A Space of Experiment
“A Certain State of the World?” - a selection of works from the Frangois Pinault Foundation collection - was the second project put together by the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture. Moscow’s new exhibition venue owes its name to the fact that initially the building housed a garage, for buses, built in 1926-27 to the design of the famed Constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov.
Today it is experiencing a renaissance as an exhibition space, with up to 2,000 visitors coming there every day. Through to mid-June the Garage held an exhibition which promises to become one of the most significant cultural events of the year.
For the first time in Russia a single show is to bring together works of a host of leading international artists. For the show in Moscow, about 40 objects, installations and videos were selected from the Frangois Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art, which includes more than 2,000 items. Works of acclaimed modern masters, such as Bill Viola, Shirin Neshat, Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons, are featured alongside pieces by young but already well known artists — Cao Fei, Loris Greaud, and Marion Tampon-Lajarriette.
The overall layout of the exhibition space is remarkable — it is akin to a stage performance, with a fascinating beginning, a three-act division of the bulk of the play, and a finale, which leaves time for reflection.
The first item on display is Subodh Gupta’s “Very Hungry God” — an enormous skull made of kitchen utensils. First showed at the Saint-Bernard Church in Paris in 2006, the item has all the makings for becoming a new symbol of “Vanitas”.
Next follows a section called “Wars”. According to the show’s curator Caroline Bourgeois, the modern Russian art familiar to Western experts is mostly aggressive and brutal, so it seems natural that Russian audiences should be well prepared for the encounter with an artwork of this particular sort. However, this “brutal” section with its gigantic Paul McCarthy’s & Mike Kelley’s installation “Sod & Sodie Sock Comp.” — a model of an American military camp — is the one that seemed to be bound to provoke more controversy than the others.
Strange though it may seem, for all its external aggressiveness, modern artwork, placed in a foreign cultural environment, often proves helpless and loses some of the meanings intended by the authors. Thus, only the knowledge of a wider political context makes readable the pieces by Adel Abdessemed, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla presented in the “Globalised World” section.
“The Society of Spectacle” is featured in the centre of the exhibition space, between “Wars” and “Globalised World”. Jeff Koons’s sculptures are the highlight of the section. Made of painted aluminum, the objects are exact reproductions of inflatable toys coupled with objects of everyday use. Koons’s “Celebration” series consists of scaled-up reproductions of familiar objects, including the “Hanging Heart” — a heart-shaped object weighing 2.5 tons.
An original style distinguishes Joana Vasconcelos’s works: an immense medallion, made of red plastic forks, knifes and spoons, slowly revolves about its axes to the melancholy tunes of fado music. Tim Noble’s and Sue Webster’s piece, too, is focused on the “cardiac” theme, weaving together the Christian archetype of sacrifice and kitsch aesthetics.
Provocation is an invariable trademark of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, who is probably the only artist in the show without a formal training in art. His art is somewhat autobiographical. The ostrich hiding its head under the gallery’s floor symbolizes the artist himself, who is surprised and scared by his unexpected fame.
Video installations are featured prominently at the show. Drawing on themes and images from films has become a tradition for the artists working in this genre. The pieces by Paul Pfeiffer, Johan Grimonprez and Marion Tampon-Lajarriette inspired by Alfred Hitchcock offer yet further evidence of this.
Different sources of inspiration are obvious in the works of Bill Viola — one of the greatest masters of contemporary video art. In terms of expressiveness, magnitude of themes and composition, his pieces evoke Renaissance paintings and frescoes.
Highlighting the diversity of the world today, the show organizers present Asian artists — natives of Korea, Japan and China. Chen Zhen's installation, which was to become the artist’s last work, is a monumental percussion instrument designed to establish vivid interaction with the viewer.
It appears that the exhibition, introducing a whole layer of culture which is popular in the West and barely known in Russia, reflects all the latest tendencies of the modern art world.
Anna Dyakonitsyna, a scientific researcher at the Tretyakov Gallery, interviewed Caroline Bourgeois, curator of the videoart collection of the Fangois Pinault Foundation
How was the idea born to show an exhibition from the Frangois Pinault collection in Moscow?
The project was made on the invitation of Daria Zhukova, the founder of the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, the international coordinator of the Garage Centre.
Several exhibitions from the collection were shown in Italy and France recently. How can you describe the exhibition policy of the Ftangois Pinault Foundation at the beginning of the 21st Century ?
A new period started in 2006 when Palazzo Grassi in Venice was opened as a permanent place for the exhibition projects on contemporary art linked with the collection. Three different shows were organized at that space in 2006-2007. “Where Are We Going?” and the “Frangois Pinault Collection: A Post-Pop Selection” were based on works of the important contemporary artists: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and others. And “ Sequence-1” was a show with the established artists linked with more contemporary ones like Martial Raysse, Urs Fischer — all of them were engaged in the practice of painting or sculpture. In 2007 the Frangois Pinault collection was shown out of Italy as a special brand at the exhibition “Passage du temps” in Lille. The Moscow show was the next one. And it’s the first time that the Pinault collection would be exhibited in four different places: in the capital of Russia, in Dinard — a small town in France, and in Venice with their two spaces — Palazzo Grassi as already mentioned and Punta della Dogana newly opened in the context of the Venice Biennale.
What was the peculiarity of your work on the Moscow project?
The first time I came in Moscow, I saw the Garage space empty. And I was impressed very much by the size and a special atmosphere of that building. I worked in Moscow with the same architect with whom I worked in Lille. So we started to think up a project which was linked with the space. I wanted to give to the public an idea of the architecture as well. We decided that it was obvious to show large-scale works by Dan Flavin and Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley. And I started to think on a show with the meaning started from those installations. So that’s how we worked. That’s why I didn’t use as much video as I did in Lille, because the black boxes, which were necessary for the projection, looked a bit like a fair, that I didn’t really want for the Moscow exhibition.
As a curator did you feel any limitations while working on the exhibition project?
If you mean financial restriction — the show was built before the crisis.
And as to speak about the content — there were no limitations. We discussed with the Garage team, with the architect about the space, we changed something to ease the installation of works.
But in regard to the location (the Garage Centre is placed in the area which belongs to the Jewish community) we did not intend to include very provocative works: sexual, porno.
Why did you decide to start the exhibition from the war theme?
I had a lot of different reasons. On the 20th century (as we are starting the 21st) I think the Second World War is the base of whatever happened after. And contemporary art in my point of view has a lot of inference from the period “before the Second World War”. It’s in that period when the idea of the contemporary was born. The Utopia that you could change the society has a strong link with the Second World War. So I think we are all concerned here, including the Russians.
Could you comment on the installation by Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley from the “Wars” section?
It speaks about the American Empire, a strategy between the military and culture to take over Europe in a way. They show human meal identical imitation with a lot of distance and criticism which is also very important for nowadays. And we can find there an idea that came abroad (also from Russian history) — the idea of a huge power.
It’s interesting by the way that the contemporary Russian artists like the very well-known in Europe Oleg Kulik or AES group create also very aggressive and provocative works.
Did you keep in mind any traditions of Russian art and culture while working on the exhibition for Moscow?
As to speak about contemporary Russian art — I’m not an expert. But I know that contemporary Russian artists — I mean what
was shown abroad — are quite provocative but dealing with the money system too.
It’s obvious to me that the Suprematist period was fundamental for contemporary art. (I appreciated much a permanent display of the Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val). So I kept in mind the Russian avant-garde tradition especially due to the space of the Garage building designed by Konstantin Melnikov. I thought it would be interesting to place the big installation by Dan Flavin along the central axis as to confront the minimalist style with the constructivism idea.
What do you think about the visitors’ responses? Did you expect such a reaction?
You could tell me better because I don’t speak Russian. But I discussed a lot with the Garage team — that’s my mediation. And even if I don’t understand Russian when I came here after the opening, in a normal day I got a bit of a shock for such a great quantity of visitors and a lot of people told me it’s the first time in Moscow they could see such a show.
Even in France when I did the show in Lille the government of the city helped to make it popular. And we worked a lot with what we call mediators. We tried to give also a context while publishing the works in the small booklets available for visitors.
I tried to show on the Moscow exhibition the subjects that anyone could under stand like “Wars”, “Spectacle”, “Global World”. Starting with the Wars was a way to reflect what I presume from abroad as a very romantic but also very valiant culture in the whole history. Then I decided to talk about the Society of Spectacle which has a glamour attitude with a lot of contradictions as everywhere else. And the third part shows the continents which are starting to be mixed. I wanted to give an idea of a global world with some specification and not any more just Occidental world or Orient world.
But on a whole I think the public is clever enough to interplay easily with contemporary art. And I believe in memories of shows, and I think that maybe someone could understand it three months later, or two years later, or ten years later.
Why did you decide do not include in the show the works by the artists who are well known in Russia, like Andy Warhol, for example?
There are some Warhols in the collection, but the collection is very much turned to contemporary times. So I think even if the bases are Warhol and many others artists I thought it was more interesting to show installations than paintings. There was only one painting: “In Jerusalem” by I.Z. Kami.
But it’s not a usual painting in a way, but also a kind of installation.
Yes, that’s also why I chose it for the show.
As I said it was interesting to show not paintings. Even if the contemporary Russian artists who are internationally known use very often video-installation, it’s not very much a popular kind of art in Russia. This is a kind of big gap. It’s surprising in a way. So that was one of the reasons. And then in one exhibition I thought it was more interesting not to pretend to make an art history as it’s peculiar to the museums, but to make a display that could reply on today’s questions. So that’s why I didn’t want to place works chronologically. That’s all those reasons.
As I observed some works were changed. I mean, for example, an installation “The Way Home” by Subodh Gupta. Now some utensil objects are overturned.
Contemporary art works are always alive; they are always changeable. The artist came and changed it the day before the opening. He wanted probably to play with the idea of marauders or gangsters.
But the installation of Subodh Gupta has many different references to Indian and European cultures. A lotus flower is considered as a sacred object in Oriental religions. But also you need to confront it to the impressionists with the flower of the water lily. It’s a way to speak about a painting which is not a painting. As a curator I’m trying that every work can have different levels of understanding, not just one. And I deeply believe that no one work ever has one meaning, there are always a few. And there is always the one you can make your own. And I think it’s important to keep that space open for the visitors.
Do you have any exhibition plans in Russia?
You mean with the collection?
That’s for Frangois Pinault to answer. But he was very impressed by the perception during his stay. And he told he was excited by the fact that the show is appreciated in Moscow as an unprecedented project. But of cause the exhibition strategy depends also on the investing.
After the current exhibition in Moscow what could be interesting to show about contemporary art?
All I know at the Garage — they are going to ask a French curator to do a show about contemporary Russian artists. And I would think it could be interesting to keep on an international level and probably make a mix between Russian and international art.
High chromium stainless steel with transparent colour coating. 291 × 280 × 101.5 cm
Stainless-steel structure covered by kitchen tools. 320 × 280 × 330 cm
Performance, video tape, installation. Wood, military tents, oatmeal, butter, cooking utensils, military clothing, refrigerator, plumbing, sonotubes, wigs, furniture
Painted iron, red plastic knives, spoons and forks, metal chain, CD, sound system. 345 × 200 × 80 cm
Polychromed aluminium, wood, coated steel chains. 213.4 × 171.5 × 151.1 cm
Installation. Fluorescent lights
Wood, metal, chairs, beds, cowhide, ropes. 244 × 1800 × 1400 cm
Taxidermied ostrich. 124.5 × 134.6 × 50.8 cm
Fibreglass, steel, acrilic, fabric. 139.7 × 58.4 × 29.2 cm
Video 5 mm transferred to DVD
Colour print on dibond, ink calligraphy handwritten. 152.4 × 101.6 cm each
Video and mixed media installation
Iron, head scarves, flags. 170 × 1100 × 550 cm