Moscow. Strange things are happening in Moscow. There's an an event in the cantankerous and hyper-critical Russian capital that both the local an establishment and the public are speaking positively of. Rave reviews for the Third Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art were a dime a dozen last month and the queues stretched down the block of the main location, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, weeks after the opening. On 14 October, organises decided to prolong public viewing one more week, extending the end date from 25 October to 1 November.
Tilled "Against Exclusion", the biennale started on 23 September with an exclusive VIP opening limited to several hundred guests and presided over by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova, the founders of the Garage. Every weekend nearly 10.000 people lined up to see the show, while weekday attendance hovered at around 1,500 people per day.
"This is the first time Russia has had such a contemporary art exhibition on this scale, and 1 think this is a crucial turning point for the country's art scene," said Moscow Biennale commissioner Joseph Backstein. "All of Moscow's contemporary art institutions — nearly 100 — have been involved in the biennale, if you include the special projects and parallel programmes."
Backstein added that the biennale had three goals: to give contemporary art a legitimacy with the Russian public that it has previously been lacking; to consolidate into one front the many contemporary art institutions that operate in Moscow's an scene; and Russia's reintegration into the international art scene.
Increasing xenophobia and state censorship in Russian society has become a concern for the local art scene, with artists and curators under heavy pressure from nationalists and some up on criminal charges. But that didn't stop the country's political establishment from trying to cash in on the biennale, which benefited from government funding.
Vladislav Surkov, one of the Kremlin's chief ideologues and a leading adviser to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, wrote in the foreword of the biennale catalogue: "Contemporary art is becoming an integral part of our country's cultural landscape, and the Moscow Biennale has played an important role in that process."
Frenchman Jean-Hubert Martin, former director of the Museum Kunst Palast Foundation in Dusseldorf, curated the main exhibition at the Garage. In addition, there were 55 special projects. and another 60 parallel programmes at locations around the city.
From 1994 to 1999 Martin was director of the Musee National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie in Paris, which exhibits art from Africa and the Pacific region, and was one of the first to organise exhibitions that include art from across the globe, such as "Magiciens de la Terre" held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1989. He is also a jury member of the Kandinsky Prize. Russia's premier award for contemporary art.
"Since the 1990s Moscow has had exposure to exhibitions from the west, and some from China, but very little from other cultures and continents, such as Africa." said Martin. "In the age of globalisation, Moscow needs to see works from Africa, South America, Asia and the Pacific."
El Anatsui, from Nigeria, showed an intricate work from his "Cloth" series, made of tens of thousands of flattened metal bottle-tops sewn together into a grand tapestry. Vik Muniz of Brazil showed works from his "Pictures of Garbage" series, featuring portraits of people who make a living in a garbage dump near Rio de Janeiro.
Other works made for the biennale included Belgian Wim Delvoye's stainless steel bulldozer comprised of elements of a Roman Catholic gothic cathedral, while Briton Tony Cragg showed more of his sleek, curvaceous sculptures.
Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Old Persons Home. 2007, showed sick and elderly men in self-propelling wheelchairs (shown in 'The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art" at London's Saatchi gallery in 2008). Immediately adjacent to this macabre installation was Defile, 2000-07, by the four-person Russian group AES+F. These digital collages on light-boxes feature the unclaimed corpses of the Moscow homeless, digitally "dressed" by the artists with the help of Photoshop. These works, which end the main exhibition at the Garage, made their debut in Russia.
People who have widely travelled on the international contemporary art circuit remarked that Martin's exhibition seemed to be an assemblage of major works from fairs in recent years. Martin admitted that this is "partly true". "The show is made for people in Moscow, and not for the 2% of art experts and enthusiasts who travel all the time from one art fair of biennale to another." he said. "However, there are many pieces not seen in previous art fairs and made especially for the biennale, such as works by Cragg. Delvoye. Braco Dimitrijevich, El Anatsui and Wolfgang Tilmans, as well as works by Russian artists."
Despite Martin's efforts to include all the world's mane cultures, the Middle East and Islamic world was hardly represented, and not much came from the Far East. Backstein dismissed ideas that the presence of Middle Eastern artists might have led to troubles with the local Jewish organisation that owns the Garage, and which runs a Jewish educational and cultural centre in the neighbouring building. "The Jewish community knew about the content beforehand, and they didn't object to anything," said Backstein.
Perhaps one reason for the praise being heaped upon the third Moscow Biennale is that it's hard to go wrong after the previous two, which suffered from poor organisation and bad locations. The first one was centrally located, but in the poorly equipped and inadequate former Lenin Museum next to Red Square. The second was held on the 30th floor of a skyscraper under construction in an inconvenient part of Moscow.
"Although it was fun fighting through snow at the first biennale and through mud at the second, I really appreciated the ease of viewing this time at the Garage, which is an inspired choice of venue," said Ruth Addison, the British-born director of Triumph Gallery in Moscow.
Despite the biennale's global curatorial scope, the number of international art world figures at the opening seemed modest. "The timing of the biennale may have been a factor in the small foreign attendance," said Valerie Hillings, curator at the Guggenheim New York. "It opened shortly after several other biennales — Istanbul, Lyons, Athens — and it coincided with the start of the autumn cultural calendar around the world. The Moscow Biennale is still relatively new and establishing its profile, so it hasn't yet achieved 'must go' status. But this biennale should help to change that."
THE ART NEWSPAPER by John Varoli