“Under a Tinsel Sun”: More on this week’s Moscow Biennale of Young Art

Faxen, Double Layer 2, 2011

This week, Moscow will see the openings of the 3rd Moscow Biennale of Young Art and its parallel programs. In years past, the Biennale was known as “Qui Vive?” or “Halt! Who Goes There?” to connote some kind of youth invasion. To that end, the program comprised a rowdy mix of projects from young-curators, tucked into available corner within Moscow’s existing institutions, or more often, “found spaces” in the foyers of libraries or universities.

This year, the project changed its name (its now the Biennale of Young Art) and its format; the biennale is centralized with one main exhibition, put together by an international curator.

As we’ve reported in November, the curator for this revamped edition is Kathrin Becker, who immediately divided the exhibition into two parts, assigning the second “Strategic Project” to XL Gallery‘s Elena Selina, who pumped it full of Slavic-ish artists. Becker’s “Main Project” took the theme as “Under the Tinsel Sun,” and brought in a more international roster (Just to name a few participants: AIDS 3D, Edgardo Aragón, Jorinde Voight, Eva Kotatkova, Ryan McNamara, Ciprian Mureşan, Laure Provost, Mikhail Subotzky, Marinella Senatore, Conrad Ventur, as well as Moscow fixtures Anna Titova, Anastasia Khoroshilova and Arseny Zhilyaev.)

Kathrin Becker, image courtesy of the Moscow Biennale of Young Art

We translated parts of an interview between Becker and the wonderful Alexey Buldakov that give a sense on the curator’s position regarding art, politics and biennales. Now, a few days before the festivities kick off, Kommersant has published an interview with Becker in which she elaborates, starting with the idea of “Young Art.”

[[NB: The following is OUR TRANSLATION of the text for the purposes of this blog and should not be quoted as anything else. The text can be found in its original Russian here.]]

Kommersant’s Anna Tolstova: For the past century, the life-expectancy of mankind has significantly increased. Today a “young artist” is typically one under 35 year old – which is also the standard used in defining the Moscow Biennale of Young Art – even though in the 19th century, 35 years old was considered an age of great maturity. Do you really think 35 is still “young”? 
Kathrin Becker: You are right to note that our perspective on age and maturity have changed drastically. What’s more, that perspective also strongly depends on which country or level of social development. In the West, for example, “young artists” can be considered anyone up to 40, whereas in Pakistan, a “young artist” might be more like 22.  Of course, the age limit is a controversial one, but it can also be very important to an artist’s career; for a Biennale of Young Art, we chose those artists whom we might not have chosen under different circumstances, as a way to support the art of the future.
AT: And what is a “young artist”? Is it just an age category or is there a certain creative tendency? 
KB: Of course, there is a certain creative tendency. But at the same time, the terms “Young Art” or “Young Artist” point to a specific generation. And today, we can observe some intriguing intersections between generations; for example, the artists of the 1970’s wield a tremendous influence over emerging artists.
AT: Recently, it seems young artists have been all the rage. Exhibitions like New York’s New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” have been extremely successful. The main project of the last Venice Biennale was also, for the large part, a “Young Art” biennale. It’s one thing when the Venice Biennale starts paying attention to young artists, as a kind of manifest. It’s another, however, when a biennale is specifically devoted to “Young Art.” What are the characteristics of this second type of biennale?

KB: You can look and see which artists today get the solo shows in museums, or, if you prefer, which artists are included in Bice Curiger’s project at the Venice Biennale – among them, there are definitely many artists we consider “young,” or emerging. But this is already an aspect of the market: in market criteria, the status of “emerging” plays a certain role. And in connection with this, emerging artists, artists under 35 years old, they can reach a kind of career peak that earlier would not have been possible at that age. It is a different thing with exhibitions like “Younger Than Jesus,” though. It is very difficult to pin-point general trends or tendencies or shared visual language within one generation, but these sort of generation surveys, which are defined by ages ranges, still manage to pull it off.
AT: Do you have an understanding of what should challenge artists of the new generation? Did you choose your roster in accordance with this understanding or by some other criteria? 
KB: This generation has grown up in a very specific historical situation. On the one hand, it has been the Postmodern Epoch, when the idea of the Avant-Garde and “Classical” Modernism has gone for good, and the young underground culture stopped trying to dig it up. On the other hand, it has been an age of Postideology, when the Communist System fell, taking with it anything associated with ideological conflicts. And, most importantly, starting with the 1990’s, new technology has transformed the information society, it has gone online and gone global. All of this has altered the very core of how we experience the world, our perspective on what constitutes reality. It seems to me, young artists today must find themselves amid this changing reality, they must recognize this reality as a construct, adapt it and translate their own version to a new world. It’s impossible to give one fixed answer to the question of what defines “young art.” It’s impossible to say if it should be painting or new media. You can’t even say if there are certain groupings, or tendencies, like Fluxus of feminism. These kind of categories have already been rendered useless.
AT: So, the title of your project, “Under A Tinsel Sun,” speaks to this kind of internet-reality? 
KB: Yes, but at the same time, this  “tinsel sun” is the real sun.
AT: You have in your biennale a fairly sizable educational program, not only for visitors but also for young artists. This seems to be quite trendy these days; even the ArtMoscow fair had an educational program. In Moscow there are several schools for contemporary art now open. It gives the impression that today, despite all these images of artistic anarchy, there’s no place in the art world for a self-taught artist, who hasn’t gone through the certified institutions. This is a much stricter system than, say, the 19th century, when an artist could be rejected by the Academy and the Salon and still participate in the art world. Doesn’t it seem to you that contemporary art is too preoccupied with the artist’s education? 
KB: No. I don’t want to blame the younger generation, but in Russia, amid the emerging artists, you always meet those who are completely ignorant or oblivious – as our “Open Call” process confirmed. They don’t know art history, not even their own, local history, they haven’t been taught to see their work in a historical perspective or to associate themselves within an international artistic context, within global processes.
AT: Why do you think that is? Is it just ignorance? 

KB: As an outsider, it’s difficult for me to judge, but it could be connected to the cultural gap between the capitals and the provinces. In Germany, there isn’t this idea of “the provinces.” I understand that, in comparison with Russia, Germany is a tiny country, but still. The most interesting art departments in Germany aren’t necessarily in the universities of Berlin, Munich, or the other big cities. What’s more, many educational institutions in Russia still continue in the late Soviet tradition – with very strict understandings of standards and canons, of what does or does not count as “culture.” The example of Pussy Riot underlines this situation; it’s unclear what is the cultural strength of the country, what dictates the rules. It’s unclear who makes the laws – democracy of the Church. For this reason, it’s very difficult to have a stable educational structure.
AT: I actually wanted to ask you as an outsider. You first came to Russia during the Perestroika years, when contemporary art was emerging from the Underground, when all the flowers were blooming and everything was in a state of euphoria. How, in your opinion, has this situation changed in the past 20-odd years? 

KB: On the one hand, the changes are connected to the economic processes. There appeared the domestic market for contemporary art, which everyone had been dreaming about. But how to be successful in this market, this doesn’t necessarily coincide with what it takes to be in demand at, say, Art Basel. And that there is this whole wave of artists, whose works have circulated exclusively on the domestic market, this certainly strongly influences the art scene. On the other hand, there are also a group of Russian artists who have assimilated into the international process, but the interest in and awareness of Russian art is nowhere near what it was in the beginning of the 1990’s. Sometimes, it even seems to me like the distance between Russia and the West has only increased since Perestroika.
AT: And how do you relate to protest art in Russia, those groups like Pussy Riot or Voina? Would you include that sort of art in the biennale? 

KB: They are interesting to me, and not only as a reflection of political protest. They are interesting as a cultural phenomenon. But I don’t think that the kind of exhibitions like the biennale, which is part of a set social hierarchy and takes place in a decidedly elite, cordoned space, should be the site of political actions. Political protest is not the function of the biennale. On the other hand, there is, for example, a law against the propaganda of homosexuality, which, for now, only applies to Petersburg. It is clear that we – as curators, and not just as regular people – cannot be corrupted enough so as to make exhibitions under these terms. We can agree with everything. An exhibition is not a form of protest and political activism. But if someone from a political or religious group decides that a certain work could be considered homosexual propaganda, we will still include it in the exhibition. Self-censorship exists everywhere, but we are not willing to make these kinds of concessions.

For the full text of the interview, refer here. More information on the Young Art Biennale, which opens this week, can be found on the website.

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