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And the winner is …
In a major exhibition, the Kandinsky Prize introduces the young Russian scene to Berlin

The Russian capital has grown into a booming center for art. More and more galleries are showing contemporary positions, while events like the Moscow Biennial draw international attention to the thriving Russian scene. Deutsche Bank has been supporting art in Russia for over twenty years-with presentations from its collection, sponsorship of exhibitions, and now with the Kandinsky Prize for young Russian art. While the winners and nominees of 2007 are currently being shown in a major exhibition in Berlin, a jury of international art experts is meeting to select the artists who will compete in 2008. Olga Tararukhina on the background and perspectives of the highest endowed Russian art prize.

Award ceremony for the Kandinsky Prize
at the Winzavod Center of Contemporary Art in Moscow

Inside Russia, the Kandinsky Prize is compared to the Turner Prize. Yet it does have its own inimitable flavor. When they talk about how they'd like their country to develop, Russians, situated between Europe and Asia, have been saying since the early 19th century that Russia needs to go its own way. This also goes for its native art. In the throes of the Russian Revolution, the long-held humanist tradition of private collections largely came to a halt in the first quarter of the 20th century. This development was only to take a new and radical turn with the contemporary upheaval in Russian society. Since the dawn of the new millennium, a passion for art and collection is "in" again: suddenly, the adjectives "international" and "world-known" have catapulted a few select contemporary artists into the high-end of the domestic art market. Yet descriptions like "one of the few important artists on the Russian art scene" also suggest that these artists have previously played a minor role at best on the international market.

Alexander Savko, Flag,
From the series "Demons of my Dreams", 2007,
Courtesy Aidan Gallery, Moscow

According to Moscow gallery dealers, there are currently 200-300 collectors of contemporary art in Russia. Because the state does not support museums in purchasing works from galleries, they are entirely dependent on the collectors. There are only 50 contemporary art galleries in Moscow (10 of them having appeared within the six months between October 2007 and May 2008). There is almost no market outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, and most artists outside these two cities cannot live from their art. This situation is also reflected in the large number of Russian contemporary art collections that seem somehow cloned in that they all feature the same established artists. This homogenous picture corresponds to the cultural climate. While many speak about corruption, the power of lobbyists, and a new hedonism, it can also happen that art and its curators can be prosecuted for extremism because they allegedly encroach upon patriotic sentiment. It's no wonder that the founders of the Kandinsky Prize seem anxious to avoid any possibility for reproach.

Oleg Kulik. Tennis Player, 2002, Exhibition view, "Chronicle. 1987-2007",
Central House of Artists, Moscow,
Courtesy of the XL Gallery, Moscow

However, the first awarding of the Kandinsky Prize in 2007 was also a declaration of art's freedom. Just as the ceremony was about to begin in Moscow's Winzavod Center of Contemporary Art, two uniformed police officers stormed the stage. They embraced and kissed each other passionately, which the public responded to with loud approval. It was a demonstration of solidarity with the artist duo Blue Noses on the part of the event's organizers and guests, important figures from the fields of culture and finance. Through the intervention of the Russian Cultural Minister Alexander Sokolov, Blue Noses' photograph Era of Mercy (2005) was not allowed to be shown in a Paris exhibition, although the provocative image-two police officers kissing in a Siberian birch grove-had previously been shown without incident in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

But the prize came at just the right time, and not only as a declaration of free artistic expression. It was long overdue within the Russian art community. Previously, the visual arts had been unfairly ignored: theatre, cinema, and music all had their national prizes with international resonance. Except for the state "Innovation" Prize, none of the existing Russian art prizes enjoyed any wider resonance in the media. And none of them were able to attract any international attention for Russian art.

Anatoly Osmolovsky. From the series "Goods", 2007,
Courtesy Stella Art Foundation, Moscow

What becomes a problem especially for the non-Russian jury members is that they are often simply not familiar with the historical and social contexts of a given work. The local art scene, except for the key figures who have had shows abroad like Ilya Kabakov and Oleg Kulik, is not integrated into the international context. And in spite of major exhibitions like Moscow-Berlin (2003-2004) and Russia! (New York, Bilbao 2006), it's largely unknown in the West. Only the small solo or group shows in European and American commercial galleries or the Moscow XL Gallery's participation in leading art fairs form an exception. The regional criteria and values do not match the international.

The difficulty here, according to Andrei Erofeev, jury member and former curator of the art collection at the State Tretyakov Gallery, is that "there are artists appreciated here in Russia, whereas in the West others are appreciated whom we do not necessarily know here." On the other hand, Friedhelm Hütte, jury member for the Kandinsky Prize and Director of Deutsche Bank Art, detects a shift occurring among young Russian artists: "They aren't living on an island; the artists know what's going on internationally. However, the best work for me would have a Russian touch, a Russian soul-a specific spirit, something related to the art history and society of the country." To his mind, the new prize offers Russian artists an excellent opportunity to introduce their work to important international curators, gallery dealers, and experts and to present it in exhibitions such as the current one in Berlin in order to find their way into the art establishment.

Sergei Saigon, Hally From Behind the Pierce, 2006.
From the project "Stereotypes. Bang Bang"

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