Art media

how the censors returned to russian art

In the cathedral-like central hall of GES-2, a former power station turned contemporary art center a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, disembodied ghostly voices whisper from a set of loudspeakers. Young Muscovites dressed in trendy clothes and radical haircuts walk around the sound installation, pose for selfies and admire the space designed by Renzo Piano.

Across town, in Gorky Park, in the Rem Koolhaas-designed Garage Center for Contemporary Art, hipsters sip mochaccinos at the cafe. Spaces and people could be anywhere in Europe. Except in Moscow, these ultra-modern, world-class exhibition spaces are missing one thing – lots of real art.

At the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian and foreign artists released their works from the Garage, GES-2, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and many other museums. This month, Garage – funded by billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich and run by his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova – announced it would suspend all future exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has ceased”. According to a spokesperson, “we cannot sustain the illusion of normalcy when such events occur…We see ourselves as part of a larger world not divided by war.”

GES-2, funded by billionaire Leonid Mikhelson and opened late last year by Vladimir Putin, also lost its artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, who resigned in protest at the start of the war. Another art center owned by Mikhelson, in Venice, was occupied last week by anti-war protesters.

The multimillion-dollar GES-2 project was meant to be Moscow’s answer to Tate Modern, while Garage reopened in a new location in 2015 with a party packed with Western celebrities such as George Lucas, Harvey Weinstein and Karlie Kloss , who gobbled down vodka and charcuterie alongside titans of international art from François Pinault to Larry Gagosian. Vanity Fair magazine called Garage “a hot temple of contemporary Russian art”.

Now those days seem like another age. Today, Garage and GES-2 now resemble the museums of an international, modern, European Moscow that has been destroyed as completely as the Ukrainian cities bombed by Putin.