5th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, “More Light”

Anna Tolstova

September 23, 2013
Moscow Biennale , Moscow
September 20–October 20, 2013

At first glance, “More Light”—the title of the 5th Moscow Biennale’s main project curated by Catherine de Zegher—seems to describe the exhibition entirely. The broad and luminous space of the Manege Central Exhibition Hall is full of weightless and fragile works flowing through the space like draperies, many of which are, in fact, fabrics. However, each work in the exhibition calls for second glance or, better, gaze. A seemingly endless swath of wallpaper with a big, densely ornamented butterfly pattern looks totally decorative until one comes closer and realizes that the intricate patterns in the butterflies’ wings are composed of prison scenes with tortured inmates. The Time of Butterflies (2011) by Parastou Forouhar refers to the death of her parents, oppositional Iranian politicians murdered in Tehran fifteen years ago: the artist’s late mother’s name was Parvaneh, which means butterfly in Persian. “It is about the simultaneity of beauty and violence and the ambivalence of their coexistence,” she explains in an artist’s statement. And that comes to sound like a motto for “More Light” at the Manege, a sort of Kunsthalle, whose history is full of ambivalent moments and the wracked tension between art and politics.

Until this year, the Moscow Biennale had no permanent exhibition space. For the fifth edition of the exhibition the Manege was chosen. A huge neoclassical riding hall near the Kremlin Wall, the space was transformed in the 1950s into the Moscow Central Exhibition Hall after Stalin’s death, burnt down in 2004, and roughly reconstructed a year later, joining the long list of Moscow’s pseudohistorical remakes. The place is famous for Nikita Khrushchev’s quarrel with artists moving away from the commandments of Social Realism towards the freedom of modern art. This particular flogging occurred in 1962 at a group show celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Soviet Union of Artists’ Moscow branch, during which Khrushchev demonstratively blamed the dissidents, and thus marked the split of Soviet art into official and unofficial camps. By the way, the Soviet leader roared at “pederasts” then, and now homosexuality is partly banned in Russia again. This sad fact has already led to protests against the upcoming Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg.

As for the status of contemporary art in Russia today, in general it is still uncertain. Nevertheless there are signs that the situation might be changing, at least in Moscow, where the city government hopes to soothe angry citizens by cultivating the so-called creative industries. Contemporary art of an entertaining and apolitical kind—far from Pussy Riot and quite close to design—is to play its role in the process. And the Manege, still the biggest exhibition hall in Russia’s capital, may become one of the most prominent receptacles for this new cultural policy. At the overcrowded opening of “More Light,” Moscow officials promised that from now on the Manege will be the permanent dwelling of the Moscow Biennale, and the Minister of Culture pledged to give more support to contemporary art. Needless to say, this is an ambiguous prospect, taking into account the strong-armed excess of “support” that was afforded to Soviet art by authorities in the USSR.

De Zegher curated her exhibition in the Manege in full awareness of the political-aesthetical background of the place. And in her airy and fluent patchwork of a show, lots of political, social, and ecological concerns are interwoven, though often hidden behind the sometimes light surface of the works. One can’t help thinking that Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Horiztontal (2011)—a video portrait of a giant spruce lying flat, as the title suggests, and divided into a six-channel image in order to show the tree at its actual size—is in a sense a democratic contrast to the firs growing beside the Kremlin Wall, a symbol of the authorities’ entrenched vertical hierarchies of power. Yet no work in the show has a single, one-dimensional meaning. Political messages confronting the prides and prejudices of Russian society can be read through the whole composition of “More Light.”

There are almost no big names, and the few participating VIPs like Mona Hatoum or Yona Friedman are probably stars just for the professional public. That could disappoint the Moscow audience. But in this constellation, previously unheard voices sound louder because their artistic accomplishments are now revealed, whether they speak of ecological and social disasters in Indonesia, like Jumaadi in his shadow-theater epic performance The Woman Who Married The Mountain (2012–13), or of the hidden gender conflict between tradition and contemporaneity in today’s Uzbek family life (Umida Akhmedova’s photographic series “Mothers and Daughters-in-Law,” 2011–13). Bringing Umida Akhmedova—a photographer recently pursued for “slandering and insulting the Uzbek people” in Tashkent—to a Moscow full of xenophobia towards the wave of immigrants from Central Asia was one of many inconspicuous political gestures of the curator. That non-western artists prevail in the exhibition may be a challenge for today’s Russia, still denying her colonial past and postcolonial now. And it was a surprise to see how Irina Zatulovskaya’s Not Ready Maid Series (2002–2013), paintings in pseudo-naïve Russian style made on peasant household objects, saws, cutting boards, or graters, parallels Song Dong’s Waste Not (2005), a tremendous installation made of junk that his mother hoarded all her life, revealing the psychological dimensions of the compulsory Chinese virtue of frugality. But such works involve different modes of temporality, making the revolutionary pulse of Egalite (2009) by Muscovite performance artist Elena Kovylina drown in the meditative quietude of Bittenii (2010) by Yakut filmmaker Mikhail Lukachevsky.

In spite of the fact that the exhibition borrows its title from Goethe’s last words, “More Light” has nothing to do with European Enlightenment ideals. Light is not necessarily linked with the European concept of rationality. It is regarded mainly as a means of seeing, and the exhibition is a hymn to visual art as such. Light projection like a globe-ball from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) jumps through the iconostasis of Goya’s The Disasters of War (1810–1815), freed from all figures so that only the landscapes remain, and when the ray of light falls to an etching, the war scene appears in a projection as if by magic. When I Count, There Are Only You But When I Look, There Is Only a Shadow (2012–13), the last work of the late Iranian artist Farideh Lashai (1944–2013), was inspired by the Arab Spring and is a reflection on what is saved and what is lost in our historical memory, where light serves as a metaphor for sight, thought, and remembrance.

Installed as if a passage from dark to light—from the Manege’s shadowy ground level up to its sunny first floor—“More Light” celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Victory Over the Sun. A key work in the history of twentieth-century art, it is a 1913 futurist opera on which the four main protagonists of the Russian avant-garde—Kazimir Malevich, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, and Mikhail Matyushin—collaborated. Malevich’s scenography for Victory Over the Sun gave birth to his Black Square (1915), which embodied the end of the old European “soleil de la raison” and introduced new space-time dimensions. De Zegher, impressed by Russia’s immense territory and its nine time zones, proposed to grapple with the time-space continuum in terms of Russian avant-garde theory, namely Mikhail Bakhtin’s chronotope, and to consider “More Light” an homage to Malevich.

The homage is performed (though probably unconsciously) by many exhibited works—from Simryn Gill’s blacked-out book pages (On the Beach, 2012) and the giant zeppelin by Panamarenko (The Aeromodeller, 1969) to anonymous Tantric drawings that strangely resemble Suprematist compositions. The exhibition ends with a group of easels bearing white canvases painted in white. These are relics of En Plein Air (2012), an action undertaken by a collective of Russian artists a year ago in support of the protest activities in Moscow: as a white ribbon became the symbol of Russian protest, the artists went into the streets to paint the Kremlin with white pigment on white backgrounds. This coda, reinterpreted as part of the curator’s homage to Malevich, shows the delicate balance between the political and the aesthetic that de Zegher tried to sustain and that has direct appeal to the Russian contemporary art scene after the Pussy Riot case. And it switches from the negative Black Square to the positive “White Square,” playing with the fact that the exhibition takes place close to the overloaded-with-political-symbolism Red Square—which in Russian doesn’t sound like the title of another Malevich painting from the trinity; it bears another meaning, simply, that it is a beautiful square.

The majority of local viewers, having quickly run through the exhibition, seem not to have bothered to notice the political undertones, and have taken to mocking the exhibition as “a textile biennial,” a reproach that in fact implies that the main project is too feminine and too ethnographic. The rudiments of Russian colonial and sexist views, which the curator bravely tried to confront, are perfectly expressed in this outcry. This criticism suggests that de Zegher’s 5th Moscow Biennale was perfectly made for the here and now, just as the curator promised.

Russia, Biennials, Soviet Union, State & Government, Protests & Demonstrations

Anna Tolstova is an art critic based in Moscow.

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