A Biennial of Comfortable Complacency
Dmitry Golynko-Volfson (Notes on the Margins of the Second Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art)
When people speak of the Moscow Biennial for Contemporary Art, it is usually with skepticism, caution, or disdain. Its press digest revealed several typical complaints. The biennial was accused of being disconnected and amorphous all at once. The four curatorial projects in the unfinished office space of Moscow City's Federation Tower – "Nothing but Footnotes" by Joseph Backstein, "History in the Present Tense" by Iara Bubnova, "Stock Zero or the Icy Water of Egotistical Calculation" by Nicolas Bourriaud, and "After All" by Rosa Martinez and Fulya Erdemci – practically bled together into one big "blind spot." It was not only difficult to find the boundaries between projects; their conceptual cores also often remained obscure.
Artur Zmievski. KR WP (Representative Guards of the Polish Army). Video film, 7'50". Courtesy of the artist and Peter Kilchmann Gallery. Zurich. 2000/2001
A further point of criticism was the indistinctness of the biennial's theme. The biennial had a catchy slogan: "Geopolitics, Markets, Amnesia: FOOTNOTES." But this name seems to contain innumerable themes and motifs; their sheer quantity instantly renders any attempts at a well-considered explanation null and void. The entire problematic of footnotes or scholia on the margins of art now seems a rather odious holdover from post-modern theory. Today, as direct, polemic statements regain their urgency, the return to a technique of total commentary does not only seem to have exhausted itself as a strategy, but now appears as something unabashedly reactionary.
People did not only attack the biennial for the unconvincing articulation of basic problems and curatorial aims. They also bemoaned the shoddiness of the project's realization as an exhibition. Many felt that the biennial was an example of "sloppy curating." They tended to explain by the curatorial team's apathy toward the local scene on the one hand, and carelessness in the actual process of exhibition-making on the other. I would argue that the curators were engaging in intentional and even exaggerated profanations. This was basically an adequate way of catering to the lowered expectations of the biennial's sponsors, Moscow's cultural bureaucracy.
Inspired by the spirit of left criticism, artists and critics accuse the biennial of being dominated by a flakey atmosphere of vanity and pretentiousness characteristic of most culture (and not only culture) in Putin's second term. These accusations are absolutely justified, but they are also all-too-obvious, voiced not only in professional circles, but also as a concern for the event's quality, which is then presented to a general audience.
The biennial's deepest and most disturbing flaw was that it did not prove capable of developing its own brand; it failed to develop any unique distinctive criteria set itself apart from all the other international "conventions" from Kwangju to Sao Paolo. In terms of texture, the event of Moscow biennial is little more than an imitation. It strives to reproduce all of the most status-laden, flashy elements of a popular international mega-show without taking the trouble to rethink or reconfigure anything. The Moscow biennial acts like a derivative project, caught in a logic of "catching up." To compensate for the trauma of its own late-coming, it chases after the market's hottest tendencies and brightest stars; once it has bought them, it cannot help but reproduce the redundant clichés that have become common practice in biennials all over the world.
Luchezar Boyadjiev. At night, all squares are Red. Digital printing. Moscow. 2007
The more established biennials from Venice to Istanbul – events with extensive histories and solid reputations for high quality – usually set themselves the task of showing the cardinal changes that have affected the art they define as contemporary over the space of two years, examining their effect on representation, distribution, and critical interpretation. Biennials often outline and confirm this "vector of modernity." But the Moscow biennial was obviously unconcerned with such nuances. The first biennial and its sequel were almost interchangeable; their years can easily be switched without any serious losses in content. Neither biennial had the intention of examining and discussion the newest tendencies in contemporary art; all they wanted to do was to demonstrate the growing financial brunt of oil capital and the resource economy that is its brawn.
The Moscow biennial gives crowds of cultural tourists from abroad an excuse to come to a mysterious and catchy place that they wouldn't take the trouble to visit without some grandiose occasion. Making itself the Mecca of the international art scene for a month (or, to be more precise, for three days of openings), the biennial presented itself as a somewhat fluky but otherwise respectable tourist attraction, essentially harmless and custom tailored to bourgeois taste. the biennial combined all the traits of a state-of-the-art global spectacle with those of a representative official-bureaucratic occasion, financed by the state and always under its patronage.
In this sense, the central attitudes behind the biennial were deliberate anti-intellectualism (only offset by the invitation of leading left philosophers), and one-hundred-percent conformism, leading to self-avowed capitulation in the face of the art market's macro-economic laws. A thoughtless "retreat from previous positions" involved abandoning or even rooting out any remaining protest potentials, and thoroughly rejecting any constructive rhetoric of resistance. Interestingly, the ideology of global consensus is already coded into the biennial's unambiguous slogan. In the first introductory and rather fundamental article for the biennial's massive catalogue, Sven-Olov Wallenstein announces that the "urge to be a footnote might seem like a capitulation in the face of global forces. In this state of mind, one can see the desire to take on a subordinate position with regard to the economic and social systems that contemporary art depends upon." This confirms the mission of the biennial, namely to be an instrument for commentating upon and collaborating with the established global order.
Both Nicolas Bourriaud's project, which the curator says "studies the visual code of capitalism," and the project of Martinez and Erdemci, which shows the autonomy zones that corporate consumption and control allots to people today, as well as the other parts of the exhibition contain a sizeable number of pieces saturated with a combative anti-capitalist pathos. One could mention a memorial to the prisoners of Guantanamo by Barthelemy Toguo, and relic-Coke bottles with the eternalized symbol of capital's power, the WTC, on their labels by John Körmeling. One could also talk about El Taller Popular de Serigrafía's agitation-poster stand, which turns the tactic of street protests, strikes, and picket lines into a tactic of artistic resistance, or Superflex's paranoid faux-advertisement for nonalcoholic vodka, along with many others... But no matter how principled, these isolated statements of position were devoured by the dominant pathos of comfortable complacency. The paradox is that today, even impeccably argued capital critiques or militant escapades against consumerist values immediately fall prey to the mechanisms of the market and the media. Today, artworks that still cultivate political activism and ethical implacability can be deftly be equated to prestigious and expensive commodities. Losing their risk as social protest, they are defused as harmless products for the mass consumer.
Dan Perjovschi. The Amsterdam Drawing. Drawing on the wall. Courtesy Lombard Freid Projects New York. Photo: Dan Perjovschi. Moscow. 2006
The biennial's fuzzy conception and its unwillingness to mark and clarify possible contexts for its reception was probably not just the result of poorly coordinated curatorial efforts, regrettable negligence, or major miscalculations. Instead, the unclear articulation of "points of reference" reveals the biennial's eagerness to resonate with the ambitions of its sponsors. After all, contemporary power, be it the sovereignty of a global empire or the bureaucratic autocracy under Putin, declaratively rejects a totalizing discourse. Though it may refuse to generate monologic ideas, decrees, and proscriptions, contemporary power is never flimsy or vulnerable. Quite on the contrary, it is ubiquitous; its networks now even infiltrate territories of personal freedom traditionally beyond their reach. This type of power draws its legitimacy from the population's financial well being and its growing buying power, as well as a stabilizing reserve of oil dollars, which, in turn, allow power to implement its conservative policies. By declaring loyalty to this type of power in every which way, the biennial became a zone in which universal commercialization and naked pragmatism could emerge triumphant.
It is hardly surprising that the curators decided to show part of the biennial's main project in a still-unfinished annex of one of Moscow's most expensive and luxurious department store, the TsUM. This conceptually unconvincing, half-done project was curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum, and Gunnar B. Kvaran, and showed a program of young American video art. What makes this choice productive? Why American? Why young video art? What were the options for bringing this art's context to the attention of the ordinary Russian spectator who lacks the necessary erudition, so that even an encounter with the more classic, mature side of video art would already be a useful visual discovery? The intervention at the TsUM bore witness to the "negligibility" of its content in the face of the new Russian financial elite, which is itching to buy the best "wellness" the West can offer, be it material or spiritual, without analyzing the existing social relations or considering the concrete dispositions that that shape an artwork's symbolic value.
The biennial obviously wanted to sparkle with irresistible prosperity, so it tried to show that its financial possibilities were larger than life. It invited the biggest names with the highest ratings on the Western art scene. The global top ten, visitor numbers, and internationally recognized price quotes served as its points of reference, locally betraying provincialism, ignorance, and conceptual narrow-mindedness. When the biennial's organizers had the vainglorious idea of inviting top curators like Nicolas Bourriaud, Hans Ulrich Obrist, or Rosa Martinez, it did not occur to them that these busy people might not be willing to enter into open, involved dialogues and collaborations with one another or their Russian colleagues. This is why this is why their admittedly intelligent statements always looked like fragmentary shards in an ill-conceived mosaic in which the pieces don't fit somehow.
To import first rate stars successfully, one needs to contextualize and explain their historical backgrounds and the reasons for the value of their work. The absence of any context whatsoever, no matter how general, seemed especially regrettable in a show of light boxes by the famous Canadian photo artist Jeff Wall in the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture. One can hardly expect a Russian audience to reconstruct Wall's creative method on the basis of these exercises in passing, let alone to explain his place in the "pantheons of the great." The Moscow biennial perfected a certain type of know how: it taught its constituent elite how to make a presumptuous show of affluence and prosperity whilst boasting with outgrowths of pseudo-freedom and broadness of mind. In fact, this reveals the deficit of prosperity in society at large, and it also shows that the ideology of "big money" has achieved an unconditional victory. Much in the same way, the TsUM, famous for its fantastically inflated prices, is less of a "shopper's paradise," where reasonably well-paid consumers can use their generously limited credit cards to buy something new from the newest line of their favorite designer brand. Instead, it is a "shopping hell," an underworld of unquenchable consumer desires, when all the shopper can do is chatter with his or her teeth at the sight of a jacket or skirt whose price is equal to one or more decent neoliberal paychecks. This is the most intriguing thing about the biennial: the audience is forced to make his way through the labyrinth of the most prestigious shopping mall, which has become a phantasmagoric metaphor for the triump of market ideology, to encounter art that serves as Ersatz for the same market ideology.
Paul Sietsema. Untitled (Beautiful Place). Video, 19 min. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects. Los Angeles, 1998
The Moscow biennial wanted to be included on the global art map with the enthusiasm of a parvenu, hoping for equal rights in interacting with neoliberal mechanisms of success at the cost of completely ignoring its own local urban situation, and paying no heed to its radical differences. This indifference has its reasons. One of them is affected modesty to the point of shamefacedness for any insufficiencies in the successful development of capitalism. Another is the gloomy veil of silence over the collapse of practically all the 20th century's socio-political projects for reform. In Moscow today, there is a painful awareness that any promising models of the future have been lost. There is no utopian horizon, only a neurotic intensification of the material aspect of everyday life.
The lens of curatorial attention could have focused on the specific ambivalence of a city that has survived the crises of two big and somehow heroic projects, that of Soviet communism on the one hand, and the rightwing liberal project of the country's privatization and capitalization under Yeltsin. The biennial could have made a specific, concrete narrative of the conflict zone that arose as the Soviet myth and its demands for equality and justice underwent a transformation to the post-Soviet pathos of profit, based upon the expansion of injustice and inequality. What's more, any activation of society, be it Soviet and post-Soviet, often appears as a plot introduced from above with the blessings of total state planning. In short, Moscow today provokes any number of implacable invectives and unexpected illuminations. But the curators preferred to limit themselves to toothless commonplaces and the usual banalities on the stereotypical failings of global capitalism.
Jordan Wolfson. Infinite Melancholy. DVD. Courtesy of Johann Koenig. Berlin. 2003
One exception was to be found in a programmatic contribution by Bulgarian artist Luchezar Boyadzhiev, a series of large prints showing Moscow's hectic avenues, decorated, or better yet, eaten away by obtrusive billboards and signs. This project represents the historical dynamic of a place, or to be more precise, an entire region: in the 1990s, Eastern Europe wanted to play the role of the West's mysterious other, becoming its wild, untamable twin. But in the 2000s, it has been transformed into a comfortable leisure zone for tourists and a tamed periphery of Western civilization. The "parasitic" nature of this buffer zone is demonstrated brilliantly in a grotesque piece by Dan Perjovski, which mottles one of the Federation Tower's huge glass penthouse windows with graffiti. In my opinion, this is the best manifesto in the biennial's main project. Perhaps this is one of the lesson that could be learned at the biennial: Moscow has reached the stage of parasitical subsumption, sucking all possible benefit and stubbornly refusing to reflect upon its own hoarding character.
Nevertheless, one must admit that the Second Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art was a rare success, a little like a Hollywood blockbuster that grosses in millions at the box office despite the resentful gibes of film critics. The Moscow biennial was able to test and prove a sad innovation: contemporary art is no longer legitimated by the opinions of the expert community, nor is it blessed by intellectual criticism, but by its ability to rake in significant amounts of cash. No matter how much the thinking elite huffs and puffs about the biennial, the fact is that no more than a week after the opening, the Federation Tower's elevator was stormed by hip teenagers who see the biennial as a must for their fashionable leisure time. Artists and intellectuals used the biennial as an occasion for intense, productive socializing, and meetings with Western colleagues. Everywhere, there was a sense of tense expectation: when will a new Benjamin come to write a new, cutting, sad Moscow Diary.
Born in 1969 in Leningrad. Essayist, poet and art critic.
Lives in St-Petersburg.