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Russia today

2011 is the cross-cultural exchange year between Italy and Russia, and it becomes an opportunity to speak about the situation of Russian contemporary art. Its recent history, episodes of censorships and artistic thoughts that move it are evocated in a conversation between curators Francesca Zappia and Tatiana Volkova.

Kiss my Ba group, Monstrations, 2006. Photodocumentation, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Ivan Brajkin, The Shooter, 2010. Photodocumentation, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Anna Parkina, The Case is Open II, 2007. Gouache, photocopy and ink on paper, 58x68cm. Courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London

PG group, Budda, 2009. Multimedia installation, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Sofia Gavrilova, Moscow, 2010. Photograph, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Andrey Kuzkin, Levitation Heroes, 2010. Sculptures, bread, salt, courtesy Stella Art Foudnation, Moscow

The Rally of the Disscent, photodocumentation, 2007. Courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Agenda Collective, Manifest, 2010. Object, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

Dmitry Gutov, The Skeleton Rider, 2010. Metal, welding, 178x174x40cm. Courtesy M&J Guelman Gallery

Dmitry Bulnygin, Trashcan, 2010. Object, courtesy of ZHIR Gallery, Moscow

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Francesca Zappia: We met in Moscow in 2009, and I remember we spoke about the situation of art in Russia. I started to get interested in Russian art visiting the exhibition Sots art at La Maison Rouge in Paris, in 2007.
The exhibition showed works from the homonymous Russian art movement, which reacted to the soviet system and was inspired by American Pop Art. The most important Russian artists from the 1960’s until today were present. I wrote a review about it on UnDo.Net, which was also the opportunity to put the emphasis on censorship in art and in particular in this exhibition.
Sots art was a travelling exhibition, which started at Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow and then arrived at La Maison Rouge. Russian governmental institutions refused to show in Paris few works previously on show in Moscow. At that time, you were collaborating with Tretyakov Gallery and the curator Andrei Erofeev to organise the exhibition...

Tatiana Volkova: I was part of the curatorial team. First of all, let me say that the artists of the 1970’s did not solely borrowed forms of Pop Art, but developed an authentic movement. Sots-art played with elements of soviet style and propaganda so that to deconstruct them. It emerged in a period of tense Soviet censure and it is curious that the exhibition too was censored by Russian Ministry of Culture and Tretyakov Gallery’s administration.

Francesca Zappia: A similar situation of censorship took place last year in a Louvre’s exhibition, Contrepoints russes, during the cross-cultural exchange year between France and Russia.
The press related that a series of works by Avdei Ter-Oganian were censored and could not leave Russia. What interests me here is the image that Russia wants to give of itself abroad. In the case of Sots art, if I remember well, censorship did not happen when the show was presented in Moscow, but later, for the exhibition in Paris.

Tatiana Volkova: Yes, the Ministry of Culture turned out to be more conservative than Tretyakov Gallery’s administration. The Minister referred to the censored Blue Noses group as "the shame of Russia". The whole artistic community react answering he was himself Russia’s shame, while Blue Noses are internationally known artists.

Francesca Zappia: Along with Russia’s own presentation abroad, I have the feeling that Russian art is even specific in the way it is perceived in Europe. European professionals often consider it too explicit, and reproach Russian artists for their frankness. Instead, I think that this particular attitude is necessarily interrelated with history of arts and culture.
Since the sixteenth century, parody and tragicomedy are really important forms of expression in Russian theater and literature. More recently, the Muscovite scene of the 1960’s has produced – in the context of Soviet censorship and development of an underground form of art – a specific form of conceptual art, where a political criticism is linked to a consideration of artist’s public participation and his social interaction.
This movement has defined the protest until the fall of the Soviet system, but continues today.

Tatiana Volkova: Contemporary "unofficial" art was born in a political climate that determined its orientation towards production of ideas rather than to an aesthetic product.
Moscow conceptualism has proclaimed content’s superiority over forms and this approach still subsists in Russian contemporary art. However, since the end of perestroika, emulation of more formal western researches brought to the forefront an analytical form of art, structured and hermetic in its essence. Today, the latest generation of artists is using both approaches.

Francesca Zappia: I think Russian art knows today a new favorable regard. Cross-cultural exchanges between European nations and Russia are increasing in recent years – France in 2010, Italy and Spain in 2011, Germany in 2012, and so on.
But the risk of these initiatives, developed by Ministries and Embassies, is to be faced to a not always true image of art, but to a sweeten version to prevent unpleasant diplomatic incidents. With a few exceptions. In the exhibition I mentioned earlier, Contrepoints russes at Louvre, Marie-Laure Bernadac (a curator who has personally lived the experience of censorship for Présumés innocents, which she curated at the CAPC in Bordeaux in 2000) made a strong selection, deciding to present artists as Vadim Zhakarov, Yuri Albert, Komar & Melamid, Andrei Monastyrshy / Collective Action, or the most internationally known Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, who are historically very important for representing Moscow conceptualism.
On show were also Avdei Ter-Oganian and younger artists who were forming during the 1990’s and 2000’s and who have developed a form of protest art or a more formal expression inspired by Russian avant-gardes.

Tatiana Volkova: I think it was an appropriate selection for presenting Russian art’s important figures and processes. As you say, the curator puts the emphasis on Moscow conceptualism.
The generation of the 1990’s was represented by AES + F group, Dubossarsky & Vinogradov, Pavel Pepperstein, Avdei Ter-Oganian. But artists of today were represented only by Diana Machulina and Alexei Kallima, and certainly it is not enough to present the actual situation.

Francesca Zappia: Artists of Radek Community, which were very important for the development of the Russian scene of the 2000’s, were absent.

Tatiana Volkova: Yes, this artist’s collective went out in the late 1990’s among students of Avdei Ter-Oganian and his "School of contemporary art". Ter-Oganian has always cultivated a taste for parody and provocation.
The group has developed new artistic strategies of intervention into reality and of social communication. Anatoly Osmolovsky is another important artist who has influenced ideology of Radek Community after Ter-Oganian’s exile. Their activities include exhibitions, performances, theoretical texts, discussions, and editions. They also own their art space, opened in 2005. But now many of them are working alone.

Francesca Zappia: You told about Ter-Oganian’s exile. It followed a performance he did against the Orthodox Church, and the artist was forced to take refuge in Prague in 1999.
During this performance, the artist destroyed with an axe some Orthodox icons. But exile did not stop his spirit of denunciation. The scandal occurred a few days before the inauguration at Louvre, the censorship of his Radical Abstractionism series of paintings, demonstrate it.
The artworks – some abstract compositions inspired by suprematism associated to little texts distorting articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation – are an explicit criticism to Russian government and the person of Putin. Following this censorship, a few artists who participated in the exhibition, Yuri Albert, Diana Machulina, Vadim Zakharov, and others, wrote an open letter asking for the reintegration of Ter-Oganian’s artworks. Otherwise they had planned to boycott the show.

Tatiana Volkova: In my opinion, Radical Abstractionism is not a critique towards Russian government, but it is a work on the misinterpretation of art. The open letter was, for the artists, also an opportunity to focus on trials involving artists and curators, and especially their inadequate official judgment. In the case of the artist Oleg Mavromatti, for example, he was compelled to take refuge in Bulgaria and was sentenced for crime.
Or curators Andrei Yuri Samodurov Eirofeev, which were found guilty and fined to pay for having organized an exhibition of artworks censored by Russian institutions, titled Forbidden Art - 2006. In the end, Ter-Oganian’s paintings were exhibited at the Louvre.

Francesca Zappia: One of the most important works in this Parisian exhibition was, in my opinion, The End. Confession of a Contemporary Artist by Vadim Zhakarov, an emblematic artwork focusing on Russian art’s situation. Moscow conceptualism developed forms of art closed to illustration and commentary, to the detriment of the artistic object. In this context, the action of Zhakarov was very important.
He created archives of conceptualism, and after perestroika, in 1992, founded a small publishing house. Pastor Zond Edition mirrored the ideological transition between East and West.
The magazine Pastor, published between 1992 and 2004, was as a discussion forum and a sort of "home" for artists dispersed throughout the world after the fall of the Soviet system (Zhakarov himself now lives in Germany). In its aspect, the magazine took the shape of samizdat, which was clandestine edition of various texts, produced by unofficial cultural scene. In the video The End. Confession of a Contemporary Artis, the artist is sitting in the snow while reading an intimate confession regarding the field of contemporary art, where he can no longer find his place.
"It would never be possible to experience the process of artistic conception as an event worthy of world's creation," he confesses. This artistic pessimism could be read, in my opinion, as the search for a new personal and artistic identity. During Soviet period and perestroika, artists responded to a particular historical situation. Today they live abroad, free, but they cannot identify themselves in a specific cultural identity, and try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to model their own identity from their personal story.

Tatiana Volkova: Moscow conceptualism has always been closely linked to a research on creation and perception of art.
I think it's too easy to consider this artwork as a vain attempt of a cultural identification with the current situation, it would be too generic, as looking at art in general. Conceptualism was a hermetic movement, which focused on aesthetic interests of its members.
The art of “direct action”, political actionism of the 1990’s and social activism of the 2000’s, is more focused on various aspects of society and thus of cultural identity. It seems that social activism is now becoming a leading trend in the international context of art. The next Berlin Biennial, for example, curated by Artur Zmijewski is entirely devoted to this subject.

Francesca Zappia: Let’s focus on the theme of identity. It seems to me that this question arises significantly from the exhibition Modernikon, presented at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin (on view until September, 25th - Casa dei Tre Oci, Venezia). The curators, Francesco Bonami and Irene Calderoni, selected mainly young artists.
In his text in the catalogue, Francesco Bonami refers to a conversation with Joseph Backstein – an important Russian curator and commissioner of Moscow Biennale – who says about Russian people that even if they “look like Westerners they really are not”.
When I came to Moscow for the first time, I had a strange feeling: the feeling of something familiar, but yet not completely known. This gap impressed me: the architecture told me the dual history of Europe and Middle East, but I was in an atmosphere still different. The experience was estranging. Coming back to the exhibition in Turin, its purpose was to present works where the question of Russia's cultural identity is primordial.
Artists selected have in common a research inspired by forms and expressions of Russian avant-gardes, which Irene Calderoni calls “Archaeology of the avant-garde”. This research, in a way a bit “nostalgic”, is closely linked to young western artists’ expression, but with a little difference due to a different cultural history. It is also interesting to see how artists coming from Russian actionism of the 1990’s, are turning today to more formal work, influenced by both modernism and conceptualism. An important example is Anatoly Osmolovsky, as well as, I think, Vadim Zakharov, about whom we spoke earlier.

Tatiana Volkova: It is quite usual that artists change from an earlier radical period to a more formal expression once older. An artist cannot play a biting dog all his life, one day he converts his radical period into the eternal philosophical questions about the nature of art.

Francesca Zappia: The “Archaeology of avant-garde” implies a solitary work. At the same time, raised up from actionism, another young artistic movement is developing, less known in the West.
This movement reappropriates itself the strategies of Russian actionism: street performances and demonstrations organized by artists' collective. You support this movement and work with these artists.

Tatiana Volkova: Many people believe that today activist art is just the development of political actionism of the 1990’s. As you mentioned, both have things in common, but I think there is also a huge difference.
Russian art knows important changes. Artists come out from studios, museums and galleries, to make interventions in the streets and online in the social networks.
They take part in different forms of social activism with political or ecological actions, working in community. These artists call themselves activists. They refuse to work with institutions, searching for their own forms of artistic existence, cooperating with subcultures and social movements. This new dynamic of action distinguishes young artists from their colleagues of the past. Art-activists employ different tactics of dominating culture, use public spaces to create individual messages transforming them into private spaces.
Some activists cling to ecologically responsible ethical and practical codes, to criteria of sustainability. There are different art-activists practices, some of them are opposed to apocalyptic revolutionary protest strategies. They rise from anarchic-utopian principle of "direct action" proclaimed in 1960's to substitute the present bureaucratic system by free expression of the will of creative individuals and groups.

Does fighting or ignoring the system lead to real changes? Is it possible to influence the process of finding a balance between commercial and political values and other human interests in society? These are key questions that activist art faces today.

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Tatiana Volkova completed a Master of Science in Cultural Management at the Academy of National Economy of the Government of Russian Federation, Moscow (1995-2000); resident on the Jubilee Fellowship CEC Artslink, International Studios & Curatorial Program, New York (2004). Tatiana has held curatorial positions at the Tsaritsino Museum, State Tretyakov Gallery, Reflex Gallery, Zhir Gallery and the Garage, Moscow. Tatiana curated Russian artists living in New York, New York, ISCP (2004); numerous personal shows of the young Russian artists at Reflex Gallery (2004 - 2009); This is the End as part of the Third Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2009), Russian Utopias (together with Ulia Aksenova) at the CCC Garage (2010), Zhir gallery exhibitions (2009-2010). Since 2009 Tatiana has been the co-founder (together with Vladimir Ovcharenko) and the director of ZHIR non-profit gallery, Moscow. She has also written extensively in exhibition catalogues.

Francesca Zappia studied in Venice, at Ca' Foscari University where she graduated in Art History and Conservation (1999-2004) and she completed a Master Degree in the Curatorial Practice at La Sorbonne – Paris IV (with Serge Lemoine) in 2008. As curatorial assistant she collaborated with Caroline Bourgeois at Le Plateau/ Frac Ile-de-France, Paris on the exhibitions 'Cao Fei' and 'L'Argent' (2008) and at the François Pinault Foundation, on the exhibitions 'Un Certain Etat du Monde?', Garage CCC, Moscow and 'Qui a peur des artistes?', Dinard (2009). She has also written in exhibition catalogues. She co-curated 'Aperçu avant impressions. Didier Marcel et Loïc Raguénès' (Betonsalon, Paris, 2008) and curated the first personal exhibition of Indira Tatiana Cruz, 'Corps à Corps' (JTM Gallery, Paris, 2009).