A Cup of Consonances: Approaching Rozanova. Exhibition view. GES-2 House of Culture. Moscow, 2023. Photo by Daniil Annenkov. Courtesy of GES-2 House of Culture

Art Market

2023 In Retrospect

Throughout 2023 the Russian art community has been adapting to new realities and is shaping a new cultural landscape both inherently vulnerable and resilient.

At times like this, perhaps we should face the music. When people are repressed, they need some form of catharsis which music can bring, and music allows for subjectivity in a way that more figurative forms of visual art or writing does not, an advantage in an environment hostile to freedom of expression. The exhibition Tuning-3 won the XIth Russian Art Newspaper´s prize for the best exhibition of the year in 2023. This ambitious, immersive multi-installation show filled up the vast empty spaces of GES-2 where contemporary art met with classical music and architecture, finished off with coloured lighting effects evoking synaesthesia in a rich sensory experience. As art critic Sergei Khachaturov reminded us in his exhibition review for Art Focus Now, Bourriaud´s ´relational aesthetics´ place the central meaning of a work of art in the interactive relationship between the viewers and the space, so that visitors are agents who are invited to unpick a complex web of references, memories and meanings. In contemporary Russian society where there is little freedom to self-actualise, this also got my vote in 2023 as an outstanding and timely show.

In general, I have been impressed over the past year how GES-2, a private oligarchic project, has adapted to the new realities against the odds because this Renzo Piano designed building was originally planned as a place for international dialogue in the arts. As well as the award-winning Tuning-3, later in the year GES-2 scored a first with an innovative solo retrospective of the work of Russian avant-garde painter Olga Rozanova (1886–1918), curated together with works by female non-conformist and contemporary artists. And there were other stand-out shows, notably ´Star Vengeance´, exploring in a rather fanciful yet original way how history repeats itself, and a host of young Russian art shows. GES-2 may not be the institution it was once conceived as, but it is still playing an impressive role in developing the contemporary art field in Russia and in the centre of Moscow this is no small feat.

Lamentably, and in spite of all the art events this year across numerous institutions, with new art fairs like Contour and /Catalog/, and while the domestic art market for young Russian art is buoyant, Russian contemporary culture itself wavers as deep divisions threaten its community, many young talented voices have scattered far and wide. There are pockets of activity in the regions at home and new constellations of Russian émigré artists abroad. There are cancellations and censorship on a level not seen since the Soviet era, a New Academist exhibition ´Novikov´s Wedge´ at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg made anodyne by omissions to clean up the profanity, and in Moscow, Rostislav Lebedev´s (b.1946) ironic and playful Sots Art paintings hurriedly taken down from public view. Then there was the exaggerated sentence passed on young artist Alexandra Skochilenko (b.1990), whose prison drawings were shown in London this Spring. In November she was sentenced to seven years in prison in a sham trial for substituting price tags in a local supermarket for notes about the war.

Adapting to the current environment in part means accepting our limitations. At ´Art Focus Now´ we write about post-soviet art and culture, covering art in geographies from all across the old Soviet empire, they are shared, complex legacies with new and painful wounds to address. We started out as ´Russian Art Focus´, and when we changed the name earlier this year to reflect diversity and to be more inclusive, Russian art remained our engine room. We have covered many stories relating to Ukrainian art this year, two exhibitions in Germany and more recently the Kyiv Biennial, which Ariadne Arendt visited, touched by the solidarity she found there.

It is ironic that in Russia today, crippled by its chronic political retrospection, where the future is forcefully mapped out through what happened in the past, there is also widespread retrospection amongst liberal contemporary artists. Two generations ago the traumatic shifts in the wake of perestroika have eventually found their collective address today, a process which I think is deeply important. There is no delusion in wanting to understand the present by examining the past, quite the opposite, it is an act of bravery and self-determination, the Socratic unexamined life is not worth living. This works on both a personal and collective level.

Displaced, Russian contemporary art life seems to be happening away from the glare of its capitals, with initiatives this year such as the Apartment Triennale in Samara where there were over thirty separate art events across the city, and in Nizhni Novgorod the new Contour art fair championing works on paper and fostering a new generation of collectors. In 2023 Pushkin House in London staged two small yet powerful solo shows by Russian émigré artists Pavel Otdelnov (b.1979) and Ekaterina Muromtseva (b.1990), who are not afraid to address contemporary politics head on. And in Paris last month, ´73-23´ was a retrospective exhibition of Soviet dissident art yet included the work of four contemporary Russian émigré artists (including Otdelnov and Muromtseva), creating meaningful synergies between past and present.

Sadly, alongside these pockets of resilience, there are also many Russian artists who continue to question their own art practices, who feel unable to express themselves, and prefer to fall silent in response to the current political realities. What will happen in 2024 remains to be seen. To all our readers and those in the art community I raise an invisible glass to give a (silent) toast to wish you all the best in the new year. In the meantime, I encourage you to dip into our website as often as you like as we now post new art stories several times a week in a bid to keep you all posted.

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