This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 2 (Winter 2015–2016)
Yekaterinburg, Russia, Sep 9–Nov 10, 2015
The city of Yekaterinburg, nestled deep in the Russian heartland almost 2000 km east of Moscow, might not be the most obvious site for an international biennial. Yet straddling as it does the putative geographical divide between Europe and Asia—the Ural Mountains—it is perhaps less surprising that this erstwhile “Gateway to Siberia” has chosen for its biennial two China-based curators, Biljana Ciric and Li Zhenhua.
Yekaterinburg is arguably the most important Russian city that is hardly known outside the former Soviet Union: named after Peter the Great’s wife, Empress Catherine, the city later witnessed the execution of the last Tsar of Russia and the rest of the Romanovs following the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Later, Stalin built the region up as a major industrial center; as the saying goes, “the Urals defeated Germany.” Visiting Communist dignitaries—including Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro—duly paid homage, particularly to Uralmash, a massive machine factory complex. It was also in this city (renamed Sverdlovsk during Soviet times) that a young Boris Yeltsin reached prominence before climbing to the pinnacle of power. Less salutarily, Yekaterinburg also suffered an anthrax leak in 1979; the closed city was a major center of the Soviet military-industrial complex.
With such a history, the Ural Biennial has always engaged on some level the legacy of its industrial heritage. The first was subtitled “Shockworkers of the Mobile Image” (curated by Cosmin Costinas, Ekaterina Degot, and David Riff) and was situated in the Ural Worker Printing Press—which has now predictably gentrified. Now, for the third iteration of the biennial, the main venue has switched to the Iset Hotel, a Constructivist gem: about nine stories high and circular (supposedly representing the sickle), the structure is functionally brutalist and yet not without its charms; it also happened to be a major building in “Gorodok Chekistov” (Chekist Town)—in other words, the Town of KGB Officers—the compound from which surveillance and discipline were meted out. Such somber shadows from the past certainly force a particular reaction in curatorial strategy—as does the loose theme of “Mobilization”—but concretely, it is the layout of the structure that imposes the greatest constraints. The Iset Hotel was, well, a hotel, with individual rooms leading off from the long corridor on every floor. The biennial’s two curators—who in effect divided the show into separate sections—adopted different strategies.
Biljana Ciric’s section “Spaces for Maneuver: Between Abstraction and Accumulation” imposed a strong trajectory, from the front door of the Iset Hotel through the first three floors (with also an isolated part on the top 9th floor); the assembled artworks showcased an international range of artists. A Tino Sehgal work greeted visitors at the front gate, followed by Siniša Ilić’s “Conference Room with a View over the Mediterranean”—an installation of chairs strewn about, designed to serve also as a site for discursive programming. Jompet Kuswidananto’s “A Model for Mass and Explosion”, with its mechanical waving hands, welcomes visitors on the second floor, before Alisa Yoffe’s punk drawings on the corridor walls (“And if You Don’t Feel Yourself Pretty Sick, then Go Away from My Yard”)—a nod to punk resistance to Vladimir Putin’s program of nationalism and the centralization of power.
Particular strains emerge, such as that of mass collective movement—perhaps of a certain nostalgia for the potentialities of a Socialist future, now fallen into dust. This was seen in Marta Popivoda and Ana Vujanović’s “Mass Ornament”—a video of one of the last Yugoslav Youth Day Celebrations in 1987, where audiences seemingly enthusiastically joined in the propagandistic celebrations despite public anticipation of future problems, if not necessarily collapse. The focus shifts to Polina Kanis’ “Work Out”, which presents collective bodies regulated by a fitness instructor. The viewer’s attention then moves to Jonathan de Andrade’s “Sugarcane ABC”, which involves the “landless workers movement” and pedagogy in present-day Brazil. Such is an example of Ciric’s modulation of a theme. Another would be Yurko Koval’s “Trinity. Jewel”, paintings of metallic hues from the region, paired with Pratchaya Phinthon’s “Untitled”, photographs of meteorites sliced and polished as mirrors, both centering around resources in the general sense (to the side was also Yoko Ono’s “Touch”, where the 1963 dark room was inverted to a light room; this meditative space instead fell flat).
Other works dealt with the idea of power, though not always directly. Li Liao’s “Office—Ekaterinburg” involved the artist filming the office of the mayor of Yekaterinburg empty for a whole day, a direct if perhaps simple display of the normally hidden condition of power. (The mayor Yevgeny Roizman is himself perhaps the bigger draw: with a dubious history, Roizman is one of the few politicians left in Russia who is not part of the ruling United Russia, while his “City Without Drugs” program—which purportedly involved kidnapping drug addicts to force them to quit—was not without controversy). Wong Hoy Cheong’s “UnCover” catalogues manhole covers, subtly linking structures of political power within the city (police stations, municipal buildings and such like) through the subterranean sewage system, which hints at hidden linkages as well. Noteworthy also is the strategy of restaging. Shi Yong’s “The Other On-Site Sound: the Private Space Going Public” revisited his work from 20 years ago—but instead of recording his own apartment and streaming it live, he records an elderly couple’s apartment (the collective 3PLY also reproduced the “Let’s Talk about Money” fax exhibition from 1990s Shanghai in book form). Lest readers think all works were so focused on power or collectivity, more expansive works were present, too, like Ho Tzy Nyen’s “The Making of the New Silkroads” (2009), a self-reflexive video work on postures and gestures within an art conference, slyly commenting institutionally on the ponderousness of such powwows.
In comparison, Li Zhenhua’s section “No Real Body” felt like a series of mini-exhibitions loosely strung around themes of virtual bodies, encoding, and image reproduction. !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s “The Random Darknet Shopper. The Bot’s Collection” involved a bot being programmed to engage in the darknet, that cupboard of skeletons of the internet; in the end, it bought some drugs and a legal conundrum ensued as to whether a computer program could be hauled to court. The collective Where Dogs Run’s “Knitting Mandelbrot set” connected knitting and mathematics in a colorful textile work—harkening back to Lovelace, an early female mathematician and an avid knitter.
Many Chinese artists were present; notable was Kwan Sheung Chi’s “Doing It With Mrs. Kwan …Making Pepper Spray”, a slightly campy and tongue-firmly-in-cheek production of a TV clip teaching viewers to make their own pepper spray. Also presenting works were Chen Qiulin, Wang Yiquan and Yan Xing, among others. Lu Pingyuan’s ghost stories, installed through the floors, more directly reflected the site. In all honest truth, these mini-exhibitions mostly felt disconnected; some were lackluster. A charitable view would allow for another function of biennials—beyond that of the national pavilions (Venice) or spectacular displays of transnational wealth (the list is long)—that of forging meaningful engagements beyond connections through New York/London/Berlin (in the perhaps usual forms of discussions, panels, forums, but which in the end has to happen on a person-to-person level). One could also note Russia’s current economic difficulties: faced with plummeting oil prices, the resource-dependent Russian economy has slowed considerably, with the ruble doping sharply in value. That anything went ahead was due to the redoubtable biennial team and the funding secured from local businesses (which Moscovite critics acidly dubbed the “graveyard of logos”—that field of logos, by now standard, at the nether regions of catalogues).
Aside from the main exhibition, the biennial also featured a residency program—which placed artists in Yekaterinburg as well as the surrounding cities and towns of the Ural region—along with an architectural presentation of the history of the Iset Hotel, a performance platform, as well as the customary collateral events. The history of Chekist Town, curated by Ilya Shipilovskikh, was particularly informative. Meticulously installed (though unfortunately only in Russian, at least at the time of the opening), it documents the planned community that housed Yekaterinburg’s Soviet officials. The archival photographs and documents tell the backstory of the Constructivist compound and some of the people who lived there—but the exhibition also foregrounds the utopian ideals of Stalinist Constructivism and its ideological imperatives, including the lack of bathrooms and kitchens in individual apartments in order to “encourage” communal living.
Glancing sideways at the Moscow Biennial this year—drastically cut to a series of symposiums and artworks created on-site—one can only wonder at the future. Indeed, one also wonders how much longer the Ural Biennial can continue to mine its industrial heritage as a theme. In other words, at what point does the “industrial” in the self-definition of the biennial become a straitjacket rather than an inspiring point of departure in an age of “touristic reproduction”? (1)
 “It is globalization and mobility that have fundamentally called the utopian character of the city into question by reinscribing the urban ou-topos into the topography of globalized space…We are now witnesses to a sheer explosion of eternity or, to put it more succinctly, of eternalization in our cities. It is no longer only such famed monuments as the Eiffel Tower or Cologne Cathedral that seem to cry out for preservation, but in fact anything that sparks a sense of familiarity in us—after all, that’s how things always used to be and that’s how they will stay. Even when you go, for example, to New York and visit the South Bronx and see drug dealers shooting each other (or at least looking as if they are about to shoot each other), such scenes are imbued with the dignified aura of monumentality…Rather than being guided by some intrinsic quality pertaining to a monument, our sense of monumentality is derived from the relentless process of monumentalization, de-monumentalization and re-monumentalization that is unleashed by the romantic tourist’s gaze.” Boris Groys, “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction,” Art Power. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.