Still Art Foundation Collection. Masterpieces of World Fashion Photography. Exhibition view. Moscow, 2024. Courtesy of Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow


The Multimedia Art Museum Re-opens in Moscow

After a two-year hiatus, the Multimedia Art Museum (MAMM) in Moscow has once again opened its doors to the public. A decade long litany of maintenance issues, including a leaky roof and less than ideal conditions for the artworks have given way to new problems for its tireless director Olga Sviblova: what to put on the walls?

Today it is impossible to imagine Moscow hosting the kind of exhibitions of photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki and Helmut Newton which once put MAMM firmly on the map. Showcasing a broad range of hybrid and new genres by both Russian and international artists and photographers, the building was closed down, in mid 2022, to be renovated. This most recent chapter in its history is a return to its roots, with the kind of pared back programming it once had when it was founded as the Moscow House of Photography (MDF) in 1996. The wide selection of works by contemporary artists from the West has gone, instead there is a mixture of fashion photography, works by Soviet photographers, vintage belle epoque shots and prints by contemporary Russian artists.

An exception to this new approach is a small exhibition of work by young Italian photographers Edoardo Delilli and Giulia Piermartieri called ‘Atlas of the New World’. They travelled to countries most affected by global warming, from the Maldives to China, photographing ordinary people in their familiar environments which are superimposed on images of natural disasters and displayed in lightboxes.

The collection of the Still Art Foundation lies at the centre of the current exhibition, a private collection consisting mostly of fashion photography. It charts the development of fashion photography throughout the 20th and 21st centuries including the likes of Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort, William Klein, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Norman Parkinson, and others. In its past iteration, MAMM hosted solo exhibitions by many of these artists and photographers - even Robert Mapplethorpe´s risqué male nudes, some of which are still on view, although not the most explicit ones.

On the seventh floor there is an exhibition of work by one of Russia’s greatest living artists, Erik Bulatov (b. 1933), to mark his 90th birthday. There are drawings assembled together which are all based on four of his major paintings (an idea first explored by curator and art dealer Sergei Popov at Bulatov's solo exhibition at the Moscow Manege) and three more small paintings by the artist, who lives today in Paris.

Elsewhere ‘Sport in Photography. From Rodchenko to the Present Day’ is a return to the concept of the 1998 ‘Sport in Photographs’ festival held at the museum and the ‘History of Sport in Photography’ exhibition that was part of the museum’s original programme. Here again, Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), Max Penson (1893–1959) and Lev Borodulin (1923–2018) are the protagonists with one unfortunate difference: Josef Stalin is clearly visible not just in the historical images on display, but also on promotional textile banners hanging in the exhibition space.

These kind of exhibitions of historical images may have once been the norm, but now they seem odd in the wake of big forward-looking, contemporary institutions like the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and GES-2. In the noughties, there was a desirable mix of Western glamour, Soviet history and elderly non-conformists under the glow of some international interest. Now, years later this raises only questions. Uncritical exhibitions of Soviet photography over the last three decades have done little to advance its study, and without a critical base, the new exhibitions at the Multimedia Art Museum look like an endless repetition of what went before, rather than attesting to the unique stamp of a MAMM selection.

Russian painter Konstantin Batynkov (b. 1959) ’s apocalyptic pictures of mass destruction will not be shown on MAMM’s freshly painted walls. And recently a major new work by Alexei Kallima (b. 1969) depicting a huge funnel after an explosion was shown at the Ovcharenko Gallery, but you will not see it here. What you do see at MAMM is a new exhibition by Konstantin Batynkov and Sergei Shekhovtsov (b. 1969) called ‘Football’ and an old installation made in 2009 by Alexei Kallima, ‘The Rain Theorem’ which is dedicated to football fans in a stadium. It seems that in today’s Russia a city museum must be silent on the most topical of issues.

MAMM is one of the few art institutions created after perestroika that defined the artistic face of Russia for three decades and still continues to function post 2022. The Moscow Biennale de facto has ceased to exist, and its founder Joseph Backstein has passed away. The National Centre for Contemporary Art has been ‘reorganised’ in such a way that it is easier to say that it was disbanded, forcing Leonid Bazhanov who was the inspiration behind it, to go into teaching. Museum director Olga Sviblova is perhaps the only famous curator of the nineties who is still active despite the toxic cultural atmosphere of 2024.

During the 1990s, the Moscow House of Photography was a trailblazer in showing how a society could be open. The ‘export/import’ exhibition model on which the prestige of the MDF (aka MAMM) was built, emerged in the days of perestroika and reflected both the growing interest of the West in Russian art and the thirst for self-realisation in the West by Russian artists.

Building the foundation of her museum institution on this model, Olga Sviblova led it to success, but she also laid the seeds for its downfall. In an era of autarky, persecution of LGBTQIA+ people and military censorship, projects that were the core of her museum activities since 1996 are no longer possible. And this museum has not yet found its new face.

Erik Bulatov. ‘Moving On. Artist’s Lab’ I Edoardo DeLilli and Giulia Piermartieri. ‘Atlas of the New World’ I Sport in Photography. From Rodchenko to the Present Day I Still Art Foundation Collection. Masterpieces of World Fashion Photography I Konstantin Batynkov, Sergey Shekhovtsov. ‘Football’ I Alexei Kallima. ‘The Rain Theorem’

Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

Moscow, Russia
13 April – 15 July, 2024

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