This exhibition of contemporary art is dedicated to one of the foremost features of both natural and urban landscapes in Russia – the badland stretches of vacant lots and wastelands, a familiar sight to any one who lives in our homeland.
A vacant lot is an excerpt of the city space, land abandoned to its own devices outside of cultural and administrative control. Wastelands are a similar phenomenon, only in the wilderness, not the city. They are a dead patch where trees no longer grow, the scorched or swampy ground overrun instead with thickets. The chaos of these badlands is near total. Any signs of the normal order of things are almost completely absent from these places. With no objects of any distinguishable value, the visitor’s eye wanders into the void of a formless, disintegrating space. Vacant lots and wastelands occur in all of the so-called “civilized countries,” but there the emptiness is only a temporary condition of the space, a pause between what came before (and has since disappeared), and what will soon be. They are rare, these flawed chunks of a long-tended territory. Russia belongs with those countries where the islands of careful landscaping are set adrift in seas of boundless chaos. Here the empty lots and barren stretches are permanent. Not only permanent, but expanding. They are a de facto feature of the Russian landscape, and yet most of our fellow countrymen are not inclined to recognize these badlands in a spiritual, cultural or civil sense, thereby granting them a right to a legal status as significant elements of the urban and natural environment. For one part of our society, vacant lots and wastelands, while inevitable, are considered to be lowbrow, even embarrassing phenomena, something like an outhouse, indecent to look at or discuss. Countering this is another part of society that prefers to indulge its inexplicable cravings for apocalyptic images of total ruin, an urge catered to either by the virtual worlds of computer games or in real life, with the rise of so-called “slum tourism.” But these people are also not looking at these empty lots through the context of their existence. Rather, this act of voyeurism, of peering into an exotic mirror, serves the diggers, stalkers, and the practitioners of Urbex, with their mighty online fanbases, by helping to create a mental distance from the blight surrounding them. Meanwhile, in Russian fine arts, already for the third century in a row we see the formation and development of the tradition of perceiving these badlands through identification (or recognition) as an allegory for the landscape of the “Russian World.” This tradition first took root with the nationalist landscapes of Romanticism and its search for a visual equivalent to genius loci, “the genius of place” – an intersection of natural, social and spiritual forces, that also encapsulated the daily life of the people. Together, these painters formulated a specific standard of context, which, like a trace or an imprint, is always produced by the given nation in whatever geographic region it may conjure. This identification of the Russian landscape with wastelands originates in Fyodor Vassiliev’s gloomy masterpiece, The Thaw. This type of landscape continued in the lyrical “little bridges” of Polenov and Korovin, while in the Soviet period, it lay at the base of the landscape painting of the Nonconformists, offering a natural alternative to the utopian visions of Communism. Wastelands were a frequent subject for the masters of the Underground, like Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Mikhail Roginsky, Dmitri Plavinsky and Semyon Faibisovich, as well as for conceptualists Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, and Alexander Brodsky. In order to emphasize the continuity of this theme, this exhibition opens with works from several masters of the older generation, but the main focus is on those from the Post-Soviet period of Russian art. The artists in this exhibition primarily hail from Moscow and St Petersburg, with the exception of a talented duo of Latvian avant-gardists, Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis, who created a massive installation on “garage life” at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Vladivostok is represented in the exhibition through the works of the famous musician and artist-provocateur Pavel Shugurov, whose works will be displayed in metal garages, a defining feature of the vacant lots in this area. Throughout all of the works presented, the badlands of empty lots and barren stretches retain their original significance as allegories of Russian life, but the landscapes are no longer connected to the symbolism of social and existential crisis, alienation, abandonment, stagnation and powerlessness. Rather, we see these badlands in a more attractive light, as original spatial compositions within an environment full of fragments of unauthorized structures and historical ruins, populated by strays, weeds and occasional representatives from the disenfranchised and marginalized segments of the populations. Here these precarious folk are engaging not only in tender and carnal pleasures, but in a kind of industrial production. This unacknowledged world grants its inhabitants the freedom of a life unsanctioned and unrestricted. These places have their own aesthetics, based on the forms and textures which, in zones of order and discipline, might have negative connotations: dust, dirty snow, and mud, a viscous mix of smashed plastics, festering with random fragments and leftovers of their former life. These badlands offer a window into a history whose material witness has not yet been sanitized, as it has in other places, while also offering a view into the future, a shadowy utopia with which the elites regularly bait the population. The selected artists explore the morphology of these badlands, presenting the audience with a survey of the inverted optics of “the Russian outlook,” with which the inhabitants of these places perceive their worlds.
Kirill Ass, Blue Soup Group, Alexander Brodsky, Ilya Dolgov, Semyon Faibisovich, Sofia Gavrilova, Alexey Kallima, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Elizaveta Konovalova, Elena Koptyaeva, Valery Koshlyakov, Ivan Lungin, Roman Mokrov, Vladimir Molochkov, Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis, Vikentin Nilin, Nikolai Ovchinnikov, Anton Olshvang, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Plavinsky, Anastasia Potemkina, Mikhail Roginsky, Pavel Shugurov, Vitas Stasyunas, Ilya Trushevsky, Oleg Vassiliev, Anya Zhelud