The Garage Arrives: Report from a New Museum
Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is the first privately funded art and culture center in the country dedicated to promoting Russian art, sponsoring research and publication, educating art viewers, and globalizing the local art scene. It was founded in 2008 by Dasha Zhukova — who combines stylishness and seriousness, as does the museum — and has the backing of her husband, Roman Aronovich, an oligarch and owner of Britain’s Chelsea Football Club.
Named after the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage where it was first housed, Garage moved to its permanent home in Gorky Park in midsummer, designed by the thought-provoking Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, out of the burned shell of a huge 1968 Soviet Modernist restaurant, Vremena Goda (“Seasons of the Year”). Gorky Park was built by Stalin in 1923, the first park in Russia not intended for royalty, and until recently was strewn with abandoned structures — including an old space shuttle.
Koolhaas has retained the character and history of the building, leaving evidence of the fire and preserving some of its unfashionable original features — such as a partly destroyed mosaic mural, showing a female personification of Autumn — while giving it new beauty. The building is wrapped in an insulating layer of polycarbonate, as if ready for the freezer, which gives it a silvery, ethereal presence, and creates a reflective transparency between inside and outside.
The first exhibitions to launch Garage fulfill all of its promises, but there is a scarcity of new Russian art. To see contemporary and 20th Century Russian painting, sculpture and video art, you must leave Gorky Park and cross the road to Tretyakov Gallery, where there is a satisfying display of it, spread across three generous floors.
At Garage right now, however, is a series of exhibitions focusing on the 1960s, looking at life and art, and the effects of politics. They are quietly, even staidly, presented, and require time and study, but the content, at least for a foreigner, is mind-blowing.
One ongoing project has students create fictional 1960s characters, based on old films and archives in Garage’s collection, in order to investigate how life really was for their uncommunicative grandparents. The life and history of each character is described on video. The Working Mother whose job depended on her being able to leave her child with an older neighbor free of charge; the Inspector who checked on the cleanliness of communal homes; the Scientist, kept in isolation, prohibited from traveling, and obliged to live in one of the closed cities known as “boxes”; and the Nonconformist, forced to undergo psychiatric treatment.
The model gadget-filled American kitchen, scene of the famed 1959 Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon, is recreated. Together with the “Family of Man” exhibition and a painting by Jackson Pollock, it was part of “Face to Face,” the only cultural exchange between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War. Russians were then beginning to move into “Khrushchevkas,” tiny flats with the privacy, for the first time, of their own kitchen, a place to talk without fear of the neighbors. They became the center of culture and debate.
The same long lines wait patiently at Garage as they do in New York, London, or anywhere else people to immerse themselves in the sparkling mirrored installations of Yayoi Kusama, who has also covered the trees outside the museum with spots. Or to participate in a game of ping-pong or meal of Russian dumplings in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition, which turns the museum into a social hub, as the 1,200-seat restaurant originally was. Katharina Grosse’s spray-painted environment offers yet more opportunities for selfies and Instagram.
Eric Bulatov is one Russian artist who gets a good showing with two nine-meter-tall paintings at the entrance, telling the public in a slogan reminiscent of advertising posters from the 1920s by Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Come to Garage!” It’s also a reminder of the banners that were hung from the gigantic gates of Gorky Park when it first opened: “Life has become better! Life has become more cheerful!”
An atmosphere of teaching and learning and eagerness is somehow generated throughout, both in the local, introspective displays and the high profile international art. But a young couple I was speaking with told me: “Garage feels as if it’s not yet ready. It’s very cool, but it’s like a baby. Let’s see what it will look like in a couple of years.”
On September 25, a comprehensive exhibition of Louise Bourgeois: “Structures of Existence: The Cells,” will open at Garage, and on September 22. And an exhibition of sculpture by Anish Kapoor, “My Red Homeland,” will open at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is located at Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, the original venue of Garage Museum. Both exhibitions will coincide with the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.