In a country where the word for ‘ours’ (nashi) has been assigned to a nationalist political youth movement and is used in conversation to implicitly exclude ethnic groups, the title ‘Against Exclusion’ was fitting for the 3rd Moscow Biennale. Curator Jean-Hubert Martin referred to it not just as a title, but as a ‘slogan’, and set out to re-adjust what he sees as a narrow national context for contemporary art in Russia – a ‘protectionist position’, as he labelled it, by which ‘Russians tend to see their art as the best’.
The Biennale comprised a widespread programme of exhibitions that included 80 artists from around the world and more than 40 special projects, ranging from a major solo show by Luc Tuymans to single performances in commercial galleries. Although the Biennale was held in several venues across the city, its centrepiece was at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (GCCC) – the 1920s bus depot that was transformed in 2008 into a massive, privately funded, non-profit exhibition space. In this show, Martin set out to ‘put Russian art in competition with other cultures’. The French curator is best known for his seminal 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la terre’ (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and for co-organizing ‘Paris–Moscow’ and ‘Moscow–Paris’ in 1985 and 1986: shows that were instrumental in introducing previously unknown artists to their respective contexts.
Martin’s enduring interest and research into the indigenous and traditional art of Africa and Australia, in particular, were visible in ‘Against Exclusion’. Unfortunately, this Po-mo approach – mixing the work of well-known contemporary Western artists with that of artists from parts of the world less familiar to a Western audience – is not the novel curatorial strategy it was 20 years ago. In this sense, the Biennale almost appeared to be a pastiche of biennials past, featuring a remix of familiar, large-scale installations punctuated by token contributions from non-Western and non-professional artists.
‘Against Exclusion’ included three – yes, three – installations featuring live animals in cages: Koen Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (2000–ongoing) displayed chickens cross-bred across national borders; Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear (2009), in which finches played guitars by flying around an aviary and periodically landing on their strings; and Huang Yong Ping’s bombastic Theater of the World – Bridge (1993–5), which contained live snakes and tortoises. These types of spectacular, people-pleasing installations featuring imported foreign animals have become an easily digestible analogue for the way artists’ work can be presented in any biennial, no matter what the geographical context. For me, this kind of zoological display as a metaphor for globalism just doesn’t fly – a cross between a French chicken and a Belgian chicken is still a chicken.
Another thematic undercurrent was the function of works of art as religious or secular totems. Perhaps the nadir of this was a sculpture by Tunga, Cooking Crystals (2006–9), made of steel, mesh, crystals and vials filled with ‘uroliquids’. The artist’s caption read: ‘When standing in front of the crystallization – don’t ask yourself, what this all can possibly mean […] Just wait and the essence of the work will come out by itself, confirming your own thoughts.’ Not unlike the premise of the exhibition, something meant to be open to interpretation instead came off as incredibly didactic. Alongside this, Martin brought in examples of Australian aboriginal painting, Indian floor painting and palm-bark paintings from New Guinea – all local forms of art production with specific sacred, spiritual or traditional functions. But their meaning was only confused and undermined by the massive sculptures nearby: Anish Kapoor’s Push Pull II (2008–9), a giant semicircle of red wax and Vaseline shaped by machines, and Wim Delvoye’s laser-cut steel sculpture of a tractor shaped like a cathedral, D11 (2009). These impressively large and manufactured objects represented two male, Europe-based artists’ attempts to create meaningful totems in a primarily secular art world. But their presence nevertheless pales in comparison to the modest but ground-breaking work of an artist such as Esther Mahlangu – a South African who redefined traditional wall painting and beadwork for women of her generation by introducing abstraction and modern items into their designs. Comparing a work such as this, or Cyprien Tokoudagba’s decorations for voodoo temples in Benin, with a bulldozer shaped like a Gothic cathedral, feels forced, if not disingenuous.
Martin stated that he didn’t want his inclusion of African or aboriginal artists to be ‘anthropological’ or ‘colonialist’: he wanted to show that definitions of contemporary art in the West simply don’t apply to art from non-Western countries. In that case, why put them in the same exhibition? Furthermore, he failed to acknowledge that this type of artistic production – ‘artists who work in a religious and ritual context’, as well as untrained artists and community-based art – also exists in the West, though such work is just as likely to be excluded from international biennials like his. Instead, he selected the most recognizable form of ‘biennial art’ – works like Spencer Tunick’s lamentable nude portraits taken in cities around the world, and Annette Messager’s La guerre des mondes (War of the Worlds, 2008–9) in which two inflatable globes are bounced around by fans.
There were some good discoveries, however, and no doubt works by artists such as Mahlangu and Tokoudagba were a revelation when Martin first displayed them, but most of his selections were of works made in the early 1990s, which he has previously included in other shows. Stranger still, the majority of the non-Western art included in the Biennale came from the Pigozzi Collection in Geneva. Perhaps Martin’s eagerness to include these works would have seemed timelier and more appropriate if they had been more recently produced and if they hadn’t all been cribbed from the same European private collection.
The exhibition’s final section in the GCCC was a thinly veiled examination of death, including AES+F’s ‘Defile’ (2000–7), a series of portraits of corpses dressed in haute couture, and Samuel Kane Kwei’s coffins (Running Shoe and Outboard Motor Yamaha, both 1997) designed in the shape of basketball trainers and other commercial objects. The subtlest work around this theme, and possibly the show’s most traditionally Conceptual piece, was Yuri Albert’s typed contract, Regulations Concerning a Prize for the 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2009). Albert initiated a prize amongst the artists in the Biennale by which the winner, if he dies before the next Biennale opens, will have his funeral costs (‘including memorial feast and other such mourning events’) paid for by the Biennale. This year the prize was awarded to Romauld Hazoumé, who lives and works in Benin.
Albert’s work exemplifies one positive point of the exhibition, which is that Martin didn’t pander to the local audience by showing a slew of Russian artists whose work would look out of place amongst its foreign counterparts. The Russian contributions were some of the most compelling – besides Albert’s award, the Blue Noses group contributed an impressive museological display (The B.U. Kashkin Museum, 2009) dedicated to the life and career of B.U. Kashkin, a Soviet-era Conceptual artist and poet.
Despite this, there was hardly anything in ‘Against Exclusion’ that was left to the viewer’s imagination or that offered a sense of discovery. The closest thing to a surprising inclusion was Christoph Büchel’s Sleeping Guard (A Life for the Tsar) (2009) – an invigilator paid to sleep for the duration of his or her shift – which didn’t have a wall label and easily could have been overlooked. Most of the reviews agreed that the Biennale was ‘good for Russia’, but I don’t think this gives the Russian audience enough credit. A more up-to-date biennial with newer, less clichéd works and a more radical curatorial strategy would be just as good, if not better, for Russia. If, as Martin contends, Russian artists have only a ‘timid awareness of globalization’ and are ‘constantly concerned with the identity of Russian art and the place it occupies on the international scene’, his Biennale should have addressed the audience as though it were part of that scene, not as though it needed to be educated.
First published in Issue 128