Russian artists find power on the fringe

Barcelona hosts mammoth exhibition of works by winners of the Kandinsky Prize Show explores the contradictions and humor of life in a borderland

The artist Vladislav Mamishev-Monroe, dressed as Putin at the show’s launch.
The artist Vladislav Mamishev-Monroe, dressed as Putin at the show’s launch.ANDREU DALMAU (EFE)

“East is East and West is West,” reads the first sentence in the exhibition catalogue for In an absolute disorder. Russian contemporary art. The Kandinsky Prize (2007-2012), a show that takes up all four stories of the Arts Santa Mònica center in Barcelona.

It was Rudyard Kipling who originally wrote that phrase in his The Ballad of East and West, and he also said that Russia straddles both, even if Vladimir Putin likes to describe it as a “normal” European country. But contemporary Russian artists refute that notion — not so much because of their geographic location, but because their work comes across as fresh, cheeky, corrosive, politicized, humorous and violent. Their enormous visual and ideological potential has little in common with the Western art scene.

The exhibition showcases works by every winner of the Kandinsky Prize since its creation six years ago. In just a short time, this independent award has become a reference point in Russia’s cultural life, and its creator, the art patron Shalva Breus, holds that it remains “outside the paternalist control of the state.” Breus, who is president of the ArtChronika Foundation, was in Barcelona for the opening of a show which, in the words of Arts Santa Mònica director Vicenç Altaió, is “the most important and relevant exhibition on contemporary Russian art ever to be organized in Spain.”

“For a country that has experienced incredible turmoil for the last 20 years, coupled with a resurgence of violence, the chances of culture playing a leading role are very slim,” writes one of the show’s two curators, Jean-Hubert Martin. “Art exists at a distance from the reality of action, and this distance is often expressed through humor. This humor is dark, cynical and dry.”

“Artists view chaos and disorder as a great opportunity, as a breeding ground for creativity,” adds Andrei Erofeev, the other curator, and owner of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow.

Altaió described this art as “the search for order in disorder” and said the show underscores “the turmoil of the last years in Russian political, social and cultural life.”

The artist Vladislav Mamishev-Monroe, who impersonates public figures such as Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler and Marilyn Monroe, said he was “grateful” to Russian authorities for the conflicts they’ve created, which have been a “great source of inspiration” to himself and his colleagues.

The exhibition is structured around four main themes that take up as many floors inside this former convent on La Rambla: Dimitri Prigov, the last conceptualist; Material chaos. The esthetics of bad things or contextualist art; Social Disorder. Tyrannicidal performance and artistic reportage, and The Church’s crumbling symbolic systems. Most of the pieces are large-format and difficult to set up, but there is also painting, sculpture, video art and just about every other contemporary genre.

On the first floor, one of the artworks on display is a shipping box that contains a screen showing Lenin’s mummy. The mummy is restless, as though weary of constantly maintaining the same stiff posture for the sake of visitors, and it rolls from side to side as though it were having a strange dream.

One of the most striking installations is I forgot where I left my keys, by a collective named Mish-Mash (Mikhail Leikin and Maria Sumnina). Four identical desks full of clutter — ashtrays, pieces of paper, lunch leftovers, a sock hanging from a corner and a chair teetering at a dangerous angle — stand side by side. The clutter is identical in every case, down to the last detail. Call it the esthetics of chaos. Another dramatic installation is The cell, by Alexander Brodsky: it is a destructured room in which furniture hangs haphazardly from the walls. A kitchen, a bathroom and a studio are connected by staircases and hallways. Instead of a roof, there is direct access to outer space, and instead of a floor there is a black hole. Up in the sky, a video shows some clouds floating about contentedly, and down below, in the dark, oily water, one finds the inhabitant of this house. Welcome to life “on the fringes.”

Lev Tolstoi and the chickens, by Oleg Kulik, comprises a hyperrealistic life-size sculpture of the writer inside a chicken coop. Inside, the chickens defecate on the author of Anna Karenina, who continues to write despite being nearly covered in excrement. According to Kulik, it symbolizes the way in which Russian culture and history are being forgotten under the chaotic layer of human existence. Human life is a constant process of humiliation, but the excrement is the only possible, genuine life there is, he postulates.

The fourth floor houses a fierce critique of religion’s newfound power in the new-old Russia. Abacus, by Serguei Shutov, depicts dozens of faceless popes prostrating themselves before an absent god.

In an absolute disorder. Russian contemporary art. The Kandinsky Prize (2007-2012) Until September 30 at Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona.

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