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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kandinsky Very Bland After 2008 ‘Fascist’ Scandal

For MTZakharov won with “St. Sebastian Furniture Set and Porridge,” which takes a skewed look at Russian art history.
The Kandinsky Prize, Russia’s most financially generous contemporary art award, marked its third year with its safest choice and blandest ceremony yet. Vadim Zakharov, self-anointed archivist of the Moscow conceptualist school, beat out ersatz land artist Nikolai Polissky and fellow conceptualist Pavel Pepperstein for the 40,000 euro ($58,300) grand prize with his “St. Sebastian Furniture Set and Porridge,” an installation mixing iconography, the Russian avant-garde and — yes — porridge oats in a skewed look at the history of Russian art.

Zakharov was also nominated for the media art prize, which went to the long-standing “creative electronics production company, media art gallery and artist collective” Electroboutique. Tuva native Yevgeny Antufiyev was named young artist of the year for his confessional-style mixed media project, “Defensive Objects.” They receive 10,000 and 7,000 euros, respectively.

Judging by the dream that Antufiyev claimed to have had the night before, his victory must have seemed anticlimactic. “I saw the ceremony taking place back home in Tuva,” he said while accepting the award, which was “awarded to me by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself!” And indeed, Zakharov’s unsurprising victory rounded off a thoroughly unspectacular ceremony — as notable for its absence of intrigue as the previous year’s was for a surfeit.

Last year’s three-hour show at Winzavod married the nouveau-riche extroversion that has recently become a staple of the Russian scene with the petty, quasi-political cliquism that has plagued it for decades. This worked to nobody’s advantage except for surprise winner Alexei Belyayev-Guintovt, whose glossy nationalism goes some way toward combining the two.

Evidently wary of the accusations of “fascism” and scandalous outbursts that marred the Kandinsky Prize last year, organizers elected to put their foot firmly in the elitist camp. An expert council was appointed to supervise the jury in the nomination process. The ceremony left the industrial environs of Winzavod for the decidedly more upmarket Barvikha Luxury Village concert hall. Entertainment sacrificed edgy big names, like last year’s performance artists the Gao Brothers and Marina Abramovich, for sloppy video-art montages and an ethno-jazz duo. Previous hosts the Blue Noses, the self-described “most banned artists in Russia,” were replaced by the far-less controversial television presenter Leonid Parfenov.

Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, opened proceedings with a 10-minute Russian-art-for-beginners lecture evidently aimed at the likes of It Girl Ksenia Sobchak in the audience. So too was the on-screen Russian translation, omitting references to Marx and anti-capitalism in the original.

The speech on behalf of the jury from Guggenheim Museum curator Valerie Higgins that followed was as diplomatic and banal as the occasion befitted, enlivened only by a spectacularly inept Russian translator, who often contradicted what Higgins had just said (and most of the audience had understood). On a few occasions he surrendered, and whole parts of her speech went untranslated. Shalva Breus, director of the ArtChronika foundation that organizes the prize and publishes the magazine of the same name, was later overheard to joke outside the hall that he was in fact a performance artist hired to spice up the proceedings.

Bar the chanting demonstrators outside and screams of “Disgrace!” from the wings that the 2008 ceremony is remembered for, there was little at all to stem the growing tide of guests heading for the exit, whether to grumble about the ceremony over a cigarette or to simply go home. Even Zakharov himself seemed somewhat underwhelmed for a man who had just won 40,000 euros.

His acceptance speech proved the only sign of life all evening. Zakharov claimed that the prize should have gone to conceptualist ideologue Andrei Monastyrsky, 60 this year. “Three Moscow Biennales have gone by, and Monastyrsky wasn’t invited to any of them. Iosif [Bakshtein, Biennale commissioner], my dear, doesn’t that seem odd to you?” Zakharov went on to berate the entire Russian art community for neglecting its heritage in Soviet-era nonconformism and its accused predilection for money. “I speak from the position of an artist with power. Recently it’s as if people have forgotten what that is. I’ll have you know, it still exists.”