spheres of privatization and commodification, issues that have blossomed in the post-Soviet space of recent years.

A visitor to the Guggenheim show cannot help but notice the manifestations of this new culture of property-ownership, starting with names of private Russian collectors on wall labels, especially in the contemporary section. That many of the works in the exhibition are courtesy of Russian private individuals might come as a surprise to many.

However, the evolving capitalist culture that manifests itself in the RUSSIA! exhibition is articulated by the curators as rather natural — as a return to a normal state of affairs, to the pre-Revolutionary culture of private art collecting personified by such paradigmatic figures as Shshukin and Morozov.

Most remarkable in this respect is the exhibition’s inclusion of works by Western Masters from Russian national museums (most of which were originally bought in the West by Russian private collectors prior to the 1917 revolution). It is impossible to overestimate the significance of this curatorial gesture. In addition to pointing to the Western influence on Russian art, which is commonly acknowledged, the inclusion of Western art from Russian collections into a Russian national art exhibition is a clear statement of private ownership of Western art by Russia. It serves as is a manifestation of symbolic possession of the subject (the West) by the Other (Russia). By possessing Western works of art, Russia symbolically inverts its position as Other vis-à-vis the subject. Indeed, who is the exotic Other now?

Overall, the show is quite successful in legitimating today’s Russia. Whether the Guggenheim Museum wanted to or not, it is implicated in the post-Soviet reality. This art museum in New York City has become a site for the post-Soviet condition, where the agenda of legitimization on the part of the new Russian establishment perfectly coincides with the continuing practice of exotic representation of “other cultures” by the Guggenheim Museum.

Sadly, this breathtakingly grand show, in the style of new Russian upper-classes, has become a manifestation of the alliance between the Western museum establishment and the questionable Russian business and political elite.

As to the choice of artworks in the contemporary section of the exhibition, the curators shied away from addressing the problems and contradictions underling the post-Soviet reality. They avoided political, critical, and socially conscientious contemporary Russian art.

The selected works, truly postmodern in their political neutrality, are uncritical of present-day Russia on the ground. Works by Sergey Bugaev (Africa), Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, and Valeriy Koshlyakov remain unthreatening for the establishment in Russia,” it is an art that stays away from direct engagement with social reality, giving way to the purely aesthetic.

Perhaps the most unambiguous sign of the politics of this exhibition is the title of the show itself. The exclamation mark at the end of the word “Russia” signals a type of blind affirmation of the past and present of Russia that yields to nationalistic sentiment and to a nostalgia for the “Great Russia,” a strong empire and an internationally respected paradigmatic culture.

Sadly, this uncritical, exclamatory tone does not allow this exhibition to become a platform for the kind of serious and conscientious discussions about Russia’s difficult and disjunctive past and present that are so needed today. Instead of asking difficult questions, the show presented slogans of compliance that were, as usual, conveniently disguised behind postmodern neutrality and distance.