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John Kormeling, ‘Capital Cola: A Real American Taste’, 2001, labels, bottles, cola

It may seem absurd to host an international art exhibition in the dead of Russian winter—or just an ingenious strategy to give visitors an authentic experience. While skyscrapers are sprouting up around the city like trophies to the gushing oil economy, the second Moscow Biennale was held mostly on construction sites, some incredibly difficult to reach—sloshing through snow, slipping on ice, and dodging ice chunks being cleared from roofs—adding a heroic element to the quest. You take your life in your hands just crossing the wide boulevards, with pedestrian underpasses far enough apart to encourage scofflaws to dart into traffic.

One of the two main venues, an unfinished addition to the upscale TsUM department store, hosted American Video Art at the Beginning of the Third Millennium, selected from the exhibition Uncertain States of America, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum, and Gunnar Kvaran. The dark, columned room was a dreamlike cacophony of sound and image—its most alluring installation Jordan Wolfson’s headless sign-language interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, 2005, projected by a clinking vintage machine. The videos seemed like banal expressions of modern life—alienated people walking in cities, staring up from their beds, or talking to the camera—after passing by slick retail displays and entering an unassuming door manned by a stern security guard who had no idea the press office was inside.

But perhaps even the disorganisation of the event was a ploy to familiarise visitors with the famed Russian fatalism. Art market economist Julia Volfson and I had heard conflicting reports about whether there was a shuttle to the next opening, at the Federation Tower, so we embarked together. Emerging into the cold white night with no bus in sight, we made our way to the Teatralnaya metro station, where a young boy snatched Julia’s wallet then threw it back at her after removing the cash, all in about two seconds. At the Arbatskaya station, two policewomen in smart grey fur hats said they knew him and instructed her to look again for her credit cards—we later heard that usually by the time you get to the platform police to report a pickpocket they already have your wallet, as part of a deal with the thieves.

After getting lost in the sprawling futuristic site of Moscow’s new business district, we arrived at what will soon be the tallest tower in Europe. Central Asian hard hats flirted and posed for photos as we ascended ramps to the breezy external elevator, where everyone exchanged stories of how they got there. The show was divided into four vaguely separate exhibitions over three floors, plus a section displaying works from a private collection, imparting a sense of disjointedness. On the 19th floor we were delighted by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi’s clever window drawings: one cartoon figure had a gun to his head Russian-roulette style, fittingly superimposed against the dizzying panorama of illuminated cranes and empty towers.

Carsten Nicolai, 'Snow Noise', 2001, mixed media, installation Ecole Nationale, Paris 
Carsten Nicolai, ‘Snow Noise’, 2001, mixed media, installation Ecole Nationale, Paris

Another highlight was Chinese artist Liu Jianhua’s enchanting ceramic urban skyline intersecting the wall with striking jagged shadows projected below—many of the buildings not escaping comparison to flaccid phalluses. Carsten Nicolai’s poetic mock laboratory ‘Snow Noise’, 2001, triggered a meditation on the nature of reality, made all the more captivating because the eponymous substance, examined through giant magnifiers or listened to in tubes, was all around us. But under the circumstances, we might be excused for focusing on art about consumerism: In a windowed corner with a precipitous view, a vitrine displayed bottles of ‘Capital Cola: A Real American Taste’, with graphic labels depicting the World Trade Center (‘Memorial Cola’ 2001, by John Körmeling).Elsewhere the ersatz brand ‘Non-Alcoholic Vodka’, 2006, by Danish collective Superflex, also mocked capitalism while conflating commercial product with art. Actors posing as jailed stockbrokers in Gianni Motti’s ‘Broker’, 2005, provoked Julia into a discussion about the art market until she caught sight of Art Basel director Sam Keller, whom she pursued with questions as he attempted escape with his blonde companion.

Some of the deconstructed spaces housing special exhibitions evoked the magnificence of ruins. A welcome respite from cold conceptualism, Pipilotti Rist’s sensuous video ‘Sip My Ocean’, 1996, was projected dreamily on the corner of a raw brick space in the Schusev State Museum of Architecture: two vivid mesmerising underwater mirror images accompanied by the artist singing Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, about the dual nature of desire, first sweetly and then hysterically. At Winzavod, a former wine factory being converted into galleries and offices, a cavernous basement space had Gothic vaults, creating a darksome, otherworldly atmosphere that nearly overpowered the large-format video installations. One of the most engaging shows, ‘Monuments of Our Discontent: Expiration of Place’, organised by the National Art Museum of Lithuania, focused on the replacing of history with corporations and the increasing speed of industrial obsolescence—tragically relevant in the rapidly transforming urban context.

Indeed opening week the Moscow Times reported that Red Square’s 19th century Middle Trading Row had been quietly razed to make way for new development in spite of historical landmark designation. Currently under threat are Constructivist masterpieces, including the Narkomfin housing complex. Meanwhile expats complain that it is nearly impossible to find an apartment, even at $10,000 a month. Formerly a potent metaphor for collective agriculture, the tractors everywhere reminded me of Igor and Gleb Aleinikov’s 1987 film Traktora (Tractor Driver), a brilliantly ironic paean to the mythic implement through Constructiviststyle manipulation of Soviet driver-training footage. Named after the 1980s samizdat publication produced by the brothers and formerly an alternative venue for the underground Parallel cinema movement, the Cine Fantom club screened the films of Matthew Barney during the Biennale—and is now funded by a commercial TV channel.

If a unifying theme did not emerge clearly in the exhibitions, the backdrop of commercialism on speed validated the title Footnotes on Geopolitics, Markets, and Amnesia with unequivocal evidence of Russian society rushing to embrace Western capitalist culture just as it did Bolshevism, further disseminating a sort of global amnesia where, as Backstein writes, ‘the artist is in danger of disappearing amid the avalanche of commerce and pop culture’. The extraordinary exhibition spaces outshined the artworks—indeed making them mere footnotes—the most compelling installations relating to the surrounding environment. For example, two exhibitions uncannily employed the same status symbol of capitalist prosperity: At the Museum of Modern Art, Italian Luca Pancrazzi displayed a Maserati covered entirely in chilling glass shards along with a video of it cruising the urban landscape. For ‘Disgrace’, at the Schusev Museum, Elmgreen & Dragset tarred and feathered a Rolls-Royce, which revolved mockingly on a platform. The sparkling blue Rolls in the window of a dealership down the street brought the point home, as did the impressive list of the Biennale’s private sponsors filling three pages of the catalogue. But the only real political statement was found in Forbidden Art: The Postwar Russian Avant-Garde, an unofficial exhibition at the Sakharov Museum that traced the responses of dissident artists to Socialist Realism, including Christian symbols viewed through holes in a bed sheet. Testing the limits of censorship by showing works that had previously been barred from public display, Andrei Yerofeyev, chief curator at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, is being prosecuted by the Orthodox People’s Council and may ultimately lose his job. In 2005 museum curators were fined for another exhibition that satirised the church.

Russian women are reportedly eschewing diamonds in favour of art as symbols of desirability—just as cities are rushing to host biennales to gain cultural prestige. The glitzy glamorisation of consumerism in Russia approaches kitsch alongside the grey remnants of totalitarianism. Vestiges of the Soviet mentality highlight the stark contrast between old and new. One morning with the insistent ringing of the doorbell I was introduced to the sweet landlady dressed in fur: as my friend had warned, she was coming to check the apartment for fear that nosy neighbours would detect foreign guests not registered by the police.

Sitting next to me at the airport, a young boy named Viktor manoeuvred a figure around various obstacles and menaces in an industrial landscape on his Game Boy. He asked me, ‘Do you know how to play this game?’ All too well, I thought. But worse, it hit me that I had caught a bad case of the characteristic Russian sense of the absurd as I envisioned the head of a ubiquitous namebrand curator in place of the pendulum clocks hanging at random intervals in the pristine Frankfurt airport.

Cathryn Drake is a writer living in Rome.