Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum Recaptures Russia’s Avant-Garde Energy
Seventy-two kilometers northeast of Moscow, a burnished black cube of vitrified nuclear waste the same dimensions as Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) has been buried within a concrete and steel vessel. This work by artist Taryn Simon, titled Black Square XVII, will remain at the Radon plant of Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) for the next 1,000 years. When deemed safe for human exposure, circa 3015, the cube will be transported to its final place of display, an equally sized concrete recess in Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, which opens to the public today.
Unveiling an institution by placing a minimum 1,000-year timeline ahead of it is by no means a subtle gesture. “We are here forever, to the end,” said Anton Belov, who has served as Garage’s director since 2010, as previews of the new Rem Koolhaas-designed museum commenced. Throughout the Garage Museum’s eight inaugural exhibitions, the commitment to that long historical tail rings remarkably true.
Each relatively compact exhibition serves as something of an index of current and future modes to be drawn out over the coming months, years, decades, and—if all goes according to plan—centuries. They feature strong participatory components that resonate with a post-Soviet generation seeking more emotional than confrontational entry points into art.
Meanwhile, deep dives into the Garage Archive Collection—the foundation of materials tracing Russia’s unofficial art from the 1950s to today, on which this non-collecting museum has been built—offer local context to those visiting Moscow from afar. For locals and internationals alike, the archive is also a key point of reference as to where Garage seeks to position itself within the existing history of cultural exchange between Russia and the West. Spurred by contemporary art’s ability “to record the moment in which it was created,” Zhukova says the museum’s new, permanent location in Gorky Park, “in the center of the city, will help us to bring more of those who already love art into the institution,” as well as “others who may not yet.”
Headlining the new building’s opening are exhibitions by international art stars Yayoi Kusama and Rirkrit Tiravanija. As Garage’s chief curator Kate Fowle told Artsy, “We are really trying to make sure that participation is at the heart of the programming that we do.” Kusama’s ability to generate wide swaths of visitors (and long lines) has been well studied at institutions in cities ranging from Buenos Aires and São Paulo to New York and Shanghai. In Moscow, her show “Infinity Theory” is no exception, with half-hour-long lines for her two major installations at Garage: the iconic white-on-red polka-dot installation Guidepost to the Eternal Space (2015) and the spectacular mirror-and-light installation Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013). The queues held steady throughout the opening on Wednesday night. (Expect them to be much longer when the museum’s doors open wide today.)
“The way that she makes work is very important for us to be able to present to the public in Moscow,” Fowle commented while touring the show. “It’s an emotional and emotive response to art,” one that avoids alienating those newer to contemporary art in the way that more sparse conceptual and archival projects sometimes can. “It’s not about passive looking,” the curator added.
So active, too, was the viewing in Tiravanija’s installation that some participants broke a sweat. For “Tomorrow is the Question,” the artist has placed a dozen black ping-pong tables throughout Garage’s central hall and floored the space in purple carpet. A tournament for the Moscow Ping Pong Club has been devised for the run of the show and members were on hand throughout the opening putting more novice art worlders to shame. After a wipe of the brow, players (and onlookers too) could down a bowl of pelmeni (Russian dumplings that reference the building’s origins as a restaurant in the late 1960s) prepared in an adjacent recreation of a Soviet-era bus stop. And they could swap out their shirts for a freshly screen printed one of five designed by the artist.
Tiravanija’s show pulls heavily, title included, from the work of late Czechoslovakian conceptualist Július Koller. He restaged Koller’s performance piece Universal Futurological Question Mark (U.F.O.) from the 1970s in Moscow to create one of the T-shirt designs. He has also hung a number of Koller’s photographic works in a gallery off to the side of “Tomorrow is the Question.” The hanging includes Ping-Pong Monument (U.F.O.) (1971), the inspiration for the tables now activated at Garage. Though Katharina Grosse’s breathtaking sendoff for the Garage’s previous-but-temporary home in Gorky Park (in the Shigeru Ban-designed Garage Pavilion) keeps the volume at 11 outside the new museum, the Koller works provide a necessary transition into the remaining, quieter exhibitions in Garage’s fresh polycarbonate-skinned home.
Sourced from the Garage Archive Collection, the shows shoot to situate the museum within the tradition of unofficial art in Russia, as a beacon of preservation of that history and a force for charging it into the future. “When Garage was first created we wanted to be relevant to both the international and Russian communities,” says Belov. “At this current stage, we don’t want to just present international contemporary art in Moscow but also represent and provide a context for Russian art.” Central to this aim is The Family Tree of Russian Contemporary Art, a growing web that aims to map the artists, places, and exhibitions that have exerted the greatest amount of influence on contemporary art in Russia over the past half century.
As Fowle explained: “The history of Russian unofficial art has thus far been told in a kind of piecemeal way. We are trying to add a bit of science into that by using documents and evidence of what happened where and when and really see where they all connect.” Georg Kiesewalter’s exhibition of photographs, “Insider,” gives visual context to that web, with pictures from underground avant-garde hotspots of the 1970s and ’80s like APTART gallery and portraits of fellow artists from the Collective Actions group, among others in the show.
The Family Tree project will continue to unfold over the next several years. Implicit in its wall-spanning web is a sense that the Garage Museum intends to be at the center of a similarly conceived map years thereafter. If Kusama's, Tiravanija's, and Grosse’s contributions tell us the first steps taken in that direction, the four projects within Field Research: A Progress Report point to the historical legacy the museum is engaging in order to achieve that goal. The projects, including Simon’s nuclear cube, take place over one to three years and were selected for the program based on the starting point of their inquiry rather than their developmental progress as manifested at Garage today.
Cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural dialogue sit at the center of two of the projects. “Saving Bruce Lee” is a preliminary presentation of research into African and Arab filmmakers who studied in Moscow during the peak years of the Cold War, from 1960 to 1990. Another project, “Face-to-Face,” takes up the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, restaging portions of it at Garage in collaboration with the Museum of American Art in Berlin.
The latter is particularly instructive. At one juncture, wall texts explore the near simultaneous development of technologies in the United States and the Soviet Union and suggest that despite the rhetoric at the time, the single—though, of course, crucial—difference between them was the U.S.’s investment in consumer goods as opposed to U.S.S.R.’s investment in militarization. Elsewhere in the project, images from Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition are juxtaposed with install images of its stint in the Russian capital. Particularly at a time when the tenor of politics between the two nations is once again strained, it is a powerful reminder of the unifying ability possessed by both art and institutions, such as Garage, that cut across political and cultural lines.
This universal power of art crops up again as a central theme of This Is Cosmos, the first of a film trilogy underway by Anton Vidokle and the last Field Research project. The film engages in a non-narrative documentary of Cosmism, the interdisciplinary philosophical school of the 19th and 20th centuries that could, among other things, largely be credited with pushing man into space in an effort to escape earthly constraints on immortality and resurrection.
On the screen, images flicker past, at times in a quadriptych view, as if shot through the portholes of a space capsule. Red flashes appear, seeming violent but actually rendered in a particular color frequency suggested to have medicinal properties if viewed on an LED screen. Near the film’s conclusion, a voice says in Russian, “If energy is truly indestructible, where is all that energy now?” It’s a reference to the future-minded philosophers, artists, and architects of Russia’s last century. Perhaps, one thinks, part of that energy has been recaptured within these very semi-transparent walls.