Russian Art, Western Style: ARTMargins Talks to Kathrin Becker

Kathrin Becker (1965) is an art historian, curator and critic based in Berlin. She realized alongside exhibitions and publications on contemporary Russian arts (“Self-Identication. Positions in St Peterburg Art from 1970 untill today”, “Flight, Departure, Disappearance. Moscow Conceptual Art”; “New Moscow. Contemporary Art From St. Petersburg and Moscow”) and Soviet Socialist Realism (“Stalin´s Choice. Soviet Socialist Realism Under Stalin”), exhibition projects such as “The Institute of Theore(c)tical Painting”, “Landschaft mit dem Blick der 90er Jahre”, “pop mix/volume one” & “pop mix/vol. II”, “art club berlin”, “Last House on the Left”, “Can you hear me? 2nd Ars Baltica Triennial of Photographic Art”, “Cross Links. An Intermedia exhibition project”. Currently, she is managing director and head of the Video-Forum of Neuer Berliner Kunstverein ( and co-curates an exhibition with sculptures and drawings of Louise Bourgeois.

Sven Spieker: You are probably the best known or one of the best-known critics and interpreters of Russian contemporary art, and so I suppose my first question would be how your involvement with Russian art and Russian artists began, because youíve been working in this field for quite a time. Perhaps you could tell me a little about the beginnings of your interest in contemporary art from what was then the Soviet Union?

Kathrin Becker: In my case, I very much took advantage of the fact that in the University of Bochum, where I studied, there was an archive of so-to-say “unofficial” Russian art from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I was studying art history and Slavic languages, so I started to work in that archive.

Amazingly, in those days, which means in the middle of the 80s, there were also seminars on Moscow conceptualist poetry, as well as, occassionaly, Moscow conceptualist artists. This was the very beginning of my interest.

In 1989, I got a grant, and I went to St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, and Moscow, to prepare my masters, which was on socialist realism. This is actually a funny story, because it came from a text I wrote on Igor Cholin’s cycle of poems <, which is a conceptual work on Stalin.

S. S.: “The New Name of the Leader…”

K. B.: Yes. It was so fascinating to me actually that this poetry of Igor Cholin made me work on socialist realism painting when I was finishing my studies.

When I went to Leningrad there was almost no information about the art scene there in the west. Moscow was a bit better, due to the centralism of Soviet culture politics. But in Leningrad, I didn’t know how to find the artists; I didn’t even know what would exist there. In the very first month, it was quite an effort to find them, but when I found them, it became a symbiotic collaboration orsymbiotic situation.

It was a group called “New Artists”. They were very much into pop culture, expressionism, and, in some cases, also into “socialist realism goes pop”. They were almost all around my age, so this is how I also began to plan a rather big exhibition that we did, in ‘94 I think, which was called “Self-Identification: Positions in St. Petersburg Art from 1970 until Today”. It was the first major overview on this situation in St. Petersburg, at least in Germany.

S. S.: This took place in Berlin?

KB: No. At the very beginning it took place in Kiel, and then there was a huge tour. It was also in Berlin, Oslo, Sopot, Poland on the Baltic coast, and in St. Petersburg itself. I forget now, it was quite a huge tour. It was also in Denmark.

S. S.: And this took place in the context of glasnost?

K. B.: In a way. The exhibition itself was in ‘94, a little later than that. Nowadays it seems to be normal or natural that the interest in Russian art does not only focus on Moscow, but in those days there was very little knowledge or interest in St. Petersburg. This might also be due to the fact that Moscow artists were very much proclaiming that there was nothing like art in St. Petersburg; you know, the old conflict between the two cities. Of course, no word about anything like Siberia or Kaliningrad. Nowadays it is more honorable to have various regions of Russian art in Russian art projects.

S. S.: So this exhibition was as it were your first curating job?

K. B.: First “major”.

S. S.: …with Russian artists or people from the Soviet Union?

K. B.: Yes. Also there was an exhibition on socialist realism which took place in ‘95 or so, in the PS.1 in New York. It was called “Stalin’s Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism Under Stalin”. This was, I think, one of the very few historical art exhibitions I worked on. As far as my masters was on socialist realist painting, it was a very nice experience to include the results of my research in a major show like that. I was co-curating it with other curators.

Then quite a number of shows followed. In the very beginning when I started with those projects, it was only an attempt to transfer information and give an overvierw of the situation: What is there, what tendencies are there? After a while, I also tried to—which is actually a Moscow conceptualist attitude—always have in mind how the West, and the interpretation of Russian art in the West, also very much forms our knowledge and understanding of Russian art.

I did this project which was called “Novaja Moskva” where I also took an interview with Zurab Tsereteli. I wrote a lot on his giant monuments in Moscow and I was trying to speak about the fact that there is still this division in Russian contemporary art as it used to be in Soviet times between official and unofficial art. Now the division is between art which official Moscow needs for its interior representation, and so-to-say “art for export”, e.g. from Kabakov to Kulik, or so.

Also I am now planning a project called “Russian Roulette”, which actually focuses on the negative image of Russia in the West: mafia-structures,anarchic capitalism without a social network, panslavism, etc. I try to integrate the commentary on Russian art in the West somehow in my curatorial practice with Russian art.

S. S.: And maybe in the opposite direction one could also say that Russian artists especially at that time were also working with a certain image of the West; that the Russian art that we were receiving was not only influenced and shaped by our own ideas, but also had already incorporated somehow those ideas that were brought back to us, from what we thought was this kind of pure, kindof original thing, that in actual fact was already a reflection of our very own ideas.

K. B.: Very much so. But on the other hand, if you speak to some Russian artists, they insist on the fact that a lot of knowledge on Western art, also Western contemporary art, was available since the 70s—at least if you have in mind the Moscow situation. In the West, there was this idea of the Iron Curtain, and that people in the Eastern Block didn’t know anything. Like it still is nowadays with North Korea. But I think it was not so much the case in the capital of Russia.

Of course, in terms of the so-to-say “normal” people there was little knowledge or little information transfer, but I think with the intelligencia, or whatever you call those circles, there was.

S. S.: So this kind of qualifies the exotic quality of what one found in the Soviet Union a bit: it wasn’t altogether foreign, it wasn’t altogether other, it wasn’t altogether different; there were also elements that one sort of recognized.

K. B.: Yes, I think so.

S. S.: Was that your experience? Could you speak to that? Or did it all strike you as kind of strange and bizarre what you found when you first found this art? Or did you have a strange experience responding to things that you already knew from the West.

K. B.: To me it was very striking that in St. Petersburg I was suddenly meeting a group of artists who would listen to the same kind of music that I do, and be into “Let’s do a rave in some planetarium”, and say “Let’s organize the <>”. There is this funny photograph of the artist Andrej Chlobystin in a female swimming suit with a <> portrait on it. I thought it was very striking because I myself wasn’t free from this idea of a grey, heavy, dangerous, and whatever Russia.

But this was probably very much a St. Petersburg phenomenon, because, first of all, it was a gay culture. It also may have been because they consider themselves a European city. Whereas in Moscow, they were more into heavy beards and drinking vodka, and all being straight, or something. Maybe it was very much a St. Petersburg phenomenon.

S. S.: Tell me more about the reception of this art when you brought it to Germany. Let’s say this exhibition that you were speaking about at the beginning. What was the context for its reception? How receptive were people to this art?

K. B.: Of course we also included art from the 70’s, and even the 50’s and 60’s a bit, but there was little sensibility in terms of the situation after Stalinism. When we showed works that were very much working with a modernist repertoire , the Western public would tend to say, “Well, we had this all before,” etc.

As you can see in the concept of the curator of Documenta 11, Okwui Envezor, it is very much a common practice to be open to all those exotic places. But ten years ago, it was not the case; people were very much more in that idea that the culture of the West is the advanced and the culture of other places is the “disadvanced”. Now it would probably be different.

S. S.: So that the Soviet Union somehow became the empire of the copy in some ways, where everything you saw was immediately assumed to be a copy, whether it was a car, an appliance, some technical thing, or art. I think that was pretty much the Westerners’ idea about everything from the Soviet Union: It could only be a copy of what we already had in the West somehow.

K. B.: Yeah, in a way. Of course, you could possibly find some truth in that fact if you go back to the religious field. When you look at at ikons, they are always copies of copies. Also if you look at Stalinism. Under Stalinism you had author’s copies or authoriezed copies of the leading socialist realist paintings.

S. S.: So that, actually, in a more serious sense perhaps, the culture is precisely about a kind of very refined response to the West through copying it with a certain difference.

K. B.: Probably.

S. S.: It seems as if that is—when you look at the conceptualists’ work. That does in some sense sum up what they did, it seems to me.

K. B.: It depends. It depends a bit. Let’s say if you talk about Soz Art, like Alexander Kosolapov, or Komar and Melamid. They deal with an image that you know by heart, like the Marlboro box or Cocal-Cola brand. But then it is rearranged or reinterpreted. The image changes its meaning, because it is combined with a symbol from the opposite economic, political or cultural system: In the design of Marlboro, you read the name “Malevich”.

S. S.: And the copies are superimposed on each other, so that it’s not always a straightforward copy. Sometimes you can have, as it were, a double copying process where something strange is created by…

K. B.: But then let’s say there are artists like Andrej Monastyrskij, or the Collective Action Group, which are very much into unique processes, or unique work.

S. S.: Right. That’s true, that’s true. Except that they’re also really interested in copying onto something else. Like, for example, taping it, or filming it, so they still want to retain something, make some aspect of the work to retain it somehow as a copy, or make sure that it can be copied, even if it is unique as a performance, which may be interesting.

Anyway, on the whole, the response was, however, positive to this exhibition?

K. B.: Yes. There was a lot of interest. And there were, of course, positive reactions. Also the fact that we could tour it.

S. S.: And this must have opened up the gate for some of these artists, who probably had their first exposure to the West through this exhibition.

K. B.: Economically of course I think most of the artists did not profit very much from the West in general. Today, it’s very difficult for most of the Russian artists to find a market—at least in Germany. I don’t dare to speak about the U.S. or Japan, but at least in Germany it’s quite a problematic story.

S. S.: Which actually brings me, as it were, to the next series of questions: Do you think that this problem, as you call it (that Russian artists cannot find a market in the West), has changed over time? We were talking about the late 80’s, the early 90’s. Do you see the situation pretty much as consistent with now?

K. B.: I think it got worse.

S. S.: It even got worse?

K. B.: Yes. From what I can see, in the beginning of the 90’s there was a big interest in Russian art in general, there was this whole Russian wave. Also in the middle of the 90’s. If you look at the cvs of the artists, they did tons of shows in places like Honolulu, Houston and Tokyo. At the same time there were museums, but also private collectors who were buying.

Now I think this is gone for most of them. First of all I think there are less institutional shows. Not very many Russian artists are now integrated, or involved in, international group shows. Also, I think the market got worse. At the same time, now they need more money to survive in Russia.

Everything is quite expensive in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. This is different from the times before. Then if you sold one piece for $2,000 you could probably live quite a while with it, now you can’t. And then, I think that the interest is simply fading.

S. S.: How do you explain the lack of involvement in international shows? Why are Russian artists not represented more in international shows?

K. B.: To most of the international curators, it seems like Russia is something quite difficult to understand. They seem to think that you need to invest quite a lot of time to follow it. Maybe because of that.

And then it may also be because all this exchange between Eastern Europe or Russia/Soviet Union and the West was such a political issue; such a matter of cultural politics to represent that the Cold War is over. So that some curators have the impression that they don’t see art there, they simply see it functionalized. Probably we could also ask Envezor why there are only Svetlana and Igor Kopystiansky in the Documenta.

S. S.: Who don’t even really—they live in Berlin, right?

K. B.: They live and work in Berlin and New York. I mean they are very good artists. Documenta is not so much about discovery; they were involved in various biennials and other major shows.

S. S.: It seems a kind of addendum to the point you raised that the young generation of artists—I mean the Kopystianskys and the conceptualists are not that young anymore—but the very youngest generation of Russian artists really is not even known at all to anyone in the West.

K. B.: It seems so. Yes.

S. S.: Is that a situation of their own making, or is that again to do with the way in which Russia is perceived as a difficult place in the West? There must be quite a few people who are producing.

K. B.: But I think that one problem might be that very few of the young people produce work regularly. They may start, and might also have an interesting project. But then they kind of stop again. It’s a question of how much sense it makes to produce when there is no exhibition context, and no market.

I also sometimes feel like Moscow and St. Petersburg are “squeezed out like a lemon”. It seems now if you say you would like to do something with Russia the reaction is negative—as if “we had it all before.”

Maybe it was that the in the late 80’s and early 90’s was too didactic, trying to show you that it’s not only evil or something. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of that.

S. S.: Maybe they’re tired of that.

K. B.: Yes, maybe in general people are tired of it. Plus, we all know the market needs a new exoticism. It’s very interesting to me to see the development with China. Also you could say that one can see certain similarities between Post-Soviet art, like the Soz Art we talked aboput before, and contemporay chinese art. Now the Chinese artists are going through this incredible wave. It is a huge market now. It’s will be very interesting to see how this will go.

S. S.: Whether they will go the same way, whether they will follow the same trajectory or not.

You work in Berlin, so an obvious question to ask you would be a question about this idea that Berlin is the kind of spearhead in the sale of Russian art or Eastern European art to the West, a kind of port of entry—it seems that this is largely a myth, a misconception that people have about Berlin. But maybe you could comment a little on this situation.

K. B.: Yes, this is also my critique of Berlin. It is not only in terms of Russia, but also in terms of Poland, which is much closer. Both Germany and Eastern Europe share a common border with Poland. There is very little interest and actually exchange between Berlinand Eastern Europe in general. I think, maybe in terms of Berlin, it is the case that West Berliners were not interested in Eastern Europe at all because it was the enemy surrounding them. For West-Berlin it was essential to show that it is NOT the East.

Concerning the people from East Berlin, there was always the attempt to separate oneself from the Soviet Union and from its dictatorship. And the East-German non-conformists, who were possibly in touch with the dissidents of the same sort in the Soviet Union, went quickly out of fashion after the Wall. Today, they do not belong to the opinion leaders in contemporary culture. For some of them the picture that is now given from Russia is not what they know, it’s not their picture. It’s not what they knew when they were traveling there or had exchange.

That might be there is little potential here. Although, one has to say there are various institutions who, in the past, did quite important projects. For example, the “ifa-Gallery”, or “Neuer Berliner Kunstverein”, who always have an eye on the East.

S. S.: But of course it’s interesting that these institutions you mention are not commercial galleries, but they are either state or publicly funded institutions.

K. B.: Yes, definitely so.

S. S.: And what I suppose the artists would be looking for, of course, would be a kind of commercial framework that would allow them to sell their work as well as show it. That’s completely absent it seems.

K. B.: Yes, almost. I mean of course in the House of Russian Science, or whatever it’s called, there is this studio “Artel”. It functions like an art saloon where you could probably also buy work. So maybe there are also artists in that field who do sell. I’m speaking now of a very special segment of this gallery scene in general.

S. S.: Let’s take a view of the Russian art scene and the Russian artists. I mean, do they have the right strategy for this, or do they not think strategically? Is it their problem as it were?

K. B.: Fortunately, they do not think so strategically in most of the cases, because otherwise it would be a strange kind of institutional movement towards whatever gallery system. They work according to their likes and what they think is clever. In terms of promoting themselves, we all know that this is always a question of luck and meeting the right people at the right time.

For example, an artist like Maria Serebriakova. She’s lived in Berlin for quite a while now. She came here with a grant in Künstlerhaus Bethanien years and years ago. Then, in 1998, she had a solo show in NBK. In terms of the market, she’s doing fine as far as I know, but her gallery is in Antwerp. She was in the Documenta curated by Jan Hoet, and Belgian people took a lot of interest in her. So, she has her gallery in Antwerp. She is doing fine in that sense, but she is not present in a Berlin gallery. And—I am not sure about this—but I don’t even think that she’s in a German gallery.

Also Anatolij Shuravlev, he has galleries in Cologne and Lucerne, Switzerland, and now in Vienna and Miami. But nothing in Berlin. But maybe it’s less difficult for Cologne galleries to have a Russian artist on the program than it might be for a Berlin gallery.

S. S.: For historical reasons?

K. B.: Maybe for historical reasons, or maybe due to the fact that here are nothing but collectors in Cologne.

S. S.: Not only vis-à-vis Russian artists, but generally.

K. B.: Yes.

S. S.: The last question that I’d like to ask you is about a project that you’re working on at the moment, a large follow-up exhibitionto the exhibition Moscow/Berlin, that happened here—how many years ago?

K. B.: I would say ‘95.

S. S.: So about seven years ago. This exhibition is designed as the sequel. That exhibition, Moscow/Berlin, dealt with the first half of the 20th century, and the second one will deal with the second half of the 20th century. You are one of the curators—or are you involved in the planning? What is your role in the process?

K. B.: No, I am not involved in the planning of Moscow/Berlin, but there is another large-scale project in 2003 which is called “German Russian Meetings” in which I am involved. It is a festival on Russian culture in Germany with theater, art exhibitions, literature, music, and films. So it’s a big project between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Germany and the Culture Ministry in Moscow. And this Moscow/Berlin project wasn’t actually part of it from the very beginning. It appears that they incorporated it through discussion and planning.

The Moscow/Berlin exhibition is curated by three German curators and three Moscow curators. The German curators are Jürgen Harten, former director of the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, a person who dealt with Russian and Soviet art for a number of decades. For example, he did a show on Alexander Deineka, the faboulous Soviet painter of the 30’s and 40’s. He also did a personal show with “Medical Hermeneutics”, and the “Binational II / Israel-USSR” with the famous “red waggon” by Kabakov in it. He did a lot for Russian art and with Russian art. Then Angela Schneider from New National Gallery in Berlin, and Christoph Tannert who is the Director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. The Russian curators are also interesting: Pavel Choroshilov, Vice Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation. I think it only happens in Moscow that a person in his position can be a curator at the same time. I mean he is very much a specialist on Russian art and photography. It’s not a question of his knowledge, as he is very capable. But this is an intersting combination, with him holding the Vice Minister and curator positions at the same time. Plus Viktor Misiano, a very well known curator and critic, and my friend Yekaterina Dyogot, also a very well known curator and critic.

So it’s those six who are curating the Berlin/Moscow exhibition on the second half of the 20th century, 1950-2000. Of course, for them I think it’s quite a complicated situation because there was the divided Berlin and then the unified Berlin, and there was Moscow after the war, during the “thaw” under Chruchev, during Perestroika, and now. I think the main idea of Berlin/Moscow is maintain a perspective from today. “Von heute aus” or “From Today” is the subtitle of this Berlin/Moscow project. I think it’s one of the interesting ways to handle this giant amount of information and developments and so on which they have to handle from these 50 years.

S. S.: And the exhibition is scheduled to open when?

K. B.: September, 2003. It’s going to take place in the Martin-Gropius-Bau here in Berlin, and then it will, as far as I understand, also travel to Moscow. But I don’t know where actually.

S. S.: Okay. I think we can end it here. Thank you so much for this talk.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.