Russian Art: New Contexts

Utilising the context of the Venice Architecture Biennale as a platform, The Way of Enthusiasts compiles the last few decades of Russian art into a vital and comprehensive landscape.

Today’s art world is increasingly international, with biennales multiplying across the globe, huge multi-national travelling exhibitions and a cross-pollination of ideas between nations. In spite of this international scope, however, national art organisations are expanding, especially outside of the Western world in places such as Latin America, China and Russia. V-A-C is a private, not-for-profit arts foundation based in Moscow. “Deliberately international, outward-facing, but with a focus on informing and supporting Russian artists and artistic practice,” this summer the foundation will be engaging with the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale through a multi-disciplinary exhibition, The Way of Enthusiasts.

The exhibition illustrates that the work of Russian artists is often deeply rooted in their national identity. Working with a history of artistic oppression and enforced ideologies, today’s artists are acutely aware of their Soviet legacy, and the heightened freedom and openness of Russian society since the fall of the USSR has created a burgeoning arts scene, international in its ambition, but profoundly influenced by home soil. V-A-C works successfully with this tension to achieve a balance between Russian identity and internationalism, “facilitating opportunities for a greater national understanding of ‘Western’ cultural practices” while simultaneously supporting emerging and established artists through joint exhibitions. Curated by Silvia Franceschini and Katerina Chuchalina, this summer’s exhibition interrogates the changing urban environment of contemporary Russia (and Moscow in particular). Franceschini explains: “The Way of Enthusiasts strives to take advantage of the urban and architectural context and use it as a filter through which the scattered phenomena of the last decades of Russian art are presented within a vital and comprehensive new landscape.”

The international growth of the Occupy movement and the growth of urban protest combine with the recent Russian elections to make the exhibition timely, with urban spaces once again opening up as areas of “activism and observation” in Russia as they have done across the world. The use of the urban landscape as impetus for the exhibition also serves as further evidence for the increasing flexibility of art today: “We were very conscious that the Biennale is visited mostly by an audience both interested and working in the architectural field, so we decided to include architectural material and documentation within the exhibition that would work in dialogue with the artworks and depict the urban patterns which lie behind the shift from the Soviet era to capitalist, post-ideological society. Through this experimental format we hope that visitors will be able to read the invisible threads that unify art and architecture in the same urban fabric.” Architecture pervades the exhibition right down to its name, taken from the Moscow landmark Shosse Entuziastov, conjuring images of unrealised dreams and an ironic pretence of greatness.

While Russian art has continually flourished since the downfall of the Soviet Union, there are key identifiable moments of change and importance over the past two decades, starting with “the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, when new ways of living pushed art out into the streets, resulting in actionism and provocation, speculation and populism.” Franceschini argues that this period saw “the emergence of a really strong new generation of artists (Anatoly Osmolovsky, Avdey Ter-Oganian, Oleg Kulik, and Alexander Brener, for example) and collectives (Radek Community, Medical Hermeneutics Group et al),” with artists taking full advantage of reduced state control and the collapse of communist indoctrination. And while the late 1990s and early 21st century saw “a period of relative stability and institutionalisation”, Franceschini also cites the current moment as one of huge importance for contemporary art in Russia, both institutionally and politically: “Not only has the political re-election of Putin pushed art again into the streets and incited a new wave of politicisation of the arts, but also the establishment of new art foundations that provide a hub for artists has helped to facilitate a more international circulation of artists and practice, which generates a free-flow of ideas that feed into artistic development in Russia.”

What’s interesting for Russian artists today, however, is the extent to which many of them operate in dialogue with their country’s past. Despite the fact that many young artists were just children in the USSR, the political ideologies of socialism, and their aftermath, are not only apparent in the urban landscapes, Soviet housing projects and public spaces across Russia, but also in the work of these children of the dying days of the Soviet regime. The curators reference this influence in selecting artists’ works “that clearly refer to the regimentation of the Soviet past – Stas Shuripa, Alexandra Paperno, Kirill Gluschenko, Alexander Povzner and [Arseniy] Zhilyaev.” Franceschini’s comment that “it is interesting to notice that even though these artists have almost all been born at the very end of the USSR and came to maturity in the globalised world without experiencing the real Soviet experience, they all embody a nostalgia for certain ‘lost values’ of those times” alerts us to a society that has rejected an ideology while struggling for something meaningful enough to put in its place. This retrospection is most apparent in Kirill Gluschenko’s Gluschenkoizdat, an artist’s book of “remnants of the Soviet reality” collected through his travels across small towns of the former USSR. Through the book-making process Gluschenko “makes photographs, looks through the old Soviet architecture magazines, finds diaries of people who were living in the Soviet era [and] uses every possible method to reconstruct the lost reality.” The resultant works place the viewer at a confusing crossroads of fact and fiction, past and present. By nature of the architecture around them “they stop understanding the boundaries between the two worlds – the surrounding present world of the reader/viewer and the one recreated in the book.” In a significantly multimedia exhibition, Gluschenko’s use of the book format is important to him because of the time that needs to be invested in order for it to be understood properly. It is an exercise in patience, “crucial for the artist because the recreated world he constructs is on the verge of reality and fiction.”

Russia’s long history of political influence pervades the exhibition and the city as ideological battlefield takes a central role. Franceschini acknowledges that the regimentation and oppression of Russia’s history is an issue not only for artists but also for society in general: “In a country where the culture of memory has not been yet fully analysed, digested and publicly expressed, the relationship with the past is still searching for clues and still remains unsolved.” In spite of a significant relaxing of the state and immediate opportunities for greater freedom of expression following the collapse of the USSR, it is only in recent years that this tension is being fully explored. Dmitry Prigov’s Poet-a-grams is a direct celebration of this release from oppression. The typewritten works on paper create mysterious worlds through the shape and form of the text, making poetry out of propaganda. Referencing samizdat publishing, Poet-a-grams highlights the underground resistance as well as the importance of language in propaganda: “These works invite reflection on the meaning of the words themselves – what they can communicate or obscure.”

Aligning art, ideology and architecture together in a discordant whole, Xenia Sorokina and Maria Kapranova’s video work Vanishing Spaces “examines the influence of space on the individual living in it.” By recreating areas on film through quickly changing frames of frescoes, stained-glass and graffiti, the artists are interrogating the dreams behind Soviet public building projects and the role of art within them, and highlighting the disjuncture between their original intentions and the roles of these buildings today, while their original commissioned artworks vanish after waves of renovations. By incorporating sketches by Valeriy Sorokin, who created decoration projects for a number of Soviet public spaces, Sorokina and Kapranova add to the authenticity of the work as it evolves and disappears before our eyes, highlighting the cyclical nature of these projects which, once just conceptions of Sorokin’s, were realised in building projects and have slowly faded away again to meld themselves with the conceptions of a new generation of artists. Furthermore, the work’s presentation is intimately realistic, as Franceschini explains: “The video has been conceived to be shown in a public but claustrophobic place – like an industrial lift. The juxtaposition of the small space and the ‘monumentality’ of the material used in the film sets up a tension; a dialogue that questions the purpose of monumental art and public space decoration. The projection will have an effect of a real space filled with elements familiar to anyone who once found himself inside a typical Soviet public building like a ‘House of Culture’ or hospital.” And for those who have had no experience of such spaces? Perhaps it will go some way towards explaining the Soviet ideology and the history from which these artists have come.

This concept of placing us in the lived experience of the inhabitants of these cities is extended in Vladimir Logutov’s Untitled, a series of three videos “where different signs of limit, refractions of the optics of vision and differentiation of the visual field offer a distorted observation of the nature of the post-Soviet city.” Filmed in the artist’s native city, Samara, the film meditates on the co-existence of the different landscapes within the city, creating a “‘non-narration’ that emphasises the absurdity of the everyday life.” Logutov hopes to create a “system of perceptions” that places us in the city itself and yet highlights the juxtapositions of everything within it. Using rolling footage, computer montage and shots from a fixed camera, Logutov creates a mash-up of media that reflects the mash-up of the city and its architecture.

The ideological focus continues in a much earlier work from the Moscow Conceptual School. Credited with honing a focus on the urban space in the 1970s, the School began performing its collective actions within the very infrastructure that was starting to display its own shortcomings. In The Way of Enthusiasts, the Moscow School’s Corridor of Collective Actions groups together videos of 120 works created since 1976, recorded on film and shown across 20 screens. The effect is to embrace and surround the viewer with a catalogue of early conceptual works that nevertheless utilise the collective, which lies at the heart of communist ideology. This is substantiated by the black and white photographic series Earthworks, documenting Moscow’s perestroika transformation and highlighting the dying days of the Soviet regime at the heart of this exhibition. Also from the 1970s, Gnezdo Group’s Demonstration, Art into Masses conflates propaganda slogans with a Franz Kline composition for its members to march through the streets waving a banner, a “playful gesture [which] transferred the struggle of the two irreconcilable ideologies – socialist ideals and abstract art denounced by the authorities – into the space of linguistic dialogues and poignant text conflicts.”

Taking up a very different relationship between Russian and Western art, installation artist Arseniy Zhilyaev will recreate a fully functioning launderette and encourage visitors to use and engage with the work for art to become a part of the everyday fabric. His goal is not dissimilar to the decorative commissions of Valeriy Sorokin and yet the practice clearly references Relational Aesthetics. But while Franceschini acknowledges the relationship, and that “artists are now far more connected (virtually and physically) with the global art world,” she also emphasises “in general I think that Russia is still quite an isolated country, where art is still very context-based and this prevents overly strong contaminations or influences from other countries.” In this unique relationship of inventiveness and isolation, the exhibition is at once familiar and alien. In many ways there are parallels between the Russian cities and our own, but this collection of reactions provides both inspiration and contradictions.

The Way of Enthusiasts ran from 29 August – 25 November, Casa dei Tre Oci, Giudecca 43, Venice, Italy. For further information visit

Ruby Beesley