Wednesday, February 21

Empty galleries and fleeing artists: Russia’s cultural uncoupling from the west | Russia

EITHERna recent Saturday in April, Muscovites strolled around GES-2, a vast new arts center built in a disused power station steps away from the Kremlin. But guests visiting the 54,400 sq meter centre, designed by the pioneering Italian architect Renzo Piano, were faced with one hard-to-miss problem – the art was absent.

The Russian artist Evgeny Antufiev, who asked for his works to be removed from GES-2.

“It is not the time for contemporary art when people are dying and blood is spilling. We ca n’t pretend as if life is normal, ”said Evgeny Antufiev, a Russian artist who asked him for his works to be removed from GES-2 shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

At the end of last year Vladimir Putin toured the GES-2 museum alongside Leonid Mikhelson, one of the country’s richest businessmen, who financed the multimillion dollar construction of the center.

Cameras followed Putin as he watched over the work of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who inaugurated the much-anticipated GES-2 with Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture, a theatrical piece that examined the relationship between Russia and the US.

Vladimir Putin, second right, and Leonid Mikhelson, left, visit the GES-2 arts center in Moscow in December 2021.
Vladimir Putin, second right, and Leonid Mikhelson, left, visit the GES-2 arts center in Moscow in December Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Few places now seem to epitomize Russia’s cultural decoupling from the west better than the large, empty walls of GES-2, created as Moscow’s answer to Tate Modern.

“We need to end this illusion that things will get back to how they were before the war. Drinking cocktails at art openings as people are being killed feels criminal,” Antufiev said.

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Other Russian and foreign artists and curators, including Kjartansson, also quickly distanced themselves from GES-2 when it became clear that the museum was not going to use its platform to oppose Russia’s invasion.

Francesco Manacorda, the former artistic director of the VAC Foundation
Francesco Manacorda, the former artistic director of the VAC Foundation: ‘You know making an anti-war statement has legal consequences.’ Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

“After the invasion, a lot of people were asking the institution to take a more prominent stand, like institutions were writing open letters saying GES-2 and other museums should say something, but it’s really a threat to their own existence,” said Francesco Manacorda, the former artistic director of the VAC Foundation in Moscow that manages GES-2, who resigned shortly after the war started.

“I imagine that [exhibiting anti-war works] is out of the question. You know making an anti-war statement has legal consequences,” he added.

Russia’s parliament last month passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading “fake” news about the military in Ukraine.

Another building that will remain empty in the coming weeks is the national pavilion of Russia at the Venice Biennale. The pavilion – built just before the 1917 Russian Revolution – is traditionally a meeting place for much of Russia’s political and cultural elite, who eagerly take the trip to Venice to be seen at arguably the most prestigious exhibition in the world.

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, two Russian artists declared that they could not represent their country at the pavilion, while their Lithuanian-born curator Raimundas Malašauskas resigned.

“When the war started, it became clear to us that we cannot be in Venice because it is the pavilion of the Russian Federation. And even in a sort of middle ground, like Venice, on Italian soil, it’s still subordinate to the Russian ministry of culture,” Malašauskas said.

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Marat Gelman, a veteran Russian art collector, said as the war would drag on only those Russian artists who openly protested the war in their art would be welcomed in Europe.

“Artists should either protest the war in their work or keep quiet. I don’t believe there will be any space for compromise,” he said.

In the early days of the war, when opposition to the conflict had not yet been criminalized, more than 17,000 Russians working in the arts signed an open letter demanding that the invasion should end.

However, as the country launched its systematic crackdown on opposition to the war, hundreds of artists decided to leave the country.

“I fled from Moscow, which has turned into Mordor. For me, personally, there were no options left – I would not be able to stay there and be silent, and given my current activities, I would not have been free for long,” said the Russian artist Antonina Baever.

“The only art from Russia that is relevant now is activist, anti-war art, but they give from 15 days to 15 years for it,” Baever said, referring to the “fake news” law.

For the rest of the cultural world that remained behind, the message was made clear: fall in line.

A giant Z symbol is displayed on the Oleg Tabakov theater in Moscow in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine
A giant Z symbol is displayed on the Oleg Tabakov theater in Moscow in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Speaking at a meeting with leading cultural figures broadcast on national television last month, Putin set the tone by saying Russia was also engaged in a cultural battle against the west, comparing the treatment of Russian culture abroad to the burning of “unwanted literature” by Nazi supporters in Germany.

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His message was clearly heard in Moscow. Soon after, the city’s Bolshoi Theater announced that it would stage a series of performances in support of Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine, with all proceeds going to the families of Russian soldiers who had died in combat. The Oleg Tabakov theater posted the pro-war military symbol Z across the three-floor facade of its building in central Moscow.

Still, some artists in the country have continued to protest against the war despite the risks.

Alexandra Skochilenko
The St Petersburg artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who faces up to 10 years in jail for ‘discrediting’ the Russian army. Photography: Instagram

Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist from St Petersburg, was arrested last week for a daring performance in which she allegedly replaced supermarket price labels with messages protesting against Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine. Skochilenko now faces up to 10 years in jail on charges of “discrediting” the Russian army.

And on Tuesday, police raided an anti-war classical concert at a Moscow cultural centre, interrupting a performance by the pianist Alexei Lubimov, who in dramatic fashion finished playing the final bars of Schubert’s Impromptu Op 90 No 2 as two police officers took the stage .

Police officers raid anti-war concert in Moscow – video

For now, the once glitzy VAC will serve as a starting reminder of how the war changed Moscow overnight, as its former staff continue to grapple with the demise of the ambitious art project that was meant to bring Russia closer to the west.

“The staff, it’s 250 people, worked together for this huge project, and with one action all of this has been taken away. I’m still in a mourning state,” Manacorda said.

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