Otobong Nkanga at Portikus
SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy. Talking secrets and pandas with Jacob Appelbaum
Reto Pulfer “Gewässerzeiten” and Patrick Staff “The Foundation” at Spike Island, Bristol
Summer Reading – Has the Internet Changed Art Criticism? On Service Criticism and a Possible Future
The boys the girls and the political
Douglas Coupland and Art In The Age Of…Asymmetrical Warfare
14th edition of the International Photography Exhibition Gjon Mili
Like A Prayer
Issue 21 out now
2016 applications open for Galleries, Edition, Statements, Feature, Unlimited and Parcours sectors
Trevor Shimizu at Misako & Rosen
“Dredgers on the Rail” at Freedman Fitzpatrick
Bald Spot Comics
The artblog Reader Advisor
Joshua Abelow at Freddy
Fabrice Hyber “2.716,43795 m2” at the Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon, Sète
Under the Clouds: From Paranoia to the Digital Sublime
Summer Reading – On Informality and Nomadism
Hilton Als: 2015 Stuart Regen Visionaries Series Speaker
Didier Fiùza Faustino
First working committee meeting in Ekaterinburg, Russia
Lynda Benglis Reunites with a Lost Fountain
Nina Koennemann at Taylor Macklin
Juliette Blightman / Ellie Epp “holding one’s own in an unfinished system” at Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe
Juliette Blightman / Ellie Epp “holding one’s own in an unfinished system” at Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe
Postcard from Nizhny Novgorod
How flabbergasted the jury must have been, when, for the opening of the International Trade Fair, Vrubel’s painting were prominently put on display right next to the fair’s entrance, in a dedicated pavilion paid for by the industrialist and millionaire Savva Mamontov. A huge outcry in the press ensued, and one of the loudest voices belonged to Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), later to become the world-famous writer. For Gorky, Vrubel’s paintings heralded nothing less than the decline of Russian culture. To paint following the icon tradition instead of adopting the latest trends from Paris – the French-speaking ladies of the Russian bourgeoisie, following Gorky’s lead, could be overheard saying – clearly showed that the painter in question must be a mad man.
Today we know that Vrubel actually anticipated the Russian avant-garde of the 20th century. As the painter Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) once pointed out, Vrubel was more important for him than Paul Cézanne. And artist Naum Gabo (1890-1977) even argued that the Suprematists, counter to what Western art historians usually argue, were not predominantly influenced by Western Cubism but by Russian icons – and Vrubel.
Yet, when Vrubel died in 1910, the only proper public exhibition he had had was the one in Nizhny Novgorod. That he had survived as a painter was almost solely thanks to his patron Mamontov. Ever since I knew this story I had wanted to visit the city 400 kilometres east of Moscow: the scandalous birth-place of the Russian avant-garde.
I land at an airport resembling a shed. Picked up by the friendly Elena Belova, curator of the city’s National Centre for Contemporary Art hosting the symposium. Proudly she tells me that she’ll bring me to a hotel on the hills offering the best view over the city. And indeed, after a slow car ride on congested roads through the busy city centre, I arrive at this place still emitting late-Soviet charm, with a view to the old fair building on the other side of river Oka (Nizhny Novgorod is situated at the confluence of Oka and Volga).
The next day the symposium starts. First the guests are shown around the Centre for Contemporary Art, housed in the restored armoury buildings of the city’s kremlin. The Centre’s opening to the public is the actual occasion for the symposium. Director Anna Gor welcomes us enthusiastically. Proudly she shows us around the spaces, before handing over to the young curator of the inaugural exhibition, Alisa Savitskaja. She starts explaining the show’s title, ‘High Hopes Museum’ – a title which immediately for me invokes the story of this fascinating city.
Nizhny Novgorod, meaning Lower New Town, was founded in 1221. With its many old monasteries and churches it is amongst the oldest cities of Russia. Thanks to the trade fair, in the 19th century, the city enjoyed its heyday. Theatres, opera houses, schools, hospitals, banks and trade buildings sprung up like mushrooms. Important figures such as Gorky, the mathematician Nikolai Lobachevskij (1792–1856) or avant-garde artist Mikhail Matyushin (1877–1913) were born here. In 1932 the city was renamed Gorky – still during the writer’s lifetime! – and while the trade fair was closed, the buildings later housed key elements of the Soviet arms industry. For most of the Soviet era Gorky was declared a ‘forbidden city’ – foreigners were not permitted. Dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989), after his 1980 protest against the Afghanistan war, was banished to Gorky.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city, having re-adopted its original name, is in search of a new identity. The oppositional politician Boris Nemtsov, murdered right in front of Moscow’s Kremlin on 27 February this year, had been the region’s Governor in the early 1990s. Under his reign, the city had been at the forefront of ‘free market’ reform, resulting, initially, in significant economic growth for the region.
Centre for Contemporary Art, Nizhny Novgorod, installation view
The exhibition as well is dedicated to the idea of a search for identity. Contemporary artists from the region relate their work to important historical figures from the city. Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich for example introduce us to Russia’s first female physician, the gynaecologist Nadezhda Suslova (1843–1918) who had her practice in the city. Evgenij Strelkov, together with other artists, built a complex installation in honour of all the city’s inventors in the field of media technology – Nizhny Novgorod was were Russia’s first ever telephone connection was installed. And the young artist Artem Filatov, with his installation made of rotten, wooden blanks, addressed the problem of all the old, wonderful wooden apartment houses, once the pride of the city, many of which, not having been maintained properly for decades, are now torn down. The exhibition brings together contemporary works with applied and folklore art, scientific artefacts and other documents – a smart as well as visually impressive combination.
Afterwards, the symposium entitled ‘Contemporary Art and Local Contexts’ gets under way. Catherine de Zegher, curator of the last Moscow Biennial, gives a talk, as well as Georg Schöllhammer, who together with his partner Hedwig Saxenhuber prepares the first Kyiv Biennial. Jara Boubnova, new Director of Sofia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, talks about the constant repainting of the Bulgarian capital’s Monument to the Soviet Army, with the relief of heroic soldiers being redesigned as Superman, Captain America, or Santa Claus – an expression of vandalism as much as of vernacular creativity. Other presentations report from the Russian cities of Krasnojarsk and Samara, alluding to the current, difficult situation Russian society going through – but no-one dares to openly address the issues. A level of underlying fear is undeniable. Impressive was also the account of Andreas Hoffmann, who in Kirkenes, the town in Northern Norway on the border to Russia, regularly organises art festivals in the bone-chilling cold of the polar February, inviting and involving Russian inhabitants from across the border.
During the symposium I get to know Kyrill Agafonov, a young artist with an iPad under his arm, whom together with artist Natasha Peredvigina forms the group Gorod Ustinov, specialized in what they call ‘Micro Art’; miniature objects, thought of in contrast to what they perceive to be the gigantomania of their home country. With their ‘Micro Art’, they participated in the last Moscow Biennial, and are now invited to Ghent, Belgium, their first trip abroad. Kirill actually lives in the city of Izhevsk, and for him, Nizhny Novgorod is the next big town, ‘just’ a mere 14 hours train ride away. During the symposium Kirill creates an installation consisting of small sculptures made of empty gun shells – of course, a commentary on the increasing militarization of Russian society.
Bugrov Homeless Shelter, Nizhny Novgorod
The next day, Kirill shows me around the city. We meet at the hotel, it rains and it’s cold. But we make our tour anyway. The city is on the move, everywhere are construction sites and renovations are under way, postmodern highrises next to old wooden houses, which, though they look like they would collapse any moment, are actually still inhabited. Prada and Gucci on one side of the street, dilapidation and poverty on the other. We see a surprising amount of old churches, some of which have been restored while others are still in ruins. I’m impressed by the many functionalist 1920s buildings, most of which however are in bad condition.
Finally, we stand in front of Kashirin House, the wooden house in which Gorky spent his childhood. It belonged to his grand father and can be visited. Proudly one of the ladies running the place points out a historic black and white photograph on the wall: a group portrait of serious-looking notables – the city parliament of which Gorky’s grand father was a member. The supposed proletarian origins, according to Soviet lore, of the great writer? There are several Gorky museums in the city, one of which still today shows huge paintings of the man with Stalin, as well as depictions of the Bugrov Homeless Shelter, the place that inspired him to write The Lower Depths (1902), the play that propelled him to worldwide fame.
Pechersky Ascension Monastery, Nizhny Novgorod
Together with Kirill I also visit the Pechersky Ascension Monastery holding the oldest known Russian chronicle. Everything is tip-top there, the lawn is impeccably kept – the Russian-Orthodox Church seems prosperous these days, something that can’t be said of the suburban surroundings of the monastery. Back in the city centre we meet the photographer Vladislav Efimov, and Artem Filatov, a lank 24 year-old artist with his hood firmly drawn over his head. He was born in the old part of town of which he is very fond. Together with other artist, including Kirill, his artistic interventions are geared towards raising awareness of the chaotic demolishing of old and the even more haphazard construction of new buildings. It’s hard to tell whether these interventions amount to merely pointing out things, making them prettier, or sometimes simply vandalism. In any case they call it street art, and show me a huge mural they made on the side of a derelict house, as well as a micro installation that Kirill has mounted neatly into a house’s lengthy crack in the wood.
In the evening I meet Sergej Provorov and Galina Myznikova, whom, known under their moniker Provmyza, are the most well-known artists in town. Their videos have been shown at the Russian Pavilion during the Venice Biennale in 2005, and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The pieces deal with ideas of endurance, perseverance, the overcoming of powers – all of which are virtues that can be very useful especially in the current Russian society. I’m particularly impressed by their 2006 work inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901): it shows three girls whom, standing at an abyss, frantically try to keep their balance.
I have one more day. Elena brings me to post-constructivist housing blocks which had been built as part of a master-plan to build the ideal city, the earliest examples of which stem from the late 1920s and still are modest, functional multi-storey houses. But as years went by, the buildings became more and more monumental, with neo-classicist column entrances to Stalin’s taste. The internationally connected music producer Alexander Yuminov lives in one of these buildings. With admirable passion, he records and documents the rich tradition of chants and folk songs from the wider region – he plays some fascinating examples of Udmurt folk music to me. But time is running out, as Elena still wants to bring me to gallery Tolk, the only commercial art space in town.
Tolk Gallery, Nizhny Novgorod, installation view with works by Toy Crew
Tolk represents some of the artists active in Nizhny Novgorod, including Artem Filatov. They are showing ten pictures by Eror und Seva, two young graffiti artists working under the name ‘Toy Crew’. Their exhibition is entitled ‘What is good and what is bad?’ (a line from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky), and their deadpan, smartly ‘naïve’ answers are 5 ‘bad’ and 5 ‘good’ paintings on unstretched canvasses, of people doing simple things such as feeding pigeons, or flushing them.
It’s dark by now, but I still have one big wish: to see the fair building up close where Vrubel once showed his paintings. The grand building is refurbished and lit from all sides. Elena makes a snapshot of me, and we go for a last glass of wine, and after a short night’s sleep, at six in the morning, I’m brought back to the airport.-->