The appointment of Stella Kesaeva as commissioner of the Russian Pavilion is controversial, but may turn out to be inspired.
When, in June, Russia’s culture minister, Alexander Avdeev, named Stella Kesaeva as commissioner of the Russian Pavilion in Venice for the next three Biennales, with sole power to chose the curators and artists, the decision to put so much patronage in the hands of one person—and a relatively recent arrival on the Russian art scene at that—set more than a few tongues wagging.
“It’s a bit of a strange decision,” said Leonid Bazhanov, a curator of the pavilion in the 1990s, who is now director of the National Centre for Contemporary An, in Moscow. “Usually they name an active curator, not a manager.” Bazhanov added: “Maybe it’s a good decision. The problem is,. nobody knows how it was made. When I was appointed, there was a selection process, a competition. Now there isn’t.”
“It’s a new way of working for the Russian pavilion,” said Evgeny Svyalsky, a member of the artists’ collective AES+F. “It’s another level of responsibility. OK, let’s see the results.”
More forthright was Alexander Yakut, an artist and founder, in 1989, of the first private contemporary art gallery in Moscow. “Stella Kesaeva has got some influence in Russian contemporary art circles,” Yakut said in an email. “The only reason she got this influence was [the] support of several well known western art dealers, curators and museum [people]. Don’t ask me how she managed to get their support, but she did.”
One person who hasn’t criticised the choice was Olga Sviblova, curator of the pavilion in 2007 and 2009. Looking back over her own experience, Sviblova was emphatic. “The Russian artistic world is very complicated. People in Moscow love to carp,” she said. “I think this is a very good choice. She will organise everything that is necessary and give the technical support. [But] it will not be an easy task.”
Kesaeva, the wife of a Russian tobacco baron, Igor Kesaev, briefly ran a contemporary art gallery before setting up her own art foundation in November 2003. quilting selling to become a serious collector. In recent years she and her Stella Art Foundation have participated in major exhibitions at international venues including Documenta 2007 in Kassel, Germany, the 2007 and 2009 Venice Biennales, the Russian “Counterpoint...” show al the Louvre in Paris (until 31 January), and the Kunsthistorischcs Museum in Vienna, where her exhibition of Boris Orlov is currently running (until 20 March).
After establishing her Moscow-based foundation which, along with other activities, runs two exhibition spaces in the city, she is now working on setting up a new contemporary art museum, in partnership with the culture ministry, which she hopes to open in 2014 (The An Newspaper, November 2008, p1). Like The Garage art space of Roman Abramovich’s partner Dasha Zhukova, Kesaeva’s chosen space is a city bus garage designed by the 1920s architect Konstantin Melnikov. Kesaeva says that Zhukova copied her project. The rivalry between the two is understated, but palpable.
Oligarchs’ wives and girlfriends in Russia have the sort of reputation that footballers’ wives and girlfriends have in Britain. But. in her case, appearances are deceptive. Behind the facade is a sharp mind, a strong organisational ability and a total commitment to her chosen art, which is the Russian conceptualist movement, from its early days in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union of the 1970s, to its contemporary heirs.
“Stella Kesaeva has a very good track record,” said Sviblova. “Her foundation does excellent work. Everything that Kesaeva has done since she first got involved in the art domain—first with her gallery and then moving on to create her non-commercial foundation—has been very well done and merits respect.”
Among other achievements, said Sviblova, Kesaeva was instrumental in persuading the long¬time emignJ conceptualist Ilya Kabakov to return to Russia in 2004 to put on a retrospective at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. “It was very complicated and [Kesaeva] handled it very well,” she said.
In managing the Venice pavilion, all Kesaeva’s administrative and diplomatic skills are likely to be fully tested. In 2007 Sviblova found herself unofficially in a similar situation, juggling curatorial, administrative, and technical challenges—and above all, fundraising—to put together a high-cost artistic project in a complex, dilapidated and woefully underfunded space.
Kesaeva has lightened her load by choosing an experienced and highly respected curator, the art historian and New York University professor Boris Grays, coiner of the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptual ism”.
“When I was given the job I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Kesaeva said at the opening of her Vienna show in November. “For me, the Venice Biennale is the perfect occasion to show something unusual and important for Russia—to show what was going on behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s: specifically conceptual art.”
For the Russian cultural authorities, the choice of Kesaeva breaks new ground in some quite fundamental ways. For a start, this year’s biennale will be the first entrusted to a private collector rather than an employee—however eminent—of the state. And Kesaeva’s focus on the conceptualist movement is an organic extension of her independent status.
The critical appreciation of Russian art in the Soviet period has evolved and become more nuanced. In place of the conventional black-and-white distinction between state-subservient social realists and persecuted intellectual non¬conformists, critics like Groys have shown that the relations between artists, intellectuals and the Soviet state were far more complex. Even among the conceptualists, often seen as a summation of private resistance to state conformity, an artist like Kabakov, for example, financed his “private” work through employment as an “official” illustrator of children’s books. And, controversially, Groys has argued that the entire Stalinist stale construct can be seen, in essence, as a modernist conceptual performance.
Nevertheless, conceptualism is still regarded as a private—though far from solitary—form, and few artists match that profile better than Andrey Monastyrsky, a key figure the movement, chosen by Groys to show at the pavilion. “In the Soviet Union we had dissidents and protests, but there was a lack of understanding, of analysis,” Groys said. “Moscow conceptualism wasn’t about protest, it was analysis.”
Analysis, he added “was officially unacceptable and conceptualism developed outside of official recognition.” But after perestroika—the loosening of state control in the Gorbachev years—"it was recognised as the most important art movement since the second world war. In Russia there was no art market. Work was defined by its ideological value. The Soviet Union was not a money driven economy, it was a symbolic economy.“
Monastyrsky began working in the mid-1970s, creating clandestine performances as part of a group called Collective Action. “He organised performances outside Moscow [which] was absolutely new at the time,” said Groys. “It was collective action, a participatory art involving other artists and the spectators.”
Today Monastyrsky works in new media, using internet sites such as YouTube. However he remains an elusive artist, shunning self-promotion.
In bringing him to Venice, Kesaeva, is “making public Russian art that wasn’t public,” said Groys.
According to Kesaeva: “Conceptualism is not political, it’s thinking about the philosophy of an, deeply. It’s about life and mystery. In Russia only a small circle understands. Nobody wanted to take Monastyrsky to the biennale. He is not commercial—he is a philosopher and a historian-it’s not the sort of work that can be sold.” Showing his work, she said, “is not about business. This is about something else—something far more important.”
“I looked around and saw (hat many important things happened in the 1970s that had never happened before and will never happen again— the art reflected the life of the times. This is an important historical exhibition. Somehow this period has been forgotten, and I want to bring it to the public’s attention,” she said.
In the pavilion, work is already under way to do just that. In five rooms a vast installation will take form, which will include videos, archives of photographs from the 1970s, historical pieces, and new work.
“In 1972 Monastyrsky did his first video installation. He was one of the first Russian artists lo do this,” Kesaeva said. “He will show a project that was conceived in the 1970s but never realised. Now he will be able to present it in its entirety.”
Commercial or not, creating such a monumental display—remodelling the Pavilion’s interior, logistics, administration, and spending on the art—does not come cheap. How much the completed show will cost, Kesaeva declined to say; but Sviblova, speaking from her own experience, implied iе would be substantial.
“When I did it, it cost a , and barely 10% of that was funded by the Russian government,” Sviblova said. Apart from doing everything else, I had to spend most of my time fundraising.“
For Kesaeva, at least, that will not be a problem. Being an oligarch’s wife may not win her universal admiration among Moscow’s contemporary art set. But it has its compensations—not the least of them being that she knows where to find money, and can afford to ignore detractors.
“The dogs bite,” she said, “but the caravan keeps going.”