Sketches from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Seasons of the World
Generosity results in waste, Rem Koolhaas told me over a multicourse lunch served in a closed restaurant. But waste can be reused. The core of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was completed in 1968, surely one of the most generous and wasteful years. It was designed to seat 1,200 people. A generic building to begin with, years of political tumult eroded the restaurant into what Koolhaas said was an exceptional relic. To stretch this tendon of specificity, his firm excavated such period-specific details—green glass tiles and a striking Soviet mosaic that depicts a woman floating into joyously colored space, complete with a sunburst and a soaring dove—but then clad the entire structure in generic materials like polycarbonate, and used plywood on the interior. Besides the mosaic, what will be remembered most are the two eleven-meter-wide sections of the facade that can be raised or lowered on a whim, offering visual and physical access into the inside of the building. In a society of extreme wealth disparity, this gesture of generosity does more than pay lip service to egalitarian ideals. Inside, the museum takes over two stories, and includes galleries, an education center, and an archive. The open floor plan offers a clear perambulation, even as the translucent exterior walls distort the views of surrounding Gorky Park to a blurred glow.
The criticisms were that this is a billionaire’s museum. Thank Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club and Eclipse, one of the largest yachts in the world. He is the husband of Garage founder Dasha Zhukova, and the world won’t let her forget it. In the press conference with Zhukova, Koolhaas, and museum director Anton Belov, someone from the Russian media had a question for her. “What was your actual involvement in this museum, and what designer are you wearing?” She demurred, but Koolhaas jumped in, chastising the journalist for the “extremely inappropriate” affront. Koolhaas is always intimidating, and this was no different. You could hear a pin drop. But instead of the light prick of a plummeting needle, we only heard plop, and then, plop plop plop. Ping-Pong balls were falling from the sky, or at least the second floor. Rirkrit Tiravanija had installed a dozen or so Ping-Pong tables, as well as a T-shirt printing shop and a food station where pelminis (Russian dumplings) were made and served. The tables were in response to the conceptual artist Július Koller, for whom table tennis was a motif, and whose works were also on display in the museum. That said, the striking connection wasn’t to art history, but to the public. Or, to put it another way, the piece wasn’t just relational, it was relatable. If table tennis could be used to spur détente between the United States and Beijing in 1971, it could also present contemporary art as something more than an asset class, and a museum as something more than a vault.
To Create History
These three words are printed on the Garage’s tote bags, such is their centrality to the museum’s mission. Since history has a way of being effaced, or rewritten, the Garage has the first public resource of postwar art history in the country. The Garage Archive Collection and Library comprises articles from local and international media, artist texts, correspondence, photographs and film footage, and more. Leading this landmark effort is Sasha Obukhova, the head of the Garage’s research department. Though the archive’s effects will be most felt in future research about Russian contemporary art, its presence was visible during the opening week through the exhibition The Family Tree of Russian Contemporary Art. At the center of the exhibition is a giant wall diagram charting the major and minor points of Russian art history over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. (In Russian, modern and contemporary are the same word, so the terms modern art and contemporary art are used interchangeably). Artists, writers, musicians, exhibitions, and spaces are all connected through an exhaustive web, applying the logic of a social network to the field of contemporary art. Key figures like the Lianozovo group and Ilya Kabakov are given equal footing with long-forgotten artists. The effort is important, Obukhova told me, “because not everyone is taken to the future.”
Death is a Mistake
That is one of the beliefs of Nikolai Fyodorov, the founder of Russian cosmism, a nineteenth-century school of thought that inspired Anton Vidokle’s striking film This Is Cosmos! (2014). Shot in cemeteries, fields, and museums throughout Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Crimea—and set to the radiant (and irradiating) drone of John Cale’s 1964-66 album Sun Blindness Music—the film explores the philosophy that strove toward mankind’s common cause: immortality. Death is a mistake; life, like energy, is indestructible. Immortality was to be achieved by using our genetic material to resurrect our parents, who would then do the same, and then the same, stretching back until the dawn of humanity. “Museums should be moved to cemeteries,” the film’s narrator says, “Libraries should become nurseries for the resuscitation of writers.” The process would take thousands of years, which makes it imperative to start immediately. That was a century ago, and it’s tempting to dismiss these ideas as mystic relics, but then the narrator states that the whole Soviet experiment was indeed an applied cosmism. They’re of the same time; one left off where the other began. As the camera lingers over a man and a dog bathing in a swift-moving stream, he asks, “What was behind that strange energy that realized such a radical social experiment? The energy that enabled a modernization so rapid a new society that rivaled the most advanced capitalist states, propelling humanity into cosmos?” And if all energy is truly indestructible, where is that energy now? Somewhere toward the middle of the film there’s a shot of an apartment-building-sized mosaic showing a cosmonaut falling through space.
In 2006, Taryn Simon began a series of photographs of perturbing subject matter against a black field measuring 80 centimeters square, the exact dimensions of Kazimir Malevich’s iconic 1915 painting “Black Square.” Among the photographed objects are a macaw that has pulled out its feathers due to boredom, a 3-D printed handgun, and a bit of office correspondence rejecting George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Placed within Malevich’s field, they seem to come from the void. For the opening of the Garage, Simon debuted yet another homage to the artist, “Black Square XVII” (2015). For her first sculptural response to the piece, she took a cubic amount of nuclear slurry from a power plant in Kursk and had it vitrified. The cube, which is solid, is placed underground until it is no longer radioactive. Only then will it be displayed in the museum, placed inside a now empty section of wall near the bookshop. The process takes one thousand years. While it’s disconcerting to imagine how this relic will compare to the contemporary art of 3015, cultures prone to thousand-year gestures usually run afoul. Simon surely knows this, so we must consider the piece never being installed—in the words of Sasha Ubukhova, not taken to the future.
yes no why later
There are two possibly entwined traditions that we can attach to Katharina Grosse: the nineteenth-century Romantic landscape and the potential for physical annihilation caused by some sublime avalanche; and then the automatic annihilation of the waking mind central to Abstract Expressionism. Her exhibition yes no why later was on view in the Garage Pavilion, a temporary space designed by Shigeru Ban. One enters the building through a cardboard colonnade, the material already beginning to show its age, even though it was opened in 2012. Inside, three uprooted trees lay in a valley of craggy canvas peaks, further turned into a landscape by the truckloads of soil reflooring the gallery. The entire thing was covered in paint. Grosse’s landscapes expand outward from the immersed viewer, a whole environment of vicious, oceanic gestures. She paints with the help of an industrial appendage, like Ellen Ripley in Aliens, extending the reach of her limbs, but also obscuring it. I bring up Ripley because if you venture into the underside of the canvas, you arrive on an extraterrestrial plane. On rough soil you walk, seeing the reduced bleed-through of painting, of environment, of the human touch, mediated by technological distance. Perhaps this is what art will look like from the vantage point of one thousand years.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer and editor based in Memphis, Tennessee.