Not far from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow’s historic Tverskoy district, an enormous mural of the famed ballerina Maya Plisetskaya looms on the side of 16 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. The work, commissioned by the city’s authorities from Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in October 2013, illustrates Russia’s swiftly changing approach to art. Until recently, it was inconceivable that the city’s authorities would allow, never mind invite, street artists to use the city’s walls as canvas.
Today, a contemporary art explosion is sweeping Russia. From St Petersburg to Moscow, art galleries and workshops have opened, street art is moving into the spotlight and festivals like Moscow’s Biennale of Contemporary Art, opening for its sixth edition in September 2014, are showcasing works by today’s finest artists.
Modern art galleries
Next door to Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery, which has been a bastion of modern art since its 1985 opening, the Central House of Artists, founded in 1979, houses innovative installations, paintings and sculpture from contemporary artists around the world. A recent exhibition featured Japanese Butoh, a performance art that evolved after World War II.
The museum’s permanent collection of abstract sculpture, meanwhile, boldly spills out onto the banks of the Moscow River, in defiance of the Soviet principles that often kept contemporary art – considered subversive to the state – behind closed doors.
Also next to the New Tretyakov is Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli’s highly controversial statue of Peter the Great, called an eyesore by some and irrelevant to Moscow’s history by others. Lambasted sculptures aside, Tsereteli has been instrumental in changing Russia’s contemporary art scene. His pet project, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, drew on some 2,000 modern art pieces from his own collection when it opened in 1999, including works by Malevich, Kandinsky, and Chagall. It has been steadily expanding ever since, with temporary exhibitions featuring montages, graphics, installations and more by up-and-coming Russian artists.
Meanwhile, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture moved in September 2012 to the recently transformed Gorky Park, which has been completely re-landscaped and redesigned with trendy cafes and a skateboarding park. Owner and fashion editor Dasha Zhukova originally launched the centre in 2008 as a space to exhibit the best contemporary art from around the world. Today, the all-in-one exhibition space, lecture, workshop, cinema and party venue houses paintings, sculpture, photography, graphics and architecture. One recent exhibit, Personal Choice, includes the favourite works of more than 20 of Russia’s leading contemporary art collectors. The Centre also hosts gigs by the likes of Fatima Al Qadiri, a New York-based artist and musician who reinterprets juke, hip-hop, and ‘90s Gregorian trance music with equal ease.
Playing with art
The country’s approach to displaying and interacting with art is changing too, if more slowly. In most of Russia’s art museums, suspicious curators still follow visitors through the exhibits, prohibiting visitors from taking photos of or touching the paintings. However, at Pushkinskaya 10, a scruffy St Petersburg apartment block taken over by artistically inclined squatters in 1988, you can create sonar chaos in the Gallery of Experimental Sound by making noise over experimental music. At St Petersburg’s Erarta, physical and emotional interactions with the new U-Space installations are actively encouraged. For 10 minutes, visitors can enter one of six themed rooms alone, surrounded by props and sound effects to encourage specific emotions. The “Roots” room, for example, hosts a recreation of a Russian peasant hut, and a simple, plaintive melody plays in the background. In “Childhood”, all of the room’s objects are disproportionately large to make guests feel small again.