bus garage to the biennale
Barbieri, The Art Newspaper, January 2011
The appointment of Stella Kesaeva as
commissioner of the Russian Pavilion is controversial, but may turn out to be
June, Russia's culture minister, Alexander Avdeev, named Stella Kesaeva as commissioner
of the Russian Pavilion in Venice for the next three Biennales, with sole power
to chose the curators and artists, the decision to put so much patronage in the
hands of one person—and a relatively recent arrival on the Russian art scene at
that—set more than a few tongues wagging.
a bit of a strange decision," said Leonid Bazhanov, a curator of the
pavilion in the 1990s, who is now director of the National Centre for Contemporary
An, in Moscow. "Usually they name an active curator, not a manager.” Bazhanov
added: "Maybe it's a good decision. The problem is,. nobody knows how it
was made. When I was appointed, there was a selection process, a competition.
Now there isn't."
a new way of working for the Russian pavilion," said Evgeny Svyalsky, a
member of the artists' collective AES+F. "It's another level of
responsibility. OK, let's see the results."
forthright was Alexander Yakut, an artist and founder, in 1989, of the first
private contemporary art gallery in Moscow. "Stella Kesaeva has got some
influence in Russian contemporary art circles," Yakut said in an email.
"The only reason she got this influence was [the] support of several well
known western art dealers, curators and museum [people]. Don't ask me how she
managed to get their support, but she did."
who hasn't criticised the choice was Olga Sviblova, curator of the pavilion in
2007 and 2009. Looking back over her own experience, Sviblova was emphatic.
"The Russian artistic world is very complicated. People in Moscow love to
carp," she said. "I think this is a very good choice. She will
organise everything that is necessary and give the technical support. [But] it
will not be an easy task."
the wife of a Russian tobacco baron, Igor Kesaev, briefly ran a contemporary
art gallery before setting up her own art foundation in November 2003. quilting
selling to become a serious collector. In recent years she and her Stella Art
Foundation have participated in major exhibitions at international venues
including Documenta 2007 in Kassel, Germany, the 2007 and 2009 Venice
Biennales, the Russian "Counterpoint..." show al the Louvre in Paris
(until 31 January), and the Kunsthistorischcs Museum in Vienna, where her
exhibition of Boris Orlov is currently running (until 20 March).
establishing her Moscow-based foundation which, along with other activities,
runs two exhibition spaces in the city, she is now working on setting up a new
contemporary art museum, in partnership with the culture ministry, which she
hopes to open in 2014 (The An Newspaper, November 2008, p1). Like The Garage
art space of Roman Abramovich's partner Dasha Zhukova, Kesaeva's chosen space
is a city bus garage designed by the 1920s architect Konstantin Melnikov.
Kesaeva says that Zhukova copied her project. The rivalry between the two is
understated, but palpable.
wives and girlfriends in Russia have the sort of reputation that footballers'
wives and girlfriends have in Britain. But. in her case, appearances are
deceptive. Behind the facade is a sharp mind, a strong organisational ability
and a total commitment to her chosen art, which is the Russian conceptualist
movement, from its early days in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union of the 1970s, to
its contemporary heirs.
Kesaeva has a very good track record," said Sviblova. "Her foundation
does excellent work. Everything that Kesaeva has done since she first got
involved in the art domain—first with her gallery and then moving on to create
her non-commercial foundation—has been very well done and merits respect."
achievements, said Sviblova, Kesaeva was instrumental in persuading the
long¬time emignJ conceptualist Ilya Kabakov to return to Russia in 2004 to put
on a retrospective at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. "It was very complicated
and [Kesaeva] handled it very well," she said.
the Venice pavilion, all Kesaeva's administrative and diplomatic skills are
likely to be fully tested. In 2007 Sviblova found herself unofficially in a
similar situation, juggling curatorial, administrative, and technical
challenges—and above all, fundraising—to put together a high-cost artistic
project in a complex, dilapidated and woefully underfunded space.
lightened her load by choosing an experienced and highly respected curator, the
art historian and New York University professor Boris Grays, coiner of the term
"Moscow Romantic Conceptual ism".
I was given the job I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Kesaeva said at
the opening of her Vienna show in November. "For me, the Venice Biennale
is the perfect occasion to show something unusual and important for Russia—to
show what was going on behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s: specifically
Russian cultural authorities, the choice of Kesaeva breaks new ground in some
quite fundamental ways. For a start, this year's biennale will be the first
entrusted to a private collector rather than an employee—however eminent—of the
state. And Kesaeva's focus on the conceptualist movement is an organic
extension of her independent status.
critical appreciation of Russian art in the Soviet period has evolved and
become more nuanced. In place of the conventional black-and-white distinction
between state-subservient social realists and persecuted intellectual
non¬conformists, critics like Groys have shown that the relations between
artists, intellectuals and the Soviet state were far more complex. Even among
the conceptualists, often seen as a summation of private resistance to state
conformity, an artist like Kabakov, for example, financed his
"private" work through employment as an "official"
illustrator of children's books. And, controversially, Groys has argued that
the entire Stalinist stale construct can be seen, in essence, as a modernist
conceptualism is still regarded as a private—though far from solitary—form, and
few artists match that profile better than Andrey Monastyrsky, a key figure the
movement, chosen by Groys to show at the pavilion. "In the Soviet Union we
had dissidents and protests, but there was a lack of understanding, of
analysis," Groys said. "Moscow conceptualism wasn't about protest, it
he added "was officially unacceptable and conceptualism developed outside
of official recognition." But after perestroika—the loosening of state
control in the Gorbachev years—"it was recognised as the most important
art movement since the second world war. In Russia there was no art market.
Work was defined by its ideological value. The Soviet Union was not a money
driven economy, it was a symbolic economy."
began working in the mid-1970s, creating clandestine performances as part of a
group called Collective Action. "He organised performances outside Moscow
[which] was absolutely new at the time," said Groys. "It was
collective action, a participatory art involving other artists and the
Monastyrsky works in new media, using internet sites such as YouTube. However
he remains an elusive artist, shunning self-promotion.
him to Venice, Kesaeva, is "making public Russian art that wasn't
public," said Groys.
to Kesaeva: "Conceptualism is not political, it's thinking about the
philosophy of an, deeply. It's about life and mystery. In Russia only a small
circle understands. Nobody wanted to take Monastyrsky to the biennale. He is
not commercial—he is a philosopher and a historian-it's not the sort of work
that can be sold." Showing his work, she said, "is not about
business. This is about something else—something far more important.”
looked around and saw (hat many important things happened in the 1970s that had never
happened before and will never happen again— the art reflected the life of the
times. This is an important historical exhibition. Somehow this period has been forgotten, and I want to bring it
to the public's attention," she said.
pavilion, work is already under way to do just that. In five rooms a vast
installation will take form, which will include videos, archives of photographs
from the 1970s, historical pieces, and new work.
1972 Monastyrsky did his first video installation. He was one of the first
Russian artists lo do this," Kesaeva said. "He will show a project
that was conceived in the 1970s but never realised. Now he will be able to
present it in its entirety."
or not, creating such a monumental display—remodelling the Pavilion's interior,
logistics, administration, and spending on the art—does not come cheap. How
much the completed show will cost, Kesaeva declined to say; but Sviblova, speaking
from her own experience, implied iе would be substantial.
I did it, it cost a $1m, and barely 10% of that was funded by the Russian
government," Sviblova said. Apart from doing everything else, I had to spend most of my time
Kesaeva, at least, that will not be a problem. Being an oligarch's wife may not
win her universal admiration among Moscow's contemporary art set. But it has
its compensations—not the least of them being that she knows where to find
money, and can afford to ignore detractors.
dogs bite," she said, "but the caravan keeps going."