A rookie’s take on Russia’s creative industries

by Andy Kozlov

I already confessed to you that I am a theater dummy in Zimbabwe and that I am a filmbiz rookie in Ukraine.

Having watched this:

I figured now it’s time to talk about contemporary global art in Russia. And yes:  I am a beginner in artsy talk.

The above teaser was produced for participation in Commercial Break, a video art intervention at the 54th Venice Biennale curated by New Yorker Neville Wakefield, produced by the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture and powered by Post, the world’s first independently published magazine exclusively for the iPad.

The Garare Center is housed in Moscow’s former Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, designed in 1926 by Constructivist architect Konstanin Melnikov. A woman named Dasha Zhukova is behind this project. According to the Wikipedia community, the Garage Center is slated to open a satellite on New Holland Island in Saint Petersburg, the recent purchase of Zhukova’s romantic partner billionaire Roman Abramovich (who was governor of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug from 2000 to 2008). Zhukova sits on the board of  the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Now back to the artistic collective behind the teaser video that inspired this post. Allegoria Sacra (The Purgatory, 2011) is already part #3 of a video trilogy by AES+F.

AES+F was formed in 1987 as AES by three artists: Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich and Evgeny Svyatsky. Photographer Vladimir Fridkes joined them in 1995. (Photo courtesy of Vashdosug.ru)
AES+F was formed in 1987 as AES by three artists: Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich and Evgeny Svyatsky. Photographer Vladimir Fridkes joined them in 1995. (Photo courtesy of Vashdosug.ru)

In Allegoria Sacra, the four-member Russian art and design collective “envisions a flawlessly surfaced world of aeroplanes crossed with dragons, centaurs wielding baseball bats, extraterrestrial models and aboriginal warriors.” What a telling commentary of globalization! Russian artists’ take on Monocle and National Geographic.

Screenshot from AES+F's video
Screenshot from AES+F’s video

The Zimbabwean branch of Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the oldest continuous book club in the United States, included this title on their book list. The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin “won her comparisons with everyone from Gogol to Nabokov.”

The Penguin Book Club introduction to this Russian art-related novel by Ms Grushin, naturalized American citizen since 2002, reads:

Anatoly Sukhanov, Russia’s leading art critic, has risen to the upper ranks of Soviet society. His contributions to the art world are trumpeted in the official state encyclopedia, he is married to the beautiful daughter of the nation’s most revered painter, and his children are rising stars in their own rights. But the triumphs of Sukhanov’s middle age are built on the rubble of his abandoned youthful aspirations, and as he approaches the pinnacle of his social ascent, long-forgotten memories begin to erode the foundation of his carefully constructed life. Invaded by unwanted recollections, visited by the ghosts of past inspirations, and haunted by dreams that overtake his waking hours, Sukhanov is forced to confront a lifetime of compromises and rediscover the past he has forsaken.

The Desert of Forbidden Art

“How does art survive in a time of oppression?” The answer to this question is also sought after in another creative work from Europe’s eastern edge. In fact The Desert of Forbidden Art takes us even further east across the Urals, following the path of the film’s real-life-inspired hero Igor Savitsky who pretends to buy state-approved art. Instead, he daringly rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artist’s works and creates a museum in the Karakum desert of Uzbekistan, The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, named after I.V. Savitsky.

The Aral Sea disaster of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Kyiv-born Igor Vitalyevich Savitsky first visited Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in western Uzbekistan, in 1950 to participate in the Khorezm Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition. He subsequently moved to Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital, and continued living there until his death in Moscow in 1984.

The effects of Soviet environmental damage In Central Asia
The effects of Soviet environmental damage In Central Asia

Savitsky’s greatest discovery is an unknown school of artists who settle in Uzbekistan after the 1917 revolution, encountering a unique Islamic culture. Today, however, the Aral Sea disaster has rendered Karakalpakstan one of Uzbekistan’s poorest regions. The region is suffering from extensive drought, partly due to weather patterns, but also largely because the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers are exploited mostly in the eastern part of the country. (See Environment and Security in the Amu Darya Basin by UNEP, UNDP, UNECE, OSCE, REC, NATO, GRID Arendal and Zoi Environment Network.)

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Screenshot from AES+F's video
Screenshot from AES+F’s video
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