From Russia with Schmalz: Moscow’s answer to the Tate Modern begins with a Santa Barbara satire | art

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First, Vladimir Putin came to visit. Then, for the second day in a row, the artists were evicted from GES-2, a prestigious new arts center being built in a disused power plant, when police and men in suits poured in for what appeared to be another VIP guest.

Instead of our planned tour, I trudged through the snow to catch up with Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic star artist who led the opening of the arts center by remaking the popular Santa Barbara soap opera as a “living sculpture”. He had moved into a booth in the nearby Strelka Bar and accepted the disturbance, even though it came a day before the opening.

“We have been working on it for three years. We’re ready, ”laughed Kjartansson, wearing a green scarf over a denim jacket. He keeps his mask on while we talk inside. “It’s almost like a strange blessing. A breather before we start. “

This is the triumph of one of Russia’s richest men, Leonid Mikhelson, who opened his cultural center in the marquee just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The expensive redesign of the power station in 1907 is about more than just art, about Moscow’s position as an international cultural center and its VAC. to demonstrate Foundation (named after his daughter Victoria) as the most important institution.

Santa Barbara goes to Russia … the makeover of the soap. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

Located on the Bolotnaya embankment of the Moskva River, the 20,000 square meter area is located in a hydroelectric power station that was renovated by the workshop of the Italian architect Renzo Piano. Its new glass roof, which bathes the nave in light, could be reminiscent of a botanical garden, except for the blue Matisse pipe chimneys rising 70 meters into the sky.

When Putin arrives, he is met by Mikhelson and VAC co-founder Teresa Iarocci Mavica. How Not to Be Colonized ?, a call for cultural dialogue on an equal footing through a “reappropriation” of the American soap opera, which became a Russian hit.

It feels like a model with a dash of politics for Moscow’s new premier art space, the Russian establishment’s answer to the Tate Modern or the Center Pompidou in Paris (also designed by Piano). Compared to the raw aesthetic of the Geometry of Now music festival in 2017, which featured a sound-based installation with recordings of shrimp having sex and a lecture by a transgender musician on gender, politics and sound, everything feels much nicer when you consider and sure.

Vladimir Putin (center) touches a piano key while Novatek's CEO Leonid Mikhelson (left) watches the president's visit.
Vladimir Putin (center) touches a piano key while Novatek’s CEO Leonid Mikhelson (left) watches the president’s visit. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / AP

All the better since this was something of a pitch meeting. “I asked [Putin] for his support. He looked at me and said: ‘How could I not support such a great project like yours?’ “Mavica tells me, Putin told her after they finished his walkthrough. “The most important thing is that we get this legitimation.”

This opening season is driven by the sensitive management of Kjartansson, who creates a “living sculpture” by re-staging, filming and editing 98 episodes of Santa Barbara, the soap opera that became a cultural phenomenon in Russia in the 1990s. Inspired by an article from foreign policy about Santa Barbara’s influence on the former Soviet Union (there are housing estates modeled on the show), the exhibition also touches on the apparent tensions between East and West.

“I’m an Icelander and live exactly between Moscow and Washington. Put your finger in the air and feel how the relationship is going… that’s why I just find a poetic beauty in this project, ”he says.

In Russia, the term Santa Barbara has become a kind of joke that means a tangled family relationship that is better not to get involved. But Kjartansson says the work is deadly serious and Björk paraphrases that “every song she writes starts as a joke and then carves it away until she finds the truth in it”.

“It’s about traumatic times in this country and in world history. And to act out that way, ”he says.

The End - Venezia (2009) Work by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson on display at GES-2.
The End – Venezia (2009) Work by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson on display at GES-2. Photo: Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

I ask him why he decided to call it “colonization,” which I find a provocative description that speaks for Russia’s interpretation of exploitation in the 1990s. It turned out he hadn’t. “How not to give in to colonization was entirely up to Teresa,” he said. “That wasn’t my thought. I never thought that this was about cultural colonization or cultural dominance, it’s all about cultural influence. “

As Kjartansson notes, you have no control over how people interpret your art. It is clear that he has been to Russia since his first visit in the mid-1990s and selected art for his and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir’s exhibition To Moscow! To moskau! To moskau! – the GES-2 opens – speaks for this tenderness.

He describes how he carefully recreated a scene from the opening of Russia’s first McDonald’s for a photo, raves about Olga Chernysheva’s black and white photos of truck drivers caught in a traffic jam and swells with pride, the original Dimmalimm, the Icelandic fairy tale, to be presented about a prince and a swan, exhibited abroad for the first time.

This sheer enthusiasm and accessibility was what GES-2 was looking for when Kjartansson chose it to headline its inaugural season, said Artistic Director Francesco Manacorda, formerly Tate Liverpool. “His works are emotional magnets,” he said, referring to his 2012 video installation The Visitors, which the Guardian named the best work of art of the 21st century.

Gallery visitors see Dead Nations.  Eternal version (2021) by the artist Yevgeny Antufyev.
Gallery visitors see Dead Nations. Eternal version (2021) by the artist Yevgeny Antufyev. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

Through Strelka’s window we have a view of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the golden dome, where Pussy Riot shot her punk prayer in 2012 and was then imprisoned. When I asked Manacorda to what extent they are willing to explicitly discuss political issues, he said he would “avoid them as the central stage … Our field is culture. There will be elements that will have political resonance. But I don’t want to become a think tank. I don’t want to be a kind of political organization. “

The GES-2 House of Culture will open to the public on Friday as hundreds of journalists, bloggers, critics, artists and others come to Balchug Island for a walking tour and evening party. There I see Mikhelson, the billionaire founder and head of gas giant Novatek, walking through the crowd with his daughter Viktoria, who also works for the foundation. He declined interviews before the opening and made no speeches.

At the start of the day, Russian actors put on their tuxedos, prom dresses, and pearls as they began filming their first scenes from Santa Barbara, shot first on carefully recreated sets, then beamed to an open-space editing room and finally beamed to television shows the end product.

Thirty years ago, it was in these Santa Barbara sets that Russians imagined the good life. Now, judging by GES-2, the aspirations have gotten higher. When I asked what Russians saw in an American soap 30 years ago, Bridget Dobson, one of the series’ writers, quickly replied, “You saw yourself.”


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