Russia 2: Bad News from Russia

As December 2005 was drawing to a close I wrote about Russia!, an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City that presented 900 years worth of Russian art. What I didn’t know at the time was that a second, thematically related but independent show had been organized as a counterpoint to the Guggenhiem exhibit. Russia 2: Bad News from Russia, ran at White Box gallery in the heart of the Chelsea art district of New York City - both shows closed on January 11th, 2006, and offered startling different views of Russian art. As I read more about the Guggenheim show, it became apparent that it offered a vision more politically in tune with officialdom in Moscow and Washington then with the actual history of art in Russia.

In an article written for the New York Review of Books, Jamey Gambrell said the show was “well worth seeing,” but also called it “an affair of state” calculated to transform the image of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the show was developed under the official patronage of Putin, who also personally launched the Guggenheim show. A contributing editor to Art in America magazine, Gambrell also noted that Guggenheim trustee Vladimir Potanin, is not only a sponsor of the exhibit, he’s thought to be the richest man in Russia. Hal Foster, chair of the department of art and archaeology at Princeton, penned a scathing review of Russia! for the London Review of Books, in which he wrote: “Such seems to be the view from the Kremlin now: a Russian Ark of greatness, past, Putin and future. Titles followed by exclamation marks call up associations with toothpaste adverts and tour packages, and in some respects this is what Russia! is: an inspirational trip to a Potemkin village made of art.”

Bad News from Russia at White Box seemed an appropriate come back to the Guggenheim’s Potemkin village. Focusing on the realities of present-day Russian society, the exhibit was put together by Marat Guelman, who opened one of the earliest post-Soviet art galleries in Russia. Originally created as an alternative to Moscow’s first biennial of contemporary art held January 2005, the brazen exhibit was severely disparaging towards President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the current state of Russian affairs. Needless to say, Putin did not attend the opening to personally launched the show. While the artworks at White Box undeniably focus on the distressing news engulfing Russian society today - mafia-like oligarchs, right-wing nationalists, the war in Chechnya, and the declining living standards of the majority - the fact that such artworks are being created is good news, and not just for Russia.

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