From Russia with schmaltz: Moscow’s response to Tate Modern opens with satire of Santa Barbara

From Russia with schmaltz: Moscow’s response to Tate Modern opens with satire of Santa Barbara

First Vladimir Putin came to visit us. Then, for the second day in a row, performers were kicked out of GES-2, a prestigious new arts center built in a disused power plant, as police and costumed men rushed for what looked like another guest. VIP.

Instead of our scheduled tour, I walked through the snow to catch up with Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist headlining the opening of the art center by re-filming the popular soap opera Santa Barbara as a “sculpture. alive ”. He’d taken a booth in the nearby Strelka Bar and was taking the disturbance in its stride, although it came a day before the grand opening.

“We’ve been working on this for three years. We’re ready, ”Kjartansson said with a laugh, wearing a green scarf over a denim jacket. He keeps his mask on as we speak inside. “It’s almost like a strange blessing. A break before it starts.

It is the triumph of one of the richest men in Russia, Leonid Mikhelson, who opens his renowned cultural center a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Estimated to have cost hundreds of millions of pounds (it won’t reveal the exact amount), the expensive transformation of the 1907 power plant is more than just an art, seeking to show Moscow’s place as an international cultural center. and her VAC Foundation (named after her daughter, Viktoria) as the first institution.

Santa Barbara goes to Russia… the redesign of the soap. Photographie : Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS

Located on the Bolotnaya embankment of the Moskva River, the 20,000 square meter space is located inside a hydraulic power station renovated by the workshop of Italian architect Renzo Piano. Its new glass roof, which bathes the nave of the building in light, could recall a botanical garden except for the Matisse blue pipe chimneys stretching 70 meters into the sky.

Upon Putin’s arrival, he meets Mikhelson and VAC co-founder Teresa Iarocci Mavica, who embarks on a conference on the centre’s roots in Cultural Houses intended to educate the public and dwells on the theme of the inaugural season: Santa Barbara. How not to be colonized ?, a call for cultural dialogue on an equal footing through a “reappropriation” of the American soap opera which has become a Russian hit.

It sounds like a mission statement with a political twist for Moscow’s premier new art space, the Russian establishment’s response to 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 installation with recordings of shrimp having sex and a lecture on gender, politics and sound by a transgender musician, it all sounds a lot. more cared for, considered, and safe.

Vladimir Putin, center, touches a piano key, as Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson, left, looks on during the president’s visit. Photography: Mikhaïl Metzel / AP

All the better, because it was a kind of 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 told me, Putin told him after he finished his walkthrough. “This is the most important thing, it is important for us to receive this legitimation. “

This inaugural season is carried by the sensitive direction 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 a Foreign Policy article on Santa Barbara’s influence on the former Soviet Union (there are housing estates modeled on the series), the exhibition also addresses the obvious tensions between East and West.

“I am an Icelandic living between Moscow and Washington. Put your finger in the air and feel how the relationship is going… I just find a kind of poetic beauty in this project because of it, ”he says.

In Russia, the expression Santa Barbara has become a kind of joke, meaning a tangled family relationship in which it is better not to get involved. But Kjartansson says the job is deadly serious, paraphrasing Björk that “every song she writes starts off as a joke and then she cuts until she finds the truth in it.”

“These are traumatic moments in this country and in the history of the world. And piece them together that way, ”he says.

The End - Venezia (2009) work by artist Ragnar Kjartansson exhibited at GES-2.
The End – Venezia (2009) work by artist Ragnar Kjartansson exhibited at GES-2. Photographie: Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

I ask him why he decided to call this “colonization”, to me a provocative description that speaks of Russia’s interpretation of having been exploited in the 1990s. It turns out not. “How not to give in to colonization was totally up to Teresa,” he said. “It was not my thought. I never thought it was cultural colonization or cultural domination, it’s just a question of cultural influence. “

As Kjartansson notes, you can’t control how people interpret your art. It is clear that he feels a warmth for Russia that dates back to his first visit in the mid-1990s and to the art selected for his exhibition and that of Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir In Moscow! In Moscow ! In Moscow ! – which opens GES-2 – speaks of this tenderness.

He describes how he painstakingly recreated a scene from the opening of Russia’s first McDonald’s for a photograph, rejoices in Olga Chernysheva’s black-and-white photographs of truck drivers trapped in traffic jams, and swells with pride for bringing the original Dimmalimm, the Icelandic fairy tale about a prince and a swan, abroad for a first exhibition.

It was this raw enthusiasm and accessibility that GES-2 was looking for when it chose Kjartansson to headline its opening season, said former Tate Liverpool artistic director Francesco Manacorda. “His pieces are emotional magnets,” he said, referring to his 2012 video installation The Visitors, which the Guardian named his best work of art in the 21st century.

Gallery enthusiasts watch Dead Nations.  Eternal Version (2021) by artist Yevgeny Antufyev.
Gallery enthusiasts watch Dead Nations. Eternal Version (2021) by artist Yevgeny Antufyev. Photographie : Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS

Through Strelka’s windows we have a view of the golden domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the Pussy Riot filmed their punk prayer in 2012 and were subsequently imprisoned. When I ask Manacorda to what extent they are ready to discuss explicitly political issues, he replied that he “would avoid this being the center of the stage… Our domain 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 some kind of political organization.

GES-2 House of Culture opens to the public on Friday as hundreds of journalists, bloggers, critics, artists and more descend to Balchug Island for a guided tour, then an evening. There, I spot Mikhelson, the billionaire founder and boss 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 does not give any speeches.

Earlier today, the Russian actors donned their tuxedos, ball gowns and pearls as they began filming their first scenes of Santa Barbara, filmed first on painstakingly recreated sets, then broadcast in a room. open space editing, and finally on televisions showing the final product.

Thirty years ago, these Santa Barbara sets were how the 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 opera 30 years ago, Bridget Dobson, one of the show’s writers, quickly replied, “They saw themselves.


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