YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Venturing into this Russian city can at first seem like stepping into a film from the early days of Soviet cinema, with its vast factory landscape surrounded by snow-covered steppes. During this year’s recent 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Modern Art, which ran September 13 to October 22, that feeling was only amplified. Among the rows of historic constructivist architecture, with newer landmarks interspersed throughout older industry, the influx of contemporary art and installations added an element of creativity that, in its own way, seemed very much at home.
The practice of using decommissioned factories as art spaces in Yekaterinburg pre-dated the first Ural biennial. But with its recent translation into an international art event, that practice is spotlighted in a way that feels relevant. Having developed as a manufacturing center relatively equidistant between Europe and Asia, much of Yekaterinburg’s 20th-century growth was based around its metal factories and machinery plants, and previously it had been void of any major contemporary art events. Today, many spaces in the city, co-opted for creative use, lend themselves as well to artists as they once did to machines and their workers. During the biennial, exhibitions and events filled spaces ranging from factories to local galleries, featuring 30 artists from 13 countries in the main show alone.
The event held plenty of surprises, starting during the press conference. On a tour led by the main project curator Iara Boubnova, visitors were led through an exhibit in which only half the works had been mounted — an almost symbolic display of Russia’s real-life entropy. While both organizers and journalists were caught off-guard, Boubnova took the snafu as an opportunity to comment on the Biennial’s relevance not just to contemporary practice, but to the potential of what art could be, asking those assembled to imagine the art that had not been delivered.
Later that evening at the official opening, guests were presented with a nearly fully-prepared exhibition, with a mere two works missing (those being an interpretation of the Slavs and Tartars’s piece PrayWay and photographs by Boris Mikhailov). The Biennial’s main project, The Eye Never Sees Itself, was curated by Boubnova and exhibited within the Ural Worker printing house, featuring installations ranging across media from photography and interactive video to text displays.
The artists in this show included Yekaterinburg-based Timofej Radya – arguably the most interesting street artist in Russia – represented via photographs from his graffiti series that involves words written on roofs. Vladimir Seleznev covered the walls with protest song lyrics. (At a certain point during the installation the lights went out, leaving the only thing visible an inscription that read “all in vain.”) Irina Korina’s Syncretic Hut, a collation of historic objects, directed audiences back to Russia’s pagan past.
Other highlights came from the group Where Dogs Run, which created a site-specific video installation; the Malevich Brigade, with a diverting, absurd piece, Prophylactoria (2012); Anton Vidokle, who offered an enigmatic video showing the construction of a mirrored house; and Cristina Lucas, whose video tackled the dilemmas of freedom. The most political statement may have been a banner by Slovenian artists IRWIN, which read, “Time for a new state. They say you can find happiness there.”
Turkish artist Kutluğ Ataman dominated the show, however, with his piece Küba, filling one entire hall with 40 TVs with 40 armchairs placed in front of them. In the film footage, 40 residents of an Istanbul slum simultaneously talk about their life and fate.
Aside from the main exhibitions, the program boasted no less than four special projects, one of them curated by Dimitri Ozerkov, who heads the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg’s section on contemporary art. His show, "From Production to Creation," was positioned in the Ordzhonikidzevskiy Centre of Culture. While the accompanying text to this one did not explain much — the theme was ways in which “consciousness of the socium returns to a medieval condition” — the works themselves stood out.
The crowning component to Ozerkov’s project was an installation by Ivan Plyushch entitled The Process of Passing Through. Filling an entire assembly hall of the Centre, beginning at the threshold, Plyushch's spectacular work consisted of a carpet running across the ceiling, tied in a whimsical knot, and suspended above a mélange of abandoned artifacts from the hall, including chairs and metal scraps. The suggestion here was that someone must unravel the knot. Perhaps — the artists?
The Biennial's second special project, presented by Valentin Dyakonov, incorporated the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts. The main attraction in this project was the historically important Kaslinsky Pavilion, which was created for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. A third project which received high acclaim — although this reporter wasn’t able to see it, as it was only shown once — was the experimental ballet H2O.
Indeed, despite its long run, the full Biennial would be have been impossible to fully survey. Still, the very scale of it indicates how well, in just a few short years, the event has been accepted as a vital part of the city's life. Having followed a long road of winning over local government, the organizers are now sowing the seeds for creative growth, making their efforts all the more worthwhile.
To see highlights from the 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Modern Art, click on the slideshow.