Tuesday, January 18

With its new temple of contemporary art, the Russian power in the face of its contradictions

A new temple of contemporary art, built a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in Moscow by a gas billionaire, highlights the contradictions of Russian power, between modernity and hardening.

Imposing electric blue chimneys surmount the GES-2, a former pre-revolutionary thermal power station transformed by the star Italian architect Renzo Piano, on the banks of the Moskva River.

This museum, which opens to the public on Saturday, after years of work, was built by the VAC foundation of the oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, boss of the gas group Novatek, one of the richest men in Russia.

A tandem of Italians, director Teresa Mavica and artistic director Francesco Manacorda, a former Tate Liverpool man, want to bring in the biggest international names and honor Russian artists.

“I told Leonid (Mikhelson, Editor’s note) to buy the buildings around to demolish them. And he did it. To make a good building, you need a good client”, rejoiced Renzo Piano, by video conference.

The cost of this place, which aspires to be the contemporary world-class museum that Moscow lacks, is not known but is estimated at several hundred million dollars.

“I’m sure it was very expensive, but Leonid (Mikhelson, editor’s note) decided to keep it to himself,” says Ms. Mavica.

“Everything was done like in a fantastic world. But it’s always like that, when there is unlimited money: you can do everything in an ideal way, without compromise”, believes Marat Guelman, a renowned collector, criticism of the authorities.

– “Correct the image” –

Beyond appealing to art lovers, this museum also aims to restore the image of Russian power, according to some observers. Because, far from the glitter of this modern place, the country seems to have slipped in the opposite direction.

A growing crackdown is hitting the opposition, independent media, social networks and NGOs. Vladimir Putin changed the Constitution, which now allows him to remain president until 2036.

“The authorities dream that politics is frozen, but that business and art develop” while being completely “depoliticized”, believes Mr. Guelman for whom “it looks like a schizophrenia of power”.

For Nathalie Obadia, gallery owner teaching the geopolitics of contemporary art at Sciences Po Paris, “this is the strength of the soft power of contemporary art: it allows individuals and countries to shine and correct a negative image abroad as well as at home “.

She cites the example of China and Saudi Arabia.

For large fortunes, it is a way of “giving something back to the community, because there is often a lack of public money in contemporary art”, estimates the gallery owner.

Another billionaire, Roman Abramovich, also offered Moscow a contemporary art museum in 2008, the Garage.

– “Schizophrenia” –

Marat Guelman “welcomes this schizophrenia”, estimating that “there is a great chance that they will not manage to control this space” and that “under this totalitarian power”, something flourishes which “breaks the authorities”.

The museum is open to all, free, with a large central alley, a favorable place, according to him, for meetings and discussions, sheltered from the harsh Moscow climate.

Russia has above all been talked about in the art world in recent years with radical and political performances, such as those of the feminist group Pussy Riot or Piotr Pavlensky, who had his testicles nailed to Red Square as a sign of protest.

Their notoriety is also due to the strong reaction of the authorities against them.

The GES-2 center for its part promises cutting-edge art but accessible to all, especially families. This week, Mr. Putin came to visit the place and show his support.

“Of course, it’s different (in Russia, Editor’s note). I come from Iceland, where we are completely free,” concedes Ragnar Kjartansson, performer in the spotlight for the opening.

“Here, we work with these limits and in a way, they are an inspiration,” he adds.

“Thanks to art, there is an openness, young people come into contact with what is done abroad, guest artists have contact with local populations”, rejoices gallery owner Nathalie Obadia.

But, she adds, “it’s an opening that can sometimes be dangerous.”


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