Moscow will never be a contender for the title of ‘World’s Most Liveable City’. It is a place where puny human beings are overshadowed by the architectural juggernauts of Church and State. Even the famous Metro – each station an aesthetic marvel – is so deeply embedded in the earth that every train trip feels like a descent into the abyss.
It’s been more than 15 years since I last set foot in the Russian capital, so it would be foolish to make too much of the impressions of a few rainy days. Despite the daunting appearance of the city, and the grim faces on all sides, there is something thrilling and edgy about the place. It may be the perfect setting for an exhibition of contemporary art.
The Moscow Biennale made its debut in 2005 with a show put together by two Russians and four international Über-curators, called Dialectics of Hope. As the title suggests, one must tread warily in a country where the authorities are prone to take summary action against those who mock or criticise the state.
Talking to Muscovites who have seen all five of these shows it seems the one most fondly remembered was the third Biennale, Beyond Exclusion (2009). This was the work of the talented Jean-Hubert Martin who was also responsible for Theatre of the World, at the Museum of Old and New in Hobart in 2012-13. A version of that show, incidentally, will be seen at the Maison Rouge in Paris from 18 October – 12 January.
The 5th Moscow Biennale is titled Bolshe Sveta/More Light, and the curator is Catherine de Zegher, who made a qualified success of last year’s Sydney Biennale. “More light” was Goethe’s famous last utterance, but it’s an expression that never loses its relevance.
The main part of the exhibition is housed in the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, a former riding academy next to the Kremlin. The show, which features 72 artists from almost 40 countries, is divided between a dark basement and a bright, airy ground level hall. The ghost that haunts this event is that of the great Russian avant-gardist, Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935).
It is the hundredth anniversary of the Suprematist opera, Victory Over the Sun, for which Malevich designed the costumes and sets, and the Biennale is riddled with references to iconic works such as Black Square (c.1915) and White on White (1918). Like so many creative giants in the early revolutionary period, Malevich’s career began with the highest ideals and ended in despair. It seems to be an ever-present danger for Russian artists.
To succeed as a curator in such an environment requires intelligence and tact. Catherine de Zegher is a hard working enthusiast who is known to have fought a few battles for the art she admires. One of de Zegher’s outstanding qualities is that she is no respecter of the hierarchies, and is willing to include artists from all parts of the world, be they famous or unknown. More Light, for instance, includes no fewer than nine Australians, which must be a record for any biennale apart from Sydney.
A less appealing trait is a compulsion to over-intellectualise the art and its political ramifications. Here, for instance, is an extract from the press release explaining the themes of the show: “In this interconnected world, space and time concepts no longer acknowledge our place in a present that is here and now, because in the flow of globalization, a local chronotopy in which our perception of time is connected to a geographically defined place, is supplanted by a global chronotopy.”
This is a laborious way of stating a fundamental truth of globalisation: today we are hooked up with the rest of the world in ways that undermine local traditions and a stable sense of identity – a process with both good and bad outcomes.
The catalogue is so packed with such verbal formulations one might imagine the real theme of the show was More Darkness. Despite the repeated emphasis on ‘enlightenment’ there will be very few people who make it to the end of these essays without wondering if the pain was worth the gain.
Like many international curators, de Zegher is also a great believer in sticking with those people she knows and trusts. Loyalty is a virtue, but one ponders the wisdom of hosting a forum in which six Belgians discuss political theory, in English, for a Russian audience. One may appreciate the serious intent behind the essays and the forums while not being convinced they add anything substantive to the experience of the art.
Perhaps this is merely a way of canvassing the great geo-political issues of our time without arousing official sensitivities. As demonstrated by the case of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and the state-sponsored hostility towards homosexuality, there are lines in Russia that cannot be crossed with impunity.
Organising a biennale in a city such as Moscow (or Singapore, for that matter) entails a certain amount of compromise. So long as major public provocations are avoided there is ample scope to include works that are critical of existing social and political structures.
Many of these pieces are obliquely satirical, such as Elena Kovylina’s video, Égalité (2009), in which a diverse group of Russians swaddled against the cold, hoist themselves up onto a set of wooden chairs that have been modified so the participants will all be exactly the same height. The comment lies in the laborious action of carrying and mounting the chairs in the snow for the purpose of a mock-propaganda photo.
A vast wall painting by Iranian artist, Parastou Forouhar, called The Time of Butterflies (2011), looks at first like a pastel-coloured decoration. Upon closer inspection we see that each butterfly is filled with outline drawings of figures committing acts of violence. The piece refers to the artist’s parents who were murdered for their political beliefs. It demonstrates how easily a mask of beauty may conceal an underlying horror.
There is different form of scepticism in The Aeromodeller (1969), a classic work by Panamarenko. It consists of a gigantic zeppelin made out of translucent paper, floating unsteadily over the central gallery of the Manezh. The ship is kept aloft by a wheezing pump, which makes it seem as though the entire structure could come crashing down at any moment. It is an imposing metaphor for the inflated nature of human aspirations, and the fragile way they are maintained.
The effort involved in transporting this work from a museum in Ghent, suggests it is one of the keys to the show. Two other installations of comparable scale are Su Dong’s Waste Not (2005), the massive display of all the ephemeral junk collected by his late mother, shown earlier this year at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival.
The other stand-out is Passing Through, by Alfredo and Isabel Acquilizan, who have created a procession of sleds that begins on a small scale and grows to monstrous proportions as we reach the end. One thinks momentarily of Joseph Beuys’s famous installation, The Pack (1969), which features a host of small sleds. The distinctive feature of the Acquilizans’ work is that the sleds’ increasing size and more extravagant loads create a crescendo of desperation. We see the sheer physical effort involved in having to pack up one’s life and head for an uncertain future.
This sense of being caught between cultures, or between the past and the future, is one of the defining features of de Zegher’s choice of Australian artists. Apart from the Aquilizans, who have migrated from the Philippines, there is Gosia Wlodarczak, born in Poland; Simryn Gill (Malaysia); Jumaadi (Indonesia), and the Mangano twins, of Italian origins. Two indigenous artists, Richard Bell and Lorraine Connelly-Northey, are suspended between two forms of cultural belonging.
There is no space to discuss these contributions in depth, but if there is a surprise packet, and notable success, it is Jumaadi. This is the first time he has been included in a show of this scale, contributing a shadow play performance called The Woman Who Married the Mountain, and a series of surreal figure drawings on coloured maps. As an artist Jumaadi is maturing rapidly, and looks completely at home in this company. His inclusion is also a lesson to Australian curators that they might profitably look a little further than the same handful of fashionable dealers.
Although the politics of this Biennale may be muted and non-confrontational, there is one work, by Irish artist, Tom Molloy that has attracted more than its share of attention. Protest (2012) is a crowded 8-metre-long, photo-collage of news images of demonstrations. Molloy is wonderfully even-handed, including pro-and-anti protests on themes such as abortion, climate change and gay rights. The show-stopper however, and the favourite snapshot for visitors, is a picture of Vladimir Putin with his face painted like the Joker in Batman, and a slogan that reads: “You’re not fooling anyone”. A tiny figure in the foreground carries a sign saying: “Mourn for Your Sins.” It may be a small gesture, but it seems to be striking a welcome chord.
5th Moscow Biennale: More Light, Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, Moscow, September 20 – October 20, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 5, 2013