But this season, I did something different. I accepted an invitation from the artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich to come to Moscow for the Biennale there. I figured, eh, I’m already in London and it’s not that far, so why not? And I was glad I did.
The first night I was there was when I was due to meet up with Fyodor. He was at the Artists’ Zoo, which was, literally, a zoo of artists in cages doing their own performance pieces. What was Fyodor doing? I found him in the basement, in his cage, completely naked with his head through a window and a nurse giving specific instructions to participants to put things (food, a whistle, etc) into his mouth. It was a project he had done with the Solyanke State Gallery, where Marina Abramovic is the patron. There was another artist singing traditional Russian songs while wearing nothing by a facemask made popular by Pussy Riot and standing on glass. Another artist turned a giant clock every minute, and did nothing else. They were each in their cages for four hours for seven days. Fyodor went another step and wore a lamb’s mask the other 20 hours of the day, even to bed and in the shower, for the entire week.
The Biennale itself was held in a building that centuries ago held the horse shows. We had a VIP tour of the show, which meant that many of the works were not set up yet, and none of them had ID’s on them. Which was mildly frustrating, but then we’re in Russia, a country steeped in old world traditions that is only now embracing the contemporary art market.
Song Dong’s large-scale piece of all the things his mother had hoarded in Communistic China was particularly powerful to me. And not just because I think my father is a hoarder. It brought to an artistic light the cultural disparities between the China I see today in luxury advertisements and the China before, which would keep broken terracotta plant holders and reupholster ribbed chairs with old jeans, because that’s all they could find. I was also amused by Peter Belyi’s work, which looked like a slide full of shit that was poring out of the Kremlin (insert all political commentaries here) and down the stairs. Alan Michelson did a video work of a merry go round, which made me smile. And I jotted down the name Aslan Gaisumov, a 22-year-old Chechyien artist that I think had some strong works and a promising future. But my favorite work was from the Iranian artist Farideh Lashai. It was called ‘When I count there is only you but when I look there is only a shadow.’ It was work that involved small postcards and a projected video that brought the work to light in small segments.
In the midst of all my art-ing, I did manage to find some time to get my tourism on. Without a doubt, the most memorable was sneaking backstage at the Bolshoi Ballet company, which only recently opened after a six year refurbishment to its pre-Soviet splendor, and watching the dancers warm up. They were like rubber people. I also roamed around Red Square to post some comically satirical comments on the anti-homophobic policies currently being passed in the Russian government on my Instagram account. (How can a country with such flamboyant buildings and male politicians who go topless and wear fur coats be so homophobic?) And we took a tour of the kremlin. Something that was truly memorable was the Soviet era propaganda statues in the Moscow metro. There were soldiers holding babies and milk maids holding guns – and everyone was gorgeous. It was like Bruce Weber had cast the statues in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
Just to chime in here: I am not one to make political commentaries. Like Andy Warhol, who was an artist who chose to speak on things other than politics, I’ve never been one to shove my political views down the throats of others. I’m not Tilda Swinton, who actually did that recently, when she went to Red Square to wave a rainbow flag. Though, I will admit that I was at first hesitant about going to a country that was so close minded. But then, as Fyodor explained, to not come to a country where there are gay artists living and working, would be to deprive them of their own outlet. So I went. I am proud I did. Even if I think these policies are morally backward and a complete embarrassment.
I spent an afternoon in the Tretyakov Gallery’s contemporary art space, which was filled with some Russian artists that I had never, ever heard of before. I find contemporary art to be a novel subject in Russia because, well, it’s a new idea. For so long, art in Russia was only considered Old Masters. Maybe a Picasso. Certain experimental ideas never made it behind the Iron Curtain and only now are finding their niche in the market. More on this later, when I talk about my friend Dasha Zhukova and her Garage, Center for Contemporary Culture. Two pieces caught my eye at the Tretyakov Gallery: Marc Chagall’s Over the Town (1918) and Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). The latter was one of my favorites, and had apparently created a sensation in the Russian art world because of it’s simple, minimalist aesthetic.
Now, on to Dasha, who you may remember from a certain profile I did of her in last year’s Harper’s Bazaar, appropriately called Queen of the Art Scene. I admire her and her Garage for helping foster a relationship between new Russia and the contemporary art market. This week, she opened a show for the American conceptual artist John Baldassari called 1 + 1 = 1. It was his commentary on the commentary of other masters. (You can read more about the exhibition on The Garage’s website) But what I found more impressive than the show itself was the reception it received. The place was packed with young, eager, fabulous young people ready to soak up, well, art. The art world. The Garage’s contemporary space is a Shigeru Ban-designed pavilion, which the at organization is using until their permanent space, which will be designed by Rem Koolhaus, is completed. They’re located in Moscow’s Gorky Park, which would be like someone in New York opening a new contemporary art space in Central Park. To say I’m impressed and excited for Dasha is an understatement.
On my last night in Moscow, I had dinner at a collector’s house to see how excited Russian’s cultural elite is about contemporary art. The house was fantastic: a Richter in the office, two early John Currin’s in the bedroom, and so forth. And following dinner, Fyodor took us to the apartment of the performance artist German Vinogradov. It was not what I expected. It was in a rough part of town and up a filthy walkup tenement. He opened the door and the first thing I noticed were feral cats, and the second thing I noticed was an unpleasant stench. I asked the artist where he slept, and he told me where we were sitting. In the room there were tubes and metal plates and a chandelier made of a child’s bicycle wheel. But it was one of those moments when you tell yourself to just embrace the unfamiliar. And I’m glad I did. (I also had to embrace the unsafe since one of the features of his ‘noise performance’ was the sound that lit blowtorches make when they’re shoved into plastic tubes.) His performance was unconventional, but it was divine. He used water drops and firecrackers and he hit hollow tubes and knocked crystals against wind chimes. It was not what I had signed up for, but it made me feel happy. And, for me, that’s what good art does.