A Russian Artist’s Snapshot of the National Psyche

Why Russia's entry at the world's toniest art fair speaks volumes about the country's predicament.


Last weekend, Russia presented its own unique contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale: an installation by conceptual artist Vadim Zakaharov. At the entrance of the Russian pavilion, a man in a blue suit sat in a saddle suspended beneath the ceiling, where he passed his time spitting peanut shells at the visitors. Golden coins engraved with the words "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" trickled down from the top of the two-story building and into a cave built in the basement. Only women were allowed to enter the cave (though they were banned from talking). There, they were offered transparent umbrellas that they could use to shield their heads from the rain of coins.

Some knelt on a red velvet pillow on the floor and looked up at the shower of gold, others poured coins into a bucket that was periodically raised to the second floor, where its contents replenished the flow. Another man, his hands buried in the pockets of an identical blue suit, stood guard at a hole in the floor where the buckets emerged, two stories above. His job was to make sure that no one tried to steal any of the loot. His pale face expressionless, he explained to visitors: "I am an official. I control the circulation of money."

Zakharov was using the Danae myth, a story that evokes the complicated relationship between money and desire, to reflect upon the strange realities of present-day Russia. To prepare the installation, Zakharov spent three months in Venice under conditions of strict secrecy, creating underground spaces in the pavilion building designed in 1914 by the Russian architect Aleksei Shchusev. When I met Zakharov in Venice, he offered several of his own interpretations of the work: "You can read multiple ideas here: A Plato’s cave created by men, who control power, money, and the flow of corruption. … The women locked in the cave are silent for now, but there is a sense in the air that it’s time to listen to women’s voices."

But reality has its ways of overcoming art. As if to demonstrate Zakharov’s point about Russian men’s control of wealth, billionaire Roman Abramovich arrived in Venice on his gigantic Luna yacht, which he anchored ostentatiously in the lagoon. That prompted complaints from locals and tourists, who objected to the way the ship blocked the view. But Abramovich is a major patron of the Biennale, so nobody dared to ask him to move his yacht away. The only critical statement was a painting by William Morris, which depicted the artist casting Abramovich’s yacht into the lagoon in fury and disgust.

Zakharov’s pavilion triggered a heated discussion among visitors gathered outside during the opening. Russian curator and art critic Valeri Kabov saw it as "a sad poetic allegory about Russians’ helplessness and despair." The poet Lev Rubinstein said that he liked the installation. "Vadim’s interpretation of the Danae myth illuminated the issue of control over the circulation of gold in nature," Rubinstein said with a smile.

Rubinstein, it should be noted, has spent much of the past two years organizing anti-Putin protests among writers and artists — yet it made perfect sense for him to show up at the Biennale. For Russia, where protest art has taken to the streets across the country over the past two years, the Venice Biennale offers yet another chance to address the country’s political and social problems.

There’s a bit of paradox, though, in the fact that the Russian entry is actually sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, so Zakharov’s rain of "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" was actually controlled by men in suits. (To touch upon one of many attendant ironies, the current culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, is a controversial historian who is notorious for urging Russians to consider the "positive side" of Stalin’s rule.) Russia in the age of Putin is also not exactly known for promoting political expression. Maria Shubina, a writer and frequent Biennale observer, expressed her skeptical view of Russia’s presentation in Venice: "I believe that the biggest contemporary art statement in Russia this year was Pussy Riot — but they’re in jail." In jail or a cave?

"Some of the men in the elite have already bought up all the luxurious property they wanted," real estate developer and art investor Dmitry Aksenov told me. "Now they want to invest in art." John Mann, a spokesman for Abramovich, told me proudly that many government officials turned up at last year’s opening of the Garage, the Abramovich-sponsored museum of contemporary art in Moscow’s Gorky Park. George Puzenkoff, a Russian painter now living in Berlin, took issue with Mann’s suggestion that the bureaucrats have a genuine appreciation of culture: "There’s no sincere interest in the Kremlin, absolute zero understanding of what art is about."

The Venice event is all about stimulating productive discussions. The organizers of the Biennale were eager to stress its importance at last week’s opening: 88 countries, including some that are in conflict with each other in the world outside, seized the opportunity to engage in cultural dialogue. For the first time in Biennale history, even the Vatican joined the discussion this year, offering a work entitled "Creation, Un-creation, Re-Creation."

Russian art and voices could be seen and heard all over Venice this year. Leonardo DiCaprio showed up at the opening of "Difficulties In Translation," an installation by a group of talented Russian artists from Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University. On an unusually cold night for this time in Italy, a performance artist, Oleg Kulik, stripped layers of newspapers off his naked body to lie on a cross and enjoy a Russian steam bath and traditional massage with a bunch of leaves on the bank of the Grand Canal. Photographs chronicling the life of Katia, an artist specializing in body modification, who escaped from an Orthodox monastery to the Moscow artistic underground, broke some visitors’ hearts with images of her scarred body. A floating installation of a wooden log with a double-headed eagle on top was entitled: "Russia. Try to overthrow."

But in spite of all the effort, the jury of the 55th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia did not give any awards to Russian artists — not even a special mention. Perhaps it had something to do with questions about the sincerity of politically themed art that’s cynically paid for by the government. In this respect, Zakharov’s piece ironically captured a crucial truth: Money doesn’t necessarily buy you love or respect. 

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