In Moscow, Redefining What it Means to be an Artist in Russia
Oleg Nikishin
  1. T+L
  2. Culture + Design
  3. Moscow, ID

In Moscow, Redefining What it Means to be an Artist in Russia

At times, Moscow has the air of a Cold War film set. Red Square can go into lockdown for reasons unknown, fenced off by stony-faced guards. Helicopters hover menacingly over the Kremlin's medieval walls and the florid onion domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral, unchanged since the days when Ivan the Terrible was on the throne. Black limousines speed past—perhaps bearing a billionaire oligarch, President Vladimir Putin, or (to add a whiff of John Le Carré) American whistleblower-on the run Edward Snowden. At such times, the city fits the ominous images that fill the Western press of a Russia turning away from the world into paranoid isolation.

But the atmosphere is transformed when you hop into a taxi—or more conveniently, an Uber, which operates with slick efficiency at around $3 a ride—and head for Gorky Park. After a $4 billion renovation, the once-derelict park (which gained notoriety from the Martin Cruz Smith thriller and film) is now a leafy urban refuge that makes New York's Central Park seem like a shabby parking lot. Today, Gorky is a fragrant wonderland of riverside pathways and gardens, with stylish bean bags for lounging, elegant cafes selling pasta, sushi, and shawarma, and free WiFi thrown in for good measure.

But at the park's verdant heart is a dazzling new structure: the $27 million Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, funded by the glamorous philanthropist Dasha Zhukova (wife of billionaire Roman Abramovich, known for owning the Chelsea soccer team in London, amongst other prizes) and designed by Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas. It is housed in a former Soviet restaurant once called the Seasons of the Year, and now encased in a futuristic box of gleaming plastic, whose silvery surface reflects the passing clouds.

Artwin Gallery

The Garage has become the symbol of a Russia that is openly international and welcoming to the outside world, in complete contrast to Putin's dour vision. It's also a high-profile sign of Moscow’s booming contemporary art scene, which is supported by a small but growing coterie of wealthy local collectors who are more interested in Hockneys and Banksys than diamonds and mega-yachts. Of late, the city has sprouted new galleries, warehouse spaces, and two art fairs, the Moscow Biennale and Cosmoscow. And, this being Moscow, of course, every aspect of art is accompanied by an over-the-top party.

When I visited the Garage in mid-June, I joined 1,000 guests from every corner of the globe for the museum's private opening, greeted at every turn by white-tuxedoed waiters serving champagne, vodka martinis, and Russian delicacies. Stepping inside, we were all slightly stunned by the creative blend of the Soviet past and avant-garde design. In the cathedral-like space, sunlight streams through the translucent plastic exoskeleton to illuminate the concrete bones of the Brezhnev-era structure, which includes a restored mural of spring personified as a wild-haired woman. The exhibitions, showcasing pieces by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Yayoi Kusama, Erik Bulatov, and Katharina Grosse, reflected the project’s cosmopolitan ambitions. (Tiravanija's work included a set of ping-pong tables, a dumpling stand and T-shirt stall, a reflection on the building's origins as a popular leisure venue for Muscovites). The crowd soon filed up to the rooftop patio for more champagne under the stars, as the effervescent Zhukova fraternized with curators from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. The next night, at the VIP gala dinner, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Jeff Koons, Harvey Weinstein and Stella McCartney hobnobbed on the same roof deck, as a fireworks display recreated the outline of the Black Square, perhaps the most famous modern Russian artwork, created by Kazimir Malevich in 1915.

The Garage has posited itself as nothing less than a fresh start for Moscow. "This is a creation of Russia's first post-Soviet generation," explained Anton Belov, the director of the museum. "We don't recognize borders or restrictions. We're free-thinking and open." Barely 30 years old, wearing a designer jacket and hipster glasses, he might have just walked out of a Williamsburg café—as could any of the Garage's bright-eyed, twenty-something staff, who all seem to have fine arts degrees, fluency in English, and passports filled with stamps from Beijing, Dubai and Madrid. The very essence of contemporary art is global, Belov added. "We want to create a bridge to the rest of the world, not cut ourselves off."

The Garage has become the symbol of a Russia that is openly international and welcoming to the outside world, in complete contrast to Putin's dour vision.

Another surprising aspect of the new generation is the lack of knee-jerk reactions to Soviet-era design, which was once derided as a dismal leftover of Stalinist oppression. The ruined, graffiti-covered Gorky Park structure was accepted as a found object, and an artifact with many positive aesthetic qualities. "Soviet architecture was very generous," said Rem Koolhaas who has been visiting Moscow regularly since he arrived as a young student in the 1960s. "Generous in terms of proportions and generous in terms of receiving the public. It created a pleasant and interesting environment."

But such ruminations are only one aspect of the Moscow art scene, which has the carefree hedonism associated with, say, New York in the Gilded Age. At midnight, the Garage guests all piled off to the after-party at a raucous multi-level nightclub called Krusha Mira, where Zhukova and her friends gathered to celebrate her birthday around a candle-studded cake. On a balcony overlooking the city's skyscrapers funded during the oil boom years, artists, collectors, and gallerists gathered to toast the future with endless vodka shots as the sun rose in the northern summer sky at 4 am. The Garage's ambitions are global, but there was no mistaking that we were in Russia.

David X Prutting/BFAnyc.com

For travelers, this burgeoning art world adds a satisfying new dimension to any trip to Moscow, and an entree into parts of the city that they might never otherwise consider. In defiance of Russia's economic woes and the slide of the ruble, new spaces have continued to open, creating an unofficial "art itinerary." As the dust settled on the Garage parties, I dropped around an opening at the Artwin Gallery, a chic space opened last November by the "art twins," the 29-year old Mariana and Madina Gogova. The pair were showing the Paris-based Russian artist Olga Kisseleva, whose had created giant tapestries of world currencies—including a "Million Dollar" U.S. bill—as a commentary on money worship. "Russian collectors have always loved classical art but are very new to contemporary work," said Mariana. "But they are very responsive, and extremely eager to learn."

A couple of nights later, a pop-up gallery lured Moscow's bohemians to Spiridonov House, a marble-filled mansion that somehow survived the Revolution with its aristocratic splendor intact. Two of the artists were Russian, the third an Irish painter, Sinead Breslin, who moved to the city two years ago. "At first I thought nothing very much was happening here, but Moscow is so full of creative, intelligent and fascinating people," she said. "Things are changing so quickly, every month is more exciting."

Other art world events provide access to all-but-secret sites. At one of the Garage events, an artist slipped me the address of a Chinese noodle shop, with the promise of much more. At midnight, I hopped a cab to a badly lit street, where the vaguely seedy restaurant was crowded with diners. After passing the steaming kitchen, I fumbled through a velvet curtain and down pitch-black stairs, before discovering the Mendeleev Bar, a packed speakeasy beneath the raw stone arches of a medieval storage cellar—the PDT of Moscow. Further curtains revealed a private room where another artist was throwing a champagne-fueled party. As the DJ cranked up the volume, a sculptor named Mila Kuzina explained that, until recently, becoming an artist in Russia was considered an even bleaker career path than elsewhere on the planet: "My mother told me, If you want to become an artist, you will sit on the street and your frozen hands will make portraits of foreigners. Then you will become a drunk. And then you will die." Gazing around the underground festivities, it was clear that things are changing.

By day, taking tips from local artists, I meandered between a string of industrial relics that have been renovated into Brooklyn-style art spaces. The prototype is Red October, a former chocolate factory on an island in the Moscow River. Long derelict, the sprawling site now houses galleries, a design office set up by Rem Koolhaas and industrial-chic restaurants. The sunny rooftop patio of the Strelka Bar, overlooking the water, is possibly the most pleasant place in all of Russia to enjoy the sunset on a warm evening. It happens to face the golden onion domes of what is now referred to as the "Pussy Riot Church" —aka the Church of Christ the Savior—one of Moscow's most celebrated underground performance art landmarks, where the feminist band belted out an anti-Putin hymn or "punk prayer" in 2012, leading to the arrest of several of its members.

Oleg Nikishin

An even newer arts hub is Winzavod, a wine factory that has been converted into artist studios. I dropped by on Valery Chtak, who might have stepped out of a Portlandia skit with his ragged beard and baseball cap, and inspected his refuge crowded with drawings on loose pieces of cardboard. Stairs lead below ground to the extensive former wine cellars, often used by audio and visual artists to haunting effect. Meanwhile, a former military warehouse has been turned into the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. On my first visit, the exhibition Vanishing Reality offered an ironic ode to Russian's fading memory of the USSR, with enormous paintings like faded Polaroids of white-haired World War II veterans gathering for picnics and skylines dotted with crumbling worker's memorials. To the younger generation, the past is another planet; the idea of lining up to visit Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square provokes a bemused laugh.

The pavilions have been restored to their wedding cake glory.

The sandwiching of old and new sometimes makes Moscow's Soviet relics feel like Surrealist art works. Ground was broken in 2014 on a cultural center to be built near the Cosmonaut Museum, a fascinating ode to the USSR's once-advanced space ambitions, where a Sputnik satellite hangs like a gleaming abstract sculpture next to two taxidermied Space Dogs. The smiling face of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and a lovingly remembered hero, is emblazoned all over the gift store on T-shirts, fridge magnets and cigarette lighters. Next door sprawls a Stalinist exhibition ground from 1923 known as VDNKh (pronounced Verdenka). The pavilions have been restored to their wedding cake glory, and visitors can now explore the grounds by Segway—only to find, in one corner, a music video being made starring "Dollar Man," an armored superhero who spouts greenbacks from a cannon for Russians to grovel after. The Ukrainian Pavilion was mysteriously closed on my visit, but next door was the Harvest Pavilion, where beneath stained glass windows devoted to images of Soviet agriculture, two young artists, Alexey Budahov and Anastasia Potemkina, were staging what they called an Urban Fauna Project, whose intentions are squarely looking to the 21st century. "We're planning an alternative greening of Moscow," Budahov told me. "We promote plants and animals that can survive anywhere, in any conditions, to help the city breathe again." He opened a box of worms, and added in a jovial tone: "After all, Russia is facing a huge catastrophe, economic, cultural, social. Something must survive!"

David X Prutting/BFAnyc.com

But such dark musings are almost too much for Moscow in the hedonistic days of summer. On my last night, I hopped another Uber for the Multimedia Art Museum, where the director Olga Sviblova was celebrating her birthday party. The museum is devoted to photography, and filled with spectacular black and whites marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in which over 20 million Russians died. But on the ground floor, a five-piece Russian band was belting out 1950s American rock classics as chefs carved up giant whole smoked fish and passed out caviar canapés.

Sviblova herself, in her sixties, dressed in black with a cigarette in one hand and glass of champagne in the other, pulled members of the crowd one by one onto the dance floor, refusing to tolerate any resistance. "This is Moscow!" she rejoiced, whenever anyone hesitated. No further explanation was really needed.

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