On the last Saturday in April, Muscovites strolled through GES-2, a sprawling new arts center built in a disused power plant a short walk from the Kremlin. But guests visiting the 54,400 square meter center, designed by pioneering Italian architect Renzo Piano, were faced with a problem that was hard to miss: the art was missing.
“This is not the moment in contemporary art where people are dying and blood is flowing. We cannot pretend that life is normal,” said Evgeny Antufiev, a Russian artist who requested that his works be removed from GES-2 shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Late last year, Vladimir Putin visited the GES-2 museum alongside Leonid Mikhelson, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, who funded the multimillion-dollar construction of the center .
Cameras followed Putin as he watched the work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson – who opened the highly anticipated GES-2 with Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture, a theatrical piece that examined the relationship between Russia and the states -United.
Few places now seem to embody Russia’s cultural decoupling from the west better than the great empty walls of GES-2, created as Moscow’s answer to the Tate Modern.
“We must put an end to this illusion that things will return to what they were before the war. Drinking cocktails at art openings while people are being killed seems criminal,” Antufiev said.
Other Russian and foreign artists and curators, including Kjartansson, quickly distanced themselves from GES-2 when it became clear that the museum would not use its platform to oppose the Russian invasion.
“After the invasion, a lot of people were asking the institution to take a more visible stance, like the institutions were writing open letters saying GES-2 and other museums should say something, but it’s really a threat for their own existence,” Francesco said. Manacorda, the former artistic director of the VAC Foundation in Moscow which runs GES-2, who resigned shortly after the start of the war.
” I imagine that [exhibiting anti-war works] is out of the question. You know that making an anti-war statement has legal consequences,” he added.
Russia’s parliament last month passed a law imposing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading “false” information about the military in Ukraine.
Another building that will stand empty for the coming weeks is Russia’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The pavilion – built just before the Russian Revolution of 1917 – is traditionally a meeting place for much of Russia’s political and cultural elite, who eagerly travel to Venice to attend arguably the most prestigious exhibition in the world. world.
Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, two Russian artists said they could not represent their country at the pavilion, while their Lithuanian-born curator Raimundas Malašauskas resigned.
“When the war broke out, it became clear to us that we could not be in Venice because it is the flag of the Russian Federation. And even in some kind of middle ground, like Venice, on Italian soil, it is still subordinate to the Russian Ministry of Culture,” Malašauskas said.
Marat Gelman, a veteran Russian art collector, said that with the war dragging on, only Russian artists who openly protested against it in their art would be welcome in Europe.
“Artists must either protest war in their work or keep quiet. I don’t believe there will be room for compromise,” he said.
At the start of the war, when opposition to the conflict had not yet been criminalized, more than 17,000 Russians working in the arts signed an open letter demanding an end to the invasion.
However, as the country launched its systematic crackdown on opposition to the war, hundreds of artists decided to leave the country.
“I fled Moscow, which turned into Mordor. For me, personally, there were no more options – I couldn’t sit there and shut up, and given my current activities, I wouldn’t have been free for long,” said Russian artist Antonina Baever.
“The only art from Russia that is relevant now is militant and anti-war art, but they give 15 days to 15 years for that,” Baever said, referring to the “fake news” law.
For the rest of the cultural world left behind, the message was clear: fall in line.
Speaking at a meeting with prominent cultural figures that aired on national television last month, Putin set the tone by saying that Russia was also engaged in a cultural battle against the West, comparing the treatment of Russian culture abroad to the burning of “junk literature” by the Nazis. supporters in Germany.
His message was clearly heard in Moscow. Soon after, the city’s Bolshoi Theater announced it would be staging a series of shows in support of Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine, with all proceeds going to the families of Russian soldiers killed in action. The Oleg Tabakov Theater has displayed the pro-war Z military symbol on the three-story facade of its building in central Moscow.
Yet some artists in the country continued to protest the war despite the risks.
Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist from St Petersburg, was arrested last week for a daring performance in which she allegedly replaced supermarket price tags with messages protesting Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine. Skochilenko now faces up to 10 years in prison for “discrediting” the Russian military.
And on Tuesday, police raided a classical anti-war concert at a Moscow cultural center, interrupting a performance by pianist Alexei Lubimov, who ended the closing bars of Schubert’s Impromptu Op 90 No 2 in dramatic fashion. as two policemen came on stage. .
For now, the once glitzy VAC will serve as a stark reminder of how the war changed Moscow overnight, as its former staff continues to struggle with the demise of the ambitious art project intended to bring Russia closer to the west.
“The staff, that’s 250 people, worked together on this massive project, and with one action it was all taken away. I am still in a state of mourning,” Manacorda said.