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Eco-operas and bloody museums: What Russia and Lithuania had to show the world at the 2019 Venice Biennale
The 58th Venice Biennale began in Italy on May 11. The famed contemporary art exhibition’s theme for 2019 was “May you live in interesting times,” and its curator was Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. One of the event’s Golden Lion prizes went to Lithuania for its ecological opera performance piece Sun & Sea (Marina). The American director Arthur Jafa, whose film The White Album is featured at the Biennale, won the Golden Lion award for the best artist in the main exhibition. Meduza’s correspondent reported on the Lithuanian pavilion and the controversial decision to allow St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum to represent Russian art at the Biennale. The exhibition will remain open until November 24, 2019.
The Lithuanian pavilion: An interactive eco-opera
Lithuania received the Golden Lion prize for the best national pavilion, which was created by artist and composer Lina Lapelytė, dramaturg Vaiva Grainytė, and theater director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė. The trio’s experimental opera, titledSun & Sea (Marina), centers on ecological themes and features 20 professional singers. They play ordinary people resting on a beach, calmly stretching out the towels underneath them, paging through books, and scrolling through their social media feeds. Viewers observe them from above, “as though from the point of view of the sun.”
At noon, the characters begin telling their stories, their solos weaving together and melding into a chorus. The vacationers sing both about their personal problems and about the exhaustion of the world around them. One young man complains that there was no white Christmas last year, and a wealthy woman mentions the “bleached, pale” Great Barrier Reef. Humanity’s laziness, its unwillingness to move, emerges in the installation as the greatest threat to the planet. “Serious topics unfold easily, softly — like a pop song on the very last day on Earth,” the opera’s creators write.
The Lithuanian pavilion will be open until October 31, 2019, from Tuesday through Sunday, but the performance itself will only take place on Saturdays. On the upside, the opera is open for public participation.
The Russian pavilion: Curatorial controversies
This year, the State Hermitage Museum took charge of preparing the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the first time. The pavilion’s commissioner was Semyon Mikhailovsky, a member of the president’s council on culture and a rector for St. Petersburg’s I.E. Repin State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Mikhailovsky has occupied the commissioner’s post since 2014, when he replaced the art historian Grigory Revzin. Russia’s Culture Ministry announced at the time that Rezvin’s “creative and publicistic activities” would prevent him from “taking part fully in the project.”
A year ago, Mikhailovsky told journalists that to be competitive for the Golden Lion award, Russia would have to create a “project that is of the moment, maybe opportunistic”: “I have been on two teams that received prizes at the Biennale. […] I know how this works beyond the level of rumor. None of our projects have lacked press attention, including in the West. Even more importantly, we’ve had the attention of the [biennale’s] audience. Not because we’re so great but because we live in a country that draws interest. But despite the broad resonance of [our] exhibition […] I knew we wouldn’t get the prize. Even though many people praised our work. It’s a really tough competition.” In the meantime, rumors circulated that the 2019 Russian pavilion had, in practice, been curated by Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky.
The Hermitage’s display
The 2019 exposition features an installation by director Alexander Sokurov based on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. Yelena Zhukova, Lydia Kryukova, Alexander Zolotukhin, and students from St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts also contributed to the project. The Russian pavilion also includes an installation called The Flemish School by Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai.
Sokurov’s project Lc 15:11-32, named for the episode in the Gospel of Luke during which the return of the prodigal son takes place, is located in a dark hall on the second floor of the pavilion. Visitors have noted that the exhibition is accompanied by long stretches of text that are difficult to read in the dark but are nonetheless important to the meaning of the installation. Take, for example, the following dense chunk: “The museum is a self-regulating living being that is capable of acceptance and rejection, good and evil, love and hatred, teaching and punishment. The museum selected a number of well-known individuals to be the creators of this story, people who united around it and were capable of sensing it… In their own way, they were able to convey three important characteristics that make our museum what it is: sanctity, spirituality, and fascination.”
One of the most noticeable items in the exhibit is a set of casts made from the enormous clawed paws that adorn one of the Hermitage’s entrances. Nearby is a set of screens mounted on easels that display images of the desert — and of Ivan Kramskoi’s classic painting Christ in the Desert — next to photographs of modern-day suicide bombers. The exhibit also includes a sculpture of Rembrandt’s head placed directly on the floor alongside large sculptures of figures from the Dutch artist’s paintings: Alexander Sokurov sprinkled sand onto the prodigal son’s feet himself.
Shishkin-Hokusai’s “Flemish School” is located on the pavilion’s lower floor. It is built entirely out of plywood to create a kind of “birchwood Hermitage.” The plywood floor is painted to match the floor of the Hermitage, and the walls are decorated with distorted copies of paintings from the museum’s collections. “There are tubes filled with a scarlet liquid coming out of the center of some of the paintings, and sculptures of the museum’s visitors are riddled with invisible bullets. You leave the pavilion feeling like you’ve left a battlefield,” wrote Milena Orlova of The Art Newspaper Russia.
A “massive advert” for the Hermitage: What critics are saying about the Russian pavilion
Critical opinions on the pavilion were divided. Sergey Popov, the CEO of Pop/off/art Gallery, wrote on Facebook that the exhibition “has nothing to do with contemporary art.” He explained, “There are two words that seem to me to describe our pavilion best: pathos and substitution. Everything about the project is imbued with pathos: the Hermitage, Sokurov, Rembrandt, the Gospel of Luke, the Academy of Arts, war, mercy, the classics, darkness […] Substitution is a word that can describe much of how our country runs, including in the world of culture. It would be frightening, painful, and horrifying to display our actual contemporary condition, so we cover ourselves up in museums and classics and make them feel safe.” Popov called Shishkin-Hokusai’s work intelligent, saying he and his team had “tried to save the situation.”
Liza Savina, the founder of the Russian cultural foundation Sparta, took a different view, calling the Russian pavilion “well-integrated and relatively intelligible.” In her opinion, the pavilion spoke to the development of Russia’s national identity: “We didn’t have our own secular [cultural code in the 18th century]: we bought up the Flemish, the Dutch, some Italians, some Frenchmen here and there, and we started learning to live with that fact. That’s why the Hermitage collection is the basis of our identity and the primary marker of our cultural codes. In the course of a couple of centuries, a great literature managed to grow out of that foundation, and Christ in the desert is a symbol of Russian spirituality. […] Strictly speaking, this wasn’t the most unpleasant national identity on display. Look at the Estonians — people say they’ve covered their entire pavilion in glass vaginas.”
The Art Newspaper called Sokurov’s and Shishkin-Hanukai’s exhibits “a massive advert” for the Hermitage, and a journalist for The Guardian admitted that he “ran away” from the Russian pavilion, “unable to bear the Rembrandtian gloom, the spectre of Christ and the burning soldiers, and all the other paraphernalia in this overcooked mess of a pavilion.”
English version by Hilah Kohen
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