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Not Moscow: reaching for Russia's peripheries

Josh Nadeau

14 September, 2020

Not Moscow: reaching for Russia's peripheries

A new show at St. Petersburg’s Manege Exhibition Hall continues the trend of featuring artists from outside the Russian capital. Such projects, however, sometimes prove more problematic in their execution than expected

Stretches of graffiti snake across a boxy corridor. In a row of large portraits, women look out from the prison cells where they live their lives. A pile of concrete bricks sprouts greenery. Something like a UFO hovers near the staircases of the Manege, St. Petersburg’s prestigious exhibition space. 

These are entries in an exhibition called ‘Nemoskva is Just Around the Corner’. “Ne Moskva” literally means “Not Moscow”. It’s also the name of an initiative that, for the last few years, has declared its intentions to shine a light on artists outside of Russia’s bustling capital. The project had previously sent a group of international art experts on the Trans-Siberian Railway to select 12 local artists for an eventual exhibition in Brussels. 

The Manege exhibition is the first time ‘Nemoskva’ is being shown within Russia and the number of artists, who hail from nearly two dozen Russian cities, has increased to 60. 

The exhibition is organized thematically, with separate sections given to seven curators (many of whom are under 30). This contributes to a higher sense of visual chaos than usual for exhibitions at the Manege, but it also guarantees there’s something for everyone.

A few of the curators’ themes play on familiar Russian concepts. On the second floor lies a ‘Park of Culture and Recreation’, curated by Vladimir Seleznyov (Ekaterinburg), that looks transplanted from a Sesame Street horror imprint. A maze-like section called ‘Material Resource’, curated by German Preobrazhensky (Tyumen), takes inspiration from swamps and apartment building corridors.

The stark differences between the sections highlight the weaker pieces that might otherwise go unnoticed in a more unified exhibition. It is for instance hard for work inspired by street-art not to feel lifeless when transplanted to an exhibition hall.

However, there are striking moments like the ‘lethargy’-themed section (curated by Yevgeny Kutergin from Ekaterinburg), in which spaciousness and uncluttered entries effectively convey a sense of stagnation. Particularly memorable is Perm artist Elena Slobtseva’s (b. 1981) installation called ‘Chrysalis’, with bedding mounted on the wall in a way that evokes both isolation and sickness. It is something with which we’ve become all too familiar in the past few months.

However, the theme ultimately proves unwieldy. Displaying the work of regional artists is one thing, but it is discouraging that the first exhibition of Nemoskva has been staged in St. Petersburg, a city so deeply embedded in the country’s cultural nexus that branding it as ‘regional’ is strange. Nearly a third of the artists are originally from St. Petersburg, which makes one think of how different the exhibition would be if the curators had made a greater effort to seek artists outside Russia’s northern capital.

The program’s organizers have been criticized over just how supportive they are of the artists and curators they strive to promote. Elizaveta Kashintseva and Oleg Ustinov, two regional curators who participated in the Nemoskva curatorial school, claimed not to have received the support they felt was promised to them.  

While the project may face controversy at this stage of its existence, it’s beyond dispute that the idea of supporting regional artists has been gaining traction through the years. To a charitable observer, Nemoskva’s rise to prominence is at least a step in the right direction. However, an uncharitable observer might argue that the team are facing a struggle they have already congratulating themselves on overcoming. 

There’s a sense that, as the exhibition literature states, Moscow doesn’t really exist. It’s merely a mystification, but Nemoskva is just around the corner.

Nemoskva (More than Moscow)

The Manege Central Exhibition Hall

St. Petersburg, Russia

August 7 – October 15, 2020

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