A mammoth multi-million-pound art centre opened its doors to the public near the Kremlin on Saturday, in an ambitious bid to showcase Russia as a destination for modern art – but experts say a crackdown on free expression will limit how far it can go.
As pundits spent the weekend discussing a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, explicit political references were conspicuously absent from Moscow’s most impressive contemporary art venue for a decade, launched by Russia’s richest man.
The renovation of GES-2, a disused power station that sits across the river from the Kremlin, is the brainchild of Leonid Mikhelson, who owns Russia’s largest private gas producer and is a well-known art collector.
President Vladimir Putin – who has never shown an interest in contemporary art – was given a private tour of the building on Wednesday.
With no expense spared, Mr Mikhelson’s foundation V-A-C, named after his daughter, hired the architecture agency of Renzo Piano, the man behind the Shard in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, to convert the dilapidated power station into Moscow’s latest architectural wonder.
The 225,000 sq ft space, sheltered by a soaring glass roof, houses a vast exhibition space, a cinema, a concert hall, workshops for artists with hi-tech equipment, a library, state-of-the-art recording studios and more.
The building is partly powered by solar panels on the roof and even has a system to collect and purify rainwater for re-use, while the iconic smokestacks have been transformed into conduits for ventilation.
Mr Mikhelson has not revealed the price tag for the centre but projects on such a grand scale by Mr Piano’s agency typically come to hundreds of million pounds.
All public exhibitions and activities will also be free of charge.
For the next three months, GES-2 has given free reign to Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson, one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary artists. He has produced two projects including a “living sculpture”, as part of which him and his team will re-shoot in front of a live audience 98 episodes of “Santa Barbara”, the first American soap opera to have been screened in post-Soviet Russia.
“We are recreating the fall of the empire (as well as) capitalist aspirations that came after that with ‘Santa Barbara’ as an idea of what capitalism looks like,” he told the Telegraph on what used to be the floor of the power station as the actors were putting on their make-up.
“Santa Barbara” is a cultural phenomenon in Russia. In the 1990s, it offered them a way to escape the grim reality of an economic meltdown.
Similarly, some see Mr Kjartansson’s work as a diversion from the issues that Russia’s art scene faces today, with the arrest of a number of artists.
Mr Kjartansson insisted there was “no political edge” to his art but noted that “some of the greatest political art was made here, in Russia”.
He said he was a fan of Pussy Riot, who staged a performance at a cathedral behind GES-2 that landed two of its members in jail.
“Pussy Riot did one of the greatest art performances of the 21st century. I’m a big fan but I don’t do that kind of thing,” he said.
The art community in Russia is excited by the opportunities that GES-2 offers. A second exhibition by Mr Kjartansson, inspired by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, combines his work with that of lesser-known local artists who are thrilled to be in the same company.
There is an understanding, however, that GES-2 will not display the cutting-edge radical art that Russia is famous for.
“Something 200 metres away from the Kremlin will hardly be some kind of revolutionary, underground place,” Simon Mraz, co-author of a forthcoming book on Russian contemporary art, told the Telegraph.
Contemporary art in the country has been dominated by a few private foundations owned by Russian tycoons.
“The owners of those foundations have huge fortunes that depend on the will of the Kremlin which is watching those individuals very closely… And it’s tricky with art: What you see at MoMa or Louvre – there was no room for compromise in those works,” he said.
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