The only thing more disconcerting than coming face-to-face with a nine-foot-tall fighter-jet helmet is the moment when it comes alive. Suddenly, the goggles revealed a pair of eyes. They looked up, down, side to side, sweeping the room in panic. I was no longer looking at art—art was looking at me.It was Russian art, to be exact. This wild-eyed apparition was the centerpiece of Russia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the art world-equivalent of the Olympics, where over thirty countries have built national pavilions to display the work of their most prominent contemporary artists. This year’s Biennale, entitled “All the World’s Futures,” invited artists to tackle the geopolitical and social issues facing their countries. And tackle they did—by broad consensus, this was one of the most glum Biennales on record. Artists chronicled human suffering in its many forms and causes: climate change, industrial growth, working conditions, and consumerism.In portraying this litany of modern ills, many of the national pavilions featured symbolically subtle fare that favored abstraction over figuration. The Swiss Pavilion presented a vast pool of pink liquid spanning the length of the gallery, a slurry of chemicals used in name-brand pharmaceuticals. The French Pavilion had motorized live trees that crawled among visitors. The Austrian Pavilion featured a black ceiling that hovered over empty galleries, a foreboding display. The other pavilions encouraged, but did not demand, a specific interpretation of their art. None equaled Russia’s national pavilion for sheer power—and pointed relevance to geopolitical events.Irena Nakhova’s fighter jet helmet blended satire and state-sanctioned messaging to an indecipherable degree. Was it a monument to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or a mockery? A larger-than-life symbol of military strength, the helmet was both ridiculous and menacing, much like Russia’s Supreme Commander-In-Chief himself. Vladimir Putin has carefully cultivated his image as a tough and tactical leader, and the internet is replete with proof that borders on parody: photos of the leader riding his horse shirtless; hunting shirtless; fishing shirtless; swimming butterfly strokes in a Siberian lake, you guessed it, shirtless. That a man of such unsubtle self-promotion outmaneuvers Western leaders on a regular basis no doubt confuses them—just as he intends it to.For a moment, let’s ignore the Sukhois over Syria and explore the cultural power play that took place along the canals of Venice. Russia’s giant jet helmet at the Biennale is itself part of Putin’s offensive against the U.S.-led global order, in which he offers Russia as a culturally, morally, and politically superior alternative to a decadent and uncertain West. In the eyes of this oddity, born of an avant-garde Soviet art moment, we can see the ambitions and insecurities of the post-Soviet state.When “Top Gun” was released in the golden days of the Reagan Administration and America’s Cold War military supremacy, it made the fighter jet a pop culture icon. The jet’s sleek lines, tactical flexibility and lethal effectiveness gave it an undeniable appeal matched by few other aircraft. Historical accuracies aside, there is a reason why the film featured F-14s and not A-10 Warthogs.Putin is apparently now seeking to project a similar “Top Gun” moment for Russia, using fighter jets as a compelling symbol of power and military adventurism. Nakhova’s jet helmet naturally evokes Russia’s increasingly assertive military efforts, from its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine to its repeated incursions into NATO airspace to its recent foray into Syria.So how does Russia’s military strategy end up on display at a Venetian art show? During the Biennale, Venice resembles an international cocktail party of the global elite, with galleries attended by cultural icons, political leaders, and media influencers. And through the Russian Pavilion, the Kremlin is debuting its rebranded Russia; a powerful, disciplined nation with a cosmopolitan culture that lacks the underlying decadence and weakness of Western liberalism.But Putin isn’t just showing off for the benefit of Western audiences. At a time when many former Soviet satellites are being drawn to the economic promises of the European Union and China, he is trying to stem the tide. Former Soviet neighbors from Belarus to Kazakhstan with large diaspora populations are presented with a familiar, Eurasian alternative. The Kremlin seeks to demonstrate that Russia is not only a strong power but also a great power, and a viable counterpoint to the West.Putin’s vision of a culturally confident Russia is intended for domestic audiences as well. The country’s artistic legacy has suffered over the last century, and interest in contemporary Russian art is exceedingly low. According to last year’s global auction sales, Russian artwork represented less than 2.5 percent of the global $16.1 billion sales total. Russia’s cultural identity has not yet recovered from the hardships of Soviet rule. With the Biennale, and domestic initiatives like the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art and the Kandinsky Prize, the Kremlin is trying to establish Moscow as a cultural hub and to elevate state-sanctioned culture. As a form of soft power exerted on an international scale, these art initiatives set out to build Russia’s prestige abroad and at home.Irina Nakhova and Margarita Tupitsyn, the Russian Pavilion’s artist and curator respectively, were prominent figures in the 1970’s Soviet avant-garde art movement, the Moscow Conceptualists. Like Darwin’s finches, this group of artists developed in isolation from the commercial markets that sustained Western contemporaries like Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt. No galleries, no museums. No critics, no collectors.During those formative years, the “specter of the capitalist economy was exorcised from Russian soil,” writes Tupitsyn in the exhibit catalogue. The greatest sin of the capitalist art market was the pressure to commoditize: to produce physical works of art that could be bought and sold by unknown customers for the purpose of turning a profit, completely disassociated from the artwork’s origins. In contrast, the collective’s artistic medium was the concept, pure and simple, manifested in physical movement, color, and spoken words performed by artists for their peers in carefully curated apartments.When the Soviet Union fell, the Conceptualists found themselves at odds with an increasingly Westernized world. In the works of both Nakhova and Tupitsyn, we see a recurring theme of Soviet purity posed against the backdrop of corrupting Western influences. While these artists do criticize the authoritarian state, they express nostalgia for the pristineness of Soviet life that was lost with the introduction of Perestroika—and a yearning to return.Nakhova’s monumental fighter-jet helmet reflects the tension between the Conceptualists and the Western art world. As the disembodied pilot pins visitors to the spot with its terrified gaze, it recalls the uneasy interaction between Conceptualist artwork and the visitor/potential buyer. Not unlike an industry trade show, the Biennale is above all a commercial affair, with artists being judged by their sales and new inventions. The Moscow Conceptualists faced a similar dynamic under Perestroika. The golden days of Soviet living-room performance art were over, and the Conceptualists were now unwilling participants in the “culture industry.” The movement was subsumed by new galleries, commercial representation, and commoditized art.In a sense, the panic in the pilot’s eyes isn’t misplaced, because Vladimir Putin insists that Russia is more sinned against than sinning, the victim of the West’s outrageous propaganda efforts to portray it as the aggressor in Ukraine. As he put it conspiratorially in a 2015 speech to the Valdai Club, a Russian intellectual forum, “We are all used to labeling and the creation of an enemy image.” The pilot’s eyes express that defensiveness, but also betray the defensiveness of another—the innocent Soviet artist suddenly and brutally (in her opinion) confronted by Western avarice.The creators of this exhibition hardly endorse Putin’s militaristic response to Western dominance. Both artist and curator have worked in the West, taught at American universities, and spent their careers elevating Moscow Conceptualism among international audiences. They have spoken out against the crimes of the Soviets—Nahkova has recounted the story of her grandfather, killed in Stalin’s purges—but remain silent on the current regime. With their criticism of capitalism’s corrupting influence on the Moscow Conceptualists, Nakhova and Tupitsyn’s artistic outputs fall in line with Putin’s narrative that the triumphant West has done violence to Russian culture, forcing it into rearguard action. It is a criticism they confine to the artistic sphere, but meanwhile, Putin is playing them in a larger geopolitical chess game, and effectively at that.The Kremlin maintains curatorial and financial control over the Russian Pavilion. In the months leading up the exhibit, Nakhova expressed concern with the increasingly hands-on approach of the Kremlin, remarking, “This year, there appeared the rule to approve the project at the Ministry for Culture. I hope everything will be fine but, in essence, it is censorship.” Just as the Russian government aggressively asserts its ambitions in Syria and Ukraine, so does the Russian Ministry of Culture at the Venice Biennale.Another driving force behind the pavilion is the Stella Art Foundation, a Moscow-based organization that seeks to popularize Russian contemporary art abroad. For the last six years, they have been responsible for selecting the curator of the Russian pavilion. The Moscow-based organization receives funding from “state, cultural, and private institutions,” and is led by Stella Kesaeva, the wife of a Russian billionaire, who was chosen to lead the Biennale effort by Culture Minister Alexander Avdeev.The Stella Foundation is a powerful weapon in Putin’s cultural arsenal. The organization hosts development programs for young artists in former Soviet satellite countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. It has also participated in major exhibitions at the Louvre in Paris and the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Kesaeva does her part in other ways as well, introducing young Russian artists to the Biennale crowd through lavish parties. In her own words, “You have to make a noise that draws attention.” It is a strategy well played in the Russian Pavillion.By comparison, the American system for selecting the U.S. Pavilion’s artist involves an open competition and meritocratic decision-making process. Curators from across the country submit proposals to a committee of museum directors, who present a selection to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This year’s chosen artist was Joan Jonas, an avant-garde artist known for pioneering video art installations. The curator was Paul Ha, director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center. As the organizer and curator of the exhibit, Ha fundraised to cover the exhibit’s costs and organized logistics with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which helps manage the collaboration. While the Russian Pavilion was funded by the Stella Foundation, the U.S. Pavilion was supported by over 80 donors, primarily private citizens, but also galleries, organizations, and businesses.From beginning to end, the selection and artistic process is characterized by transparency, collaboration, and broad participation. And the diffused power structure shows: Jonas transformed the five rooms of the U.S. Pavilion into a meandering, fanciful, and fractured meditation on nature and childhood. During my visit, the Pavilion’s darkened rooms buzzed with layers of quietly spoken words, ghost folktales collected in Nova Scotia by the artist and played in each room. A flock of brilliantly colored kites hung above a screen displaying footage of children playing and desolate winter landscapes. In a room full of mirrors, a video was projected off a glass chandelier, dissolving the projection into hundreds of glittering drops that rippled across every surface.Taken as a whole, Jonas’ ethereal installation invites viewers to recall the magic of childhood, a time when the physical and imaginative worlds seemed more closely joined. The exhibit encouraged introspection, nostalgia, daydreaming, and a return to a pre-political stage of life. If the U.S. Pavilion qualifies as American propaganda, then we’re in deep trouble.By contrast, it would be an oversimplification to view the Russian Pavilion as a little Kremlin on the canals, but not a stretch to see it as state-sanctioned propaganda. Nakhova and Tupitsyn have offered a critique of the West and a glorification of Russia, but in a carefully ironic, almost self-parodying manner that appeals to the international art crowd as much as to Russia’s ruling classes. In the context of the other pavilions, the highly literal recreation of a fighter jet helmet is an undeniable manifestation of Putin’s grander ambitions. Western audiences, who naturally assume that all artists share the freedom to engage in political and social critique, may view the excessiveness and grandiosity as political parody. After all, it’s easier to laugh at Putin’s shirtless célébrité than to deal with him seriously. However, for domestic audiences in Russia and the former USSR who lived through decades of Soviet messaging, the helmet may be a nostalgic return to the outsized propaganda figures of a greater Russia—the worker heroes, noble peasants, and heroic cosmonauts. At the Russian Pavilion, both audiences are presented with a message that fits their preferred reality. By the standards of Russian propaganda, as long as both interpretations served their purpose, both are correct.Earlier this summer, a group of Ukrainian protesters symbolically “occupied” the gallery rooms in protest of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea. Organized by a group of Ukrainian artists, the “mockupation” brought home an uncomfortable truth to the Biennale’s visitors: Art is inseparable from the context of its creation. The Russian Pavilion became a proxy for Russia itself.The group called itself “On Vacation,” a reference to Russian separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who was quoted as saying the deployed Russian soldiers were on “vacation…among brothers who are fighting for their freedom.” The camouflaged protestors laid out in the galleries, “conscripting” visitors into service by handing out military uniforms. They encouraged guests to post selfies to Instagram using the hashtag #OnVacation, a mocking reminder of how the Russian soldiers’ social media presence in Crimea provided proof of Russian army movements in the region.Putin bemoans the “labeling and the creation of an enemy image” by an international media that dares to report on his troops’ movements, yet it’s hard to ignore the symbolism of a state-sanctioned nine-foot-tall fighter-jet helmet. Indeed, Putin might be the true performance artist of the Russian Pavilion. His regime signed off on a grandiose symbol of militant ambition, pushing the envelope further than any other national pavilion, yet with enough plausible deniability to make Biennale visitors question their own interpretation. It isn’t “really” a symbol of Russian military adventurism, just like Russian soldiers weren’t “really” invading Ukraine.Yet as the #OnVacation protests demonstrate, art never exists in isolation from the political motivations of those who create, fund, or view it. All the world’s a gallery, and all the men and women merely occupiers.
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Published on: January 4, 2016
Culture and PoliticsIn Putin’s Russia, Art Looks at You
What you can learn about Russian geopolitics at an art show in Venice.