V–A–C Sreda online magazine completes its three-month programme dedicated to artistic and cultural life in different Russian cities.
This issue publishes a conversation between V–A–C Sreda Editor-in-Chief Daniil Beltsov and Yulia Klimko, commissioner and artistic director of the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts. Topics they discuss include how this major Far Eastern visual arts event was revived after a hiatus of many years, why art does not leave people apathetic, and what seven thousand bags of salt have to do with all of this.
—Yulia, could you tell us about how the idea for the creation of the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts came about, and what you took as a model—was it the work of colleagues in Russia, or were you guided by international experience in light of the peculiarities of the region?
—In the first place, its necessary to underline that when I had the idea of running the Vladivostok Biennale of Visual Arts, I was not a random person in the artistic environment of the city. For seven years I had served as art director of the Arka Contemporary Art Gallery, one of the oldest and most professional institutions in Vladivostok and in Russia.
Secondly, the Biennale in Vladivostok has taken place since 1998, but the idea of creating it came about even earlier in the theatrical community—in 1992—and belonged to Leonid Anisimov, the artistic director of the Primorsky Chamber Drama Theatre [the Primorsky Regional Drama Theatre for Youth since 2000—editor’s note]. But as soon as this idea had percolated through the public space, a question arose: why did a biennale need to be theatrical? Then the director of the Artetazh Centre for Contemporary Art Alexander Gordon proposed: if a biennale was to be run, artistic work should be included in it without fail.
That was how a theatrical biennale became the Vladivostok Biennale of Visual Arts, but its fate was a complicated one. The fact is that at first the Biennale was held by the Department of Culture of the Primorsky Territory, afterwards the Vladivostok city administration took over as organiser. In 2013, the Biennale took place under the auspices of the city administration for the last time—later, the decision was taken to stop holding the event. I’ll speak frankly, for the artistic community this was not the best news, even without considering the fact that the event had more of a local character. Of course the Biennale was international, and we worked on bright collaborative projects with Japan and China, but Russian colleagues from the European part of the country didn’t know much about the cultural life of Vladivostok.
In 2013, the Vladivostok Biennale of Visual Art stopped taking place, a year later, the Zarya Centre for Contemporary Art opened. New people and fresh ideas appeared in the artistic environment of the city, followed by conversations about the necessity of resurrecting the Biennale. But someone had to taking the deciding step, and in 2016, I became that person. A fund was organised, and we announced that the Biennale in Vladivostok would take place on private initiative. Of course, we obtained the support of the city administration, but this support was informational and did not concern the most important—financial—questions.
In a word, the circumstances were such that we decided to carry out a rebranding of the Vladivostok Biennale of Visual Art, we added the word “international” to its name. The abbreviation VIBVA appeared—Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts. We kept the phrase “visual arts” in order to preserve continuity. We didn’t want to cross out the past—on the contrary, our desire was to emphasise the legacy and experience that we were continuing while noting our new goals and paths of development.
—What, in your view, is the fundamental difference between the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts and similar events in other regions of Russia?
—First of all, Vladivostok is the point on the map of Russia most distanced from the West, and, for this reason, when we speak of Far Eastern characteristics, it’s impossible not to take into account the geographical position of the region. The time difference between Moscow and Vladivostok, for example, is seven hours, but between Vladivostok and Tokyo—one hour, between Beijing and Vladivostok—two hours, between Seoul and Vladivostok—one hour.
When questions arose about how the Vladivostok Biennale would differ, about what would lie at the core of the event, we already had enough experience. Of course, it wasn’t like we intentionally set out to follow global trends, we simply lived in this context, maintained relationships with our colleagues. Dialogue with the contemporary art theorist and curator Viktor Misiano gave me a lot. His point of view, which he expressed once in conversation, is very close to my own. In Misiano’s opinion, the biennale, despite the conventionality of the format in the professional community, can change at the will of organisers who take their own decisions. This approach really helped with the organisation of the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts, because we did not copy the example of our colleagues “by the book.” On the contrary, we began to think about what would be necessary in our region for the Biennale to become understandable and popular.
And, of course, an important influence on us was our proximity of Asia. We decided to especially underline our many years of experience of synchronised communication with the Asia-Pacific region—this interaction literally takes place at an everyday level. It was for this reason that the first theme of the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Arts was the morphology of the port. We also understood that the main theme needed to at least place an emphasis on those local particularities of the region which a guest curator would be unable to underline for objective reasons. I make the caveat that from the beginning we did not want to invite a curator from Vladivostok to work on the Biennale—we saw a curator from the outside in this role, one who would be able to make the region known, draw attention to it. And the Chinese curator Xiang Liping became this person.
In the process of discussion, it became clear that Xiang Liping was not ready to invite regional artists to participate in her project. Detailed, thoughtful study of their portfolios would have required time she did not have, as well as their having quality artist websites and albums. This problem, in my view, is not the consequence of a poverty of artistic life in Vladivostok, but of the inadequate financing of contemporary art. Additionally, due to a lack of connections with the West, our artists almost never take part in significant exhibitions, and this is also an important factor for a curator.
For this reason, we decided to create a parallel programme for the Vladivostok Biennale. Its peculiarity lay in the fact that the programme was not located at the peripheries of the event, but became a full-fledged project of regional artists. At the same time, special projects revealed our connections with institutions from other cities, regions, and countries. The Biennale turned out extensive—it comprised the main project, the parallel programme, and special programmes, as well as child and educational programmes.
—In one of your interviews you said that influencing the local environment is one of the most important tasks of your artistic practice. What was VIBVA able to influence and what difficulties did you meet with?
—Of course, it’s impossible to move mountains from the first attempt, for that constant efforts are necessary. But I’m certain that the Vladivostok Biennale has become an important impetus for the development of the artistic community in the region. The first Biennale took place with a foreign guest curator, it was not just local, little-known artists that were exhibited, but authors with world-famous names—we presented the 20 Ways to Get an Apple Listening to the Music of Mozart installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and video-documentation of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s Rest Energy performance. All this could not but influence the perception of the event—when you show projects of this level in Vladivostok, you as it were jump to unattainable heights without a running start or trampoline.
After the Biennale had taken place there came a moment when pleasant consequences became noticeable. For the first time in many years, artists from Vladivostok received invitations to put on personal exhibitions in Moscow. I’m talking about the artistic group Hero4Hero and their MANNA project at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. We also formed entirely new, deep creative relationships with our Chinese partners. Of course I would like to say that the situation in the artistic environment of Vladivostok began to change radically and quickly, but so as not to seem arrogant, I will just say that we provided the necessary vector.
—What was the role of the audience? Did you aspire to hold a dialogue with visitors or was your primary purpose to influence the professional environment?
—We were probably focused on the professional community in the first place. We understood that work with the audience would be more difficult and would need to take place over a much longer time than what was required for the creation of connections within the professional community.
All the same, the audience always has the main role, because artistic creation is impossible without the interaction of the author and the audience. And, of course, in order for art to live, it has to be spoken about, which is why we collaborated with people who have influence over public opinion, we invited journalists from Moscow to the Biennale, supported contacts with news agencies. I was very surprised when people from Khabarovsk or Kamchatka called us in order to clarify the schedule of the Biennale or details about visiting its sites. In a word, it was not just residents of Vladivostok who took part in the event—it influenced the whole region.
This said, work with the audience needs to be consistent, one has to taken into account a multitude of factors. For example, we understood that the city was not ready for a large-scale biennale that would have taken over one museum or gallery, and we tried to build an extensive route from the western outskirts of Vladivostok to Russky Island. We even had to divide the main project into a number of parts to make it possible for the audience to prolong their contact with art.
—To some residents of the European part of Russia, Asia seems something distant and unfamiliar, at the same time, for you, Asia has become part of everyday life. Could you tell me about how communication with your Asian colleagues takes place and about the differences between artistic processes in Russia and China?
—Vladivostok remains a port city. Despite the fact that in Soviet times our country had little contact with other states, in port cities it remained possible to come into contact with other cultures. My father, for example, was a sailor, he went on voyages abroad, and, for this reason, attributes of Asian life were present in our home from my childhood—souvenirs, posters, clothing, records. You could say that on a visual level, Asian aesthetics have always been present in Vladivostok, Japanese and Chinese characters have always been familiar to all residents of the city.
It so happened that I studied Chinese at school and continued its study at university. My speciality was the history of China, which is inextricably bound up with the country's thousand-year-old culture. I cannot say that China is an open book to me—this country will never be fully understandable to people of European culture, however, I suppose I have skills that allow me to find a common language with my Chinese colleagues, to build communication with them. In addition, there aren’t that many Sinologists around, and, as a rule, they know one another. Many of my acquaintances from university work in China today, which makes it possible to find the necessary contacts. And for Asia this is very important. Of course, the reputation of a person has importance, but it’s particularly valuable if a mutual acquaintance can vouch for you.
In Asia they have an utterly different attitude to people who work in art. Unfortunately, in the contemporary Russian reality this point remains ambiguous. On the one hand, when an artist becomes popular, many people begin to talk about the influence and significance of their work. On the other, a person who is only just beginning their path in the artistic sphere can have a very complicated time of it because of the stereotypes that immediately come to the minds of those close to them—it seems an artist is always poor, constrained, leads a strange lifestyle in principle. There is no such attitude in the mentality of our Asian neighbours. Of course, things are complicated for those who work in art, in Japan as much as in China, but there belonging to the cultural environment is a sign of high social status.
—In my previous conversations with the programme director of GES-2 House of Culture and V–A–C Foundation Alisa Prudnikova and the curator of the Krasnoyarsk Biennale Sergey Kovalevsky, my colleagues shared their most memorable personal stories related to their artistic practice. Could you tell me about events that made you understand that you do not work in vain?
—In 2017, a very interesting project by the Chinese artist Zhang Yu was presented at the Vladivostok International Biennale of Visual Art—Water Feeding, a total installation consisting of five thousand bowls arranged under the open sky on Russky Island. I will add that this territory is located near the Oceanarium, which is not accessible to visitors at night. The form of these bowls turned out familiar to the viewers, given there are many Chinese cafes and restaurants in Vladivostok where they serve dishes in just those kinds of bowls. On one of the nights there was rain, and someone sent me a video of a fox drinking water from one of the bowls. But what struck me most of all was not the fox, but the person who caught this on camera in the middle of the night. Think about it: they stayed alone with the installation until dark or found some other way to stay near the work in order to come into contact with it in utterly different conditions.
Zhang Yu’s installation was a very important experience for me. Due to the fact that the work was set up away from the city, on an island, we would sometimes travel there and check the condition of the objects. One day, I noticed a girl walking alone among the porcelain bowls. It was as though she were performing a dance—sincere, deep inner immersion. For me this became a bright example of how art can touch people and not leave them indifferent.
Sometimes it can be hard to understand the extent to which a person is marked by such contacts. But seeing the touched “dancing” girl, I suddenly understood that art fulfils its function independently of the number of viewers it influences. This can be no more than two or three people. We talk a lot about the experience of the nation, about the cultural code, about the totality of practices, but it particularly motivates me when just one work or one artistic initiative leaves such a strong emotional imprint.
I would like to give one more example, many interesting things have taken place at the Vladivostok Biennale. One of them was connected with the Net–Being installation by the Korean artist Boo Jihyun. The work required seven tonnes of white salt. Salt is sold in large bags, which meant that transporting it to the exhibition space did not pose too great a difficulty. The nuance lay in the fact that representatives of one of our partner companies were keen to maintain high standards and bought superior-class salt, which came packaged in one-kilogram bags. Neither I nor the artist had expected how much work would be required to open all 7,000 bags and to crush the salt, we had to invite significantly more volunteers than we had planned, and even then there weren’t enough of them to finish on time. The salt was very fine, one often found hard pieces, like rocks. Working on the installation, Boo Jihyun got so tired that she barely made it to the opening of the Biennale. This dedication struck me to the heart.
But through this laborious and crucial work we got one of the most beautiful installations. Moscow colleagues noted that the level of the work matched that of the Istanbul Biennale. Net—Being was set up in the building of the Vladivostok branch of the State Hermitage, which at the time was under the control of the Primorsky State Art Gallery. The installation took over the ballroom of the historical mansion—a very beautiful space with columns, between which the salt was strewn, creating the image of an ocean wave. The artist purposely removed all sources of light and left only the small blue lanterns used by Korean fishermen. The lighting did not just give rise to a magical, unique atmosphere, but recalled the daily difficult work of people whose lives are inextricably linked to the ocean. It was an enchanting sight.