The Actual Art Scene in Russiaby Andrei Tolstoi
The current art scene in Russia could be characterized as one with many different modes of artistic expression. Here, many institutions are specifically focused on research and organizing exhibitions of contemporary art. This includes the State Center of Contemporary Art at the Russian Ministry of Culture, with some regional affiliates in different cities in central and western Russia, the Urals, and Siberia, as well several private centers of contemporary art such as Vinzavod Wine Factory, Artplay, and Garage in Moscow, and Pro-Arte and Rosphoto in Saint-Petersburg.
There are now two annual awards in the sphere of contemporary art, which are funded by private foundations: the Kandinsky Prize, created by the ArtChronika foundation, and the Innovation Prize, funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture and private investors. In addition, there is the annual ArtNewsPaper Russia award in many spheres of the visual arts—both contemporary and modern, museum activities, and academic science.
All these competitions for the best artwork or project, best curator projects, best publication, best work by a young artist, and best regional art initiative, are selected with the active participation of art critics and art historians as experts and jury members. The most prevalent tendencies and trends in Russian contemporary art are installation art, video art, performances, photography, and other text and philosophy driven post-conceptual projects. Some of them are purchased for the collections of state, national, and municipal museums, others for private galleries, and some are purchased by individual collectors. But there is no clear state policy about contemporary art. Still, the collections of modern and contemporary art in the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow and in the Russian State Museum in Saint Petersburg are robust in the field and there are many good art historians and art critics. But, even if works of contemporary art are purchased for the state collections, they are mostly created by so-called “non-conformist” artists of the Soviet period (late 1950s – ’80s), who are now respected and lauded, even if they left the Soviet Union during these decades and are now based in New York, Paris, Cologne, or London. Only one—the Moscow Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMOMA)—is municipal.
On the other hand, there is a large, active group of so-called “traditionalist” artists, painters, sculptors, and masters of printmaking. Their works are exhibited and purchased largely by private collectors, galleries, and state—especially regional—museums of fine arts as well.
The importance of an artist nowadays is less based on his or her fame outside of Russia than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. In these decades, the participation of Russian artists in the Venice Biennial or Documenta cemented their high position in the ranks of the influential artists on the Russian art scene. In listing artists who were successfully presented at these famous international forums, one could mention Alexander Brodsky, Alexander Ponomarev, Andrey Monastyrsky, Vadim Zakharov, Yuri Avvakumov, Konstantin Zvezdochetov, Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky, Andrey Bartenev, Georgy Ostretsov, Pavel Pepperstein, Sergey Shekhovtsov, the groups ESCAPE, AES+F, “Collective Actions,” and others. As for Documenta, in 2007, Andrey Monastyrsky, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Kirill Preobrazhensky, and Dmitry Gutov represented Russia, and in 2013, it was Alexandra Sukhareva.
It’s also worth mentioning a few other important artists such as Oleg Kulik, who was the pioneer of an expressive and provocative performance practice as far back as the ’90s; Leonid Tishkov, an inventor of his own mythology involving fantastic creatures and locations, often featuring a moon-shaped light box; Alexander Konstantinova, a former mathematician whose sculptures, made of wood, metal strips, or adhesive multicolored tape, take the forms of buildings or trees; Aliona Kirtsova, an abstract painter very seriously working with color tones; Nicolas Nasedkin, who makes large-scale abstract oil paintings on wood and canvas; Olga Tobreluts, based in Saint-Petersburg, whose work uses modern photographic techniques to reference paintings from the Renaissance and neo-Classical eras, among others.
It is important to emphasize that since 2005 there has been a Moscow international biennial of contemporary art, which has been curated by internationally known curators such as Jean-Hubert Martin, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and others. In addition, since 2008 there has been the International Biennial of Young Art, operating under the slogan “Hold it! Who goes there?” which invites young contemporary artists from different countries to participate. In 2014, the curator of this Biennial is the well-known curator David Elliott.
Andrei Tolstoi (b. 1956) graduated from the Department of History of Art at the Faculty of Historic Studies of Moscow State University (MSU). He is a Doctor of Arts, Professor of the Moscow Architectural Institute (MARCHI), and teaches at the State Academic Art Institute named after Vassily Surikov and the Graduate School of studies in the European Cultures (VSHEK) at the State University for Humanitarian Studies. Tolstoi is an academician of the Russian Academy of Arts, and director of the Research Institute of Theory and History of Fine Arts of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. He is also president of the Russian National section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) at UNESCO. Tolstoi is a specialist in Russian art of XX - XXI centuries, as well as European creative relations of Russian art in New and Contemporary Art and Russian émigré artists in Europe and America in the XX century. He is the author of more than 100 scientific publications on these subjects in English, Russian, French and Italian, published in Russia, U.K., France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and the U.S.A.