A new cultural venue for Moscow’s Museum Mile—joining others like the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the State Tretyakov Gallery, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts—GES-2 House of Culture opened this month within a structure originally built in 1907 to provide electricity to the city’s tram system. The reconverted power station was designed by Renzo Piano in a recognizable sort of renzopianesco style that maintained the early-20th-century Neo-Russian architectural style of the exterior with an eye for the contemporary, leading to a huge luminous structure with Matisse-blue chimneys and 200-foot-tall pipes that bring clean atmosphere into an ecologically conscious air-conditioning system (even if that air is currently tainted as Russia deals with Covid-19 at its worst wave).
Behind the project is the V-A-C Foundation, established in 2009 by Leonid Mikhelson, a gas magnate and the fourth-richest man in Russia, and the Russian-Italian gallerist Teresa Iarocci Mavica. GES-2 was inspired by the Soviet “Houses of Culture,” public art venues that flourished in the late 19th century to educate the Russian people. To that end, GES-2 includes a library, bookshop, café, and auditorium; an artist-residency block; space for workshops for carpentry, metalwork, textiles, and ceramics; a photo-lab; sound and video recording studios; and, obviously, lots of exhibition space.
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The main hall has been conceptualized as a piazza, as the artistic director, affirms: “Our intention is to cater for different publics at the same time and make sure the content we produce is accessible to all,” said GES-2 artistic director Francesco Manacorda. “Our aim is to provide visitors with tools to be able to assess and understand the art on display, so they can develop their own judgment, and we will continue to develop these processes as we move forward.”
GES-2 greets the public with Ragnar Kjartansson’s Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture, succeeded by working around the idea of a viewer who not only feels welcome but takes part in the programming. The work involves an open film set that reshoots 98 episodes of a popular post-Soviet-era soap opera called Santa Barbara, with local actors and the improvised participation of the spectators, which will surely be influenced by the recreation of the television series that showed the Russians what capitalism would look like during the ten years it was aired, from 1992 to 2002. Each day, until March next year, actors and actresses will imitate the soap opera that had the entire country obsessed with the clothing and surroundings of the original characters.
Kjartansson’s works focused on Russian identity to ironize about the local character, although the artist’s the main motivation was not to stress clichés, but to deepen his love of Russian culture. “I was never told by the institution to focus on Russian identity—I was just asked to do a show,” he said in an email interview. “I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, and for me this show was a great opportunity to work with this fascination.” He seemed to suggest that the idea was entirely his own when he wrote, with a smiley emoticon, “I am not an ad agency, I am a Khudozhnik,” the Russian word for “artist.”
Kjartansson also curated, together with Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, an accompanying exhibition titled “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!,” which once again addresses the convolutions of post-Soviet Russia and its relationship with the West through the artworks of Kjartansson himself and his friends and artistic collaborators, almost all Icelanders. Present in the exhibition are paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and photographs by Roni Horn, along with new commissions such as Hildigunnur Birgisdóttir’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), for which household objects were buried in the walls of the halls, and Magnús Sigurðarson’s inflatable installation Fall of the Pedestial Sentience-Last Stand of the Fabulous, Terrific and Super, an inflatable sculpture that mocks the expressions of exaltation of Americans in Russia by way of stacked plinths and words translating to “SUPER” and “AWESOME.”
The other big exhibition that GES-2 opened will travel to the next Venice Biennale, where it will show at what was, until now, only the headquarters of the foundation, V-A-C Zattere. The show, titled “When Gondola Engines Were Taken to Bits: A Carnival in Four Acts,” features new works by Russian artists and a selection of works from the 1990s and 2000s, and reflects the carnivalesque in Russian culture through costumes, dance parties, VR experiences, and even an opera performance. Here, local identity is not revealed by humorously flaunting clichés, as it is in “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!,” but instead by foregrounding forms of concealment and disguise in the city’s culture.
Within the exhibition there is also programming that, in Russia’s current censorious environment, may be the riskiest: a platform for standup comedy performances. Both this show and “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!” are under the conceptual umbrella of the general six-month session titled “How Not to Be Colonized?”, a name that of course has another connotation with the threat of a new war against Ukraine as a backdrop.
Although there are a few satirical touches in the initial programming of GES-2, the artworks are careful not to cross any red lines. For the most part, they don’t address political conflicts of any order. It seems that future presentations at the museum will continue that trend. When asked about the subject, Iarocci Mavica said, “I have lived in this country for 32 years now, and through its highs and lows there has always been a conflicting relationship between Russia and the West. I don’t think that this situation is any different today, but this is not relevant to the mission and activities of the V-A-C Foundation.
“GES-2,” he continued, “is a house of culture—not a house of politics.”