Shorthand for Fascism (The 9th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art)

A view of the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Photo: Mikhail Japaridze (TASS). Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Russian authorities have canceled the 9th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art, which was supposed to take place at the New Tretyakov Gallery.

In a press release, the Russian Ministry of Culture said the reason was “the absolute discrepancy between the caliber of a number of the exhibits and the venue’s status […] The Tretyakov Gallery is a treasure trove of Russian art. The desire to hold the project [t]here, and not at a private or corporate venue, should go hand in hand with responsibility for the exhibition’s artistic and ethical context.”

In addition, with reference to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Ministry of Culture noted that the management of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art Foundation had not fulfilled its obligations under the contract. Among other things, they had failed to meet the deadlines for installing the exhibition and not provided the necessary paperwork, which, in turn, led to a violation of fire safety rules.

The biennale was to begin on November 7. In connection with the news that the exhibition had been canceled, a statement by the organizers and a video from the exposition, now closed and sealed off, appeared on the biennale’s website.

The event’s organizers and participating artists say they do not dispute the decision to close it, but do not agree with the “terrifying wording” of the explanation for its closure.

The exhibition’s spokespeople note that they were going to show, in particular, Sergei Bugaev’s project on the demolition of Soviet war monuments in Europe, the works of Anastasia Deineka and Adelina Shabanova, who are artists from Donetsk and Lugansk, and other projects on timely topics.

“Contemporary art is considered to be outcasts [sic]. We are suspected of hooliganism and nihilism in advance, of giving people the finger with our hand stuffed in our pocket. But we did no such thing. We decided in march 2022 that we were working for our viewers. We are all going through perhaps the most difficult test for our country and in each of our lives, and we need to at least try to go through it with dignity. We tried,” the organizers said in their statement.

Source: “Biennale of contemporary art canceled in Moscow,” Radio Svoboda, 4 November 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


A video survey of 9th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at the New Tretyakov Gallery, closed by order of the Russian Ministry of Culture before its scheduled opening date of November 7, 2022.

DEAR COLLEAGUES!

LAST NIGHT, WE, THE TEAM AND THE ARTISTS OF THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE LEARNED FROM THE NEWS THAT THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION HAD DECIDED TO CLOSE THE EXHIBITION. ONE DOES NOT ARGUE WITH THE MINISTRY, BUT WE CANNOT HELP BUT OBJECT TO THE HORRIFYING WORDING “THE DISCREPANCY BETWEEN THE CALIBER OF A NUMBER OF THE EXHIBITS AND THE CHOSEN VENUE’S STATUS.”

BY DECISION OF THE MOSCOW BIENNALE’S ADVISORY BOARD, ONLY RUSSIAN ARTISTS — 27 CREATORS — ARE PARTICIPATING IN THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE. FOR SOME, THIS IS THEIR FIRST SERIOUS EXHIBITION, WHILE FOR OTHERS IT IS JUST ANOTHER IN A LONG LIST OF EXHIBITIONS AT LEADING VENUES AROUND THE WORLD. THEY HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON: EACH IS A TALENTED ARTIST:

TATIANA BADANINA,
MARINA BELOVA AND ALEXEI POLITOV,
YEVGENIA BURAVLEVA,
SERGEI BUGAEV,
DMITRY VOLODIN,
THUNDER GROUP:
ALEXEI LOGINOV
ARTYOM LOGINOV
OLGA MICHI
ANASTASIA DEINEKA,
VASILY ELSHIN,
PLATON INFANTE,
ANDREI KARTASHEV,
DARIA KONOVALOVA-INFANTE,

THE EXHIBITION IS CALLED “SHORTHAND FOR FEELINGS”. THE VIEWER WAS TO MOVE FROM “TENSION” THROUGH “RESPECT,” “NOSTALGIA,” “SURPRISE,” “INFINITY,” “FAITH,” “HOPE,” “TRANQUILITY,” HISTORICAL “MEMORY,” “REVERENCE,” “GRATITUDE,” “BITTERNESS OVER WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN,” “LOVE” AND “BELONGING” TO “LIGHT” AND “PEACE.”

CONTEMPORARY ART IS CONSIDERED TO BE OUTCASTS. WE ARE SUSPECTED OF HOOLIGANISM AND NIHILISM IN ADVANCE, OF GIVING PEOPLE THE FINGER WITH OUR HAND STUFFED IN OUR POCKET. BUT WE DID NO SUCH THING. WE DECIDED IN MARCH 2022 THAT WE WERE WORKING FOR OUR VIEWERS. WE ARE ALL GOING THROUGH PERHAPS THE MOST DIFFICULT TEST FOR OUR COUNTRY AND IN EACH OF OUR LIVES, AND WE NEED TO AT LEAST TRY TO GO THROUGH IT WITH DIGNITY. WE TRIED:

HOPE BY TATIANA BADANINA. PART OF THE PROJECT IS A SERIES OF WHITE SHIRTS, SIMILAR TO CHRISTENING SHIRTS, BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT SOME OF THEM HAVE SOMETHING IN THEIR POCKETS. IT IS DEDICATED TO THE NOTES CONTAINING PRAYERS THAT WIVES AND MOTHERS SEW INTO THE CLOTHING OF SOLDIERS AS THEY SEE THEM OFF TO THE FRONT, HOPING THAT HER LOVE AND HOPE FOR A REUNION WILL HELP HER HUSBAND OR SON STAY ALIVE. AND ON THE WALL NEXT TO IT IS A LETTER FROM THE FRONTLINE OF THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR, FROM THE AUTHOR’S FAMILY ARCHIVE.

MEMORY BY SERGEI BUGAEV IS A PROJECT ABOUT THE DEMOLITION OF OUR MONUMENTS IN EUROPE. MOST OF THEM ARE MEMORIALS TO THE LIBERATING SOLDIERS, ERECTED AFTER THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR IN COUNTRIES LIBERATED FROM FASCISM: ESTONIA, LATVIA, LITHUANIA, UKRAINE, POLAND, CZECH REPUBLIC. BUT THE BUSTS OF ALEXANDER SERGEYEVICH PUSHKIN AND THE PLAQUE ON THE HOUSE WHERE MIKHAIL BULGAKOV WAS BORN HAVE ALSO SUFFERED. WE HAVE COLLECTED 102 IMAGES OF DEMOLISHED AND DESECRATED MONUMENTS: FROM MEMORIAL CEMETERIES TO BUSTS OF THE POET AND BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER IN ONE VIDEO, AND IN THE FINALE THERE IS FOOTAGE OF THE SAUR-MOGILA MEMORIAL COMPLEX IN DONETSK, RESTORED IN 2022 AFTER SIMILAR DAMAGE.

THE WALL TEXT WITH THE FULL LIST OF TITLES TOOK UP 4 METERS.

ANASTASIA DEINEKA’S PEOPLE ARE PORTRAITS OF PEOPLE LIVING IN DONETSK, PEOPLE WHO DID NOT LEAVE THE CITY EITHER IN 2014 OR NOW. THE ARTIST’S STORY ABOUT THE PERSON IN THE PORTRAIT SUPPLEMENTS EACH PORTRAIT. “THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF HEROES IN THE WORLD, ABOUT WHOM THOUSANDS OF BOOKS AND STORIES HAVE BEEN WRITTEN. NO ONE TALKS ABOUT THE PEOPLE YOU WILL SEE DEPICTED ON MY CANVASES, BUT YOU CAN UNDERSTAND THEM WITHOUT WORDS.”

THE CREATOR OF THE STORY OF THE BLUE HARES, ADELINA SHABANOVA, WAS BORN IN LUGANSK IN 1998. WHAT SEEMS AT FIRST GLANCE TO BE A CHEERFUL STORYBOARD FOR A CARTOON PROVES TO BE A SCARY FAIRY TALE WHEN EXAMINED CAREFULLY. THE BLUE HARES ARE LIVING THEIR NORMAL LIVES, BUT ARE IN CONSTANT TENSION. AT ANY MOMENT A BIRD OF PREY CAN BLOW UP A QUIET FAMILY DINNER, A MATH LESSON, SITTING ON THE COUCH IN FRONT OF THE TV, AND THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE.

PART OF THE PROJECT “LIGHT” IS ANTHONY VAN DYCK’S “PORTRAIT OF THE APOSTLE PETER,” 1618, AS A SYMBOL OF THE ETERNAL LIGHT OF GREAT ART.

PEACE — TWO ARTISTS: SASHA KUPALYAN FROM MOSCOW AND NASTYA DEINEKA FROM DONETSK, FOR TWO WEEKS COLLABORATED ON PAINTING A PEACEFUL SKY AS OUR COMMON PRAYER FOR PEACE AND CALM.

THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE IS READY. WE NEEDED 1 MORE DAY TO FINISH 3 INSTALLATIONS, TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE, SET UP THE VIDEO, HANG THE CURTAINS AND SOLEMNLY MOUNT THE VAN DYCK.

MIKHAIL BORISOVICH PIOTROVSKY, A MEMBER OF THE MOSCOW BIENNALE’S ADVISORY BOARD, WAS DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN SELECTING THE CREATORS FOR THE PROJECT AND GAVE THIS QUOTE FOR THE OPENING DAY PRESS RELEASE: “RUSSIA PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN SHAPING THE ART OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. THE MOSCOW BIENNALE IS A CHANCE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.”

WE WEREN’T GIVEN A CHANCE. IT IS ESPECIALLY A PITY THAT MOSCOW WILL NOT SEE THE WORKS OF ARTISTS FROM DONETSK AND LUGANSK. NASTYA DEINEKA, IN ADDITION TO WORKING WITH SASHA KUPALYAN, REPPRODUCED IN HER ROOM “THE ANGEL OF DONBASS, WHICH SHE PAINTED FOR THE FIRST TIME ON THE WALL OF A KINDERGARTEN BOMBED ON JUNE 1, 2022. AND WE HUNG A VIDEO OF HER WORKS ON THE WALLS OF DONETSK NEARBY.

WE MANAGED LAST NIGHT, BEFORE THE ROOMS WERE SEALED, TO FILM THE EXHIBITION AND ARE POSTING THE VIDEO. PLEASE TAKE A LOOK.

Source: 9th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art. The original text was printed in all caps. The punctuation of the original text has also been preserved where possible. Translated by the Russian Reader

Contemporary Art Killed My Dog

On a number of issues and events you have opposed Putin’s policies, and now you are at the Moscow Biennale [of Contemporary Art] at the VDNKh, a venue where the order of things is supposed to be questioned [sic]. Do you believe that here, in the current political situation, there can be a place for real criticism that is both anti-Putinist and anti-capitalist?

Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist
Yanis Varoufakis, anti-anti-Putinist

[Yanis Varoufakis:] Absolutely. But let me clarify something. I am not an anti-Putinist.  Anti-Putinism is too strong a word. I am very critical of Putin, but his demonization in the West is something I also resist. We should be smarter and think about what it means to be critical. I am extremely critical of what Putin did in Chechnya, and I have not forgiven him for it. But on the other hand, Putin was absolutely right about what happened in Georgia, and the West was absolutely wrong. I think that the West’s position on Crimea has also been inconsistent. Russia was surrounded [sic] by NATO when Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other countries were included in the alliance. And for Russia it was an insult, as well as something close to violating the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev [sic]. And Putin has been right about this, too. So I have never supported the policy of demonizing Putin. And I am afraid that Russians will have to suffer the awful consequences of this process, consequences which they do not deserve.

So I believe that spaces like this give us hope for the existence of another, rational, critical approach that does not take one side or the other and allows people from the West and Russia to get together and develop a more sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.

—Excerpted from Sergei Guskov, “Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Being critical without demonizing,’” Colta.Ru, October 2, 2015. Translated, from the Russian, by the Russian Reader

__________

There are only a few things I would add to Mr. Varoufakis’s remarks, above. First, he presumably made them in English, not Russian. Since he is an extremely persuasive speaker and conversationalist, it is quite possible some nuances in what he said at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were flattened or distorted when translated from English (?) into Russian, and these distortions have only been amplified further in my back translation.

But I doubt this is the case. The point of his remarks seems quite plain, so they are either a fabrication on the part of Colta.Ru or what Mr. Varoufakis more or less said in the event, minus the “static” of two consecutive translations.

If this is what he said, then Mr. Varoufakis is only another in a long line of Western leftist thinkers and activists who, seemingly, have found something “anti-hegemonic” or “anti-imperialist” or “productively” anti-American or, God forbid, “anti-capitalist” about Putin’s policies and actions, or have found it possible to hobnob with or shill for Putinists, on the Putinist dime, in the name of some kind of “criticality” or “third position” above the current fray, or just because they were bored and wanted an all-expenses-paid junket to Moscow or Petersburg or Rhodes.

A smarter person than me (and an actual Russian leftist activist to boot) has pointed out that Putin is nothing remotely like an anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, my smart friend has argued, folks in the west should make an effort to find out about grassroots social and political activism and activists in today’s Russia and look for ways to make common cause with them. Or, at least, not stab them in the back by supporting Putin explicitly or implicitly.

Because Russia, like “the West,” is not a monolith. And that is the second way in which Mr. Varoufakis went wrong in his remarks in Moscow. “The West” is not a single entity, even among its political, intellectual, and media elites. It is not an organism singularly hellbent on “demonizing” Putin, whatever that means. It requires no effort at all to compile a very long league table of Putin’s wholehearted or partial supporters in “the West,” from Stephen Cohen to Donald Trump, from Silvio Berlusconi to Mary Dejevsky, from Nick Griffin to any number of leftist and centrist politicians in Europe. For reasons I haven’t been able to explain, that table has been growing fatter as Putin’s actions have become more aggressive and “demonic,” both at home and abroad.

Neither is Russian society nor the fabled (and utterly imaginary) “Russian people” monolithic, but over the past fifteen years the Russian state apparatus, the Russian mainstream media (especially television), and Russian mainstream political parties have become a monolith, one of whose primary goals, especially in the last two or three years, has been to demonize “the West” and the domestic opposition any way it can, no holds barred.

You would have to have been in the middle of this properly demonic media hysteria, moral panic, and “cold civil war” to appreciate just how thoroughgoing and thoroughly frightening it has been, and since I have been following Mr. Varoufakis’s own adventures over the past year or so, I can imagine he simply has no clue about what has really been happening in Russia since the blocks came off completely post Maidan, because he was very busy with more important matters.

One job this blog has taken on has been to provide little snapshots of that awfulness while also, more importantly, giving non-Russian speakers a chance to hear Russian voices other than Putin’s, however unimpressive or inaudible they might seem to big shots like Putin and Mr. Varoufakis.

Finally, I would like to address the question of why Mr. Varoufakis imagines, apparently, that big hoedowns like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art are such perfect places for elaborating a “sophisticated optics for seeing the world and politics, for being critical without demonizing.”

Just a year ago, my hometown of Petrograd hosted Manifesta 10, another such prominent venue for “criticality.” In the midst of an occupation and invasion of a neighboring country by the host country, the host country and host city’s continuing legal demonization of LGBT, and a local election campaign, for the city’s governorship and district councils, that involved making sure the non-elected incumbent in the gubernatorial race would face no real opposition in his bid to legitimize his satrapy and, on election day, threatening independent election observers with murder, the Manifestashi did absolutely nothing that would really ruffle anyone’s feathers, least of all their sponsors from city hall and the State Hermitage Museum, and they barely reacted to the maelstrom of neo-imperialist hysteria and officially authorized criminality raging around them. Basically, they partied like it was 1999, while providing their fellow citizens with the welcome illusion that the shipwreck wrought by fifteen years of Putinism in politics, the economy, civil society, culture, education, medicine, science, industry and, most painfully, people’s minds could be conjured away or endured and understood a little better by taking a sip of contemporary art’s renowned and heady “criticality” and pretending Petersburg was Helsinki or Barcelona, if only for a summer.

10497395_10152669630307289_178016388250142251_o

What has got better on Russia’s broken social, political, and art scenes since last autumn to make it even more desirable to engage in “criticality” at a biennale in one of Russia’s capitals, this time with the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture footing the bill?

Latterly, a cynical lunatic named Dmitry Enteo has smashed up a bunch of sculptures by the late Soviet sculptor Vadim Sidur and gotten off almost scot-free for his crimes. On the other hand, the list of political prisoners in Russia has continued to grow, and it now includes Crimean activists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, sentenced to hard time in prison for no particular reason.

And then there is Alexei Gaskarov, who, if he lived in a more democratic country, would be running a party like Syriza or Podemos (minus the “criticality” and verbal cuddling up to other people’s dictators), but instead looks to be facing another two and half years in a penal colony, again, for no particular reason other than his own staunch opposition to Putin’s regime.

In the current dreadful “conjuncture,” a good day is a day that goes by without news of yet another anti-Putinist activist being arrested, an art exhibition’s being trashed by “Orthodox activists” or otherwise shut down because it might offend the sensibilities of someone’s grandmother, or a new law’s speeding down the State Duma assembly line so as to tighten up the screws on dissent and “treason” yet again.

In fact, I had a bit of such good news earlier today, when I learned that Andrei Marchenko, a Khabarovsk blogger whose case I have been following, was only fined 100,000 rubles (approx. 1,350 euros) instead of being sent down for two years to a work-release prison, as the prosecutor had demanded, for the horrible crime of writing one untoward sentence about Putin’s Ukrainian misadventure on his Facebook page in 2014.

Where does Mr. Varoufakis fit into this picture? Probably nowhere, which is probably where he should have stayed instead of playing to Moscow’s art and hipster crowd, always happy to let itself off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the ongoing disaster, and to the invisible figure up in the emperor’s box, especially at an opera with the almost deliberately ham-fisted and parodical title of Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia.

Thanks to Comrade AW for the heads-up. Images courtesy of BBC News and the Manifesta Biennial Facebook page