2012 will go down as the Year of the Balaclava for the Russian Art World, the year when all the world put on their Free Pussy Riot t-shirts and smiled for the cameras. (Which, admittedly, is still a big step up street-cred-wise from that time when a Black Eyed Pea wore a CCCP sweatshirt in one of their videos.) While this support was occasionally misguided or misinformed, at the very least, the case brought attention to rising – and frankly, worrying – incidences of censorship in Russia.
One of these incidents has been flaring up over the past few weeks. Earlier this winter, the Staff Quarters of the Hermitage – effectively, its contemporary wing, home to the Hermitage 20/21 – finally went public, after years of anticipation. For the opening, curator Dmitry Ozerkov answered the museum’s Goyas with what he felt was an appropriate modern-day rendition: the Chapman Brother‘s The End of Fun, 2007. Madonna may have gotten off easy, but this installation (basically the circles of hell, rendered in miniature) has failed to escape the wrath of the Orthodox. While international newspapers were quick to cry “censorship!”, the museum calmly held a press conference in which it maintained that the work would remain on display. On the English-language website, the Hermitage makes no mention of the Chapman Brothers (though there is a heroic stance on “offensive language” used in the Ilya and Emilia Kabakov exhibition.)
In a piece for the Guardian, Miriam Elder quotes Ozerkov:
Ozerkov also bemoaned the politicisation of art in Russia, saying: “We’ve spent 10 years catching up with what happened before – artists were often left to shout ‘We’re here, notice us!'”
Pointing to an acclaimed exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi gallery in London, he added: “Now there are signs we are reaching a new level.”
We find it telling that the Chapman Brothers and the Saatchi Gallery are the measures of how “far” Russia has come, but this is for another column.
But back to Moscow, where a debate raged over the humanities – more specifically the Institute for Art History, which was one of several institutes which the Ministry of Culture proposed shutting down and replacing with one, centralized humanities program. Protests – alas, much less photogenic than those for Pussy Riot – were quickly organized, articles plastered the papers (including one from the director of the institute) and a petition circulated online. While reorganization of the Academy is never automatically “bad,” the reasoning – that the art history program was “ineffective” and “irrelevant” – was troubling, as were the comments traded by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky during an open meeting on December 11, where the Minister responded to what he perceived as “information warfare.” Artguide – again, always an invaluable source for us – published a transcript of the Minister’s rather feisty statements, indicating just how wary the administration may be of another post Pussy Riot publicity debacles.
“Believe me, it would have been significantly easier to just make this decision behind closed doors and then let you all know by an order hanging from the doors. And that would have been the end of the conversation, once and for all. To come here and have this complicated conversation is much more difficult than to have not done it.”
“How awesome that this institute was founded in 1943. But can you imagine what would have happened if, in 1943, the director of the institute went to the pages of Pravda to start a public debate with the leaders of the state..?!”
I am absolutely certain that any problems can and should be resolved through mutual dialogue, mutual belief in one’s position, and not through what they call ‘information warfare.’ This is what’s being done: articles in the papers, some sort of flash mobs – this is what I mean by information warfare. It’s ridiculous, just ridiculous. (A voice in the hall: “It’s glasnost!”) It’s not glasnost, it’s stupidity. And because the director of the Institute didn’t come to me, I came to the Institute. And I am answering you publicly. I could have plastered my opinions on the front page of Russkaya Gazeta [A major newspaper. Ed]. I came to you – that’s the difference in our positions.”
Of course, his words may have carried more weight if the Minister hadn’t been so busy checking his iPhone during the proceedings. (One onlooker described him as “hypnotised by his iPad.” The Minister answered this allegation, hotly contesting: “I wasn’t just looking at my iPad, I was getting information this whole time!”)
Those interested can read the whole story (alas, in Russian) here.
But not to end on a disparaging note. While 2012 may have been a little rocky (but c’mon, the year was supposed to be one lead-up to the so-called Mayan Apocalypse – it could have been much worse), 2013 gives us plenty to look forward to, starting with Aperto, a project from some of our past and present team members – more details to come soon! – as well as a line-up of intriguing exhibitions slated to hit Russia (we’re particularly excited to see Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist will be teaming up for a show at the Garage in March.) You can find more art-world predictions from Baibakov Art Projects‘ own Maria Baibakova here on Nowness. Meanwhile, Russian readers can enjoy Maria’s hilarious Art Basel wrap-up – with some insight on what it means to be a collector these days- here on Buro/247.
On behalf of Maria, and all of us at Baibakov Art Projects, we thank all of our readers and wish you and yours all a brilliant New Year!