participation Cosmoscow last year felt like he had his finger on the pulse of the Moscow art scene. Queues were long, performances broke political boundaries, and there was an industrial-chic vibe, as well as the largest gallery participation in the fair’s 10-year history. This year, however, there were only 72 galleries (out of 80) and they were all Russian, although 13 booths featured works by international artists.
Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was unable to attend the fair (which took place from September 14th to 18th) in person. Instead, I reconnected with the vendors I met in 2021 and asked a friend, Moscow-born cultural consultant Aleksei Afanasiev, to speak to new attendees on the ground.
It’s telling that Art & Brut once again brought Ukrainian artist Alexander Zabolotny’s caustic glitch-pop aesthetic to the show, now with a dramatically changed context. His artistic statement includes, “I’ve never been attracted to trauma (although I have to reckon it’s inevitable).”
Zabolotny has moved to Turkey from his former studio location in Russia, but according to the gallery’s co-founder Irina Markman: “The current political crisis, while frightening, has not destroyed our close relationship with Alexander.”
However, through reaching out, I discovered that the Fragment gallery, which was behind a pee performance by artist Dagnini at last year’s fair, has moved permanently to New York; Anna Dyulgerova, a co-founder of Blazar, Cosmoscow’s affordable art satellite fair (September 13-19), moved to Berlin; and Nadya Kotova, an Antwerp-based dealer specializing in Russian contemporary art, decided against participating in part because she was advised by her Belgian colleagues that doing so would be interpreted as supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine.
According to Cosmoscow founder Margarita Pushkina, the continuation of the fair was a collective decision – and not an immediate one. The event only sent out its invitation to tender in June. “Of course there were different opinions,” said Pushkina. “People have taken to social media and found that the entertainment nature of the event was inappropriate at the time.”
“However, it is important to understand that many people’s lives are professionally connected to the fair,” she added. “The response from our community has been very supportive and after much deliberation, our gallery owners and artists have got to work.”
Vera Glazkova, who founded Galerie Arka in 1995 in Vladivostok, a region bordering China and North Korea – and of course focusing on the Asian market – agreed. “It’s important to keep working,” she explained of her decision to be one of a handful of galleries exhibiting for the first time at Cosmoscow.
Arka Gallery drew attention to its native terrain, showcasing delicate textile and ornate stained woodwork with shamanic motifs by aspiring young artist Masha Lamzina, consistent with the mythological feel of Lyudmila Baronina’s illustrations Lubok-influenced works in nearby Ural Vision. The Seréne Gallery, which opened in Moscow in early April, is also new to the fair, showing Olya Aystreyh’s Disappear Here series of swirling paintings of a disintegrating swimmer, inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ cult novel Less than zero.
Deciding whether or not to attend the fair has been a complicated one for many dealers, and the art world is typically divided on the effectiveness of cultural boycotts in making a country’s creative sphere pay for a government’s sins. For example, Olga Temnikova of Tallinn-based gallery Temnikova & Kasela decided not to attend Cosmoscow this year because of the war. “But we’re not in any way overriding Russian culture, as none of the artists or curators I know support the current regime,” she added, “and that’s why the opposition needs all our support.”
Aleksandr Blanar, a curator working with Shilo Gallery, another Cosmoscow newcomer, said that “many artists question whether they have the right to continue their activity because of the risk of clashes with the authorities if you express yourself. Some artists covertly make statements about the war, while others simply continue their work to distract themselves from reality.”
Artwin Gallery took the opportunity to take a closer look at this reality by inviting a group of its artists to create new works for the fair. “It feels like the artists right now are all about freedom and the opportunity to express their opinions,” said the gallery’s owner Mariana Guber-Gogova. Her stand included works such as framed mirrors with scratched-out centers in fluorescent green by Evgeny Granilshchikov. “An attempt at an explanation is possible even in a vacuum, and perhaps it’s particularly important in that vacuum,” Guber-Gogova said. “We have never experienced censorship – the question is whether it will stay that way.”
Still, some artists have incorporated more overt statements into their work. The Ural Vision booth featured Osip Toff’s signage, which included witty phrases like “Yesterday is over”; The Sprayed Canvas by Alexander Kipsone 14,600 days in the desert, which contained the word ANGER in capital letters, on display at DiDi, a St. Petersburg gallery known for showing avant-garde artists from the 1950s; and text-based iconographic compositions by cosmoscows Artist of the Year Valery Chtak, which included phrases like “Only the truth” or “There is no choice”. Whether or not these works are viewed as subversive, their impact was too subtle to elicit a ban from government officials.
According to gallery owner Ekaterina Iragui, who has participated in Cosmoscow since the first edition, “contemporary art remains one of the few independent resources to activate thought. What happens cannot be dictated or controlled.” While she admitted there are instances of self-censorship by the country’s artists and art spaces, the Cosmoscow Fair is “the only free platform of this magnitude” for Russia’s contemporary art scene. “On opening night, the hugs were stronger than ever,” Iragui added. “I could feel that the relationships between people have strengthened. Everyone was happy that such a platform still existed.”
Other highlights at the fair included Vladislav Efimov’s textured, meditative photographs of forests in the Pennlab gallery and Alexander Lemish’s wry digital paintings such as Pizza with gems at the Fabula Gallery, most of which have sold for up to $5,000. Kirill Gashan, known for his Soviet-style hyperrealism, showed his punching power “bestiary” Series of animal portraits in haunting environments at Gallery Szena. Four of the works sold for between $6,000 and $12,000 on the first day of the show.
“I think now is a difficult time for young Russian artists who can only rely on very limited financial support from their own country,” said Szena’s director Anastasia Shavlokhova. “The responsibility lies primarily with the galleries, to act as micro-institutions and not only to sell the works, but also to look for ways to raise funds and realize museum-level exhibitions in their spaces.”
The digital sphere has brought new sources of funding to Cosmoscow, with online bank Tinkoff Private and Swiss tech company 4ARTechnologies (which owns a collection of work by Andy Warhol, Kevin Abosh, Ai Weiwei and others) collaborating with local galleries and institutions on NFTs.
The digital art section of the fair has also become an integral part (rather than just a special project), curated by the art collective Instigators. This year’s edition saw exciting themes such as the digitization of ancient skulls by Russian NFT artist Kirill Rave and children’s toys as the first avatars in a collaboration between Uzbek multimedia artist Denis Davydov and Georgian-American artist Uta Bekaia.
By many reports there has been strong local interest in the fair this year, with public figures as well as the usual suspects from the art world such as Museum Director Shalva Breus of the Breus Foundation and the recently announced Tbilisi Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sales were comparable to last year’s $2.7 million, suggesting that Russian collectors are still primarily buying Russian art. But with the recent resignation of the fair’s artistic director, Simon Rees of New Zealand, and foreign sponsors such as Ruinart, Breguet and Audi cutting their funding, it remains to be seen how much Cosmoscow will be able to cushion the impact of the war on the country’s artistic community. And again, how isolated this community will become from the international scene.
“The situation with Russian galleries in the international context has never been easy,” said Iragui, who has attended several international fairs this year, including NADA in New York and the upcoming Paris Internationale. “We cannot say that Russian galleries suddenly disappeared from fairs – because our role was never strong in the first place.
“Personally, the international art community has been very supportive,” Iragui added, “and I can say that personal connections outweigh mainstream or government-led opinions.”
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