THE FEDERATION OF CURATORS
The Second Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art has certainly become a significant event in Russia’s cultural life. Almost every Moscow organization in any way related to contemporary art - including museums, galleries, centres of contemporary art, private foundations and even the trendiest of clubs - have tried to make a statement by their participation in the preparation of the exhibition calendar. Their wider purpose is to accurately and proudly present contemporary art in Russia, as well as invite the numerous guests of the Biennale to acquaint themselves with Russian art, both from today and from the recent past.
However, the curators' main project was the most important statement within the Biennale's framework, its core event created by the invited team including Joseph Bakshtein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Bubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Gunnar Kvaran, Rosa Martinez, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Fulya Erdemci. Five of them - Bakshtein, Bubnova, Bourriaud, Martinez and Erdemci, pulled together all their efforts to prepare and present the exhibition in the Federation Tower in Moscow City, a region still being built as the most ambitious architectural and construction project of the Moscow government.
The logic of the event seems clear: An incomplete skyscraper stands as a symbol of the government's future building plans, and this future becomes a cache of exhibits of contemporary art. The alliance with the government is also presented in a very Marxist-like manner: The government serves as the basis (both for the Tower and for economic activity as a whole), and art is the superstructure (the exhibition in the upper floors, and in general, relates to the organizational activity of the curators). The concept of the Biennale was designed in a similar manner: "Footnotes”, in its full version "FOOTNOTES: On Geopolitics, Markets, and Amnesia”. In the words of the Biennale's commissioner Joseph Bakshtein, "Today we are talking of footnotes, remarks which are capably made by art in the margins of macroeconomic battles”.
Actually, such a concept is the most accurate in reflecting the economic foundation of the Biennale, with the event widely supported by the government through Russia's Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications. By emphasizing the status quo of what they had been commissioned to implement, the curators were made - whether they wanted to or not - to concentrate on their own part in culture. They, the salaried and commissioned curators, are in close and direct proximity to the authorities, while the rest of the event's participants (primarily artists, but also curators for special programmes without financial support from the Ministry) are free from such a burden.
Had the curators announced their activity specifically from such a standpoint - that the Biennale exhibition was dedicated to the social role played by the curator - they would perhaps have managed to disarm certain critics, and counteract reprimands about the chaotic manner of the programme presented.
In fact, it is worth paying more careful attention to the main abstracts of the curatorial texts, placing them in concordance with the authors' social experience. Thus, lara Bubnova states in the foreword to her "History in the Present Tense”: "The common public opinion seems to have granted Eastern Europe an eternal mimicking status, whether it is mimicking a socialist or a capitalist model of development, or incorporating something else from East or something else from West [...] Such a role has its own advantages: One becomes to a lesser extent responsible for injustice in the world, but such is also one's responsibility for justice... Most frequently one has become a recipient of History which allows to develop a somewhat detached attitude towards it. [...] Cultural amnesia is a defining characteristic of our times. This is more than a mere survival strategy for separate nations; now, it becomes a mandatory condition for being affiliated with the flow of global processes, a trampoline for self-advertising, and the marketing tool.”
Of course it could also be true that our former compatriot, who long ago moved to another of the East European provinces, Bulgaria, had first hand experience of such a storyline. This amnesia is shown in an attempt to be a foreigner - always and everywhere - even when close in spirit but distanced in the struggle with the "patriotic” ideas and problems of self-identity which are so typical in the post-Soviet nations.
For Nicolas Bourriaud, the founder and director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (1999-2006), and at the same time advisor to the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation in Kiev, the problems of the show organization itself are closest. "I wanted to put the very notion of the exhibition in the corner of the problem: To present objects of art along with either intentional avoidance of the form of exhibiting, or by making it as extreme that the notion shall disappear...”. It is important to note, though, that despite such a statement, in Bourriaud's project the objects of art are connected with one another much more closely than in any other exhibitions of the main project. His "Icy Water of Egoistical Calculation” reminds us of an ice monolith with the insertion of some especially bright works which therefore become very convenient to transport to distant Eastern provinces, whether Moscow or Kiev.
For the well-known international curators of the Venice and Istanbul Biennales, Rosa Martinez and Fulia Erdemci , the Moscow Biennale is by no means perceived as "AFTER ALL”. They have polished their exhibition methods on the European stage (compared to Moscow, even Istanbul is certainly in Europe), and the exhibition here turned out to be easy to handle. The selection of names was rather impressive - no particular top-class names but no extreme outcasts either. They understood the topic as follows: Since the old Soviet history is over, they "decided to get closer to the atmosphere of the transformations undergone by Moscow.” Or, in other words, something of their own which they see as positive, without much consideration of the ever-so-significant "context”. With regards to the Footnotes in a Moscow situation, this is of course the most demure of the curatorial positions.
Joseph Bakshtein, the Biennale's chief commissioner and the main curator for the second time defines his interests in the title of his text: "Nothing but Footnotes? Art in the Epoch of Social Darwinism”. His emphasis is on the problem of evolution within the social medium - "the strategy of its own survival” - and with the answer that one cannot limit it all to footnotes alone. It is important to play "a major and fundamental part, interpreting and justifying this society”.
Various aspects of the complex role of the curator of contemporary art are undoubtedly close to one another and could be perceived jointly. That is why the projects presented in the tower exhibitions are not separated but smoothly connecting the curators' "palettes of names”: None is locked within its own inner logic, formal plastic language, and each is endowed with obviously auxiliary functions.
Yet some very significant names and memorable works were invited for the main projects. Russian artists were represented by Viktor Alimpiev, Sergey Bratkov, Mikhail Kosolapov, Yury Leiderman, Diana Machulina, Iliya Trushevsky, Olga Chernysheva, Aidan Salakhova, and Natalia Struchkova. It should be noted, however, that this list is rather politically correct: several known and established and several young artists, and almost half of them women.
Among first-class Western artists represented were Carsten Nicolai, Gianni Motti, Anna Mendieta, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Nedko Solakov, and Dan Perjovschi. After all, the Biennale is a chance to see their works in Russia - a chance that shouldn't be missed even if the public is not sensitive to the searches, anxieties, and philosophical implications of the group of curators themselves.
New exhibition spaces and organizations established prior to the event became an undisputed bonus for the Second Moscow Biennale. Their activities have been evident over the past year: Among them are the Modern City Fund, the Era Fund, StellaArtFoundation (not to be confused with the gallery that no longer operates), the Ekaterina Fund, and the Vinzavod Centre of Contemporary Art. Among such recently established organizations there were also those for which the Biennale exhibition was their very first project. Such organizations included the Russian Century Foundation and the Higher Art and Technical Studios (VHUTEMAS) gallery affiliated with the Moscow Architecture Institute.
Credit due to the Russian Century Foundation and its curator Marina Goncharenko derives not only from the arrangement of one of the more impressive exhibitions, "Through the Painting”, on the third exhibition floor of the Federation Tower, but also the search for premises to host the Biennale's main projects. This foundation plans to open a gallery in Moscow, titled GMG, where Russian and international artists will be presented as equals. Some of these artists are currently participating in the exhibition, like Carsten Nicolai and Michael Lin. Anatoly Zhuravlev is the art director of the future gallery.
One of the best Russian curators, the architect Yury Avvakumov initiated and created the non-profit Higher Art and Technical Studios (VHUTEMAS) gallery. To commemorate the birth of the new exhibition space, he developed an exhibition titled "Maternity Home”, in which he reduced the phenomenon of architecture down to its most "essential and adequate” aspect - as a medium for life. One could clearly see overtones of a return to modernist utopian planning in which the most worthy of paradigms in any footnotes are presented, simply as remarks for the future. This project presented works by the most significant Russian and international innovators in architecture.
YURY AVVAKUMOV: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE CURATORS' INDEPENDENT CREATIVE WORK
What is a curator in contemporary art today?
The Latin dictionary has the expression, "curator aviarii”, or "the overseer of the aviary”. I see it as a rather meaningful metaphor: Any artist is a God's creature just like a bird, singing when it pleases and feels like it; and whoever oversees these birds in their cages should take proper care to make sure these birds sing rather than wither away.
What is the curator's professional responsibility?
The curator is a mediator between the artist and the public. For the artist, the curator is a bodyguard, manager, contractor or the like, while for the public the curator is an interpreter and educator. The curator must know absolutely everything when it comes to arranging an exhibition: from driving a nail into the wall to writing the text in a catalogue.
Which curator is good and which is bad?
The curator should present the artist and art adequately and with dignity. If translated to the language of today's realities, since we are living in a rather vulgar and barbaric society, the curator above all should take care to make sure the public does not see vulgarities or barbaric aspects of it. Because neither has anything to do with art. If a curator transfers the vulgarity of the medium, this curator is bad. Even more so - he or she is no curator at all. I was extremely disappointed with the exhibitions at Vinzavod that are openly failing both the artists and the public. The artworks are "exhibited” in dirty, stifled, and poorly lit atmosphere. I know someone who fell into a pool there, when it was cold, and everything could have ended very badly. Exhibitions at such poorly prepared construction sites would be banned in any civilized country, simply based on public safety issues.
And so, is the curator an artists' agent or the social medium's messenger?
The curator is a double agent. Not to be confused with the Medici, since curators never work for his or her own money, using public, donor or artists' funds only. The "creative art” of curators with the artists recruited to implement it is therefore a completely arbitrary outrage and pretence.
Do you think that perhaps it is the effect of the "damned capitalism" when the producer of a film is often times more significant than its director?
It would be more accurate to compare them to personal managers. But then I think it has something to do with psychology. Many curators I know once tried themselves out in the arts - and failed. Typically, unsatisfied ambitions are behind it all.
Which curators are more professional generally - those who combine a curator and an artist in themselves, or those who come with the history of art and other "para-artistic" backgrounds?
I believe that their background is absolutely immaterial, yet their perception of themselves is not. Art is an ancient ritual, akin to pagan dances around bonfires, and in this ritual, a curator is the priest. When the dance is made around a puddle, the curator needs to be sacrificed for unprofessionalism and incompetence.
Who could you name as today's greatest curator and an example to follow?
I have worked a lot with Jurgen Harten, and to me he is an absolutely meaningful figure. Harald Zeeman was of a similar caliber. Representatives of the older generation continue to set examples for us to follow.
Ceramic and lights
Film, 16 mm, 57 minutes
Photo print, installation
Video, 6 min
Installation with snow growth machines
Oil on canvas. 200 by 280 cm
Installation with lamps
Print. 60 by 90 cm
Acryl. 400 by 600 cm
Acryl, tape, polyester, aluminum. 200 by 400 cm
Oil on canvas. 60 by 80 cm (each)
Oil on canvas, plastic 140 by 200 cm (each)