The Moscow State Biennial

The first Moscow Biennial opens on January 28th, 2005. The issues that this exhibition tackles are characteristic of any major international exhibition of such grand scale, and include breaking with the isolation of the local art scene, reconnecting it to a larger art world, promoting discussions, inspiring dialogues, and educating the public.

But legitimization is perhaps the most critical issue any new biennial faces, and it is interesting to analyze it with regard to the upcoming Moscow exhibition: What is being legitimized there and what is the process through which this legitimization occurs?

Although the Moscow Biennial has not yet taken place, discussions in the Russian press about its concept and structure have been very intense to say the least, especially with respect to the role of the State in its organization.

The Russian State is in fact the main organizer and sponsor of the Moscow Biennial, represented by the Ministry of Culture, or to be more exact by the Federal Agency for Culture and Film.

The City of Moscow also plays a very prominent role in the exhibition’s conception, promoting itself as “a major metropolis and a geopolitical and multicultural center.”

“…This biennal would become the next step in developing the image of Moscow as one of the world’s major cultural capitals, as well as to satisfy the very different economic, political, and geopolitical interests of Russia,” says the official site of the biennial, unifying in a single sentence interests and expectations of both “global players” and carriers of the exhibition.

Russian organizers seem to be very concerned about putting Moscow on the world-biennials map. Stressing the well-known concept of Russia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the project description is invested with the rhetoric of national pride and desire, yet unreleased, to be among the blockbusters of the contemporary art world:

“With the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow itself would become a center in the art world with its pivotal location in the region stretching across Eastern Europe and former USSR, to Central Asia and the Far East. At the same time, Moscow could find its place in the network of other major international art forums, such as the legendary art biennales in Venice and Sao Paulo, Documenta in Kassel and Manifesta.”

This “pivotal” Eurasian touch, which is evoked in the project description, includes everywhere from Great Britain to Nigeria, passing through Brazil. There is no explicit accent on Eastern Europe or the former USSR, with only a few Eastern European artists included into the biennial’s venues.

The Russian State engaging contemporary art for its public relations and political purposes is a very recent phenomenon, which hasn’t passed unnoticed in the Russian press.(<>)

For over a decade since the demise of the Soviet Union, the promotion of contemporary Russian art has been located mainly abroad, either in private collections or cultural institutions sponsoring exhibitions and residencies for Russian artists.

This situation began to change with the growth of private Russian galleries, which usually complain about a lack of interest in and understanding of contemporary art among the Russian elite.

During Yeltsin’s time, the state was infamous for supporting glossy, quasi-realist art of such painters as Ilia Glazunov and Aleksandr Schilov, displaying no interest in the discourse of contemporary art.

The use and role of contemporary art in democratic societies was hardly discussed back then. In expressing its interest in contemporary art now, the Russian government signals possibility of a new relationship with contemporary art on the part of the Russian State.

According to some analysts, this interest can be explained with regard to the current political situation in Russia. The new Russian elite, who came to power with Vladimir Putin, desperately try to construct an image of a strong, respectable, and civilized nation, as maintained in the David Riff’s article “Dialectics of Hopelessness”.(<>)

The author of this publication argues, however, that the current shift is full of contradictions. Although the majority of the elite did not overcome the phase of kitschy glamour and gloss, in terms of representation, “today’s Russian elite desires modernist art as a more timely means of consolidation of its identity.”

In other words, a new image of a “way of life” is being constructed in Russia. Unifying residues of the “bureaucratic Socialism” from the Soviet heritage and the new “eclectic patriotism” (akin in its spirit to its post 9/11American version), the new Russian State constructs a “proper” façade and stabilizes its image.

This results in a new “visual discourse” of the country’s new elite, embracing contemporary art in the process of redefinition of its identity. The problem is that there is an immanent conflict between the commitment to art and the tendency to misuse it to serve other agendas, which unfortunately could not be successfully resolved in the case of the Moscow Biennial.

Indeed, the controversy surrounding the organization of the 1st Moscow Biennial surprised even the Russian media, which is accustomed to violent personal excesses of power, and was broadly discussed in the written press.(<>)

Viktor Misiano, the acclaimed co-curator of the biennial, was suddenly dismissed from his curatorial position last summer, despite his prominent role in the preparatory work for the project and his wide recognition both at home and abroad. The “coup d`etat” was organized and implemented by his Russian colleague Joseph Backstein, who asked for Misiano’s dismissal in an official letter to the Ministry of Culture.

The latter followed his request and decided to formally fire Misiano without any public explanations or discussions.(<>)

Any large-scale show is shaped by different, sometimes competing interests and involves negotiation and reconciliation. Part of the legitimacy of such shows is an exercise in the collective production of meaning. In the case of the Moscow Biennial, we can conclude that such an exercise has failed.

The most important problem, however, is the direct intervention of the State, whose competence in issues of contemporary art and organization of large-scale contemporary art exhibitions is more than questionable. Such interventions in these rather sensitive matters of curatorial staff demonstrate a very poor model of the aesthetic responsibility.

A certain tension between the duties of representation and current realities of contemporary art is revealed also in the theme of the biennial, “Dialectics of Hope.”
Theoretically, the concept engages the juxtaposition of utopia and hope, arguing, that “private hope,” contrary to “collective utopia,” is a relevant concept of our troubled post-everything times.

Without entering into the details of the concept, one observation can be made. Trying to define hope for the purpose of the show, the concept seems to have difficulties in keeping a clear distinction between the two notions, either does it directly assume their interconnections.

The dialectical relationship between utopia and hope is elaborated in a number of theoretical investigations, the probably most prominent of them was written by the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Offering a reinterpretation of the forms and history of Hope, his book “Das Prinzip Hoffnung” (The Principle of Hope), defines it as a utopian function.

What interests us here is a more recent implication of the Biennial theme. “Dialectics of Hope,” which was officially declared its topic at its very earlier stage, directly quotes the title of the book by the prominent Russian Marxist thinker Boris Kagarlitsky, who himself was very reticent to accept such an honor.

In his article published on, he spoke against the misuse of his words by the new Russian elite to construct the country’s new representation and ideology, pointing out a paradoxical situation:

“The context of my work is now legitimizing a project supported by the Russian elite, whose sympathies with the leftist theories and practices were quiet unnoticed before…Certainly, the “left wing” “progressive” rhetoric is fashionable now – we can see, for example, that it is used for decoration of any new law, designed to restrict the rights of the working class. The same thing happens in culture: the appeal of the officials to the left discourse follows the zeitgeist. But for a progressive and independent art such misuse of words and images is absolutely pernicious.”(<>)

For Kagarlitsky, this appears to be a particularly troubling arrangement because of the fractured structure of today’s Russian society, which he describes in his book “The Russian Left Today,” published in 2001.

In the book, he suggests that according to public polls, newspaper reports, and simple conversations on the street, Russian society is moving leftward. However, to judge from the statements of politicians and the balance of power within the elite, the country is moving decisively to the right.

In the situation of complex social controversies in the society, the very notions of the left and right are being redefined: those who were associated with leftist politics support the governmental agenda.

At the same time, new alternative movements on the left appear. Considering these circumstances, Kagarlitsky pointed out a contradiction between the façade of the Biennial, displaying the rhetoric of the Cultural Left, and its insufficient articulation of the real commitment in practice.

This discussion around the Moscow Biennial revealed to the public the complexities of such undertakings, where a sophisticated awareness of the implications of the use and misuse of ideas involved is demanded.

However, the Russian organizers tried to adapt to the situation and to fill the “dialectics of hope” with an appropriate content, deciding to renounce the initial concept of old-stars cast and concentrating only on young artists.

Six prominent international curators were invited to complete the main exhibition, which includes for the moment about 45 artists. The names of the artists are mostly unknown yet, with exception of such notorious figures as Jeremy Deller and the Group Gelatin, or special guests like Bill Viola, Ilia Kabakov and Christian Boltansky. The curators are Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Bobnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In order to divert accusations of pure aestheticism detached from the public, a very large number of parallel and special projects showcasing mostly Russian artists, were announced. There are 20 “special projects,” predominantly group exhibitions, each showing from 3 to several dozens participants.
18 “parallel projects” take place at commercial galleries or “non-profits.”

Among the special projects are a couple of interesting historical surveys like “Accessories. Collective and Interactive Works in Groups 1960-2000,” organized by Viktor Erofeev, featuring collaborative work created by artists’ groups recognized in Russia but to a large extent unknown abroad.

A promising idea seems to be the revisiting the so-called “AptArt”in the project “Apartment Exhibitions: Yesterday and Today,” organized by Oxana Sarkisyan. Exhibitions in private apartments or studios were characteristic for the work of many “unofficial” artists of the Soviet time.

Another project, “Informbureau: Modern Art in Russia,” is a very useful undertaking, which gathers and provides information about a great number of Russian artists, from Soviet “unofficial” artists of the 1960s to the “new generation” active now.

What gives Biennials their emotional and intellectual pressure is the creation of meaningful encounters of different works of art in a specific place and time. The place of the main exhibition in Moscow is definitely the major attraction and a successful choice (from a symbolical, not from a technical point of view).

The selection of artists of the first Moscow Biennial will be displayed in the Lenin Museum just next to the Red Square. “Dialectics of Hope” in the Lenin Museum, doesn’t it sound like a Grand Show?

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