This week the online magazine Sreda publishes a letter by Maria Lind, curator and Counsellor for Cultural Affairs at the Swedish Embassy in Russia. This is her response to an invitation sent from the distant future on behalf of the Institute for Mastering of Time to provide some comments on the output of TENET, a self-learning system that explores “the prehistory of human art,” demonstrated at Arseny Zhilyaev’s solo exhibition, “The Monotony of the Pattern Recognizer” (MMOMA, June 25 — September 19, 2021).
Moscow 24 April 2021
Thank you for the kind invitation to provide the Institute for the Mastering of Time with some comments on the situation of human art and its history in the context in which I am currently based. In the invitation, I detect a certain interest in the institutions of art; in its platforms, channels, infrastructure and, most importantly, in its museums. I am responding to that, as well as adding something about the role of the artist, in singular.
What I want to share with you is a handful of observations made over the last eight months while being based in the capital of the Russian Federation. If and how the observations are related to one another, and possibly why, is up to you to determine. I would not think that any of the observations involve the Stendhal syndrome. However, they might evoke a sense of déjà vu with some readers. They certainly did with me. I would be happy to delve into any or all of the observations with you, at a later point, IRL or on the screen and to develop a commentary. The observations appear to me to be distinctly of this place and time. I am curious about your thoughts on both my observations and a possible commentary from your side!
My first observation is that contemporary art seems particularly lively in the regions, beyond the seat of the powers that be. Novosibirsk, Vladikavkaz and Krasnodar are only a few examples of cities with their own scenes and art centers, developing distinct institutional programs. In other cities it is rather self-organized, like in Tomsk where the sisters Sarycheva work under the name of 18:22. Their humorous and cheeky interventions in abandoned buildings and street life are often leaving a trail of pink things behind. A similar kind of taking-the-matter-into-common-hands attitude can be found in Nizhny Novgorod with its own “street art” tradition. In fact, this street art is much more complex and sophisticated than your usual graffiti, interacting with the owners and neighbors of the wooden houses where they make their paintings. It is not surprising that some of the proponents of this street art scene are about to set up their own studio complex, in the spirit of do-it-together.
While the first observation pertains to being light on your feet, working on the small rather than big scale, being close to artists and the local contexts, the second observation is about representation and appearance. I have noticed that exhibition architecture is prominent in both the Southern and the Northern capitals. The big museums and art centers, from the Tretyakov Gallery and the Hermitage to Garage and Manege, have conspicuous spatial designs and settings for their temporary exhibitions of both historical and contemporary art. These built environments are professionally produced on the highest level, and they look costly. Sometimes to the point of taking over the exhibition entirely, emphasizing the feeling that the institution is a stage for carefully conceived performances. This exhibition architecture seems to be made to impress the visitors, and it is far beyond what I would call “exhibition design” where a lighter touch is used to spatially choreograph an exhibition. The importance of this exhibition architecture is indicated by some native informants who told me that budgets for exhibition architecture frequently exceed budgets for artistic production.
The third observation is to do with the artists themselves, or rather a certain understanding of the function of the artist. Talking to artists and in other ways trying to follow the discourse, I have the impression that the Artist with a capital A is very much alive. He is alive among different generations and he does not limit himself to one genre or technique, such as painting or installation — he seems to be everywhere in this context. It has been a while since I came across the Artist elsewhere and I am interested in his existence in the first part of the new millennium. How did he survive, and why here? What kind of life is he leading, actually? Obviously, the environment has to be conducive for him to be so present, but beyond that I am noticing that he likes to speak about “his theory” of this or that, even “his philosophy” of something or other. Such theoretical and philosophical constructions tend to appear more voluminous than the actual artistic production, almost like communicating vessels: the thicker the theoretical and philosophical construct, the thinner is the art itself.
Enough for now. Let me know if/how you decide to follow up!
All the best,