LEAVE/REMAIN. TERROR/PEACE. Boarding my plane to Moscow from Berlin a fortnight ago, these and other divisions echoed from flat-screens in the departure halls as post-Brexit fallout and ISIS bombings in Istanbul hit the news circuits. Checking my phone, social media was aflame. Six degrees of separation become more like one, and the intimacy of personal experience more fragile.
Conjuring Gogol’s animate nose as a protective angel, I decided to embrace the melodrama, keep calm and carry on. Stepping offline and into a new city, fresh perspective was on the horizon as I visited the fifth Moscow International Biennale for Young Art and the build-site for the new V-A-C museum for contemporary art.
Dinner that first, balmy night was on the classy rooftop terrace of Bar Strelka, hosted by the director of the V-A-C Foundation, Teresa Iarocci Mavica. The site is part of a creative cluster in the converted “Red October” chocolate factories, and the spectacular view over the Moskva River offered a full-frontal view of the golden domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (aka the Pussy Riot Church).
“You know it’s new, right?” said Viktoria Mikhelson, V-A-C Live project manager and the institution’s namesake. “Stalin destroyed the original Orthodox Church and the Soviets turned it into a public pool for forty years. That’s just a replica of the nineteenth-century church built in the ’90s, and now they have all these rentable event spaces in the basement for massive corporate events.”
The sacred continued to mix with the profane the next morning, as we began tours of the biennial and its satellites. Portuguese curator João Laia organized the group show “HYPERCONNECTED” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), divided into thematic floors. Adrien Missika’s video of Darvaza, the burning natural gas crater in Turkmenistan, embracing mythical figures on silver-painted wall plates by Rodrigo Hernandez, and the network of natural raw materials like ochre, rubber, and hemp fiber by Iza Tarasewicz added supernatural dimensions to an otherwise tech-heavy exhibition.
At the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Italian curators Silvia Franceschini and Valeria Mancinelli organized “Time of Reasonable Doubts,” full of archival material and references to academic research tackling topics of race and colonial history in America by Louis Henderson; visualization of war in Bagdad by Urok Shirhan comparing footage shot by Paul Chan to that of the artist’s father; and a fascinating, albeit dogmatic film by Emanuel Almborg about Soviet/Marxist pedagogical experiments with deaf and blind children learning to communicate. Time was clearly located in each instance in this anachronistic but smart exhibition—a gathering of young artists with old souls.
The main exhibition, “Deep Inside,” was held in an abandoned textile factory complex called Trekhgornaya Manufaktura further upriver. Chic restaurants, bars, and clubs nestled amid the crumbling red brick buildings, filled day and night with glamorous patrons and bodyguards. “The area reminds me of the 798 arts district in Beijing,” remarked critic Hettie Judah. Empty Soviet-era factories stood ripe for development. As Biennale artists milled about, we lunched at the aptly named restaurant Touché and ordered extra espressos, doubling down on the long night ahead.
The opening was set for 7 PM and construction workers and artists were submerged in the install until the last possible moment “These are artists who put their creative juices on the line,” said the show’s curator, Nadim Samman. Surprising how a little lubrication goes a long way. I took this as my cue to begin the journey, deep inside.
Visitors were greeted with Departure for All by British artist Martin John Callanan—a real-time flight-information screen of every departure around the world. Further on, a floating prototype of a soundwave hosted a swarm of live, genetically modified silkworms by Ecuadorian artist Paul Rosero Contreras. I came across Verena Friedrich, inundated by the crowds, trying to reset her mechanical contraption designed to prolong the lifespan of a soap bubble. “I wanted to make this exhibition about circuit boards and organs, the deep space between molecules, and see what happens when you stick binary code in dirt,” Samman explained. “The figure of the engineer looms large in Russian cultural history. Constructivists such as Alexsandr Rodchenko claimed to be artist-engineers. There was something liberating about this idea in the early twentieth century. Stalin himself decreed that artists are the engineers of human souls.”
Between Ethernet cables and digital screens, I bumped into Spanish artist Alvaro Urbano, whose piece was a hole bashed in the fresh drywall with a wooded landscape built behind using local plant matter. Worker ants and beetles that came along for the ride hurriedly rebuilt their nests. “I brought it all from the woods near Putin’s house,” he divulged.
In the main hall, I met Brazilian artist Juliana Cerquerira Leite, cowinner with Marguerite Humeau of the Furla Prize for best work—Humeau for her blowup fighter jet and Leite for her freeze-frame body casts. Humeau was in Paris for the opening of her show at the Palais du Tokyo, while Leite spent two weeks on site making standing, connected casts of her nude form in detail by dripping tinted plaster in yellow, orange, and pink on her Vaselined body. A special room was built for privacy. “It felt vulnerable,” she admitted, “but this is very much a feminist piece.”
Rave culture is still alive and well in Russia, and the afterparty at a nearby factory full of laser lights and droning music seemed like a polite version of seedier tales from the Muscovite underground. But as soon as the open bar of Jameson whiskey dried up, the crowds died out and the core crew of artists and organizers carried on to Heineken Bar in the center of town, dancing for hours past the 3 AM sunrise to a DJ set by Evian Christ and Hardrive’s house music hit “Deep Inside” on repeat.
The next day we were slated for a tour of the new V-A-C museum site, dedicated to promoting young Russian art and due to open in 2019. Director Mavica moved to Moscow from Naples in 1989 and saw the dearth of institutions dedicated to contemporary art. “This is the land of the avant-garde, but there were no exhibitions, people didn’t have access to the work.” For Mavica, who helped bring the first exhibition of Pop art with Warhol, Basquiat, and Wesselmann to the city in 2003, the new institution is no small charge. “Art history is infinitely big, but you have to start somewhere.”
Lead architect Antonio Belvedere, partner of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, gracefully guided the way, describing the design process in poetic language. “It’s the assembling of the sacred and the profane that gives you the civic. That’s the contamination of ideas that makes the space function.”
We retreated to DOM12 for a family-style dinner. The garden became the gossip zone as artists smoked and compared notes on tourist sites. Julius von Bismark and Helga Wretman gushed about the Russian Space exhibition and seeing Laika the dog’s spacecraft, while dealer Alexander Levy and artist Fabian Knecht debated visiting Lenin’s preserved body in the Mausoleum at the Red Square. “It’s the best artwork you’ll see in town!” exclaimed one of the locals. A few vodka shots later, everyone was back on the dance floor, but this time it felt more like a wholesome wedding party. I dipped out in the middle of the Scorpions’s “Wind of Change” as the room burst into a sing-a-long.
First published on Artforum.com, July 12th, 2016.