ON WEDNESDAY, September 23, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture welcomed a select group of oligarchs, socialites, and high-ranking workers of culture for a preview of the third edition of the Moscow Biennial, titled “Against Exclusion.” At the after-party, billionaire Roman Abramovich—father of the eight-month-old fetus carried by Garage director Dasha Zhukova—danced onstage with the Virgins before withdrawing to his natural habitat, the VIP zone. I wasn’t invited, polemical inclusiveness of the title be damned, so instead I joined about a thousand other barely important people at the official opening Thursday night.
If curators had greatest-hits albums, “Against Exclusion” would be Jean-Hubert Martin’s. Discoveries from his 1989 exhibition “Magicians of the Earth” (Cyprien Tokoudagba, Esther Mahlangu, Cheri Samba) joined favorites from 2007’s “Arttempo” (Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg, Berlinde de Bruyckere) in a city that helped propel him to the top by providing material for the groundbreaking “Paris—Moscow” and “Moscow—Paris” exhibitions in the late 1970s. “I wanted to give something back,” Martin said.
Collected in a cursory survey, first impressions expressed gratitude, whether with enthusiasm (“Moscow has never seen a show on this level before!”) or restraint (“It’s good . . . for Moscow”). After two biennials in incidental locations—the former Lenin Museum in 2005, an unfinished skyscraper in 2007—the crisp installation in the airy, cavernous Garage was something everyone could be happy about. But detractors felt that Martin’s vigorous defiance of museum categories sometimes smacked of P. T. Barnum. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s decrepit-looking dummies in automated wheelchairs drew comparisons to a bumper-car ride, and many were alarmed that these simulations of deteriorating flesh had been installed in plain sight of diners at the Garage’s café. Thirteenth-generation offspring of Koen Vanmechelen’s chicken-breeding project clucked in their coop, snakes and scorpions crept around Huang Yong Ping’s ornate cages, and Celesté Boursier-Mougent built a sandbox where electric guitars were unwittingly strummed by sparrows in search of a perch. “It’s a zoo!” said Michel Blazy, whose Still Life Garden included an ant farm.
“Against Exclusion” was the centerpiece of an eventful week. A city with a normally modest art calendar scheduled parties at every exhibition space it has—and even some it doesn’t. For me, it all began the preceding Saturday at a subdued apartment show and ended a week later with a festive spate of openings at the Winzavod gallery complex. Art Moscow, the commercial fair that for twelve years had taken place in May, shifted to September to share in the biennial’s traveling audience. But even the Wednesday-night vernissage seemed deserted—a feeling underscored by the half-empty booths of the several European galleries displaying A4 reproductions. (Many works were trapped at customs due to flawed paperwork.)
At an improvised stand, the Saint Petersburg–based group Tajiks-art had migrant workers from Central Asia painting Haring and Basquiat knockoffs live. They also sold vials of hard liquor distilled from Tajik blood for one hundred dollars apiece. Such antics would have been better suited to Universam (Department Store), a lively fair for nonprofit and unprofitable galleries that also opened Wednesday, at the former offices of Izvestia newspaper. Universam certainly drew a bigger audience, or at least so it seemed: Crowd size was exaggerated by the narrow corridors between booths that were built from eleven hundred cardboard boxes because organizers weren’t allowed to hang works on the walls.
On Friday, the premises formerly belonging to the Red October chocolate factory opened up for projects running the entire budgetary gamut, from a scrappy Swedish student show to the Luc Tuymans exhibition at Baibakov Art Projects, where each painting had its own bodyguard. Tuymans was so amused by the thorough security that he asked the guards to sign the catalogue next to their assigned paintings, and they did—all except for the shy guy who guarded Tits. Down the street, Paperworks Gallery presented a solo show of Yuri Albert, whose contribution to “Against Exclusion” was a prize awarded to participating artist Romuald Hazoume guaranteeing that the Moscow Biennial will cover Hazoume’s funeral expenses should he die before its fourth edition. Paperworks displayed placards with questions like: “Would the fact that no Russian artists protested against the war with Georgia cause you to change your attitude toward contemporary Russian art?” Viewers could vote Yes or No by dropping scraps of paper in transparent ballot boxes. “Hans Haacke cared if you were for Vietnam or against it,” Albert said. “It’s all the same to me.”
Albert’s politically pointed but rhetorically ambiguous questions echoed Martin’s method of achieving purely aesthetic thrills through juxtapositions of disparate cultural traditions that just happen to raise the specter of colonial oppression. Russia occupies an awkward spot on the East-West axis—at any rate, the country’s audiences have very different associations with African art than, say, France’s do—and, reflecting the perennial touchiness about Russian art’s peripheral position on the international scene, locals responded to the “Against Exclusion” spirit by exhuming marginal histories close to home. At the Garage, the Blue Noses made a memorial museum to B. U. Kashkin, a Siberian creative eccentric who died in 2005; in a department store, Oleg Kulik installed silhouette projections of reenactments of ’90s performances; and at Proun Gallery, curator Ekaterina Degot rehabilitated the obscure Pyotr Subbotin-Permyak, who brought avant-garde agitprop to the Urals in the ’20s. Perhaps Martin’s philosophy has special resonance in a country that, lacking a coherent history of twentieth-century art, often picks and chooses cultural memories to suit the current mood. “It’s not about reviving the past,” Martin said in a lecture at the Garage on the gray Sunday after all the parties were over. “It’s about how the past can still have something to tell us today.” Outside, the line to see the biennial grew longer and longer.