Looking at art (March) no.8: Arseniy Zhilyaev, M.I.R.: New Paths to the Objects, Kadist Foundation, Paris
This was without doubt one of the maddest and – quietly, slyly – most subversive things I’ve seen in Paris in a while. It’s just closed today, but I needed to write about it lest I forget.
Arseniy Zhilyaev, born 1984 in Voronezh, Russia, is an artist and political activist who lives and works in Moscow and Voronezh (though how comfortably, or for how much longer, I wouldn’t want to guess.) His “artistic practice is inspired by A. Fedorov-Davydov, an art historian who contributed in his approach to the ‘experimental Marxist exhibition’ that briefly dominated Soviet museum policy.” Apparently. This exhibition is accompanied by a little booklet with an essay by leading Russian art critic Boris Groys (who operates, safely one assumes, from New York and Germany.)
The exhibition/installation takes over the three-room Kadist Foundation space in Montmartre, setting it up as half gallery, half shrine, painted in the colours of the Russian flag. The basic concept is Putin as the saviour and hero of Russian art, in the same way he is portrayed as a hero by so much of the Russian media, and as General Secretaries of the Communist Party were glorified in the Soviet Union. All the artefacts are accompanied by witty texts, in French (translated originally from Russian to English). They make perfect sense, but it helps if you know the context – i.e., you had to be there. Which I was. Which is why Rahma had invited me to go along with her and try to elaborate.
Recent events in Putin’s Russia are appropriated and reinterpreted as acts of politically-aware and philanthropic Art-making: “In one of his emblematic actions, The Deuce, Vladimir Putin granted the artists and musicians Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina [of Pussy Riot]… two years of stable labour in the Siberian colonies.” All of Putin’s headline-making acts – from flying with cranes to outlawing homosexuality – are re-cast as the gestures of a consummate – and caring – Artist Hero.
One room commemorates the Bolotnaya protests, in May 2012, when thousands of Russians protested in Moscow against Putin’s third term as President. Zhilyaev proposes a huge sculpture of two young people, their poses drawn from photographs of rioters attacked by police, in a 21st-century version of The Peasant and the Collective Farm Girl at VDNKh. The main wall of the room displays small artefacts from the park and the riot – photographs, a plastic water bottle, a leaf – in a way that reminds me of the walls in the Moscow cemetery at Novodevichy. (I don’t think I’m stretching here. The booklet adds, “The heart of the Bolotnaya Battle Complex will be formed by a nature preserve… Specimens of Amur tigers and a population of Siberian white cranes once saved by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will be brought to Moscow.”)
The whole exhibition is a series of in-jokes, and one does wonder how many people in Paris would appreciate it all (I, for one, am very hazy about what porn star Sasha Grey was doing there.) And the jokes are pretty black, all things considered – especially if you’re Russian. This exhibition went up in January, long before Crimea was annexed. Young Arseniy is probably working on his next installation right now. Sadly, the material keeps coming.