Moscow's brief window on modern art

Artists preparing for the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Source: Grigoriy Sisoev / RIA Novosti

Artists preparing for the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. Source: Grigoriy Sisoev / RIA Novosti

The sixth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art is set to open on Sept. 22 and will run through Oct. 1. Bart de Baere, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp and one of this year’s exhibition three co-curators, told RBTH about his big project for the event, confessing his love for Moscow along the way.

The sixth Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art will have three co-curators involved: director of the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, Bart de Baere; director of the Witte de With Center for contemporary art in Rotterdam, Defne Ayas; and director of Kunsthalle Wien, Nicolaus Schafhausen. Their joint project entitled "How to Gather? Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia" promises to become a breakthrough for this format of exhibitions.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: Any biennale primarily aims to promote a certain city, a country, or contemporary art as a whole. Are the objectives still the same this time?

Bart de Baere: Any biennale is, arguably, a tool designed to attract tourists. Take Venice, for example: they do not advertise the city itself, but they do say, “Come and see our great biennale!” And then they add: “As you are visiting the biennale, you might as well take a look around our beautiful city.” This is, of course, the effect of a biennale, one of its outcomes. And it would be great if the same applies to Moscow, because Moscow is one of the most stunning cities in the world and one the greatest cities in Europe, just like Rome, Istanbul, London or Madrid. But, sadly – and it truly pains me to admit it — Europe does not understand it, or maybe even isn’t aware of it.

But what can a biennale really do? It can change the public image of art and show what art can actually do, what significance it has for the future. For instance, the Moscow Biennale can have the same impact as the São Paulo Art Biennial, which will always be a venue for not just the Brazilians, but for everyone who is interested in Latin America.

Bart de Baere. Source: Natasha Polskaya

Bart de Baere. Source: Natasha Polskaya

Naturally, Moscow should be such a venue for all the ex-Soviet nations, and, more broadly, a meeting point for Western Europe and Asia. Moscow is in fact one the most important cities for contemporary art. It is the birthplace of early avant-garde, and there are still quite a few great artists and artist collectives here.

RBTH: Your project will be housed in the central pavilion of the VDNKh. What is the concept behind the exhibition?

B. B.: When we arrived there for the first time, and we were told that we would have to fill this huge pavilion to the brim, we replied in unison: “It is impossible!” Of course, we could not do that with a budget this low. We could have just abandoned it all, but we said that Moscow was too important as a meeting venue. And meetings are currently something that is important for all nations. We are great in waging wars, both as nations and as smaller social groups. So the relevant question here is how can we gather? This is something that society should answer.

So we decided not to build anything, but rather to invest in people, in the participants, in organizing the gatherings. We preferred not to spend money on transporting some terribly expensive works from galleries in London or Beijing to Moscow, not to pay huge sums for insurance.

Eventually, we found a completely new format that we call “the shortest biennale in the world”. For ten days, people will gather in Moscow pavilions to meet each other, to create and to discuss. And so we asked a variety of people from around the world – artists, scientists and economists – what can they do in these ten days? How can they contribute to this small community, to this gathering?

RBTH: Once the ten days are over, what will remain for the visitors to see?

B. B.: Our meeting will take place from Sept. 22 through Oct. 1. After that, we will make a documentary on all the events that took place in the pavilion. We are also planning to put up a website, publish a book and hold an exhibition in the same pavilion. I’m sure it will be unforgettable for anyone who will be with us for those ten days!

RBTH: Did some artists decline?

B. B.: Some of them did, mostly due to schedule conflicts. Nikita Kadan who is based in Ukraine also declined our invitation, saying he could not offer anything positive as an artist at the moment.

RBTH: Will this year’s biennale stay away from controversial issues? Can you call it ‘positive-minded’?

B. B.: It is not about being exclusively positive-minded. It is about finding ways to coexist even if we are adversaries. Together we can try to think of such coexistence strategies that could be used in the future. Granted, it is not always possible.

RBTH: You have recently mentioned in an interview that the artistic community of Europe did not particularly care about the situation in Ukraine…

B. B.: I said that the Europeans did not fully understand how multifaceted and complex the situation in Ukraine actually is. Sure enough, they also do not understand how multifaceted and complex the situation in Russia is, too. On the other hand, the Russians don’t comprehend the peculiarities of the current situation in Europe.

RBTH: I heard your museum’s collection has works by contemporary Russian artists.

B. B.: In fact, we have the biggest collection of works by post-Soviet artists in Europe. There are works by Ilya Kabakov – who is one of the greatest artists in the world – by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, by Sergey Bratkov… Also, we have recently acquired a large number of works by Taus Makhacheva. Last year, we held an exhibition by Olga Chernysheva. In general, we exhibit works of Russian artists regularly.

RBTH: Any reaction from the public?

B. B.: People are always thrilled. We do not introduce the authors as Russians - we present them as good artists. Works by Taus Makhacheva will be shown at our next exhibition. 

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