Sergey Kovalevsky: “Sensitivity to the event”

V–A–C Sreda online magazine continues its three-month programme dedicated to artistic and cultural life in various cities across Russia.

In this issue, Daniil Beltsov, editor-in-chief of V–A–C Sreda and Sergey Kovalevsky, artistic director of the “Ploshchad Mira” Museum Centre and commissioner of the Krasnoyarsk Biennale discuss what the “topology” of a museum is, where dialogue between the past and the future can arise, and why the contemporary is darkness.

—Sergey, we congratulate you on the opening of the Krasnoyarsk Biennale. An important part of our editorial policy is what we define as the “archaeology of culture.” In order to understand the present, one must look to the past and preserve the memory of important figures and events. Could you tell us about how your work with the Krasnoyarsk Biennale began?

—The first Krasnoyarsk Biennale took place in 1995. Sometimes, we joke that the “zero” biennale took place in 1993—so exactly thirty years ago. It was a remarkable time: the country was changing, and with it its culture. I was fortunate enough to live through this period as an adult person, capable of acting consciously. When in 1991 the regime changed in the country, our museum-centre—with which all my curatorial life has been connected—was then still the Krasnoyarsk branch of the Lenin Museum, and it had only existed for four years. The Krasnoyarsk regional committee of the CPSU literally set it “on a platter with a blue border” and presented it to us—to absolutely different people, the new generation. Fortunately, at that time the museum was run by a progressive director—Mikhail Shubsky. He worked on Russian religious philosophy and was open to new and vital ideas.

In 1993, very important events in the life of the museum took place. One of them was the approval of the formation of the Krasnoyarsk Cultural-Historical Centre—this was the name given to the former Lenin Museum. At the same time, a large-scale, all-Russian festival, New Territories of Art, took place at the Krasnoyarsk Cultural-Historical Centre. The festival was the work of young Moscow curators under the direction of the art critic Leonid Bazhanov, who at that time worked at the Ministry of Culture. All our initiatives were supported at the highest level, so regional authorities did not interfere with the event taking place in the space of the former Lenin Museum.

The festival saw the birth, literally out of nothing, of the first significant public art object in Russia. The young Moscow architects Mikhail Lobazov and Andrey Savin—to this day, they call themselves the A-B Studio Architectural Company—created a gigantic sphinx out of leaves, bark, and polythene, the size of a three-storied building. It turned out to be a very impressive, monumental sculpture.

The festival exposition took over all 5,000 square meters of the museum space, and began with Ilya Kabakov’s Instructions for Dry-Cleaning and Ivan Chuikov’s Window. Many young artists were first exhibited there: Inspection Medical Hermeneutics and Valery Koshlyakov, whose wonderful work then became a part of our museum’s collection. A white wall ran through the labyrinth of the museum-centre—a symbol of those new territories of art, on which all the avant-garde culture of the time was displayed.

That was how everything began—we acquired a taste for conceptual art in Krasnoyarsk, and we immediately wanted development. And this was why the concept of a maximally-open institution came to form at the Krasnoyarsk Cultural-Historical Centre. However, there was an expositional aspect to this idea, given that before there had been museum here. Two years after New Territories of Art, in 1995, the first Krasnoyarsk Biennale took place, which brought together two kinds of thinking: artistic and “museum-understanding.”

However, if we consider our space from another perspective, then a question inevitably arises: are we in a museum in the classic sense? The Lenin Museum, built in Krasnoyarsk in 1987, presented itself as a new building, but there was not one original thing in it—only the narrative of the Communist party at the time of its decline. All the same, the exhibition was wonderfully designed by first-rate masters of design of their time.

If we think about it, the Krasnoyarsk branch of the Lenin Museum was the first “virtual” museum, one in which you couldn’t find a single “real” object. That said, it was full of attractions, interactive exhibits, moving display cases, and throughout the time of its existence, from 1987–1991, the Lenin Museum always remained completely free. All the children of Krasnoyarsk got lost in its dark, massive labyrinths, like in a large playground, running and playing.

In essence, the museum space remains complicated to this day, similar to a labyrinth. In more progressive times, the architect Areg Demirkhanov, one of the authors of the building’s design, said that his goal had been the creation of a space of a new type for Krasnoyarsk, a Siberian city in the 1980s. I think that the architects really did succeed in inventing something new for their time: from the outside, the building is a hermetic volume, resembling a crag—and this image remains a source of inspiration for us today—while the inner dusk of the museum turns into a conceptual darkness, which I particularly cherish.

—Could you talk about the artistic environment in Krasnoyarsk today?

—The artistic life of the city, of course, has changed, given that we already have a number of generations of artists who were born in the new Russia, in different cultural paradigms. I think all generations are represented here, including the adherents to traditional movements in painting. Krasnoyarsk is the birthplace of Surikov, which means that in this city all stages of artistic education are developed: the regional chapter of the Academy of Arts, the Higher Artistic Institute, colleges where the classical mode of painting is taught, one could call it figurative, realistic, or mimetic.

That said, there are many “defectors” from the academic educational institutions to the conceptual, pictorial-plastic, drawing, and installation directions. One could say there are no longer any strict boundaries—all flowers bloom. But it’s worth recognising that in the region there is, first of all, no real economic support for conceptual, complex creation. There are no art galleries in Krasnoyarsk, which means there are also no collectors, if we don’t count the few people who support particular artists. As a museum, we are able only to provide a space for artistic expression, not to give material support. On the other hand, there are always people who burn with their work, regardless of their circumstances.

—The Krasnoyarsk Biennale has already existed for almost thirty years. Could you talk about how the figure of the viewer has changed over those years? How has interaction with the public developed?

—In the “wild 1990s” viewers had no problem accepting contemporary art—many of them had had their lives destroyed, and that drama was felt far more sharply. It’s worth giving Krasnoyarsk its due: the viewer here has always remained fairly tolerant to even the very radical experiments we were able to allow. Mainly, these were experiments related to actionist practices.

Sometimes I analyse the visitor’s book—more and more, people are writing about how conceptual art seems boring, though they do so without passion or a desire to argue. I wonder whether this feeling is related to cultural-political circumstances, or whether this kind of art has just ceased to touch people. Perhaps experimental artistic practices that go beyond the bounds of the mainstream have in the end a small audience—they are not able to influence widely, however much they may claim to undertake to do so.

Over the last fifteen to twenty years we have invented many new formats—for example, we were the first in Russia to organise a “museum night,” and for many years this guaranteed us the attention of the youth. I think that young people are our main visitors. However, a real museum working with complex art always has to do with an individual person and not with the conventional concept of an “audience.” Attendance is not the main indicator, and it’s absolutely unclear how many visitors you need in order for culture to live. For this reason I have a very sceptical attitude to those who tell me about KPI and so on—strictly defined methods for the achievement of quality results do not exist. What remains is to act on intuition, out of love for art, thought, and a living, feeling perception of the world. My philosophy is “Do what you must, and let it be.”

—Could you talk about how your perception of the institution has changed and how the ideas for new formats came about? Were you influenced by the example of colleagues from other countries or were you led by your individual vision?

—I have always been keenly interested in what happens in the rest of the world. Back in the 1980s, when I was studying, I was drawn to architecture and such bright phenomena as postmodernism. This became the reason why the installation approach particularly interested me. As an architect, I express myself through space and I understand how it works. The museum in this respect is a unique mechanism, comparable to a living being. The modernist labyrinths inside the building give rise to dialogue, but sometimes it proves destructive: we have taken down some floors, got rid of some spaces.

If we’re talking about colleagues, then we might recall Victor Sachivko. He examines the space of the museum from the point of view of plastic art, painting, pop-art. But all the same, installations have remained the centre of attention—as well as our own exhibitions, we are open not just to artistic but to cultural-historical projects. For example, we took the theme of “life on the Yenisei River” and turned it into a total installation—a highly interesting work.

Gradually, we were able to uncover the “topology” of the museum—the structure of the space and its indissoluble, peculiar flows. The method we discovered was the merging of form, matter, and emptiness into a single medium. Given I was particularly interested in the architectural installation, we tried to work both within and without the building. Fortunately, the museum is located in this particular place: on the historic first square of the city by the river.

I have also developed my own approach in direct interaction with artists—I encourage each author to pay particular attention to the specificities of the space in which he or she is exhibiting. The point is that our museum is not a white cube. One has to work with the traces and echoes of previous projects, sometimes one even hears echoes of the Lenin Museum. I really value those instances where a continuation of dialogue arises, a resonance—in such cases the past is studied through the present, and an event of the third order takes place.

—In my previous interview, Alisa Prudnikova told a story about how a schoolboy who had come to the Ural Industrial Biennial copied out the labels of works in order to prepare for a date, because “it would be shameful not to know about art.” Has there been a moment that particularly struck you over your long years of practice?

—What a sweet story! Yes, many things happened, but in particular I remember 2019, when the biennale team was working on the Resurrection on the Square project. In this project, darkness was embodied in all its dimensions: virtual, material, linguistic. We reworked an old diorama, a kind of museum of plaster figures that had been created for the Lenin Museum. It was a dark, onerous environment, strikingly impressive, and to this day it has not lost its brutal plasticity. On the basis of this diorama we created an interactive exposition, changing routes and adding details. The new context included twenty-four figures on the square: arrestees travelling in a convoy, drunken clerks, beggars, merchants. The result was a strong mise en scène, but the figures remained mute and nameless—our task lay in giving them a voice. We experimented with sound, tried recording the text ourselves, but the picture as it were remained incomplete until I became a witness to a particular event.

The day before the opening of the panorama, the “Returning the Names” action was taking place around the memorial stone. Imagine: the end of October, terrible cold, and the gathered people are reading out the names of the repressed, their professions, the years and places of their executions. And no one was recording what was taking place. I took out my phone and recorded a number of audio tracks. Immediately after the action, I realised what these recordings were needed for: the voices of our contemporaries outside would give names to the nameless figures in the museum. We set up a speaker in a special wooden hollow, and coming up to the figures of the panorama, the viewer could see them through time, with today’s eyes.

And so the figures were given voice. Their voices found us and their way into the exhibition themselves. I cherish such cases incredibly. Resourcefulness, sensitivity to events—these are the skills of a real museum worker and, of course, of an artist. True, an artist has enough of their own voices in their head, which one can also record. I was able to record reality and transfer it into the museum—a kind of ready-made.

It is this layering of reality and art that gives an authentic feeling of the contemporary. Not long ago an important museum forum took place in Perm, where they discussed what the contemporary is, how it can be gathered and archived. Reflecting on these questions, I remembered the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s short essay “What is the Contemporary?,” in which he presents the contemporary as a darkness—primarily in time, in the present day. In this darkness, the unlived, the unsaid past expresses itself. The contemporary is nothing more than that in which there are holes, the rabbit holes of the past. This approach is very close to me, and if we’re talking about Russia, then all the twentieth century is such a rabbit hole.

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