Periphery No More: The Far East and the Black Sea Get to Be Their Own Centres for Art Production
This interview caught me in a moment of transition, where I am bringing one institution (Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok) into a state of archives and public space, and start another from scratch, the Golubitskoe Art Foundation. It is a very challenging project that opened this year in spring, in a rural area with no audience, and for which we have to find a new approach, without it being a satellite of a big city, as it is the case with most rural art projects in Russia. Here we are just close to Anapa, a former 19th century military centre on the Black Sea, a place that was always extremely fruitful, but also extremely poor.
Depressed Russian public institutions and private money. I started working in the arts as an assistant at Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was studying philology and journalism, but Contemporary Art, I realised, would give me access to anything. Art is such media, that it brings you to literally everything. I had institutional jobs, like at the Museum of Architecture in Moscow, a very old and big museum with great collections, that had just collapsed in the ‘90s. I was in the so-called development department, it was trendy to have one then, it was better paid that other jobs in the museum and full of young people who spoke English, and who were ready to do any task: fundraise, PR, organise an event or exhibition with foreign partners—yes to anything! We were hungry for that. After working in snobbish Winzavod where people didn’t listen to me because I was young and didn’t come from money, here I had access to real culture that meant something. But it is actually a pain to see a Russian museum from the inside. It is now a little better, with more funding, but still the management is the heritage of the soviet system. It doesn’t let us move forward, it doesn’t let the museum be active and professional. To see the poverty of the museum and the people who work there literally hurts. When I pitched for Zarya, I had very little curatorial experience, but I had a lot of experience with institutions, how to manage them, work with audiences, and the teams within. One lady in the museum had been there since the ‘60s, she doesn’t care about change, or if it’s 2010 or 2020 outside. I knew how to talk to different people and motivate them for something new. It is probably why I got the job. I was motivated by two things: getting a job in the arts, which is quite the challenge as we all know, and do so in the private sector. With private money you can do more and faster. But I wasn’t sure about success because private money for art in Russia is very temporary and risky.
The Russian Far East. It is quite exciting when you go there by plane, you fly for 8 hours! You could be in New York, but you land in Vladivostok. You get off the plane and you see the same people you see in St Petersburg, Moscow, Voronezh, Ekaterinburg, anywhere else, just the landscape is very particular. It’s important to understand that people in Vladivostok have never seen a Russian Usadba (mansion), Russian classicist architecture, or what you see in Suzdal and Vladimir, where wherever you look you see a church. There, architecture starts from modern and art nouveau, and everything else is a little ugly. I say ugly because the soviet architecture in particular, wanted to make everything straight, cut the landscape and render every street possible to march on. And then in post-soviet times, without planned urbanism and harmony, the city shaped up like an infection on the hills, like mushroom growths. Traveling is expensive, and none of the Russian art and culture travels to Vladivostok, except for film. I have never been able to have conversations about contemporary art, seldom did people have access to Russian avant-garde or Russian kinetic art. The idea was to make exhibitions that reconnected this part of Russia with Russain art from the 20th and 21st century, to fill a gap. So my job was not only to make exhibitions, but also to bring them from state and privately-owned collections from Moscow and St Petersburg, because art is very centralised. Also, the main sponsor of Zarya is located in Moscow, so I had to spend a lot of time here for the programme and to raise funds.
Zarya Center for Contemporary Art is a foundation, sponsored by Beluga vodka. The owner is Alexander Mechetin, he was born in the far-east, in the small city of Partizansk where he started his business. In 2013 there was a lot of optimism about Vladivostok, public money and major infrastructure developments, and the creation of the Eastern Economic Forum. Mechetin wanted to join the movement, support the local community, and decided to create a museum. There was this idea that Vladivostok could be the Russian window to the Asian world, however it never happened. Zarya opened in 2013, in 2014, the Crimea crisis happened, and we never got out of it. Vladivostok, as other parts of Russia are as depressed as ever. The city finally got the roads, but in terms of education and international investments, it didn’t work out. A huge flow of people left the city. Having said that, the city is still opening a cluster of four public museums and one concert hall (Mariinsky theatre), so our role evolved. We decided to create exhibits with a permanent collection, there is also a public territory with a collection of street art, a library, and a co-working space. But most of the activities like artists residencies, international exchanges, and rolling exhibitions are being relocated to different destinations around Russia. I was really happy that with Mechetin we could establish mutual trust, and that I didn’t fail too much in having a transparent, clean, tidy, hardworking environment, so he could be proud of the money he was investing in art.
We opened the last show in Zarya on November 14, called “Dream of the Dawn” which is pretty much an archival show over the seven years of activities of the art centre, including the local communities we worked with, the local art scenes and curators, our residencies experiences, the whole story! Including achievements and mistakes. It wasn’t easy to connect with the city, but the experience was overall positive. You cannot really drop things however, finish a job and start another, this is not how it works in Russia. Our portfolio with Zarya is extremely important to maintain, and to give it a future life. That job would only be completed if say, a public museum would accept the collection. So now we are working on the Tretyakov Gallery or the Arseniev State Museum of Primorsky Region. These times are quite critical for Russian museums, because they don’t have money to purchase collections. Also, the art scene in Russia was divided by art which was approved and state-commissioned, or art that wasn’t and so a priori underground. You cannot go to a local museum and see contemporary art there, although it doesn’t mean that it never existed. We have fulfilled over 100 projects, including residences, that’s as many different perspectives on the area, different artist methodologies, topics, research on the territory and ways of re-narrating its stories. I think it is now a lifetime project for me, not that I want to stay connected to Zarya forever, but I want to keep the promise we made to the city that we want its stories to be visible. It is also connected to the fact that not all kind of knowledge is welcomed in Russia, the Far East is part of the Soviet Union gulag map history (some of the projects included that theme, contemporary art being the allowed language for it, but it wasn’t our main goal), but we were driven by good projects, and we would support those whichever direction they took us. Part of post-soviet history includes attempts to erase who we are, so topics connected to identity were crucial. When you have private money in art, people want to see great exhibitions and famous names, publications, results that are easy to enjoy and touch, not some unpleasant pages of history, we had to find a balance there.
The Golubitskoe Art Foundation, near the Black Sea. Sponsored by the same person, this time the project is in a rural area, in a winery on the Taman Peninsula, close to Anapa. It is also an important site for Russian archaeology, with many layers of history, where you find artefacts related to the silk road, and from the times of the plague brought in through Genoese merchants. However, all the extremely precious and interesting pieces go to Moscow or St Petersburg, to the Pushkin Museum or the Hermitage, it is only the pottery that is left here. This is interesting for us to work with, because we don’t want to see the territory as a province, but as a centre for new knowledge and new approaches. We are opening an exhibition made by two curators-in-residence, Sergei Kulikov and Nikolay Smirnov, where the archeological legacy will be represented, as well as some other parts of their research. This context gives us the opportunity to think of contemporary or modern on a very large time scale.
Starting something new during pandemic. We started in February, and welcomed our first artist in residence in August. We are now in a very experimental flow and we are just trying different formats to really decide how we are going to proceed. For me it wasn’t easy of course, on the one side, I had strong projects in my past such as Zarya, so people were willing to back new projects up, but on the other side the pandemic arrived, and it was emotionally challenging to start something new when you cannot travel and most of your meetings are online. I struggled a little bit, as you get tired, to find the energy to start anew. The first six months weren’t easy, but as soon as it was summer and we could travel, it got better. I went to Taman by car, over two and half days (I guess you could do it in one day in 20 hours), avoiding the plane. I stayed one month and half, to start the workflow with the team and welcome the first artist. That gave me a lot of resource. It is also hard because people on this territory aren’t used to work with museums, and they don’t trust you at first. My Vladivostok experience doesn’t speak to them. We try to create bridges, new relationships, as well as a demand for different kind of people that we would like to attract for art production. We are about three hours drive from Krasnodar, the largest city and centre of the Krasnodar Krai (region) on the Kuban river. There is a beautiful place called Typography, the Krasnodar Center for Contemporary Art, a self-started organisation initiated by local artists: the Zip Group. They give us a lot of support, they bring the community and we organise things together. We are trying really hard to establish new sustainable relationships with the people around us.
Meeting artists in unusual ways. You just have to be open minded. We had to have our exhibition hall repainted, and when I arrived, I saw an old man (imagine Hemingway) painting the wall. I thought he looked just like the famous Russian animator Youri Norstein, known for “The Hedgehog in the Fog”. We started talking after I told him so, and it turned out that he’s an artist and he had been the director of an exhibition hall in Orenburg his whole life. Now his son is making some construction work, and he volunteered to help. That is how you meet artists basically. There are no places to go, no local gallery, you need to explore and make your network one by one, randomly meeting people on site.
Russian winters, and knowing how to enjoy it. What I like about Russia is that it gives you different seasons and the landscape changes accordingly. We live next to the Bauman Garden in Moscow, and my kid and I go there for walks. I really pay attention that he knows how to enjoy winter. His father is French, so what if we live Russia at some point, and all he has left are memories? We share winter moments, playing on a slide in the snow, lying on your back and looking at the sky and the trees sliding too. Those are also my early childhood memories, and I really cherish them. I also like food. Food is my drug, but I am mostly the eater, not the maker. I love fruits, but winter is caviar season in Russia, and I love caviar with blinis. The privilege of being married to a French man is that I enjoy all sorts of pies, blueberry pies and tarte Tatin. This is amazing. It is funny because we met as I was studying in Paris, and couch surfing at his place. I made him a Russian breakfast: a pumpkin rice kasha. I remember his face filled with disgust, as he told me it was called risotto and you normally eat it for dinner. Now you understand why he’s the cook. It is easy now to find croissants in Moscow, but soviet type of food is good for our climate. You cannot survive on quinoa here.
When I am not in the art field, I spend a lot of time with my family. We travel, besides traveling for art, I like to travel for music festivals. The last one I really enjoyed was Signal Russia Electronic Music Festival and I also love Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. There was also MIDI Festival this year in Hyeres, France—it was my favourite, a lot of indie music there. I also like my dacha, you know the concept, a secondary home close to nature where you grow your own vegetables and flowers. I never used to like it, but this year I became a real enthusiast.
I already collect a little bit, on a budget, I have some beautiful photography and painting by a dozen Russian artists such as Alexandra Paperno or Tania Antoshina, including several nice graphic works from Vladivostok artists, such as Alexander Kiryakhno. I think one should definitely invest in young Russian artists, because there are not many names and they are all very strong. Those who have already made a few steps on the international scene will explode. Being an artist in Russia and decipher that, and trying to live that life, it’s a tough choice but it makes you very strong and competitive.
If I wasn’t curating, I would probably do some social work or journalism. And it’s probably the Corona virus effect, but we all want to go into politics now and change what’s going on, although I am not sure I would survive politics. When I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher or a policewoman with a cool motorbike and a leather jacket.
Chief curator Golubitskoe Art Foundation, Taman Peninsula and Head of ZARYA Foundation for the Development of Contemporary Art, Vladivostok
Based in Moscow, Russia
Alisa Bagdonaite is the Chief Curator at ZARYA Center for Contemporary Art, Vladivostok and Golubitskoe Art Foundation, Taman Peninsula. Head of ZARYA Foundation for the Development of Contemporary Art. Since 2007, Bagdonaite has worked in the field of contemporary art practice, helping to develop and maintain institutions dedicated to contemporary art and culture, including the State Solyanka Gallery, the State Museum of Architecture in Moscow and the ZARYA Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok, where she developed the ZARYA international Artist in Residence program. In 2020, opened Golubitskoe Art Foundation in Taman Peninsula. Laureate of Innovation Prize in 2020.