The Show Must Go On?

Apparently, we rushed to conclusions in our last post when we decided that the lynching of The Novosibirsk State Academy Opera and its contemporary take on Wagner’s Tannhäuser was over. After the opera’s director, Timofei Kulyabin, was found not guilty of “publicly desecrating the object of religious worship in Christianity” (the “desecration” was in the form of a poster showing Jesus Christ between the legs of a nude woman, used as a prop in the production), the theatre’s director, Boris Mezdrich, one of the most successful and influential administrators in Russia’s theatre world, was fired by The Ministry of Culture for his “unwillingness to take social values into account in his work and for disrespect for citizens’ opinions”. Mezdrich was dismissed despite massive support from Russia’s artistic community and Tannhäuser’s success amongst critics and audiences.

Protests defending Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk

Protests in defense of Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk

After a meeting held by members of the Russian Orthodox Church and Ministry officials in Moscow, none of whom had actually seen the opera, Tannhäuser was also excluded from the theatre’s repertoire.

In a final blow, Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, appointed Vladimir Kekhman, the director of Saint Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, as Mezdrich’s replacement. Kekhman, who owned a major fruit-importing business before coming to Mikhailovsky, had previously stated that “as a believer, a Сhristian and a Jew” he was “insulted” by Tannhäuser. Needless to say, he hadn’t seen the production either. This absurdist turn of events has raised further concerns about the return of Soviet – style censorship and propaganda to Russia’s ultra-conservative cultural politics. In an open letter, Teodor Currentzis, the artistic director of the Perm State Theater of Opera and Ballet, has stated that the Ministry of Culture is using repressive methods and deliberately creating a split in Russian society. After the Ministry made its decision public, mass protests in support of Mazdrich, Kulyabin, Tannhäuser and freedom of expression were held in St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk. Our favorite banners seen in the protesting read “Save Culture From the Ministry of Culture”,“Hertsen and Belinsky, Not Kekhman and Medinsky!” and “We Make Kafka Jealous”.

Meanwhile in Kiev, art and politics have also collided in a major way, but with more positive results. It seems that the Kiev Biennale, which was first rescheduled to Summer 2015 and later cancelled altogether by its hosting venue, The Mystetskyi Arsenale, will live on. The Biennale’s curators, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schölhammer, have decided to carry on with the project despite lack of government support and problems with funding. Citing art’s potential for reflection and “challenging the present political context defined by the armed conflict in Ukraine”, Saxenhuber and Schölhammer have decided to frame the exhibition as a community – driven event that will unite the efforts of artists, intellectuals and activists in the face of violence. While keeping its original name, “The School of Kiev,” the event will not, however, retain the title of Second Kiev Biennale. More info on the non-biennale will be available later this month, after the curators hold an official press conference in Kiev.

Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schölhammer

Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schölhammer

In Moscow, another art institution is feeling luckier with both space and funding: The Hermitage has officially announced that it will open an outpost in the capital in 2018. The Saint Petersburg – based museum plans to open a space devoted to contemporary art and culture in Moscow’s abandoned ZIL factory on the East of the city. The architectural project will be carried out by Hani Rashid of Asymptote and paid for by LSR Group, a real estate developer. We are personal fans of Mr. Rashid and congratulate him on the project.

Last but not least, this year Venice will also welcome a new space for Russian contemporary art. After hosting several Russia – focused exhibitions in a temporary space on Giudecca, the V-A-C Foundation plans to move to a permanent location on the Zatterre promenade during the upcoming Venice Biennale. V-A-C, an organization that has consistently supported Russian artists at home and abroad, will be the only institution representing the country in Venice besides the official Russian pavilion in the Giardini.    V-A-C director Teresa Mavika has stated that the foundation will continue to emphasize education as its key goal: two out of four floors in the Zatterre building will be given to lectures, residencies and a curatorial school. With official Russian cultural policy clearly taking a page from the Soviet playbook, progressive private initiatives like this one are more important than ever.

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State of the Art

Exactly three years after Pussy Riot’s famous Punk Prayer performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Russian Orthodox Church has once again found itself offended by blasphemous art. This time around, the “culprit” is 30 year-old award-winning opera director Timofei Kulyabin, whose modern take on Wagner’s Tannhäuser has apparently offended the religious feelings of believers in Novosibirsk to the extent that he was accused of “publicly desecrating the object of religious worship in Christianity”. The case was brought to the prosecutor’s office by Orthodox cleric Tikhon, who claims he has received numerous complaints about the production from viewers – he himself had never seen the opera. Tannhäuser, which premiered at the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre in December, plants Wagner’s story in contemporary times and re-imagines Tannhäuser as a film director modeled in part on Lars Von Trier. According to some accounts, the “insult” to believers came in the form of a poster depicting Jesus Christ crucified between a woman’s legs that was featured in one of the scenes. Last week, in a surprisingly sane turn of events, Kulyabin, who was facing an administrative fine, was found not guilty of the charges pressed against him. According to the court, the production “does not contain the image of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, because the image of Christ in the Gospels is true, while the image of Christ in the opera is fictional”. Thank God, they got the whole “art” idea.

Kulyabin's Tannhäuser

Kulyabin’s Tannhäuser at the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot are bringing their art to cable television: Nadya “Tolokno” Tolokonnikova (who was seen amongst the Boris Nemtsov mourner protesters in Moscow last Sunday), Masha Alyokhina and Petr Verzilov made their acting debut in the third season of Netflix’s House of Cards. In episode 3, Nadya, Masha and Petr, playing themselves, attend a state dinner hosted by President Frank Underwood at the White House in honor of Russia’s fictional (or not really?) president Victor Petrov. Petrov attempts to toast the band members, citing their common love for the homeland. Pussy Riot reply with their own toast – to a president who is “so open to criticism that all of his critics are in jail”, pour out their champagne, and flee the soiree, leaving us wondering where they’re headed, in the general sense.

Pussy Riot's House of Cards moment

Pussy Riot’s House of Cards moment

Moscow’s non – fictional political landscape has experienced a dramatic change this week, when Sergey Kapkov, the city’s Minister of Culture, stepped down from his post last Tuesday. Kapkov is widely recognized for modernizing Moscow’s cultural and urban politics: he, amongst other things, transformed Moscow’s Gorky Park into a hipster wonderland, added bike lanes to the streets, reformed Moscow theatres, libraries and museums by increasing accessibility, unifying schedules and hiring younger staff. Kapkov was also known as an approachable minister with a “good guy” demeanor – a rare trait that made him somewhat of an outsider in Russian politics and a favorite of the liberally minded Muscovites. Of course, he had his critics amongst the latter as well: the changes he made to what he referred to as the city’s “atmosphere” were seen by many as extraneous distractions from harshening political realities: people needed space for protest and political engagement, not a park with food trucks and yoga. Kapkov will be replaced by former head of Moscow’s Department of Cultural Heritage Alexander Kibovsky, whose previous post involved overseeing the integrity of historical architecture in the city, a cause he was semi – successful at, considering that numerous buildings were nonetheless blatantly destroyed during his tenure. Kibovskiy, a historian who authored a two volume book on the Uniform of the Russian Air Force, seems more in line with current cultural politics in Russia than the former “hipster-minister” Kapkov. How exactly he will deal with Kapkov’s legacy has become slightly clearer today, when Kibovskiy stated at a Duma meeting that he will be investigating the legitimacy of  contracts worth 4.3 billion Rubles which his department had signed in the past year, under Kapkov’s reign.

In non – political news, London’s Tate has announced the appointment of two new curators responsible for the museum’s growing collection of contemporary Russian art. Natalia Sidlina, adjunct research curator for Russian art, and Julia Tatiana Bailey, assistant curator of collections in international art, will work in conjunction with Tate Modern’s Russian and Eastern European Acquisitions Committee (REEAC) on further expanding the presence of Russian art in the museum’s walls; the committee, where our very own Maria Baibakova is a member, will have its next meeting is April 24. The new curatorial positions, sponsored by Moscow’s V-A-C Foundation, are part of a larger commitment by the museum to deepen the Tate’s knowledge and expertise in the field of Russian Art. The museum’s past acquisitions include works by Collective Actions, Andrei Monastyrsky, Boris Orlov, Timur Novikov and Alexander Slyusarev.

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All For Nothing

Following its very public condemnation of anti – patriotic art (case in point – Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar – nominated film), the Russian Ministry of Culture has decided to put its money where its mouth is. This week, it has announced its long-standing project for building Centers for Innovative Culture, created to promote contemporary forms of art and culture in Russian regions, inefficient and unnecessary.

Architect Boris Bernaskoni's project for the  Innovative Culture Center in Pervouralsk.

Architect Boris Bernaskoni’s project for the Innovative Culture Center in Pervouralsk.

According to Izvestia, a Ministry committee has decided that the centers in Kaluga, Vladivostok and Pervouralsk will be re – branded as Regional Culture Centers and will switch their focus to ‘spiritual and patriotic enlightenment’ (which includes educational programs developed with the Russian Orthodox Church). The “innovative” project, initially created by Vladislav Surkov in 2012 as a 21st century analogue to the USSR’s Palaces of Culture, was envisioned as an educational initiative that would allow regional audiences to access the “most contemporary technologies in sculpture, painting and digital art.” The 1.25-billion ruble (roughly $18.9M) project was developed in close collaboration with Moscow’s Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design.

Two years later (and nearly half-way into the project’s budget), the official position towards culture has changed so radically that it makes Surkov look progressive.

Film director Nikolai Burlyaev, a self-proclaimed “patriot” with strong homophobic views who is developing the new Regional Centers, claims that “there is no such thing” as innovative culture: “the previous concept for these centers was based on the idea of creating a new type of citizen, an agent of change, someone capable of political reform. Well, as we all know, that’s how Maidan started, and that’s what I told the Minister (Vladimir Medinsky)”. Ironically, Surkov himself was reported to be in Minsk with Vladimir Putin participating in the negotiation with Petro O. Proshenko, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. that is slated to decide the fate of post – Maidan Ukraine.

Last Tuesday, in another move that left many puzzled, the Ministry of Culture announced the dismissal of Irina Lebedeva from the position of director of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which she headed since 2009. Lebedeva will be replaced Zelphira Tregulova, who previously worked at the Museums of the Moscow Kremlin and ROSIZO exposition center. Apparently, Lebedeva, a prominent scholar of Russian avant – garde art, was deemed “managerially ineffective” in dealing with issues of “matters of organization, construction work and restoration”. Some sources link her departure to budgeting issues connected to the construction of a new building for the Tretyakov, planned to open in 2018-2020.

Speaking of budgets: Vladimir Ovcharenko, Regina gallerist and Vladey auctioneer, has masterminded an auction format fit for Russia’s struggling economy. On February 17th, Ovcharenko will hold the first Vladey All For 100 auction with starting prices for all lots fixed at 100 Euro. Apparently, these days 100 Euros can get you a small canvas by Valery Chtak, Misha Most and Alexey Kallima, a wall piece by Irina Korina or even a small drawing by Georgiy Guryanov. According to The New York Times’report on the London auction week, however, Russians still have no problem dropping several million on a Malevich. The avant-garde artist’s self – portrait on paper was sold for £5.7 million at Sotheby’s to a dealer rumored to be buying on behalf of Roman Abramovich. That being said, the seller was also Russian, so who knows what all this means in the grand economic scheme of things.

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Leviathan Triumphs in LA, Vishneva Takes the Stage in NY

2015 is off to a great start for Russian cinema (if not for Russia itself): Andrei Zvyagintsev took home a Golden Globe for “Leviathan” in the Best Foreign Language Film category the other night in Los Angeles. Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a tragic tale of a small – town mechanic (played by Alexey Serebryakov) fighting against local authorities that are attempting to demolish his family home on the coast of the Barents Sea, has received raving reviews from critics in Russia and abroad. Shaun Walker’s profile of Zvyagintsev in The Guardian gives a good overview of the film, and its implications in the current political climate.

Zvyagintsev's Leviathan

Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan

The Golden Globe is only one of the many prestigious awards the film has received this season: it won the Best Screenplay in Cannes (where it was also nominated for a Palm d’Or), ARRI / OSRAM Award as Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival and Critics Award in Sao Paulo.

The biggest prize, however, is likely yet to come: the film is in the Academy Awards short list in the Best Foreign Film category. Both critically and statistically, Leviathan’s Oscar chances are strong: the film industry’s most prestigious award has gone to the Golden Globe Foreign Film winner four years in a row. Leviathan is already showing in theatres internationally and has notoriously leaked online over the weekend (apparently, via one of the Academy members). Meanwhile, Russian audiences will only see the film on the big screen come February 5th. Russians are in for a special treat: following Putin’s ban on Russian ‘mat’ in works of art , the Russian – language version of the film will contain no obscene language, with the uncensored version going straight to DVD. There is also talk of

For those based in NYC, Leviathan (playing at Film Forum and Lincoln Center) is not the only must-see spectacle hailing from Russian this month. Make sure to make it to BAM, where St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet will hold a two-week residency starting today. Don’t miss Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa’s classic version of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” or Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” with Russia’s most famous prima Diana Vishneva dancing on the 17th .

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Holy Politics, Unholy Economics

With the ruble hitting record-breaking lows, it has been a challenging December in Moscow, but the mood is one of “we have seen this before and know how to live through it.” Holiday shopping has been extreme as Russians are trying to invest their shaky rubles in something tangible – washing machines, furs, and diamonds, fearing that the currency will take another hit like it did last Tuesday, when it plummeted to 80 rubles to the dollar, creating panic both in the markets and in the supermarkets. As the year draws to a close, Russians are dreading the three d’s – denomination, devaluation and default – which have returned to everyday lexicon for the first time since the 1998 crisis.

Pavel Pepperstein, Holy Politics, 2013

In the context of a weakening economy, the government has been actively discussing patriotism, or lack thereof. On January 15th, the Russian court will issue a ruling in the case of Alexey Navalny, one of Kremlin’s most prominent critics, who has been under house arrest since February. Prosecutors have asked for 10 years of jail time for Navalny in the so-called “Yves Rocher” case, which is widely considered to be politically motivated. In anticipation of a positive verdict, supporters of anti-corruption activist are organizing a march in Moscow on the day of the court ruling. The first Facebook page for the “unsanctioned rally” has been blocked by the social network over the weekend when Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media watchdog, requested that it be taken down, but a second one, started on Sunday, has already amassed more than 30,000 followers who promised to join the rally on January 15th. The deletion of the original page, an unfortunate step on behalf of Facebook, was only to be expected from Roskomnadzor. Political opposition is increasingly considered “unpatriotic” in Russia – as the country was reminded during Putin’s annual press conference on December 18.

Other Russian officials seem to also be actively defining what is considered “patriotic”. Recently, Russia’s minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky, an outspoken critic of “heaps of bricks disguising themselves as contemporary art”, had his say on patriotism in contemporary Russian cinema. At a book signing in St. Petersburg, he noted that the Ministry will stop providing funding for “Russia-smearing” films that criticize the existing government, claiming it to be “state masochism”. Meanwhile, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a drama about corruption and resistance to authorities set in a small Russian town on the Arctic sea, is now in the short-list for an Oscar. Around 40% of the budget for Zvyagintsev’s highly critical masterpiece came from the Russian government. Considering this is the Oscar first nomination of a Russian film in 8 years, it seems that a little “masochism” doesn’t hurt sometimes.

In the context of increasingly limited government funding for contemporary art, private patronage plays an evermore important role. Art patron Shalva Breus’ Kandinsky Prize winners have been announced in the 8th annual ceremony on December 11th. Pavel Pepperstein’s “Holy Politics” became the winner in the “Project of the Year” category, bringing the artist a prize of 40,000 Euro. Albert Soldatov was named “Young artist of the Year” and awarded 10,000 Euro for his “Balthus” video, beating Timofey Radya and Elena Rykova in the category. Given the volatile foreign exchange rates, we’re hoping that the cash prize did actually come in euros.

Moscow’s privately funded Garage has also played an important role in the arts where the government has left an under-funded void. This month, the museum has opened Russia’s first contemporary art library. The library currently holds around 15,000 volumes, including journals, monographs, exhibition catalogues, magazines and more, plus free access to all the articles on JStor. It will also hold the museum’s archive of Russian contemporary art, which consists of documents, texts, audio-, video- and photo- material connected to art in Russia from the 1960s to the present. The library is free of charge and open to the public, while the archive will require advanced notice. Amidst bleak projections for the government budget in 2015, these are the kinds of acts of patriotism we can get behind.

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Lost, Found, Sold

Remember the controversy surrounding Sergey  Bugaev (aka Afrika) and his collection of “lost” paintings by members of Leningrad’s New Artitsts? Well, it came to a disheartening semi-conclusion this week when 24 works from Bugaev’s collection were offered at Moscow’s Vladey auction.

Sergey Bugaev and Timur Novikov in front of Novikov’s “Portrait of Afrika” back in the day

Here’s a brief refresher: Bugaev, once a prominent member of Leningrad’s avant-garde scene and it’s ambassador to the word at large had somehow gained possession of a number of works by artists such as Georgy Gurianov, Viktor Tsoy, Inal Savchenkov, Timur Novikov and others in the late 1980s. At the time, they were lent to a traveling exhibition and went missing somewhere on the way back home to Leningrad. Some 25+ years later, to the artists’ surprise, the works surfaced in an exhibition curated by Bugaev, where they were presented as pieces from his collection. The artists went to court where Bugaev’s ownership of the works was found legal. Last Monday, two dozen works were auctioned off at a sale that brought in 838, 000 Euro in total earnings. Among the lots was Timur Novikov’s iconic portrait of a young Nike – clad Bugaev, a painting probably made at a time when fellow artists were not expecting Afrika to offer them to buy their own art back from him (as was the case with Georgy Gurianov back in 2013). Another work by Novikov, Leningrad, was picked up by prominent Russian collector Shalva Breus for 95,000 Euro, setting a record for the auction and insuring that Bugaev makes a nice profit off the evening’s sales. Later, in an interview with Afisha Vozduh, Bugaev admitted that the 24 pieces was a “microscopic part” of his collection, basically confirming a fact no one doubted. “Bugaev has not one, not two, not even ten of my works, but many, many more” – says artist Inal Savchenkov, who saw two of his pieces offered at Vladey. “But I feel great. I don’t expect anything good coming my way from Seryozha Bugaev – never have, never will”.

Georgy Gurianov's Dive, which sold at Sotheby's Contemporary East auction

Georgy Gurianov’s Dive, which sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary East auction

Moscow’s Vladey was scheduled to coincide with London’s Russian auctions, held by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and MacDougall’s. With the ruble and oil prices plummeting and the West’s sanctions firmly in place, there was little optimism in the salerooms. Sotheby’s, which has shown generally disappointing results this season, sold only 12 of its 32 lots – amongst them Georgy Gurianov’s Dive, which went for 122,500 GBP. Christie’s Important Russian Art sale did better, earning a total of $31,597,848 on the 240 sold lots. Valentin Serov’s Portrait of Maria Zetlin, which went for $14,511,339 at Christie’s, was the biggest sale of the week, setting a record for the artist and for a Russian artwork at auction. A full roundup of Christie’s and Sotheby’s results can be found here and here. The New York Times reports that the Russian sales are half of what they were back in pre-crisis 2007, when they brought in nearly 100 million GBP. Judging by the alarming forecasts for the Russian economy, things may get even shakier soon. No doubt Bugaev knows when to make an exit.

Speaking of London – if you’re in town, make sure to check out Saatchi’s new show, Post Pop: East Meets West, which traces Pop Art’s legacy in the East. The exhibition finally makes an effort to show art from the former  Soviet Union, China and Taiwan alongside the Basquiats, Shermans, Princes and McCarthys of the West. Andrei Erofeev, one of the three curators responsible for the show, brought in a diverse group of Russian Pop and Sots-artists, ranging from Grisha Bruskin and Leonid Sokov to Irina Korina to Oleg Kulik. Not in London? No worries – apparently, Saatchi is looking to tour the show in the US, China and Russia.

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The writing on the wall

Russian artist Petr Pavlensky staged a Van Gogh – esque act of self – mutilation last week, cutting off his earlobe with a butcher’s knife while sitting on the walls of the Serbsky psychiatric centre in Moscow. The artist’s action, called “Otdelenie” (a word that means both “separation” or “ward” in Russian), is targeted against the practice of ‘punitive psychiatry’ – psychiatric treatment as a form of persecution in politically motivated cases.

Petr Pavlensky’s “Otdelenie”

The Serbsky psychiatric center is notorious for its history of ‘treating’ dissidents and political prisoners throughout the Soviet era. Lately, the Center has been re-establishing its chilling reputation: earlier this year, doctors from the Serbsky institute proclaimed Mikhail Kosenko, one of the anti – Putin protesters arrested at a political rally in May, 2012, insane, leading to a sentence of indefinite psychiatric treatment for the 38-year old.

Pavlensky himself had to undergo numerous psychiatric evaluations this year after a series of performances that included nailing his scrotum to the Red Square pavement and rolling around naked in barbed wire. Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot, a big supporter of Pavlensky’s work, later wrote that the artist’s strategies and somber aesthetics are more in line with the current political situation in Russia than the outdated multi-colored optimism of Pussy Riot.

Pavlensky, who performed “Otdelenie” naked on what was an unusually cold October day, was removed from the facade of the building two hours into the performance by armed policemen and taken to a hospital (not the Serbsky center). Neither the knife nor the earlobe were returned.

In other news –The Breus Foundation has officially announced the names of this year’s nominees for the Kandinsky Prize, which provides the winning artist with a very substantial award of 40,000 Euro for “Project of the year”. This year, Baibakov Art Projects alumna Irina Korina’s Refrain, Pavel Pepperstein’s Holy Politics and Lilia Li-Mi-Yan’s Masters/Servants are competing in that category. Another Baibakov Art Projects favorite, Timofey Radya, is among the nominees for the Young Artist Prize with “All I Know About Street Art”, an artistic manifesto written on the wall of a St. Petersburg factory in 2013.

Timofey Radya’s “All I Know About Street Art” (2013).

This month Radya, along with the talented Nikolai Alekseev, Alexandra Sukhareva, Aslan Gaisumov, Anastasia Kuzmina, Ivan Gorshkov and Evgeny Granilshchikov has also been chosen as the awardee of Garage’s support program for young Russian artists. All awardees will receive a monthly grant of 20,000 rubles throughout the year. With the ruble recently hitting historic lows, that amounts to about $470 per month.

Meanwhile, in Kiev, 23-year old Aslan Gaisumov has his eyes on a bigger award: he is the sole Russian nominee for PinchukArtCenter’s Future Generation Art Prize. The names of nominees were announced several days before Ukraine held a historic parliamentary election that resulted in a triumph of pro-Western parties, securing a European turn in the countries future. Politics are hard to avoid in Kiev these days, but for the Pinchuk prize, with its very international jury panel and selection committee, art is the first priority.  21 artists from all over the world, including Jon Rofman (Canada), Carlos Motta (Colombia), Zhanna Kadyrova (Ukraine), GCC (Arabian Gulf Region), He Xiangyu (China) are competing for the $100,000 prize, which will be awarded for the third time in early December of this year.

 

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