Andrea Palasciano (AFP)
Moscow, Russia ●
Mon, December 6, 2021
Opposite the Kremlin, the century-old factory that supplied electricity to the seat of Russian power has been transformed by a billionaire gas magnate into a temple of contemporary art.
Scheduled to open on Saturday, the GES-2 site on the banks of the Moskva which winds through the Russian capital was designed by the great Italian architect Renzo Piano and promises to house the biggest international names and Russian stars.
Beyond appealing to art lovers, the place also aims to improve the image of Russia, according to observers.
The opening comes at the end of a year that has seen President Vladimir Putin’s government lead an increasingly repressive campaign against the opposition, beginning with the imprisonment of its best-known domestic critic, Alexei Navalny.
Authorities have also targeted independent media and rights organizations and cracked down on social media networks, reducing the space for criticism and chilling freedom of expression.
As Russia embarks on parallel tracks of autocratic rule and modernization, the opening of GES-2 highlights these contradictions.
“Putin and his administration have this dream that they can freeze politics while growing business or art,” said art collector and government critic Marat Gelman.
“It sounds like schizophrenia.”
GES-2 is funded by one of the richest people in Russia, Leonid Mikhelson, founder and head of Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas group.
With towering electric blue chimneys, the sprawling complex has solar panels on its roof and a birch grove, and will be home to galleries, cafes and art residences.
“Everything was done in a fantastic way,” Gelman said.
In addition to the architect, the project has two other Italians on board: Teresa Mavica, who oversees the VAC Mikhelson Foundation which oversees GES-2, and Artistic Director Francesco Manacorda, formerly of Tate Liverpool.
The cost of the center was not disclosed but is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the Forbes 2021 ranking, Mikhelson’s fortune is valued at $ 24.9 billion (22 billion euros).
“I told Leonid (Mikhelson) to buy the neighboring buildings to demolish them – and he did. To make a good building, you need a good client,” Piano told reporters.
Nathalie Obadia, a gallery owner who also teaches art policy at Sciences Po Paris, said that contemporary art allows “individuals and countries to correct a negative image abroad and at home”.
“This is the strength of the soft power of contemporary art,” she explained, citing the examples of China and Saudi Arabia.
For the mega-rich, contemporary art is also a way to give back to the community, she added, as art is typically supported by little public funding.
Mikhelson is not the first billionaire to make Moscow an artistic place. In 2008, billionaire Roman Abramovich offered the city the garage of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
In recent years, Russia has been making waves in the art world mainly for the radical and political performances of artists like the feminist group Pussy Riot or Pyotr Pavlensky, who sewed his lips together and nailed his testicles to the Red Square in protest.
Their notoriety is also due in part to the reaction of the Russian authorities, who imposed fines and prison terms on the artists.
While GES-2 promises cutting-edge art, it is also committed to being accessible to everyone, especially families.
As a sign of support, Putin himself came to visit the center this week ahead of its official opening.
The center will open with a performance by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, whose exhibition will recreate each episode of the 1980s American soap opera “Santa Barbara”, which was a hit in Russia.
The artist told AFP that in Russia he has to work within “limits”.
But that “is – in a way – inspiring,” he said. “The great Russian culture of the past has always been created in this kind of situation.”
Obadia highlighted the intercultural communication possible through contemporary art as a powerful force between young Russians and visiting foreign artists.
“Through art, there is an opening that can be made,” Obadia said.
“It’s an opening that can be dangerous at times.”