In Samara Is Every Man An Island?

The Dream Achipelago. Exhibition view. ZIM Galereya. Samara, 2023. Photo by Maxim Bubnov. Courtesy of Sfera Contemporary Art Foundation

An exhibition in the Russian city of Samara called Archipelago of Dreams, curated by art critic Sergey Guskov, questions the very existence of escapism in art.

Samara may be a bustling industrial city on the shores of the Volga River in the middle of Russia with a population of one million, but in terms of its art venues, it feels more like a desert island. With the new State Tretyakov Gallery branch not yet open, and billionaire Leonid Michelson’s Victoria gallery closed for renovation, there are few opportunities to experience contemporary art. Unless you go ‘low-key’ and tour around small spaces such as Nulevaya Komnata (Room Zero) or Ossi Mi, located in the apartment of artists Snezhana (b. 2001) and Ilya (b. 1998) Mikheev. Indeed, at the recent Apartment Triennale, art was shown all over the city in private apartments belonging to artists and art enthusiasts.

Into this vacuum burst the ‘Archipelago of Dreams’ an art exhibition curated by Moscow art critic and regular contributor to Art Focus Now, Sergey Guskov. With little else happening on the local art scene it has turned into the event of the season. The project found wide support, not just in Samara from the Victoria Gallery, but also Moscow’s Sfera Foundation and the Smena culture centre in the city of Kazan. The show’s venue is a disused space on the third floor of a residential and retail building called ZIM-Galereya, which faces the Factory Kitchen, a listed constructivist building where lunches were mass produced for workers during Soviet times and which will house the future branch of State Tretyakov Gallery. The show consists of fifteen artists and art collectives from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara and Kazan (the latter hosted a first edition last summer).

It is a line-up of millennial artists, with the exception of established Moscow artist Maksim Ksuta (b. 1971). Ksuta’s sculptures from ‘The Shards of Memory’ series, crude rocks with small houses cut into them, probably best represent the curator’s main concept. Guskov was inspired by the series of novels by British writer Christopher Priest called ‘The Dream Archipelago’ depicting a world engrossed in never-ending war, where a chain of numerous islands lost in the ocean becomes a haven of peace and creativity. Contrary to John Donne’s famous dictum, Guskov believes that every man is an island and sees each artist as a kind of Robinson Crusoe, cultivating the islet of their own imaginations. “Let artists and viewers build their own worlds however they want, whether surprising, exciting, or frightening” he asserts emphatically.

But in reality, most of the works created for the exhibition side with Donne’s worldview. The prospect of escaping to an inner island may seem tempting but the horrors of reality keep invading as if transported freely on a strong ocean current. The shadow of death sweeps across the exhibition space. The more steps you take, the more remote a sense of escape becomes. There’s a dying unicorn on Aleksey Zhuravlev’s (b. 1988) painting ‘Tears’, his remains modelled in ceramics spilling out onto the floor from the canvas. The image of a human skeleton printed on dark fabric dominates Serafima Sazhina’s (b. 1993) installation ‘kalma’. Even in the colourful fairy-tale world of Diana Kapizova’s (b. 1993) film ‘The Island of The Ringing Dream’, the protagonist, played by the artist, is a Sleeping Beauty wrapped up in a magical dream not unlike death.

The most eye-catching object in the exhibition is a sculpture by an artist group from the Urals called Kho Gui. At first glance, it looks like an archaic symbol of maternity and patriarchal warmth. A life-sized cow made from clay is hanging from the ceiling with two awe-struck calves on the floor gazing up at her udder. Its construction is based on vintage Soviet taps made for hand washing, and visitors can extract cold water by pressing the milk tubes. Here you will not find any warm, life-giving milk: the udder is made of steel.

The writer’s visit to Samara was organized with the support of the Sfera Contemporary Art Foundation.

The Dream Archipelago

ZIM Galereya

Samara, Russia
16 November 2023 – 14 January 2024

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