OLast Saturday in April, Muscovites strolled through GES-2, a massive new arts center being built in a disused power plant just steps from the Kremlin. But guests visiting the 54,400-square-foot center, designed by pioneering Italian architect Renzo Piano, were faced with a problem that was hard to overlook: the art was missing.
“It’s not the time for contemporary art when people are dying and blood is flowing. We can’t pretend life is normal,” said Evgeny Antufiev, a Russian artist who requested that his works be removed from GES-2 shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Late last year, Vladimir Putin toured the GES-2 museum along with Leonid Mikhelson, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, who funded the multi-million dollar construction of the center.
Cameras followed Putin as he watched over the work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson – who, with Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture, inaugurated the much-anticipated GES-2, a play exploring the relationship between Russia and the US.
Few places today seem to embody Russia’s cultural detachment from the West better than the great, empty walls of GES-2, created as Moscow’s answer to Tate Modern.
“We have to end this illusion that things will go back to how they were before the war. Drinking cocktails at art openings while people are being killed feels criminal,” Antufiev said.
Other Russian and foreign artists and curators, including Kjartansson, quickly distanced themselves from GES-2 when it became clear that the museum would not use its platform to resist the Russian invasion.
“After the invasion, many people asked the institution to take a more prominent stance, as if institutions wrote open letters saying that GES-2 and other museums should say something, but it’s really a threat to their own existence.” , said Francesco Manacorda, the former artistic director of the VAC Foundation in Moscow, which manages GES-2, resigned shortly after the war began.
“I can imagine it [exhibiting anti-war works] it’s out of the question. You know that an anti-war declaration has legal consequences,” he added.
Russia’s parliament last month passed a law providing for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading “fake” news about the military in Ukraine.
Another building that will be vacant in the coming weeks is Russia’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Built just before the Russian Revolution of 1917, the pavilion has traditionally been a meeting place for much of Russia’s political and cultural elite, eager to make the journey to Venice to see arguably the world’s most prestigious exhibition.
Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, two Russian artists declared they could not represent their country in the pavilion, while their Lithuanian-born curator, Raimundas Malašauskas, resigned.
“When the war started, we realized that we cannot be in Venice because it is the Pavilion of the Russian Federation. And even in a kind of middle ground like Venice on Italian soil, it’s still subordinate to the Russian Ministry of Culture,” Malašauskas said.
Marat Gelman, a veteran Russian art collector, said that as the war dragged on only those Russian artists who openly protested it in their art would be welcome in Europe.
“Artists should either protest against the war in their work or remain silent. I don’t think there will be room for compromise,” he said.
In the early days of the war, when resistance to the conflict was not yet criminalized, more than 17,000 Russian artists signed an open letter demanding an end to the invasion.
However, as the country launched its systematic crackdown on resistance to the war, hundreds of artists decided to leave the country.
“I escaped from Moscow, which turned into Mordor. For me personally, there were no more options – I couldn’t stay there and be silent, and with my current activities I wouldn’t have been free for long,” said Russian artist Antonina Baever.
“The only art from Russia that is relevant now is activist anti-war art, but they give 15 days to 15 years for that,” Baever said, referring to the fake news law.
For the rest of the cultural world that was left behind, the message was clear: line up.
At a meeting with cultural leaders televised on national television last month, Putin set the tone by saying that Russia is also engaged in a cultural battle against the West, and compared the treatment of Russian culture abroad to that the burning of “undesirable literature” by Nazi supporters in Germany.
His message was heard clearly in Moscow. Shortly thereafter, the city’s Bolshoi Theater announced that it would host a series of performances in support of Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine, with all proceeds going to benefit the families of Russian soldiers who died in combat. The Oleg Tabakov Theater flaunted the pro-war military symbol Z across the three-story facade of its building in central Moscow.
Still, despite the risks, some artists in the country have continued to protest the war.
Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist from St Petersburg, was arrested last week for a daring performance in which she allegedly replaced supermarket price tags with messages protesting Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine. Skochilenko now faces up to ten years in prison for “discrediting” the Russian army.
And on Tuesday, police raided an anti-war classical concert at a Moscow cultural center and interrupted a performance by pianist Alexei Lubimov, who was dramatically finishing the final bars of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 2, as two police officers took the stage.
For now, the once-glittering VAC will serve as a startling reminder of how the war transformed Moscow overnight, while its former employees continue to grapple with the demise of the ambitious art project intended to bring Russia closer to the West.
“The staff, there are 250 people, worked together on this huge project and in one action all of that was taken away. I’m still in mourning,” Manacorda said.