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33+1 (Ashot Babykin), Signs. 2016. Installation. Photo by Maria Borodina. Courtesy of the artist

“We are tired of the very format and notion of an exhibition.” 0

Q&A with Ekaterina Inozemtseva, one of the co-curators of the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

Liza Borovikova

10 March 2017 seen the launch of an unprecedented event at the Moscow Garage Museum – the Triennial of Contemporary Art. This is the first attempt of a museum institution to hold a comprehensive ‘survey’ of Russian artists – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok ‒ and highlight the principal directions of development in contemporary art throughout the country. For almost half a year, six curators were crisscrossing the Russian regions, going through hundreds of portfolios. In all, they selected 69 artists whose works cover every square centimetre of the museum space, stairwells and public toilets included. The authors are divided into seven directories that, according to the founders of the triennial, reflect the main trends in Russian contemporary art.

Ekaterina Inozemtseva, one of the co-curators of the project, spoke to us about the reasons why the founders of the triennial had departed from the custom of choosing a single specific theme and what kind of art they had found outside the borders of Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Triennial team. Alexandra Obukhova (research department of the Garage Museum), Yekaterina Inozemtseva, Snejana Krasteva, Kate Fowle (Chief Curator of the Garage Museum, Commissioner of the Triennial), Andrei Misiano (exhibition department of the Garage Museum), Tatiana Volkova, Ilmira Bolotyan. Photo by Erik Panov

How was the idea of the triennial born?

The timing of our decision to launch a triennial did not in any way coincide with the crisis of the biennale; we arrived there by a different route. We had recently ‒ since moving to [Gorky] Park – been working more intensively with Russian artists, showing not just the international stars we featured at the old Garage in Obraztsova Street; we made a deliberate effort to infiltrate the local art milieu. And we realised that we needed to impose a certain structure on our programmatic interest in Russian art. It became obvious that artists who work in Moscow are already within our field of vision anyway. However, the country is enormous, and every time we went on a field trip somewhere, we became more and more convinced that the scale was too grand and the situation was very different in different places. And we decided to do a huge survey of Russian art.

At the outset, we also discussed the Whitney Biennial of American art, and that lead us to this idea. But how do you approach it? This is where Kate Fowle deserves great credit for forcing us to travel. We had thought, with a certain dose of Moscow snobbery, that we already knew everything:  we had already been working with artists who used to live in Samara, Nizhny Novgorod or Omsk and eventually had moved to Moscow, and we thought that we had a perfectly good idea of how things were in the provinces. But then we started to explore.

Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai. The Onlooker. 2017. Study of a project for the Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the author. The Street Morphology directory

We divided the map of the country into six regions that partially coincide with the official federal division of Russia. We travelled throughout last spring and summer, with some locations left over for later in the autumn. This, I’m not afraid of the word, Grand Tour eventually became the key element that a) forced us to see Russian art as a whole in a different light and b) radically influenced our views on ways in which this art can be spoken and thought about. After the field trips, all of the curators came together; we had probably five serious working meetings which went on for six or so hours and during which we tried to come to agreement as to how we were going to show all these things. We realised that no general theme we could come up with would ever fully reflect everything that was going on in Russian art. We tried to define certain ‘points of growth’ shared by all regions, on which we based the typology uniting conditions of aesthetic, social and anthropological character. Following the precepts of the Russian formalists (Shklovsky, Tynyanov, Eichenbaum), we came up a typology involving division into seven directories, attempting to define the essence of the process in a global sense. This approach was born exclusively from the empiric, from the practical experience accumulated during our field trips.  We told each other about the artists, filmed everything during our trips, logged detail reports about everything.

The typology we have developed represents a global figure of inclusion, not exclusion: potentially any artist working in the territory of the Russian Federation can be included in the matrix. Why did we discard the idea of a theme? We did that on principle, because there is this sense of absolute fatigue with the repressive figure of the curator in the air ‒ a curator who defines things, who takes art practice and cuts it to the size of the theme he or she has chosen – one that may have no connection to the reality whatsoever; a curator that arranges, invents, forms things. There is also a fatigue with the media-based principle of division into painting and sculpture, video, photography, design, and so forth.

Vladimir Arkhipov. Gennady’s Bath-Bed. Ryazan Oblast, Russia. 2001. Enamelled bath tub, metal carcass of a bed, wood.  215 × 120 × 100 cm. Courtesy of the author. The Personal Mythologies directory

As for the show, we are tired of the actual format and notion of an exhibition – strangely enough, considering that it is actually the very thing we do ourselves. Exhibition as a format is mutating; it has changed considerably during the recent years. Our triennial is not a set of separate miniature solo exhibitions; what we tried to create was an environment where the viewer, freely moving around, can build something on their own. We will present a huge number of works that are not connected to artefacts, to objects that need to be showed ‒ for instance, the sound art by Danil Akimov in the toilet. We are covering every square centimetre of the Garage space, pushing back the boundaries of the exhibition; it is also a deliberate move designed to eliminate any kind of monumental didactic figures. Everything always revolves around the artist and his or her practice. We are not constructing complex constellations of artists who are somewhat similar in one way or another and would create an elegant zone within the show: we provide each participant of the triennial with an opportunity of full-fledged expression. We deliberately compile blocks, so that the art professional or the viewer who enters the space of the triennial would understand what the individual artist or the specific art practice is all about. The guide we are preparing describes whole practices, a whole phenomenon.

We do not have any age limits; the youngest of our authors is 18, the oldest ‒ 69 years old. We were not creating a triennial of young art. Timewise, there was a single restriction: the works had to date from 2012 onwards, because it was in 2012 that the whole situation in which we live today was born: the third presidential term; the ‘merged protest’; the silent resistance. Nothing is being overtly forbidden – but not officially accepted either. This is an extremely bizarre amorphous situation that has a powerful impact on the art practice. Artists take a step back and start to develop their own autonomous systems, their own narratives. For this reason, the overwhelming majority of works are dated from 2012, with the exception of a separate block centred around Dmitri Prigov (the artist died in 2007); we have him in the Master Figure directory. He turned out to be an immensely influential figure for many young artists, even today. We compiled a journal of Prigov’s travels around Russia, in which we revealed the mechanisms of his influence: he travelled a lot, appearing at endless readings, festivals and performances, and we compiled an anthology of Prigov’s travels in the final years of his life, recording his impact on youngsters who have now become participants of our triennial.

TOY group. Flower Bed. 2017. A study for a project for the Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artists. The Street Morphology directory

Which were the regions that were your responsibility?

I travelled around North Caucasus; my route was from Stavropol to Makhachkala: Stavropol, Cherkessk, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, Grozny, Makhachkala, Kaspiysk. Also, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnodar. It is crucial to mention the agents ‒ our colleagues and artists ‒ who helped us. For instance, the National Centre for Contemporary Art, thanks to [Artistic Director] Leonid Bazhanov, has developed an extremely strong regional network, and we are very grateful to our colleagues for their support.

In Makhachkala, Taus Makhacheva presented an enormous number of artists in a special location. I spent eight hours going through the portfolios; everybody came and talked to me; we visited several studios. The same thing was done for us by Aslan Gaisumov in Grozny and Galya Tebiyeva in Vladikavkaz. And each of my colleagues can tell stories about similar contribution by helpful people.

What is the contemporary art situation in Grozny?

In Grozny, there is this thing that used to be called Centre for Contemporary Art. It is currently operating as a sort of anti-café; it is a space that covers an area of, I would say, forty square metres or so. From time to time, by an exertion of incredible willpower and thanks to the passion of the founder Aishat Aduyeva, the rare exhibition by contemporary artists take place there. Now that Aslan [Gaisumov] has won the Innovation Prize, things have eased up a bit.

They have a global problem there: in this age of not just the internet but post-internet really ‒ there is a total deficit of information. People simply do not understand where to look for information about things they are interested in. In every city that I visited I read a sort of lecture. We were sitting in said Centre for Contemporary Art; there was a round table, and I told the whole story of post-war American and European art, from Nam June Paik to Douglas Gordon. Just like that, in a monologue mode: I deliver this mass of information, and the kids then latch onto something and get an idea of where to go to find out more. And so I’m approached by a boy who says: ‘You know, I’m not really an artist, I just take pictures.’ And I suddenly realise that this is someone who has an incredible eye; that sort of thing happens: a person has a highly developed visual sense but no idea where this is coming from. And now Zaur (Zaurbek) Tsugaev just happens to be among the participants of our triennial, and he will grow and evolve.

Any more unexpected discoveries?

In other cities as well there are so many young people whom we simply do not know yet: they are all 22‒23 years old.

Anton Zabrodin, who studied at the Rodchenko Art School and later went back to Kaliningrad, brought us the works of Sasha (Alexander) Matveev, who could not come personally. I look at them and I understand that this is a Russian Michael Kenna, with series of works, primary prints, great attention to the quality of the image. Despite the fact that I have never even met Sasha, his works are also presented at the triennial.

Anton Zabrodin. Irony as Landscape, № 1. 2015.Photoprint on backlit, LED lamp. 145 × 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist. The Common Language directory

How did you define the directories? 

When we started to re-examine the material, everything was quite clear as far as the Master Figure directory was concerned: there are seminal figures around which everything else revolves, and these are not necessarily practising artists. Let us refer to them using [Lev Gumilev’s] term ‘passionaries’, who form the environment around them. Andrei Monastyrsky – nothing to add here. Dima (Dmitry) Bulatov, I think, is responsible for the whole phenomenon of Russian science art and everything to do with the latest experiments and technologies in art. Pavel Aksenov – it is a legendary figure from the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a moment when he sort of disappeared, moved to London, and suddenly we find him in Izhevsk. And a whole incredible adventurous narrative is revolving around this single figure in Izhevsk: he is motivating the whole artistic milieu there. To us, this means an opportunity to show people who simply were not born yet in the late 1980s who is this artist Pasha Aksenov who left a powerful impact on the whole artistic community of the Trehprudny Lane. He is an extremely important figure for the Moscow art scene.

As for Fidelity to Place, things are also quite clear-cut there. In every region, there are artists who work with local subject matters – geographical, landscape-related, natural, social, national, ethnic ‒ while their statements are absolutely universal.

Sergey Poteryaev. From the Old Duck series. 2013. Photography. Courtesy of the artist. The Fidelity to Place directory.

 The artists united under the Personal Mythologies directory hail from practically every region of the country. These are artists who work with a certain myth; as often as not, it is connected with something of Russian or Soviet extraction. The grammar of the artistic language of each of these artists is so elaborately developed that we were reminded of the term ‘individual mythology’ introduced by Szeemann at documenta 5 to eliminate any sort of stylistic oppositions. The Personal Mythology section is united by the role played by a certain myth, whether it has to do with the Russian cosmism, the Soviet typography, the insane wizard and magician who sets up a whole new life in his studio or the myth of Lefty. It turns out that the story of Lefty (from the famous piece by Nikolai Leskov) is one of the hardiest myth in Russian art as a whole. When I refer to Lefty, I mean someone who possesses fantastic, impossible ‒ but completely anti-functional ‒ skills. It is the impulse of creating everything with your own hands, a special craftsmanship. I think it was the same in Russian constructivism: all these modules and mobiles by

Gan, Ioganson, the Stenberg brothers – all these things are also rooted in fantastic skills. And we found two artists who continue this line; they are Nikolai Panafidin and Mikhail Smaglyuk, who builds incredible kinetic objects.

Then there is the Common Language directory; these are Moscow-based artists who, as a rule, have graduated from the Institute of Contemporary Art or the Rodchenko School and have been active since 2012. They are mastering the common universal language of contemporary art; their work can be equally well shown in London, Paris, Berlin or New York.

Then there is a directory that we do not include into the public programme on principle: Local Histories of Art. There are certain figures who write local histories of art, ones that reveal so much more than the main one. On the ground, in every region, there is always at least one passionate enthusiast – an artist, an art historian. For instance, in Rostov-on-Don there was this fellowship of Art or Death that listed the likes of [Yuri] Shabelnikov, [Valery] Koshlyakov and [Avdei] Ter-Oganyan as its members. So many things happened in the region thanks to Art or Death ‒ and we know nothing about it. So we invite experts and artists to the triennial to tell all these local histories.

The same thing happened with street art (the Street Morphology directory), because everywhere we went, as a result of the lack of infrastructure and exhibition spaces, many artists take to the street and start to work there – in areas ranging from graffiti to public art projects.

Our Skylight Gallery houses the Art in Action directory ‒ everything to do with activist art, and what we show there is a selection of very young and radical artists: Katrin Nenasheva, Shvemy group, all the feminist groups. Alisa Yoffe is making a mural for us.

Monstration in Novosibirsk. 1 May 2016.Organised by Artem Loskutov. Photo by Sergei Mordvinov. Courtesy of Artem Loskutov. The Art in Action directory

Are there analogues of this project in the global practice?

There are no analogues anywhere in the world, because the existing biennials are all of the international kind, and you cannot travel the whole world doing your research. With it comes a distinctive, frequently repressive curatorial approach. The only national biennial existing anywhere in the world is the Whitney; however, we cannot let ourselves be guided by the American experience: American art lives and develops according to completely different rules; they have an enormous number of supporting structures, starting with the galleries. For us, this is a jump from an incredibly high springboard.

Ekaterina Inozemtseva. Photo by Erik Panov

You are also preparing to launch an online platform after the opening of the triennial?

The online platform is a separate story. We want all the artists we saw (almost 300 of them) to upload their portfolios onto the website so that it would become a national data base. We will translate it into English, and any curator will know that they can go there to see the works and find the contact details of the artists. Ideologically, this is one of the most important things. When you come back from the regions, you immediately want to help them all: there is not a single institution of higher art education in Kaliningrad; in North Caucasus ‒ a few art schools teaching decorative painting, at best. In Nizhny Novgorod, there just two galleries focusing on contemporary art, plus the Arsenal (the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art); it’s useless to even mention Tomsk, Omsk and so on.

We are about to be buried under an avalanche of criticism for not taking into consideration this or that; we are all mentally prepared for that. But we are already extremely happy for making this consolidating effort that, for some reason, no-one has attempted before – for bringing all these artists together, and not through sitting on our backsides here in Moscow, at that, but through fieldwork.