1st Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2005

Dialectics of Hope

2005.01.28 – 2005.02.28

Does the World Need Yet Another Biennial?

1st Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, "Dialectics of Hope", 28.1 - 28.2, Lenin Museum, Schusev Museum for Arkitektur, Vorobyovy Gory, t-banestasjon

By Power Ekroth

The most obvious introduction in a text on the new Moscow biennial would undoubtedly be ”Does the world need yet another international biennial curated by the exact same group of omni-present big-shot curators that curates ‘all’ other biennials?” The sentence becomes thankfully quite hollow after a visit to the Russian capital. None of the curators for the first biennial in Moscow need an in-depth introduction: Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez and Hand Ulrich Obrist are all prolific and prominent curators that have by now worked with several great European biennials. Expectations were high on this group of hotshot curators, and the odds were high that there would be a lot of celebrated and well-known artists. The curators were probably chosen with the hope that they would deliver some famous names. As late as only one month before opening day press releases circulated confirming the participations of big names like Damian Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan for the biennial, however after this the curators must have collectively mutinied.

What is positive about a biennial is that there are actual possibilities to do something new and different and to allow artists to experiment. The principle of selection for the Moscow Biennial has not been according to the established rule that says to include as many cool and internationally acclaimed names as possible, and instead the exhibition in Venice, Aperto –93, has been used as a kind of prototype. For Aperto –93 a lot of names that today are included in the so called “usual suspects” were presented to a larger audience for the first time, for example Tobias Rehberger or Carsten Höller, and the team of curators claims that they are presenting today’s emerging young artists in a similar way.

Economy politics

However, the Moscow biennial is not only curators and artists, every biennial is also political on another, higher level. In December 2004, the Minister of Culture in Russia, Alexander Sokolov, announced that the closing of many of the state museums and institutions could be expected if nothing radical were to change in the near future. The average salary within the Russian state museum is, according to a source, only 50,000 rubbles a year ($1700). High expectations to adequately keep pace with Western standards complicate the situation. It is necessary to show that Russia is a country to be trusted in the competition with the West not only on the “common” commercial market, but within the cultural market as well. As of today, there is perhaps no other place in the world that can compare with the large amounts of Hummers and Mercedes that crowd the streets of Moscow, and nowhere else where ladies dress up everyday in Gucci, Prada, Dior and Versace, but the state sector of culture still has their work cut out for them. The state budget for the first version of the Moscow Biennial is at a low 1.5 million euros, which can be compared to the budget of 1 million euros Olafur Eliasson had two years ago for a solo show at the Danish Pavilion in Venice. With that extremely low sum it is a wonder in itself that there was a Biennial at all, and if this wasn’t enough, the building where they had planned to hold the main exhibition burned down and the main exhibition had to be moved to the Lenin Museum, which had been closed for twelve years.

In order to resist the trend in which lesser and lesser time, and lesser and lesser budget, is allotted for biennial preparations (latest developments normally only allow six months of preparations) and also to create some kind of concentration and continuity for the team of curators, it has been settled that the very same team will be working with the next Moscow Biennial in 2007. This is something the curators happily emphasize. The upper “age limit” for artists of around 42 years, in combination with a “timelink” between the first and the second biennial, creates what Hans Ulrich Obrist calls the “new model” for trying to resist the negative homogenisation the globalisation of the many international biennials entails. This is only the beginning, adds Rosa Martinez, who also promises to use a similar strategy for the Venice Biennial for which she is one of the curators. It is important for the curators to not regard the biennial as one big firework, but that one is able to follow a timeline between the first and the second biennial. This is if it will indeed happen; no one can tell for sure whether or not there will be a second biennial. Nothing is taken for granted in Moscow, not least the state cultural budget. Nor should it be forgotten that Russia is in fact a country at war.

Dialectics of Hope

Like many other biennials, Moscow’s has a wide and empty theme, and there is nothing strange about that – how on earth would six strong and opinionated curators assemble over 40 artists within one and the same contextual framework? The frame this time is “Dialectics of Hope” and of course the theme, as well as the whole concept of a biennial, has been hotly debated within the Russian intelligentsia for quite some time before the opening. One of Russia’s most well known curators, Victor Misiano, disappeared from the group of curators during 2004 and this is of course nothing that went unnoticed. A lot of rumours circulate that the artists were not allowed to criticize Putin for instance, something the curatorial team strongly denies. The role of art is however, to quote on Daniel Birnbaum, to create intellectual tension, or at least intellectual friction, even if this is not always the case. Art can be so much more than objects with changing owners, and the ambition has been, according to Birnbaum, to try to resist the notion that the biennial should become only a window to the market. With a more and more globalised arena, art collectors and dealers are following art works more closely, and are no longer only shopping at the international fairs, such as Basel, Frieze or the Armory. It is all about finding artists before they really make it on the market and prices shoot through the roof. But as Martha Rosler once contended in a seminar (Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist, Istanbul) art is about remodelling the world, and biennials (and larger manifestations such as Documenta) are also a market for ideas. This would mean that a biennial, or any other larger art exhibition, comes with a purpose – to be a larger market for ideas and thoughts.


The exhibition in Moscow does not feel like a window to the commercial market, but “intellectual friction” might not be the first words that come to mind contemplating the exhibition. In the main exhibition in the Lenin Museum, near the Red Square and the Kremlin, there are both high and low points. Blue Noses, a group of Russian artists, win the prize for the worst bad taste in the biennial with a series of short films projected in the bottom of large cardboard boxes. In an outbreak of “self-distance”, the middle-aged male artists have recorded films in which they, for instance, play pool with regular cues and billiard-balls, but in which the “holes” are made of nude female lower abdomens. And while on the subject, why not mention a work of Santiago Sierra Spraying of Polyurethane over 18 People 2002. 











Sierra had 18 female prostitutes from eastern Europe have their lower abdomens sprayed from the front and back with Polyurethane (shielded with black plastic sacks) in a former church building in Lucca, Italy. Sierras’ critique of a wide variety of things - male dominance, political systems and minimalistic sculptures - is raw and definitely not subtle. It is questionable whether this sort of critique, in which a morally dubious action is executed within the name of art really functions like 1) critique 2) great art.

In a lot of different places in the Lenin Museum, on floors, in corners, under radiators etc. several bomb-like things in different sizes are placed, which make up the art work It is not a Bomb (2005) by Russian David Ter-Oganyan. These are booby-traps in various dimensions, and one is hardly mistaken about what they should resemble – what they’re not. The exhibition guards were very sceptical towards the objects from the start, with Beslan and the drama with hostages in a theatre in Moscow 2002 still fresh in the memory. Of course, none of the art-crowd at the opening raised an eyebrow. Ter-Oganyans work could not have been exhibited in another country, such as Germany for example, because of its lack of subtleness. It is a pity that the hosting country was represented by Ter-Oganyan and Blue Noses (among others) in an exhibition trying to underline the similarities with the western art world, which is considered as the “global” art world, and where the outsider position of Russian art was supposed to be erased. Unfortunately the opposite effect is achieved.

Intelligible resistance

One of the most secretive, but also one of the most interesting works of the biennial, could also be found in the Lenin Museum. One of the guards of the museum posted in one of the rooms suddenly start to “dance” in a remarkable manner, his arms waving around at the same time “jogging” in the same spot. My company believed for a second that he was about to be attacked by a guard gone crazy, but the guard just kept on waving and uttering the sentence “This is Good [the title of the work] 2005 by Tino Seghal [the artist].” Sehgal is an artist that does not compromise. It is totally forbidden to document his works, which are a mixture of conceptual art and performance that he lets others perpetrate. An earlier piece was performed at the Frieze art fair some years ago in which a bunch of 10-11 year old kids walked the fair area and asked visitors “What do you think about art and economy?”. When one couldn’t really answer one got to listen to how they really function in the art world. Hardcore politics on a commercial fair ground. To have the guard in Moscow pronounce the title, which in itself is a judgement of taste, creates an interesting meta-situation. In this piece one can find a deconstruction of the artwork as an object, as well as some Marxian analysis on economical value of trade and materialism reactualised via a rather simple act.

The only participating Nordic artist is also to be found in the Lenin Museum. Johanna Billing presented two of her films, Waiting for a Revolution (2000) and You Don’t Love me Yet (2003). The piece Waiting for a Revolution has already been shown a number of times, however it has really found its proper place in the Lenin Museum. A group of young people sit and await a revolution, but no one seems to have either any idea about what to revolt against, nor does anyone want to agitate. In one of the larger spaces a documentary film from the opening day of the museum in 1924 is projected, in which Lenin himself speaks to the masses. The films of Billing’s can be seen as counterparts, and the curatorial twist to add the documentary film turns out to stabilize all art in the exhibition and becomes an interesting move.

One artist known not to avoid political approaches is Jeremy Deller, who quite recently won the prestigious Turner Prize in London. Deller is represented in the exhibition with a documentary film on the massacre in Waco 1993, and on what happened in the Texan city afterwards. It is not easy to see what Deller added artistically to the film, except for a several minute long cut in which thousands of bats fly over the lens of the camera. It is a shame because Deller can do more.

John Bock v/s ”ordinary people”

When one mentions the phrase “art in the publics space”, the inhabitants of Moscow may direct their thoughts to large sculptures of Lenin or portraits of different political leaders and philosophers. To present video art in the subway station Vorobyovy Gory is perhaps a relatively “new” thing in Moscow, which might not be very helpful for the art. Videos by John Bock, with a surreal work in his typical burlesque style, and Allora & Calzadilla from Puerto Rico that have made a video in which a man on his moped with a trumpet mounted on the exhaust-pipe rides through a town, have been placed on the platform between the trains. Both films are really interesting and would have been better off placed in a differently concentrated space and context, but art is considered to be for the people in a democracy, and unfortunately art is the loser in most similar cases.

At the third space of the biennial, the Museum of Architecture, films are mainly shown as it was forbidden to attach anything to, or drill into, the walls. The most intricate work of the biennial is shown here, a work by the German Clemens von Wedemeyer. A 16 mm film, made in one shot from a constantly moving camera dolly placed in a field in Berlin with Russian participants. Wedemeyer has spent some time at the Russian embassy and here registered authentic conversations and events, which he reconstructs on the field with the help of people he found at the embassy. The result is very close visually to a tableau by Jeff Wall. In the film, the main character meets several catch 22s; she has to wait in line, she has to leave her bag but must leave her place in the line to do so, etc., and it all resembles the worst nightmare of Russian bureaucratic formalities that you could imagine. The film is also seamlessly looped, and this underlines the hopelessness of the situation. It is a masterpiece, and together with Yang Fudong’s black and white film that is also shown in the same museum, a special kind of atmosphere is created and this is also something that affects the exhibition as a whole.

Although the curators emphasizes that this is merely the beginning, and that one thereby can hardly make some kind of judgement on it before visiting the second biennial in two years (again, if it will happen), the remaining impression of the first Moscow Biennial is low-key and sympathetic. The “new model” might not obstruct hegemony and a global homogenisation, but it is without a doubt a more fruitful and interesting that just filling a list of artists consisting of the very same names all over again. The Moscow Biennial can in fact place the spotlight on something else, something new and exciting, and at the very same time continue to create some kind of an active resistance towards the totally commercialised market, which is very vital and important and of course crucial for today’s artists, but which is also allowed more and more space. Every attempt towards “intellectual friction” and a resistance to the market in the shape of a biennial must be seen as highly motivated, and the first Moscow Biennial is no exception.