Places / Russia

The Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Behind The Scenes

We asked British art historian Ruth Addison and Zane Onckule, the program director at kim? Contemporary Art Centre, to give us a look behind the scenes at The Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art

Ruth Addison:

Ruth Addison and the artist Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich in his black sheep mask.

Ruth Addison and the artist Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich in his black sheep mask.

Monday 16 September

For me the Moscow Biennale started with Utopia and Reality?, the El Lissitzky/Ilya and Emilia Kabakov exhibition at Multimedia Art Museum Moscow. Beautifully installed across the entire seven floors of the museum, this show is a version of an exhibition shown in 2012 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (home to a major El Lissitzky collection) and then in 2013 at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. As I understand it, the Moscow version includes a number of important Kabakov works on loan from private collectors, a testament to Olga Sviblova’s reputation as a networker extraordinaire.  I admit that I went to the private view feeling skeptical. My first contact with Russian art, in my teens, was with the Russian avant-garde through Camilla Grey’s seminal book The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, and I used to spend spare time during visits to Moscow in the early 1990s seeking out books on this period. I am less emotionally attached to the work of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and confess to being perplexed by the juxtaposition of these artists with one of my early heroes. This being the first major private view of the 2013-2014 season, the museum was packed and I had to make an effort to get to close to the works. But the advantage of being among such a crowd was that I had a chance to discuss with various people the context of what seemed to me an unlikely pairing and, thanks to journalist Olga Kabanova, director of Moscow Museum of Modern Art Vasily Tsereteli, and collectors Dasha Antseva and Mikhail Kosolapov, I began to look at the work differently. Essentially the context is as follows: El Lissitzky, in common with fellow members of the avant-garde, was looking to a bright future, and his works demonstrate a utopian, positive, forward-looking viewpoint. Ilya Kabakov, on the other hand, worked with the post-Stalin Soviet present, the communal apartments and drab, difficult living conditions of the inhabitants of El Lissitzky’s bright future. It is this juxtaposition of hope and hopelessness which enables the viewer to look anew at the work of El Lissitzky and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. My personal eureka moment is encapsulated by the two projects for monuments, exhibited side by side. El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribune (1920, model built by Henry Milner, 2012) soars upwards and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Monument to a Tyrant (2005) brings Stalin down from his pedestal to earth. The streets of Moscow are scattered with monuments, with the ghosts of monuments removed, and with the traces of monuments planned but never built. All of these monuments, present, past, and future, were the milestones of a journey to utopia, which lost its way.


Biennale week also involved a lot of eating and drinking. We went on from the exhibition to MAMM’s dinner in honor of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in the wonderfully over-the-top restaurant Casta Diva. Guests included collectors Peter Aven, Elchin Safarov and Dilyara Allakhverdova, and Igor Tsukanov. We were seated with Andrei Malakhov, one of my mother-in-law’s favorite TV presenters. Unfortunately, the pink champagne made me uncharacteristically shy, and I didn’t have the nerve to ask for his autograph. Later we were joined by collectors Alexander and Marina Dobrovinsky, Leonid Ogarev and Miranda Mirianishvili, and Vladimir Bershader. My husband, Alexander Kronik, is also a collector so the conversation inevitably turned to planning the busy Biennale week that laid ahead.

Tuesday 17 September

British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum was in Moscow to install her work Web (2006) in More Light, the Moscow Biennale exhibition at Manege curated by Catherine de Zegher. Mona and I met at Cairo Biennale in 1998. In Moscow we caught up over lunch, where I learned that Web, a delicate spider’s web of clear glass spheres Mona was installing for the Moscow Biennale, had originally been devised as a site-specific work for a unused cinema in San Gimignano, Italy and the glass balls were produced by a nearby glass factory. I also learned that Mona was giving a talk that night at the Manege, so I canceled my plan to go the opening of Restoration at Ekaterina Foundation. A mainly young, Russian audience listened attentively to Mona’s description of her work, from early performance-based practice to her better-known sculptural works. She divided her sculptural work broadly in to four genres: cages, furniture, the body, and cartography. The common theme she defined as the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the experience of the uncanny. Although I know Mona’s work well I was intrigued by her description of Recollection (1995), an installation made of hair, which was commissioned by Biennale curator Catherine de Zegher for the Beguinage St. Elisabeth in Kortrijk, Belgium. Balls made of Mona’s hair, which she had collected over a number of years, were spread across the floor of a room that had been used for lace making. On the table was a small loom with a piece of “fabric” woven from hair. As the viewer made their way through the room, trying to avoid the hair balls, which blended in with the knotted wooden floor, they became aware of something brushing their faces. Mona had painstakingly knotted together hairs until they were two meters in length and suspended from the ceiling these 15 cm apart, the width of the human skull. There was no way to move through the room without coming in to contact with the hair. As I have a bit of a phobia about other people’s hair, even the description of this work (and writing about it now) made me feel uncomfortable. The strange combination of aesthetic pleasure and physical discomfort is what I love about Mona Hatoum’s work.

Mona Hatoum (Lebanon / UK, 1952) Web, 2006 Crystal balls and metal wire, variable dimensions Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin Photo Ela Bialkowska

Mona Hatoum (Lebanon / UK, 1952), Web, 2006
Crystal balls and metal wire, variable dimensions; Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Le Moulin
Photo Ela Bialkowska

Tuesday was the day of two dinners, but worse than that, two Georgian dinners! I love Georgian food so it was going to be a struggle not to over-eat. My favorite Georgian restaurant, Sakhli, was the venue for the first event, organized by collectors Igor and Natasha Tsukanov in honor of artist Vitaly Komar’s 70th birthday. Vitaly was in fine form, responding to each toast with warmth and wit. Guests included legendary animator Yuri Norstein (“Hedgehog in the Fog”), curators Andrei Erofeev and Jean-Hubert Martin, gallerist Marat Guelman, and auction house owner Catherine MacDougall. We tore ourselves away to go to the second dinner, organized in honor of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at the home of our friends Leonid Ogarev and Miranda Mirianishvili. Miranda is a fantastic cook so I had saved – with difficulty – a space for her food. The high point of the evening was an impromptu performance by legendary singer Nani Bregvadze, one of Ilya Kabakov’s heroines. The two great artists even sang a song together.

Wednesday 18 September

We were fortunate enough to be invited to the Sberbank-sponsored preview of More Light. My friend Mark Sanders of London gallery All Visual Arts joined us for a lovely evening spent virtually one-on-one with the artworks. The disadvantage of attending the preview was that a number of installations were not quite complete and none of the works were labeled. But guides were on hand to take guests through the vast spaces of the Manege and explain what (and who) they were seeing. While it’s wonderful having the Biennale show right in the center of Moscow, the cavernous Manege space presents its own problems. Firstly, there is a tendency to select massive works and secondly, the more subtle the work the more likely it is to get lost in the crowd. I felt this way about Mona Hatoum’s Web. Even when her works are large (and they often are) they possess an unusual lightness and a fragile beauty. In the Manege I felt that Hatoum’s work was disadvantaged by being in an off-center position in a shared space. That said, the lighting had still not been finalized during the preview so maybe on my next visit Web will be hanging in all its translucent glory. I do hope so. A find for me was Iranian artist Farideh Lashai, with her installation When I Count, There are Only You… But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow (2012-13). Tucked away in its own space, this video installation comprised copies of Goya’s “Disasters of War” with the people removed – only the ravaged, eerily beautiful landscape remains. What appears to be a spotlight or a full moon runs over the landscapes, and images of Goya’s abject humans appear briefly, only to disappear again. Sadly Farideh Lashai died earlier this year. I was pleased to see Untitled (War), an installation by Russian artist Aslan Gaisumov made of books cut, glued, sculpted, and twisted in to a variety of beautiful yet tortured shapes, which reflect on the theme of destruction. I first saw his work at the Kandinsky Prize show in 2012, but Untitled (War) is a development away from larger-scale works to small, gem-like pieces within a single installation. Gaisumov is 22 years old, and I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in future. I was also struck by Silvana and Gabriella Mangano’s video work Sculpture Sequence (2012), which sees the artists, who are often present in their work, balancing sculptural forms on their heads and shoulders, which move and fall. I enjoyed the monochrome simplicity of Sculpture Sequence after the brightness of much of More Light, and reflected on the unintended link to the clean forms of Russia’s Constructivist buildings, many of which are slowly but surely falling apart.

Exhibition view at the Manege. Photo- Natasha Polskaya1

Exhibition view at the Manege. Photo- Natasha Polskaya.

Exhibition view "More Light" photo- Natasha Polskaya

Exhibition view “More Light” photo- Natasha Polskaya

Already running late, we caught the last half-hour of the private view of Vadim Zakharov’s Dead Languages Dance. Fall Collection (2013), a new work combining installation and performance, which is on show at TsUM department store. The energetic Sveta Marich of Phillips was still on hand at the end of the evening, hosting guests, dealing with press, and generally being a social whirlwind. I have always thought the TsUM “exhibition” floor to be problematic for art, and this is the first installation I have seen there that looks and feels appropriate for the space. We then went on to Baccarat for the Phillips dinner in honor of Vadim Zakharov. New York-based collector Natalia Kolodzei joined us, and we had a very enjoyable evening. Entertainment was provided, unexpectedly, by artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich in a black sheep mask which he is wearing for a week for 20 hours a day. The other four hours a day his face is on display as part of his performance My Face is on Vacation for Artists’ Zoo at Solyanka Gallery.

Vadim Zakharov Dead Languages Dance. Fall Collection (2013) Photo: Buro24/7

Vadim Zakharov, Dead Languages Dance. Fall Collection (2013); Photo: Buro24/7

Thursday 19 September

Other than the paintings we have at home and the Nikas Safronov copy in our local Georgian café I saw no art at all on Thursday!


Friday 18 September

Mark and I called in to see the Alexander Brodsky show at Triumph Gallery, which I liked a lot more than I thought I would, and owner Dmitry Khankin kindly gave us a lift to Art Moscow. Having worked on a stand at Art Moscow for several years previously I had been following with interest the reporting on the fair’s last-minute change of concept – it is now apparently orientated toward young galleries, young artists, and beginning collectors, with artworks priced no higher than $5,000. Naturally, the price restriction was the first thing out of the window – I heard prices 20 times that amount – but squeezed up on the 3rd floor of Central House of Artists, the galleries had crammed their stands with a huge variety of works. I’ll be honest, despite the cornucopia the only artist that grabbed me was Ivan Yazykov at Roza Azora, whose painstaking pen and ink drawings lead you in to another world. We dropped in to the New Tretyakov next door to see the Russian avant-garde, and I was yet again astonished at the museum’s collection and at the fact that there never seem to be any visitors. Not that I’m suggesting you all rush to the New Tretyakov as I really appreciate having Malevich, Kandinsky, Popova, Larionov, and Goncharova to myself! On the way out I went to see the Mondrian exhibition again, and it was just as enjoyable watching his journey from realism through impressionism, pointillism, and cubism to neoplasticism a second time. This is a great exhibition, organized to mark the Year of Holland in Russia. On the way home we called in to see Marina Dobrovinsky, who showed us her collections of Soviet glass and photography and her husband Alexander’s collections of agit – lacquerware and agit – scrimshaw (not made by whalers but primarily by gulag prisoners from mammoth bones). It’s not everyday you get to see several museum-standard collections in someone’s home. A quick cup of tea and we were all set to go to the John Baldessari private view at the Garage. However by this time a whole week of art (or rather of wearing heels) had taken its toll, and I sprained my ankle on the way out of the house, necessitating a change of shoes, a couple of painkillers and a slow hobble through Gorky Park to the venue. Maybe my art injury affected my mood but I wasn’t blown away by Baldessari, although the Garage temporary space is lovely and the show was beautifully installed. I hobbled home with plans to put my feet up for a few days. No chance. The Moscow Biennale was the clarion call with which the new Moscow art season started in earnest. So it’s flat shoes for me for the foreseeable future.

Ivan Yazykov Rebus

Ivan Yazykov Rebus

Zane Onckule:

All sorts of things bend light. Or to be more precise – anything with mass. You do. I do, an artist reminded to me in the email. While talking about craft of philosophy imagined through philosophy of craft. Spinoza, the name of leftist bellowed dutch thinker was on our tongues. We thought of lenses then, this optical device which transmits and refracts light. And all of that came back to me while in Moscow. The City, the Biennale and the Title (More Light  the main exhibition curated by Catherine de Zegher and located in a newly renovated spacious Central Exhibition Hall “Manege”) is quite a body of mass already not to mention numerous other events happening in their own parallel opening days and patiently sharing the same auditory (terms like ‘province’ and ‘gigapolis’ both applies here).

Established in 2003 as part of a federal program of cultural events supported by Russian government, the first Moscow biennale was organized in 2005 and from then on each two years the structure of the Biennale includes main curated exhibition accompanied – diversified by numerous other events and venues produced by State Museums, private culture organizations and other individual or corporative initiatives.

Ne prislonyatsa

Ne prislonyatsa

Elena Kovylina, Egalite, 2009. Photo -

Elena Kovylina, Egalite, 2009. Photo –

One of the most striking features of this year’s Biennale and Biennale – main exhibition was leaning or prislonyatsa (an opposite command or ne prislonyatsa is written on the doors inside each cabin of Moscow metro) trend. Leaning as getting the first contact, an experience of encounter; as a cautious sharing of an information at the same time staying in your own whole body and mind. Leaning as the only possibility as there is no other way how to link (think of), say, Weightlessness (an exhibition curated by Elena Selina at Museum and Exbhibition Center “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman”) located directly beneath the celebrated sculpture – monument by Vera Mukhina to an Erwin Wurm solo show at WINZAWOD Centre for Contemporary Art, to Utopia and Reality? – an outstanding two-part exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and El Lissitzky to a special guest show of John Baldessari 1+1=1 (curated by Kate Fowle and Hans Ulrich Obrist) at Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. You definitely need an additional dose of portable pocket size light to cope with that.

All in all, this Biennale is somehow a lot about Moscow, but not in the direct possible way. There is not so much poesy or city-related magnitudes on the other end of the scale; instead of that, locals openly praise an increasing percentage of female artists presented as well as an analytic approach in the light of last dOCCUMENTA. And just a tiny bit of tribute toward an ongoing Venice Biennale through some anonymous tantra drawings. Afraid nobody saw those, though.



5th Moscow Biennale, the Biennale of Lights tries hard to restart the critique of culture frequently repeating itself. Where a forest is burned down, the earth becomes fertile is certainly on a curator’s tongue while convincing art to follow her.

Eija - Liisa Ahtila, Horizontal, video, 2011

Eija – Liisa Ahtila, Horizontal, video, 2011

Ruth Addison is a British art historian who is based in Moscow. After a long career with British Council, which included postings in Cairo and Moscow, she decided to pursue a career in art. For five years Ruth was Director of Moscow’s Triumph Gallery. Since late 2011 she has been working freelance, engaged primarily in researching the Moscow Nonconformists and particularly their engagement with the West during the 1960s.

11112Zane Onckule lives and works in Riga. Curator, occasional critic, and program director at kim? Contemporary Art Centre since 2010. Interested in the modes of language, writing, production, and notion of retreat all seen through questioning the conditions of visual art practices.

4 thoughts on “The Fifth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Behind The Scenes

  1. Thank you for this fluid pilgrimage with a human touch through the Moscow Biennale, which as pointed out, is almost as much about the city itself as the art. Having only been to the 2009 Biennale with a Hans Knoll’s group from Vienna, I was at that time overwhelmed by the power of creative language, cultural presence of a country defining its history once again and tough, provocative but sensitive art. The week’s adventure was so concisely and visually described to stimulate many memories of that informative event bringing me up to date with the current pulse of Moscow.
    Mona Hartoum’s ‘Web’ looked amazing as a reflection of the fragile times we live in, and the insight into the exhibition of Lissitzky and Kabokov propelled much room for thought about the future now, dream for utopia vs. one century later, its doom. Also, will keep an eye out for this performance ‘Dead Languages Dance’ the title of which inspired a poem from this writer, and Ivan Yazykov’s drawings.
    Even though I have read commentaries that there was some controversy regarding keeping the Biennale ‘tame’ from confrontational politics, I could read a lot between the lines. Thank you also for putting us into the social framework of some of the ‘who’s who’ in the Moscow art world, and of course, where one might have the pleasure to dine even without the ‘well-known’.
    I truly appreciate being engaged in your perceptive and knowledgeable perspectives – thrilling for someone who could not attend.


  2. Pingback: TateShots: Mona Hatoum, studio visit | mostly music

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