In Russia, contemporary art explodes from Soviet shackles

The former Soviet Union saw self-expression as a threat. But in today’s Russia, a modern art scene is emerging from underground – at the government’s invitation.

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.

Converting to contemporary
Renovations have turned Russia’s older complexes into cutting-edge art galleries. St Petersburg’s early 20th-century Smolinsky Bread factory was converted into the industrial-chic Loft Project Etagi in 2007. With five floors devoted to displaying art, it is one of the largest contemporary art spaces in St Petersburg, and hosts shows ranging from experimental cartoons to photo exhibitions on hot-topic social issues. In the city of Perm, PERMM is an old river boat station for passenger ferries that started holding creative workshops in 2008. Moscow’s former wine bottling factory Winzavod, which was built in 1810, was transformed in 2007 into a cluster of exhibition spaces devoted exclusively to cutting-edge exhibits by some of Russia’s hottest contemporary artists. Across the Moscow River from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Red October chocolate factory – which produced the USSR’s famous chocolate brand from 1917 until 2004 – now houses the Lumiere Brothers Photography Centre, responsible for such recent high-profile exhibitions as 150 Years of National Geographic, which showcased the magazine’s iconic portrait and landscape photography.

‘Vandalism’ becomes artistic expression
In the city of Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, Nikita Nomerz is famous among street artists for literally giving a new face to derelict buildings. The Big Brother is a laughing tower in Nizhny Novgorod with gaping round eyes, while The Confined in the town of Vyksa shows a furtive man’s face, half-hidden in shadow, peeking out of a dark gap on the side of a building.

With its undercurrent of anti-state protest, graffiti never has been very welcome in Russia. But today, that lack of acceptance is changing – so much so that summer 2013 marked the first time that Moscow authorities commissioned street artists to collaborate in “graffiti jams”. Dozens of home-grown street artists, including Pasha 183 (dubbed “The Russian Banksy” for concealing his identity), transformed the city’s apartment building walls, underpasses and bridges with more than 100 immense murals. Armed with the online graffiti map, visitors can see the likes of Pop Art, a mural  by the street art group 310 at Mytnaya 12, near the Oktyabrskaya metro stop; Circus, a colourful mural by Russian artists Aleksei Medny at Trubnaya 15, in Moscow’s north; and the face of Hermann Hesse by Portuguese artist Vhils at Savvinskaya Naberezhnaya 27 near the Sportivnaya metro stop, created with the help of an electric drill and hammer to chip away at the brick wall’s paint.

Even as street art becomes more accessible, it remains just controversial enough to be cutting edge. The work of Pasha 183, who died in April 2013, included photorealistic murals and socially critical installations. A stencilled image of a little girl writing “if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes truth” – where the word “truth” is crossed out and replaced with “politics” – was inspired by social unrest and anti-government sentiment. That subversive element is still very much present in the works of others, too: before leaving Russia for his home of Brazil, Eduardo Kobra created another mural, a polar bear holding a “Free Ana!” sign. A reference to one of the “Arctic 30”, the Greenpeace crew who protested against Russian oil drilling company Gazprom is a particular a dig at the Russian governing Elite.

Contemporary and street art, it seems, may be going mainstream in Russia. But if recent works show anything, it’s that these forms of expression won’t lose their subversive edge.