Carolyn Stewart, the-american-interest.com; via AH on Facebook
image from entryWhat you can learn about Russian geopolitics at an art show in Venice.
The only thing more disconcerting than coming face-to-face with a nine-foot-tall fighter-jet helmet is the moment when it comes alive. Suddenly, the goggles revealed a pair of eyes. They looked up, down, side to side, sweeping the room in panic. I was no longer looking at art—art was looking at me.It was Russian art, to be exact. This wild-eyed apparition was the centerpiece of Russia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the art world-equivalent of the Olympics, where over thirty countries have built national pavilions to display the work of their most prominent contemporary artists. This year’s Biennale, entitled “All the World’s Futures,” invited artists to tackle the geopolitical and social issues facing their countries. And tackle they did—by broad consensus, this was one of the most glum Biennales on record. Artists chronicled human suffering in its many forms and causes: climate change, industrial growth, working conditions, and consumerism.
But Putin isn’t just showing off for the benefit of Western audiences. At a time when many former Soviet satellites are being drawn to the economic promises of the European Union and China, he is trying to stem the tide. Former Soviet neighbors from Belarus to Kazakhstan with large diaspora populations are presented with a familiar, Eurasian alternative. The Kremlin seeks to demonstrate that Russia is not only a strong power but also a great power, and a viable counterpoint to the West.
Irina Nakhova and Margarita Tupitsyn, the Russian Pavilion’s artist and curator respectively, were prominent figures in the 1970’s Soviet avant-garde art movement, the Moscow Conceptualists. Like Darwin’s finches, this group of artists developed in isolation from the commercial markets that sustained Western contemporaries like Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt. No galleries, no museums. No critics, no collectors.
The Kremlin maintains curatorial and financial control over the Russian Pavilion. In the months leading up the exhibit, Nakhova expressed concern with the increasingly hands-on approach of the Kremlin, remarking, “This year, there appeared the rule to approve the project at the Ministry for Culture. I hope everything will be fine but, in essence, it is censorship.” Just as the Russian government aggressively asserts its ambitions in Syria and Ukraine, so does the Russian Ministry of Culture at the Venice Biennale.
The Stella Foundation is a powerful weapon in Putin’s cultural arsenal. The organization hosts development programs for young artists in former Soviet satellite countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. It has also participated in major exhibitions at the Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Kesaeva does her part in other ways as well, introducing young Russian artists to the Biennale crowd through lavish parties. In her own words, “You have to make a noise that draws attention.” It is a strategy well played in the Russian Pavillion.
The group called itself “On Vacation,” a reference to Russian separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who was quoted as saying the deployed Russian soldiers were on “vacation…among brothers who are fighting for their freedom.” The camouflaged protestors laid out in the galleries, “conscripting” visitors into service by handing out military uniforms. They encouraged guests to post selfies to Instagram using the hashtag #OnVacation, a mocking reminder of how the Russian soldiers’ social media presence in Crimea provided proof of Russian army movements in the region.
Yet as the #OnVacation protests demonstrate, art never exists in isolation from the political motivations of those who create, fund, or view it. All the world’s a gallery, and all the men and women merely occupiers.