InstitutionsArtists 15-03-2017

The fluctuations of the Russian avant garde under the spotlight

“I would underline two major challenges for young artists in Russia,” says Kirill Garshin, a Russian artist born in 1990, “Firstly, there is a level of misreading and rejection of contemporary art by the majority of people in Russia. The reason for this is probably due to an underdeveloped education system in terms of art history, as well as an overlooking of contemporary art by the Ministry for Culture. Secondly, even the art system itself doesn't give enough support to young art.”

The relationship between Russia and contemporary art is one of oscillation. The country has an incredible but complicated artistic heritage, with its turbulent history providing fertile ground for artistic production. However, contemporary practices remain relatively under the radar, beyond Pyotr Pavlensky and Pussy Riot, there are very few living artists who are present on the international scene.

If you were to put a date on contemporary art in Russia, it would probably begin in 1956, with the Picasso exhibition at the Pushkin Museum. Following this event, the authorities allowed a series of exhibitions to take place which signaled growing freedom for young artists, distancing the artistic output from socialist canons.

In 1957, the International Youth Festival took place in Moscow. Three pavilions in the Sokolniki park hosted over 4,500 works by young artists from over 52 different countries. The event was a turning point. “It was a revelation, an explosion, a moment of liberation,” says Oscar Rabin. For the first time, the people of Moscow were able to see art beyond Socialist Realism.


Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933). The Man Who Flew into Space, 1981–88. 


However, by 1962, things looked to be taking a step backwards. An exhibition presenting avant garde works in Manège in Moscow was cancelled by Nikita Khrouchtchev. Such a decision signaled the interdiction of all artistic expression that contradicted Socialist Realism. In 1974 when a group of artists tried to organise an open air exhibition, it was bulldozed down by the authorities.

Yet, as of recent, we have seen a few high-quality, non-profit spaces emerge, and even a number of commercial galleries established, which will allow for a market to structure itself. With the opening of Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum’s Triennial this week, billing itself as “the largest-ever survey of art practice across Russia,” it is interesting to revisit the status of contemporary art in Russia, to try and understand the state of play for young artists today.


Kirill Garshin, photo: Alexey Naroditskiy


“We became mature enough after the fall of the Soviet Union to realise that as soon as the political aims of Perestroika had been reached, Russian contemporary art was no longer much in demand in London and New York,” says Moscow-based artist Alexandra Paperno. And indeed we have witnessed a marked absence of young Russian artists moving in international circles. Paperno herself, who is currently participating in the Garage Triennale, seems to have taken all the steps necessary towards becoming an established artist, however it is noteworthy that she has only had one solo show outside of Russia. It is also worth noting that neither Frieze or FIAC, NYC, London and Paris’ respective pre-eminent art fairs did not host a single Russian art gallery in their most recent editions (Frieze hosts galleries from 28 different countries.)

However before addressing the issue of international recognition, there remains the hurdle of internal recognition. When the Garage museum opened in 2008, there were no plans to include contemporary Russian art in their programming. It is therefore all the more significant, that now after almost 10 years of operation, the institution’s position has shifted so significantly that the first edition of their Triennial is exclusively dedicated to Russian art. Paperno says that this “representative of the way the situation has been transforming in the past decade.”


Alexandra Paperno, photo: Alexey Naroditskiy


Headed by curator Kate Fowle, a curatorial team of six have scoured the country, from Siberia and back, to find the best of Russian art in order “to strengthen our understanding of the underground histories of Russian contemporary art,” claims a statement.


The Garage Triennial is on display through May 14


Text by Jessica Saxby & Henri Robert

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