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"Reality’s thick veil": A review of the Russian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale


At our sister publication Art Agenda, Maxim Ivanov reviews the Russian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. In addition to assessing the pieces on view at the pavilion—Scene from 2016-2017 by Grisha Bruskin, Garden by Sasha Pirogova, and Blocked Content by the Recycle Group—Ivanov recounts the political machinations that led to the appointment of the pavilion’s curator, Semyon Mikhailovsky. Ultimately, Ivanov faults the art exhibited in the pavilion for its simplified and outdated view of reality, deeming it blind to “the modern world of hypernormalization and hybrid wars.” Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Bruskin is yet another compromise of 2017. The commissioner-cum-curator [Semyon Mikhailovsky] explains his presence in the pavilion in terms of the effect of what he saw in the artist’s studio on him. This is an important detail, emphasizing the “manual control” of art, coupled with the incorruptibility of the artist’s will. The concept of the pavilion was derived from Bruskin’s works. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is the title of a sixteenth-century atlas, the first modern geographic atlas in history. It was translated into Russian as, literally, “Spectacle of the Terrestrial Circle.” According to Bruskin’s own testimony and that of Italian art historians, as compiled in the catalogue, the artist has for some time been occupied by the topic of the spectacle and the concept of the theater of memory. His installation deals with “changes of scenery.” Three rooms are chockablock with sculptures, reminiscent of the quasi-Surrealism produced by the so-called left (liberal) wing of the Moscow Union of Artists in the late Soviet period. A gigantic two-headed eagle hovers over a mob of soldiers under arms. The monstrous inhabitants of the second room stand as if preparing to go on stage, although there is no stage. Life is a theater, a spectacle with no end that has congealed during a change of scenery; people are both the actors and the only spectators. These are baroque commonplaces.

The exhibition does have a political aspect as well, which Bruskin himself has served up as a classic post-dissident truth about the machine of the totalitarian state and its cog-like citizens, although the two-headed eagle unambiguously refers to the present, while the soldiers can be recognized as the riot cops sent into Moscow during public holidays. It is impossible to find any better-defined message, but even this unfocused view of politics leads to curiosities. Thus, in his commentary, the curator unexpectedly identifies the characters—Bruskin’s soldiers or toy soldiers, probably—as “protesters.” If we extrapolate Mikhailovsky’s rationale, we can assume the eagle functions, as it were, as the guardian of the Motherland’s cultural values from collapse and degradation.

In his response to the biennale, Radio Svoboda journalist and independent publisher Dmitry Volchek wrote he had vowed not to criticize the Russian Pavilion, knowing the conditions under which it was produced. I would be ready to embrace Volchek’s position if the entire pavilion had been given over to Bruskin, with his vague (or, if you will, spiritual) hints and endearingly obsolete arguments with the commissioner. However, the maxim that “contemporary art is everything done today” (and, apparently, everything done by the young and contemporary) added several new layers of meaning to this already pompous dinner party chitchat that, finally, caused me to lose the thread of the conversation.

Image: View of “Theatrum Orbis,” Russian Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Via Art Agenda.