“One of the more obvious consequences of the political and economic stabilization in Russia”, one can read on the website of the Moscow Biennale, “is Russian society’s growing interest in contemporary culture, and more precisely contemporary art.” Given the direction that Russian politics has taken in recent years, this should perhaps be understood as a threat as much as a promise. This year’s incarnation of the Moscow Biennale, the fifth overall, is housed in Manezh, the former indoor riding academy next to the Kremlin. It is also, if we focus on Catherine de Zegher’s curated main project, BOLSJE SVETA’ / MORE LIGHT, a distinctly non-confrontational exhibition, with few explicit points of fissure. This does not at all mean that it is uninteresting, but it often operates on a low-voiced level.
“More light”, those are Goethe’s famous last words. But the exhibition title should, insists de Zegher, be understood simultaneously in philosophical, practical, spiritual, and physical terms. As “a critical reflection on different structures of space-time – both in the context of economic overproduction, ecological disasters, and harmful technologies – the exhibition considers light not only as basic to the visual arts but also as a creative force generated between us, when there is space and time for slow and intense attention. The entire project suggests that this engagement as well as relation are required for the development of new thinking.”
MORE LIGHT is preoccupied with the contemporary world’s increased lack of time, as well as the non-places created by different corporations’ encroachment into space. It is an exhibition that highlights artists whose work focuses on complex ways to give, spend and take time, and that tries to question normative and corporate-directed codifications of space-time. It does not do this, however, by trying to place itself at today’s technological cutting edge, but by claiming a “continuous, coherent and slow present”, through art practices that intentionally are out of step with what de Zegher calls “the breakneck contemporary ‘creative economy’”.
De Zegher paints a dark and negative contemporary backdrop of violence, fragmentation, volatility, rampant globalization, forced displacement, alienation, exploitation and destruction of the earth and the natural environment, against which she then sets light as a positive energy, intensity, vitality: “Art is part of this process and can also be imagined as generative energy – energy that occurs as the result of joint reflection and shared understanding.” This can of course sound as praiseworthy as simplistic, and the overall architecture of MORE LIGHT also tends towards the overly humanistic. From the dark ground floor in Manezh, the visitor continues to the large and light upper floor, where everything seems to be whiter and brighter the farther south one goes, to intermittently loose oneself in gold and an Icarus-like escape, or in Christian iconography of verticality and Ascension.
But if one reads MORE LIGHT a bit “against the grain”, and with greater attention, it becomes considerably more interesting. This is especially true if one lingers with the works on the dark ground floor, and doesn’t reduce the floor as a whole to an image of “mortal agony”. There one finds, for example, Said Atabekov’s video Battle for the Square, with its evocative whirling motion of Kazakhstani riders, who compete to move the headless body of a sheep to a goal area, filmed and projected from above. Also on the ground floor is Eva Kotáková’s hypnotic video-collage Theater of Speaking Objects Series, which uses black light theater techniques. Here, white, disjointed body parts move against a black background where they form different configurations; a disjointed body whose parts each seek their own identity and autonomy, or maybe a group of incomplete bodies: a phantom pain materialized as a collective “monster” from a bygone communist era?
The idea that one should exceed the speed of capitalism, which one could find both in Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence and in a philosopher of technics like Bernard Stiegler, perhaps seems less obvious today. The show contains two video works that in an explicit manner work for an alternative, slower, and more attentive temporality: Dmitry Venkov’s In a different time and Nicolas Kozakis and Raoul Vaneigem’s A moment of eternity in the passage of time.
In a different time tries to reappropriate time in a single location – the passages of the Russian subway – where the flow of time is dictated by the totalizing movement of the crowd. Out of this flood individuals break loose to surrender to radically introverted behavior, which becomes stronger the less theatrical, the more “autistic”, it is: they lie down or stand in the middle of the flow, creating intensive points of stillness, listening, wondering, with an ear to the ground or the wall, which they appear to be reading as if reading Braille.
A moment of eternity in the passage of time is filmed in Athos, the mountainous and remote peninsula in northern Greece. Vanegeim’s existential poetic text (some might remember him as a member of the Situationist International and author of the famous tract on the revolution of everyday life, Traité du savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations from 1967) accompanies contemplative images of a lone immigrant construction worker with a shovel in hand resting and working by the sea with his mule: an equally urgent as pathetic reflection on contemporary life’s obsession with work, productivity and material success, and a formulation of a poetics of deceleration, being out of step, refraining from speed in favor of slowness: “Happy is he who discovers the slowness of life / As a world frenzied by power and money / Is collapsing around him / We do not fully discern how well we have won / The silent solidarity / Of stones and beasts / We let ourselves be robbed / Of our only wealth / The happiness of loving / What is loved is always alive”.
If one then returns to the light-filled upper floor of MORE LIGHT, and first past Adam Cvijanovic’s giant format painterly investigations of the Sublime (here there are, among other things, a landscape of ice in flames; the Arctic as the avant-garde of global warming…), one can, for example, follow the tracks of (often less ostentatious) work on the issues of freight, movement, and migration; pollution and the waste of natural resources; the disappearing knowledge of the older generation’s gestures, patterns of movement, and knowledge of the terrain. But here there is also a series of works that insists on the creation of other temporalities, through recycling, bricolage, weaving, etc. Often textile materials are involved, as in the micro-art-group Gorod Ustinov’s Island, Edith Dekyndt’s Krasny Ougol, Geta Bratescu’s Vestigii and Marele Vistigiu, Erin Manning’s Stitching Time 2 – A Collective Fashioning (an installation that is a proposal for designing clothes in a collective experience of “taking time”), and, indirectly, in Vyacheslav Akhunov’s Sewing Lessons: Garment Patterns (a work from 1975 where Akhunov wrote a political text inside the patterns of a tailor’s diary he found and that is reminiscent of social-realist propaganda, suggesting the way in which artists can sometimes allow themselves “to be tailored” by doctrine…).
MORE LIGHT is simultaneously an exhibition that is both haunted by and celebrates parts of the early 20th century’s Russian avant-garde, and particularly Malevich, whose Black Square and White On White are both reminisced about or alluded to recurrently throughout the show. In Valery Koshlayakov’s Heavenly Shariton and Ulrike Grossart’s 16 Moving Things, there are also references to the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun, currently celebrating its centennial. The libretto for the opera was written by Krutjonych in zaum, while Clebnikov wrote the prologue and Malevich did the stage design (this is where the black square shows up for the first time). That Victory over the Sun gets its place in the sun in MORE LIGHT is a paradox that gives this ultimately both passionate and intellectual exhibition an interesting historical layer of complexity, given that Victory over the Sun, where Malevich uses light as a formative element, and where the actors move about slowly and majestically in specially-made soft costumes, has its apotheosis in the sun’s death. It is Malevich’s black square that increasingly obscures the spectacle’s sun, until it has completely disappeared and only a diagonal hanging black square remains.
The black square and other Russian avant-garde references also resurface in one of the more interesting of the Moscow Biennale’s connected “special projects”: Svetlana Boym’s Off-Modern: Ruins of the Future at Stella Art Foundation, and more specifically in Allen Sayegh/INVIVA’s poetic journey through Moscow, Degrees of Melancholia, which uses the latest data mining technologies in an “off-modern” manner in order to counter their conventions in terms of accuracy and instrumentality.
Off-Modern is interesting to juxtapose with MORE LIGHT since it does not, like the latter, indulge the tendency to smooth over areas of conflict and re-establish dichotomies between handicraft and technology, nature and culture, etc., while at the same time it still raises crucial questions about the modern project and – through its very focus on experimental aesthetic technologies – challenges a historical and technological determinism. Off-Modern, whose theme is alternative history, focuses on apparent impasses in the historical “yesterday”, what was considered accidental and remained lateral branches of development, never bearing full fruit and therefore assuming the appearance of a kind of ruins.
By embracing Viktor Shklovsky’s knight’s move, the zigzag path that can open unexplored lateral possibilities of modernity, Off-Modern wants to brush history against the grain and invite alternative historiographies for contemporary “ruins” or “construction sites”. One example is Tobias Putrih’s LLLL walls, which evoke both the Russian avant-garde’s ludic architecture and a utopian urban construction site that remains unfinished, open for eccentric possibilities. Another is AMO / Rem Koolhaas’ Strategies of Doing Nothing, which against the background of the last decade’s increasing expansion of museums, questions if it is possible to “refrain from modernization”, or at the same time, by preserving or removing, to be modernized and still “resist the uniformity imposed by contemporary museum standards that makes all museums resemble airports”.