A simulated storm and a row of marching Muscovites are just some of the thrills that visitors to the Russian pavilion can expect at the 51st Venice Biennale, the epic international arts festival that rolls into the northern Italian city this weekend.
Over the next four months, the event is expected to draw some 260,000 visitors, ranging from ordinary tourists to prominent critics and gallery directors. Opening to the public on Sunday and running to Nov. 6, the Biennale will turn the usually tranquil floating oasis into the temporary world capital for contemporary art.
At Venice, unlike at lesser events, there is more at stake than the individual reputations of the artists involved. Success in Venice is a matter of national pride. Some 70 countries are taking part this year, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia. Each country hopes to shine the spotlight on its own artists' contributions.
Russia is no exception; it will participate once again, as it has on a regular basis since 1898. The Russian pavilion is permanently housed in the leafy Giardini Gardens, situated just east of the city, not far from the pavilions of Japan, Canada and Iceland.
In 2003, Russia mounted an exhibition called "The Return of the Artist" that concentrated on well-established names. This year, however, the Culture and Press Ministry Ц which organizes Russia's effort at the Biennale Ц opted for a contingent of lesser-known artists. The ministry made a "strategic choice" in "recognizing the necessity for new names and ideas," said Olga Lopukhova, the co-curator of the Russian pavilion, in an interview published online in April.
Initially, the ministry appointed Nizhny Novgorod-based gallery director Lyubov Saprykina to choose the 2005 participants. Saprykina has plenty of experience in discovering new talent: As director of the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the National Center for Contemporary Art, or NCCA, she has been instrumental in bringing the latest trends in Russian art to the regions.
Saprykina subsequently teamed up with Lopukhova, the director of the ARTStrelka gallery complex in Moscow. Together, the two co-curators selected a pair of artists' groups to take up the mantle: Provmyza, which consists of a Nizhny Novgorod-based couple, Galina Myznikova and Sergei Provorov; and the Moscow-based Escape Program.
Of the two groups, it is easy to tell which one was Saprykina's favorite. Provmyza's most prominent show to date was at her very own Nizhny Novgorod NCCA in 2003. Apart from that, though, the group is almost unknown, having shown very little in the Russian capital. Myznikova and Provorov Ц who can perhaps best be called filmmakers Ц make experimental movies that are usually short, abstract and tinged with surrealism.
Escape Program is the more established outfit. The group came into being in 1999 when its four members Ц Valery Aizenberg, Anton Litvin, Bogdan Mamonov and Liza Morozova Ц joined forces. Since then, the quartet has steadily increased its presence on the Moscow art scene, opening its own private gallery and winning Russia's Black Square prize for contemporary art in 2003.
Escape is best known for its participatory projects, which often adopt business-like strategies to engage their viewers. The group set up a faux travel agency in Germany in 2003, offering tours to any destination of their choice. The tour of Moscow, for example, promised not only the sights of the city, but its tastes as well Ц including a range of Moscow-branded foods, and "Moscow River icicles," according to the promotional leaflet.
So what exactly can viewers expect inside the Russian pavilion? Provmyza has gone for an installation, named "Idiot Wind" after a song by Bob Dylan. The plan calls for visitors to be confronted with a series of small rooms. Concealed behind holes in the walls will be a bank of whirring electric fans. As visitors move from room to room, the blasts of air will get progressively stronger.
"The soft breeze generated by a fan suddenly turns into a hurricane," reads the official handout, which goes on to suggest that messing up people's hair and clothes is part of the plan. "After a visit to the Russian pavilion," it says, "the tourists will have to get away to the hotel to arrange themselves Ц a beautiful evening in Venice will be spoiled."
Perhaps Escape is hoping that visitors will run straight into their new effort. The group is presenting "Too Long to Escape," an interactive video installation showing the four artists walking toward the viewer in an expansive snow-filled landscape. Grouped in a line, the pace of their steps is calculated according to the number of people watching the video. When the space is near-empty, the artists move slowly; as the room fills up, their pace quickens to a sprint.
Both contributions are touted by the show's curators to "reveal the dialectics of interaction between the artist and the public." And both groups in the past have spoken about the difficulty of effective communication between them and their audience. Escape's travel agency was an attempt to bridge the gap, while Provmyza's wind installation seems like an attempt to shake their audience to the core. Those who turn up at Venice expecting an easy ride are unlikely to forget the experience.
Escape and Provmyza won't be the only Russians exhibiting at the Biennale. Included in the Biennale's flagship large-scale show, titled "Always a Little Further," are the performance artist Oleg Kulik and Novosibirsk's most famous video-making duo, Vyacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov, better known as the Blue Noses. Both Kulik and the Blue Noses have a reputation for being provocative. Kulik has been known to act like a dog and bark at viewers, while for one of their works, the Blue Noses posed in their underwear in front of major Moscow churches.
Elsewhere, as part of a special project held in the Santa Lucia Piazzale railway station, the Moscow-based painter Georgy Puzenkov will present documentation from "Mona Lisa Goes Traveling." In the ongoing project, Puzenkov has sought to have one of his paintings Ц a canvas titled "Single Mona Lisa 1:1" Ц transported to as many different locations as possible. In April, Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori took Puzenkov's canvas to the international space station.
It remains to be seen whether the Russians will make an impression at this year's Biennale. They won't have to wait long to find out. Many opinions will be formed during the initial crowded press previews on Friday and Saturday, and on Friday judges will announce the winners of the Golden Lion awards Ц the art-world equivalents of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Russia has won awards at past Biennales. The last time was in 1993, when former underground artist Ilya Kabakov presented his seminal installation, the "Red Pavilion." For that, Kabakov converted the Russian pavilion into what looked like a scene from a run-down Soviet museum. To the sound of water dripping from the ceiling, Socialist Realist canvases hung on the walls, while sheets of plastic tarpaulin lay draped across chairs.
There is some irony in the fact that the image of the crumbling, underfunded museum lives on in Russia today. Indeed, the country's pavilion this year has been largely dependent on funding from the Ford Foundation. Gazeta.ru reported that foreign sources donated $130,000, while the Culture and Press Ministry gave only 1.5 million rubles, or about $53,000. By comparison, New Zealand's spending at Venice will be considered modest at $360,000.
But of course, budgets can only get you so far. At least on paper, Russia's 2005 entries give some cause for optimism.
As the members of Escape weighed their chances of snatching a medal, speaking at a press conference on May 21, they seemed confident of success. Aizenberg confided that he was looking forward to touring the other pavilions at Venice, but he anticipated that his reaction to most would still be, "We are the best."
Provmyza also seems well-placed as a contender. In 2003, when a relentless Italian heat wave was pushing 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the Biennale's opening weekend, the judges chose to award a little-known artist from Luxembourg, Su-Mei Tse, for her contribution Ц aptly titled "Air Conditioned." If the thermometers go the same way this time around, Provymza's breezy environment may do well.
So is Russia about to pull off another Golden Lion? This weekend, the answer could be blowing in the wind. Print version