If you went shopping at TSUM this March, which, as a member of Moscow’s nouveau riche you would be obliged to do, or, if you just went to browse and contemplate the abstractions that constitute the prices of Gucci and Dolce, Miu Miu and Mugler on the racks, you would likely have stumbled upon an altogether different set of global brands: the latest video art by American artists of a young and hubris-less generation. This somewhat bombastically titled exhibition, USA: American Video Art at the Beginning of the Third Millennium, was a major part of a contemporary art extravaganza including over 100 international artists and close to 25 private and public galleries, but quite unexpectedly, what struck me most was that, seen together in this unlikely setting, the video works provided an unexpected portrait of young America’s newfound cultural subtlety. Take for example Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2002), filmed in the industrial pastures of Portland, Oregon, which draws attention to how a certain type of iconoclasm (the removal of graffiti) creates another art form, inevitably associated in this context with a kind of “found Suprematism”–the camera rests on abstract fields of colour for our eyes and minds to drown in, as they might have 90 years ago, had we been in Moscow looking at newly painted Asian wall art. I first encountered this video as an aspiring curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery when I helped to install Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art (June-August 2004). There, it was expertly presented in a soundproof, neutron-star-black booth. For all the pleasure of the cozy hermetics of the video booth–a standard of contemporary installation that did indeed help clarify the bleepy soundtrack and Miranda July’s hypnotic narration–the West Coast context did not animate the work in the same way that TSUM did. In Moscow, McCormick’s work, set amidst the plethora of video works, was barely audible and somewhat fainter than I remembered it, due to light bleeding in from its neighbours and from the men’s designer wear aisles beyond. Struggling to be seen and heard, it became a perfect cipher for the strangely muted legacy of the avant-garde in Russia–strange because this legacy animates so much of contemporary art production three to 13 time zones westward, where fragmentary excavations of and nostalgic yearnings for the “ruins” of modernism so often turn to the Suprematist and Constructivist movements for inspiration.
The impact of Russia’s formidable contribution to modernism was poignantly apparent in the State Shchusev Museum of Architecture, where one of the program’s special guests, Jeff Wall, chose to show still-life compositions that, while they may have echoed the “minor” tenor of the biennale’s theme–Footnotes on Geopolitics, Markets and Amnesia–also asserted the formidable impact of Constructivist and Suprematist compositional dynamics on Wall’s vision (even, and especially, in the process of looking at such everyday spaces as a studio sink and his own backyard). Wall’s Diagonal Composition (1993), made just as Russia was shedding its Communist past, Diagonal Composition NO. 2 (1998) and Diagonal Composition No. 3 (2000) were all there. The hanging of the lightboxes at a downright weird 30 degree angle to the wall by ghastly, prominent cables lent the presentation a clunky feel. This was unfortunate, given the opportune juxtapositions of the Shchusev’s crumbling 17th-century architecture with the echoes from the golden age of modernism that are imbedded in the picturesque overgrowth and grime of Wall’s–can we call it wild?–West Coast milieu. Like many of the exhibitions in the biennale, this one could only point to rather than fully embody the social and aesthetic dynamics at play due to its distracting hang. But at some point one had to stop worrying about the shoddy installation and consider Moscow through its biennale filter, because what was to be gleaned from this was much more interesting than shop talk regarding the perfection of an installation. For the latter, we can go to the Schaulager in Switzerland, a place that is as far from the situation in Moscow as I can imagine, where Wall’s works were recently presented, well, impeccably.
Moscow’s somewhat messy, misbehaving biennale provided access to spaces at the epicentre of the city’s development and catalyzed broader thinking around the unfolding plot and problems of the city. I have heard 101 critiques of the project as being complicit with Moscow’s real estate boom, due to the fact that the repurposed wine factory Winzavod, the refurbished TSUM and the rising Federation Tower were the main stages of the biennale. This assumes a brain-dead visitor. In going to the Federation Tower construction site, for instance, you could not help but witness the city’s building economy in the flesh (quite literally, workers drawn here from the provinces). The view of Moscow’s boom from the bird’s-eye vantage point of the twenty-second floor made the city look freaky and beautiful all at once. In particular, the work of Polish artist Jozef Robakowski, on view at the Federation Tower, talked back to the crane-consumed boomtown seen from the windows of the tower via the hilariously poignant and droll From My Window 1978-1999 (2000)–a long take in black and white of the grey life beyond the window of the artist’s state-owned flat in Communist Poland.
A polar shift is palpable in Moscow. In place of the avant-garde experiments of Russia’s modernist teens and 20s (which now roam the Western hemisphere like so many ghosts channelled by spirit-starved contemporary artists), a consumerism without core or bounds or soul has turned Russia, and especially Moscow, into a lawless and rampant version of capitalism never actually realized in the “Wild West.” This is a cliche, but it is impossible to escape. And it is one thing to read about it in The Guardian and quite another to be immersed in a city which has borne the brunt of a transition from Communism to oligarchic capitalism. It is as if a giant, greedy consumerist bomb has hit Moscow–a cluster bomb, if you will, chock full of bad bling–and everyone is numbly covering themselves (however scantily) with all the products of the designer deluge in an attempt to forget. In this sense, the assertion of contemporary art as a footnote to markets and the amnesia they cause is a clever appraisal of the situation at hand, and bears with chilling, realist resolve on the title of the biennale: Dialectics of Hope.
I had came to Moscow in late March (gladly missing all the parties that go on anywhere there is a global exhibition of this sort), as much for the biennale as for the incredible treasures of Moscow proper: the dizzying church interiors of the Kremlin, the Socs-Baroque Moscow Metro and the enviable Tretyakov (a bold and beautiful flower painting and all the other women artists taking centre stage in Russia’s variant of the universal survey museum blew my mind), not to mention the thrilling scale of the Stalinist gothic menace that encircles the city, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters skyscrapers. The discovery of Moscow’s treasures was sharpened and tempered in equal measure, both by the gaudy consumerist delirium of the city and by the biennale that was meant to act as its footnote. The entire messy rubble–a confusing collapse of art and commerce, boomtown assets and Tsarist and Bolshevik treasures-made for an experience that did not attack head-on Russia’s dwindling democratic fabric at the hands of Putin the Terrible, but neither did it produce a smooth surface that would make the situation more palatable.*