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It Takes a Village: 2009's Kandinsky Prize Nominees

Anyone who thinks the Turner Prize has lost its mojo, its power to shock, would have been thrilled by the absurd histrionics around its self-proclaimed Russian equivalent this time last year. The award of the Kandinsky Prize to monumentalist painter Alexei Belyayev-Guintovt, a committed devotee of Stalinist aesthetics and, as “official stylist” for the Eurasian Union of Youth, some rather esoteric right-wing views, did not provoke the tabloid furor that the YBAs were once subject to, but in the tightly closed ranks of the Russian art world, it was enough to cause a schism.

Belyaev was decried as a “fascist” or “neo-fascist.” His nomination represented the “creeping fascizoid tendencies of the Russian nouveau riche,” claimed one critic. According to curator Andrei Erofeyev, a member of the jury, he was more deserving of the “Leni Riefenstal Prize.” Belyaev’s win – which by that point seemed all but inevitable – earned him a good 40,000 euros ($60,300), part of which he used to finance an exhibition dedicated to Akhmad Kadyrov, the late former president of Chechnya, in Grozny this summer.

But scandals do not a good prize make, as the British learned a long time ago. Neither, as the restaging of last year’s Kandinsky Prize nominees show in London last month showed, do they have much lasting value. On revisiting it, it was clear to me that the “first they came for the art prizes” noise had obscured a far larger, deeper-set, and dare I say relevant matter. Despite some inventive curating by Oleg Kulik, one of Russia’s best-known contemporary artists — he turned the drab and remote Louise Blouin Foundation space into a “Russian barn,” needing only some dancing bears and furry hats to tick off all the stereotypes — the exhibition was, with a few exceptions, the weak mess it had been at the Central House of Artists in 2008. Cheap exploitation and repetition ad nauseam of Soviet imagery and iconography proliferated. Many of the Westernized works were equally unimaginative and drab.

Now the prize is a year older and a year wiser. Judging by the new nominees, it’s a good sight improved as well. The stable of young artists, for a start, is promising, although the logic behind some of the jury’s choices escapes me a little. I’m not a huge fan of Evgeny Antufiyev, whose neo-Annete Messager works are the critics’ tip, and how gaudy retro-futurist fashion icon Andrei Bartenev’s disciple Sasha Frolova beat out the likes of Milk&Vodka, Dmitry Teleskin or the all-conquering Recycle group to sneak into the top three is a mystery to me. That said, former graffiti artist MAKE’s work with lightboxes and various plastic paraphernalia from everyday life deserves its place on the short list — although given the commercial tinges and slightly odd reasoning that have clouded Kandinsky decisions in the past (last year the wonderfully crude street artist Grigory Yushenko was robbed! Robbed!) he’s far from a shoo-in.

In the Media Art category, however, Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin’s Electroboutique all but are. You may well have seen their oversized LCD-screen sunglasses and iPods somewhere; they have long provided an innovative approach to and critical take on new technologies and the art market, selling affordable, carbon-neutral art that “cares. Cares about nature. Cares about people. Cares about you.” The concept store-studio-gallery they operated for years closed this summer along with the whole ArtStrelka complex, and a win here would be a fitting send-off. Art students Julia Devlyasheva and Alexandra Toshchevikova are up against them with a short clip called “Coffee Break” (viewable on the Kandinsky Prize site) about a waitress finding catharsis after being fired from Jean-Jacques on Nikitsky Boulevard — they are something of a dark horse.

Rounding out the nominees in the Media category — and nominated for the main prize as well — is Moscow Conceptualist Vadim Zakharov. “No Distance,” a video from his stay in Rome after he won the Joseph Brodsky prize, envisions art as an unbroken process through one hundred interpretations of one drawing. Accompanying that is his “Saint Sebastian” furniture, strange and impractical wooden constructions incorporating avant-gardist El Lissitsky’s famous red wedge, shown at GMG Gallery last year. Zakharov, the self-appointed chronicler of the late Soviet artistic underground, was also responsible for one of 2009’s best exhibitions — works from his private archive, mostly bought from his friends for pennies, shown at NCCA — and is an irreproachable artist in his own right.

But the younger Pavel Pepperstein, one of the last Conceptualists, may have the edge here. He is up for his well-known “City of Russia” series, a two-year old project of fantastical paintings and drawings imagining a future Russian capital modeled, again, after the Russian avant-garde. Pepperstein is also an excellent prose stylist, and a popular one at that: Russian GQ named him Writer of the Year in 2007. His open letter to then-president Vladimir Putin, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov and St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko accompanying the series deserves an award on its own. Decrying the construction boom destroying the “sense of Russia,” he proposes turning the two cities into “living museums” and building a new, “psychedelic realist” capital, with his drawings as templates. Despite only having been active as an artist for about two decades, Pepperstein seems to have had the status of a legend for as long as memory serves. This year has been something of an annus mirabilis for him, with two appearances at the Venice Biennale, a star turn with works from “Russia City” at the Moscow Biennale and a surge of commercial interest.

That said, my personal vote goes to Nikolai Polissky’s wood-rendered take on the Large Hadron Collider. Polissky lives and works in the tiny village of Nikolo-Lenivets on the banks of the Ugra River, four hours outside of Moscow. Over the last ten years or so, Polissky turned it from a run-down outpost known only for its vicious local samogon (home-brewed vodka) into one of Russia’s few artistic bright spots outside of the capitals. Twice a year, Polissky puts on the ArchStoyanie land art festival, attracting the efforts not only of great artists like Alexandr Brodsky and Electroboutique but also a whole team of local peasants that make up his assistants. Arguably, he deserved a nomination last year — he didn’t even make the shortlist — for his “Firebird,” a massive metal figure modeled after the Russian imperial eagle that belched out smoke and flames on the eve of the presidential election.

But ultimately it’s more about what the Kandinsky Prize is for. Polissky is by far the least known (most underrated, in my book) of the nominees, and unlike most of the other artists, didn’t even nominate himself for the prize; but if you see a prize as about rewarding achievement, his transformation of an entire village easily stands with Zakharov and Pepperstein’s distinguished list of plaudits. I’m not sure the jury will think the same way — last year they favored Belyayev over legendary SotsArt sculptor Boris Orlov. But this time, for a change, they do have three excellent artists to choose from. And that’s at least a start.

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