Is Russia doing enough to support its contemporary art scene or does censorship cast too long a shadow over the country?

In an interview published on 20 June 2013 in Russia Behind The Headlines, Art Moscow Creative Director Eric Schlosser discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s contemporary art scene and what can be done to boost it. Is Art Moscow enough?

courtesy Art Moscow

Art Moscow installation view. Image courtesy Art Moscow.

How do you solve a problem like Russian art?

In an interview with Russia Behind The Headlines in June 2013, Art Moscow Creative Director Eric Schlosser tries to define the major problem for the contemporary visual arts in Russia. He states:

I believe access to art is a problem in Russia. We have several galleries, plenty of good artists, museums, art centres, etc. But if you’re not somehow active in this milieu, it’s difficult to get useful information. There are also no streets or districts for galleries, unlike most capitals.

However, he does believe that the art fair Art Moscow helps provide more exposure. He is quoted as saying:

Art Moscow is first of all an art fair, where galleries can exhibit their best works. So for five days, in Moscow, you have a place where important galleries get together and people can quietly and safely buy good art.

Having Russia’s major galleries under one roof surely can strengthen the relationship between arts professionals and the public. He also realises the art fair should not only be utilised as a consumer market, but also as a platform for academic and intellectual discourse.

[Art Moscow] is also an instrument to address current situations, a platform of useful discussions, a place to acquire knowledge and a generator of positive change. Art Moscow cannot be just regarded as a commercial event. Not because it’s not making any money, but because it fulfills an important social, political and cultural role. Especially in Russia where the contemporary art scene is not supported enough by a structured state policy or even [grass]roots organisations, as it happens in some other European countries.

Art Moscow

Art Moscow is an art fair founded in 1996. The five-day fair takes place annually in the capital city. For its 17th edition in 2013, the fair will include seminars, talks, presentations, and an exclusive programme for international art collectors. It will also coincide with the 5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, which will be curated by Catherine de Zegher, previously Art Director of the 8th Biennale of Sydney and Curator of the Australian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Art Moscow

Art Moscow installation view. Image courtesy Art Moscow.

Art market

What is the state of the Russian contemporary art scene today? According to Schlosser, the market for Russian contemporary art has some barriers:

Besides wealthy people, who have now developed a direct access to art anywhere, there is a new middle class who can afford to buy contemporary art. I’m talking about objects in the price range around 5000 euros (which is by the way 85 percent of gallery sales in most capitals).

But it’s too difficult and even intimidating. So they turn to things that are easier to access, to satisfy this need to buy something “beautiful.” For example design is more accessible and can fulfill this appetite.

Photo courtesy of Art Moscow

Art Moscow installation view. Image courtesy Art Moscow.

Growing galleries

Schlosser explains how Art Moscow entices foreign art galleries to exhibit in Russia:

Russia is not an easy country but it’s worth coming on many different levels. We need to help galleries come here, if only by reducing this natural fear of the unknown. And help them meet buyers during the fair.

 Photo courtesy Art Moscow.

Art Moscow installation view. Image courtesy Art Moscow.

Art censorship in Russia

In the Russia Behind The Headlines interview, Schlosser did not mention the “elephant in the room”: censorship. Art censorship in Russia came to worldwide attention when the performance art group Pussy Riot made international headlines. Their 21 February 2012 live performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior ended up with their imprisonment.

Other acts of censorship are not as widely known, such as the plight of art curators when they decide to exhibit provocative works of art. According to a 21 June 2013 story in NBC News, Russian authorities shut down the art exhibition “Welcome! Sochi 2014” by artist Vasily Slonov, organised by well-known Gallery Curator Marat Guelman.

The censored artwork depicted the familiar Olympic rings as hanging nooses or covered in barbed wire. Guelman, not to be dissuaded by the authorities, moved the exhibition to the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. As a result, the minister of culture for the Perm region fired Guelman from his director position of the museum for displaying the controversial art.

Guelman is not the only curator to run afoul of Russia’s authorities. In a Deutsche Welle interview, Moscow artist Victoria Lomasko discusses art censorship in Russia. Lomasko had published a graphic book depicting the trial against the curators Andrei Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov, who were charged for inciting religious hatred.

Lomasko compares the two court cases:

Everything that didn’t quite get expressed during the trial on the forbidden art exhibition suddenly came to the fore. Back when the curators of that exhibition were in court, most observers still thought it was nonsense or just some accident. And many artists also saw Yerofeyev and Samodurov as provocateurs who only had themselves to blame. There were many critical articles and the view persisted that the exhibition really could be offensive.

And then came Pussy Riot. All of a sudden, it was the opposite. It wasn’t the Orthodox activists imposing on contemporary art – it was contemporary artists who were upsetting believers with their so-called punk prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was incredible how much was going on at the Pussy Riot trial! The forbidden art curators’ trial was attended by just a few journalists, primarily from abroad. But the Pussy Riot trial received extensive attention. It became clear to a broad public that the charges against the women rested on rules from the Dark Ages. Everyone was shocked.

Art Moscow

Art Moscow was founded in 1996. Image courtesy Art Moscow.

Susan Kendzulak


Related Topics: art fairs, promoting artmarket watch, Russian art, events in Moscow, censorship of art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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