Russia's Art Scene Honored Its Heroes and Rising Stars at the Innovation Prize Ceremony

Innovation Prize winners Taus Makhacheva and Alexander Brodsky
(Photo by Artem Savateev)

MOSCOW — For seven years now, the Innovation Prize has been honoring the best in Russian contemporary art, a sort of Russian Turner Prize. Founded by Moscow’s National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) and the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of Russia, the prize would seem to have been a success — contemporary art and its perception by the masses has noticeably changed for the better during the years of its existence. Interest in the prize's ceremony this week extended beyond the charmed circle of art lovers to encompass a far wider audience.

This year also marked another big step forward for the Innovation Prize: its geography has widened, the number of entries has risen, and the prize's fund has doubled to $100,000, with $27,000 going to the winner in the main category, “Best Work of Visual Art." Following the April 3 ceremony, Russian art professionals took note of the positive changes: “The Innovation Prize is really important for Russia," Matthew Stephenson, managing director of Christie's Russia, told ARTINFO Russia. "And it seems to get stronger and stronger every year. I’m very pleased.” 

NCCA general director Michael Mindlin confessed that last year's scandal, with its notorious winners — anarchist art pranksters Voina, known for their provocative political interventions and persecution by the police — made Innovation known far outside of artistic circles. “That’s why there's even more attention on the prize this year,” he said.

Still, despite the fact that the year in Russia was full of major social and political events, it wasn’t reflected in Innovation nominees. By and large, nominated artists instead concentrated on personal themes.

The ceremony was held at the vast Artplay design center. As a theatrical touch during the ceremony, people in all-white costumes lit by projectors were framed behind a giant window, forming a multi-level tableux. Perhaps this spectacle was meant to make up for the absence of political context in the nominees (white is the symbol of the Russian protestant movement that erupted in the autumn and winter 2011), or perhaps the color was simply meant to reflect the long-drawn-out Moscow winter. Either, the sight of the white-clad figures doing their strange show was as perplexing as the works of some of the nominees.    

There was, in addition, another spectacular touch to the ceremony. In the past, the announcement of each nomination at the Innovation Ceremony has been preceded by an orchestral interlude. This year, ceremony guests were greeted instead by operatic arias. (This explains a prohibition against entering the hall with wine glasses — producers feared that the glass might shatter under the stress of the operatic vocals.)  Meanwhile, the masters of ceremony included famous Moscow gallerist Aidan Salakhova and chief editor of “Bolshoy Gorod” (“Big City”) magazine Philipp Dzyadko. The ceremony was broadcast online via the TVRain channel.

Among guests, the main topic of conversations was the contrast between artists in the main “Best Work of Visual Art” category, figures of very different stature indeed, at very different points in their careers. “It's expected that we have artists nominated in the category 'Work of Visual Art' who are of different age groups or generations," Christina Steinbrecher, director of Innovation Art Prize, said.  "Our expert council selected the five nominees, fully aware of every biographical fact and their exhibition history. The nomination reflects the best work of art of the year in the eyes of the expert council and the jury. The quality of the nominated work of art is all that is important.”

Nevertheless, the prize went to Alexander Brodsky, a veteran, for his “Cisterna” (“Tank”) project. Unfortunately, not everyone had a possibility to see it — it only existed for two weeks before being dismantled, leaving only video and photo documentation. Being an architect, Brodsky created his “Cisterna” at the site of an enormous, abandoned concrete space that was originally intended to be a reservoir. Its feeling of utter emptiness became the theme of the work. In fact, the only detail the artist actually added to the space were trembling curtains with light piercing through them. The complete emptiness of the austere half-lit premises and its monumentality created a miraculous feeling of the irreality.

“I’m given the prize for the work which no longer exists," Brodsky joked. "It’s really soothing: practically no responsibility, no one can check whether it was good or bad.”   

The video project “The Fast and the Furious” by Taus Makhacheva took the “New Generation” prize for best young artist. Makhacheva burst onto the Russian art-scene not long ago, but has quickly made a name for herself. Her “The Fast and the Furious” project was a reflection upon masculinity and its role in the modern world. “I worked really hard on that project," she said, commenting on the victory. "I developed it over two years — it went through very many stages. Half of the prize money or more will simply go to covering expenses. It’s awful to say so about yourself, but yes — I deserved it.” (On the April 10 her new exhibition “Let Me be Part of Your Narrative” opens at Paperworks Gallery.)

As for the other awards, venerable Moscow conceptualist duo Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich took the award for “Contribution to Development of Contemporary Art” — a seemingly uncontroversial choice — while “Best Regional Project” went to “Enclave,” by Eva GozhondekStach ShablovskyIrina Chesnokov, and Yevgeny Umansky from Kaliningrad (one of Innovation guests' other favorite topics was the prize's questionable division between “regional” and “big city” art.) Scholar Andrey Fomenko was awarded for his book “The Soviet Avant-Garde and the Conception of  Manufacturing and Utilitarian Art” in the category of art theory and criticism.

Finally, two special awards, given by the Embassy of France and British Council went to Alexander Gronsky, a figure who is man is said to be the toast of Russian photography but — as often happens with Russian artists — is well-known and better-loved abroad. 

Summing up this year's Innovation Awards, it can be said that they presented few surprises, but did illustrate the growing interest in contemporary art among a Russian audience, as well as a growth in overall quality and the generally high level of artistic activity in the many far-flung regions of Russia. All this holds out some hope for a rapid development and diversification of the art scene, a fact that Moscow Biennale commisar and Innovation jurymember Joseph Backstein took note of: “Finally I have a reason to travel to a different parts of Russia," he quipped.