In Moscow, a Little Museum Thumbs Its Nose at Tradition

By Nora FitzGerald
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

MOSCOW, Oct. 9 -- Not far from the very Soviet spectacle of the ITAR-Tass news agency building, a small, maverick contemporary art museum has opened in Moscow. Walk in, and all the horrible stereotypes of Russian museums are negated, as if the owner, private collector Igor Markin, had anticipated your worst fears.

There is no coat check and no bag check and a palpable absence of grumpy elderly women on the staff. There are no guards at all. To prove the casualness of the space, aptly called Art4.ru, Markin provides felt-tip markers for writing on the bathroom walls.

The floor is covered in green plastic turf, and a croquet set rests near "Russian 20th Century," a painting by Erik Bulatov showing an iconic Russian Orthodox church tower emanating white rays.

Nearby, a skateboard lies on the floor. Asked if a visitor could actually skateboard through the museum, the woman behind the cash register replied: "Of course. You can do anything you want."

Markin said he is dedicated to demystifying and democratizing Russian art. "We want the art to be seen," he said. "I'm pleased with the results so far, but it will take at least a year to really get the word out that we are here."

There are no names or titles attached to the works. The curious can peruse the catalogue over coffee or go online to the museum's Web site, http://www.art4.ru. Visitors get two stickers, reading "Za" (For) and "Protiv" (Against). They are encouraged to vote for their favorite and least favorite piece in the museum by placing the appropriate sticker preferably near, though sometimes on, the art.

Some of the most challenging works, such as a large-scale photograph of trampy-looking models hanging out in a cemetery near a funeral in progress, are peppered with "Protiv" stickers.

Art4.ru is envisaged as an antidote to Moscow monumentalism, a radical departure from the oppressive milieu of traditional museums and sculpture gardens. Located in a still-unfinished luxury building, it opened this summer, unveiling significant works by contemporary Russian artists, some of whom cannot be found in any other museum in Moscow.

Blond hair to his shoulders, always in jeans and sneakers, Markin looks more like an aging art student than a monied collector. But the 40-year-old, who made his fortune manufacturing plastics and window blinds, has acquired more than 1,000 pieces of Russian art from the past 50 years. He is a pioneer among the new wave of tycoon art lovers energizing the art scene here, and he is among the first to open a private museum.

About 300 pieces from his collection are on view at any one time, and every day some pieces are taken down and others put up.

The playful atmosphere of the museum prepares visitors for works such as the archival films of the provocative Oleg Kulik, who is best known for playing a dog in the performance art piece "I Bite America and America Bites Me." Kulik's aggressive art was so successful he was frequently arrested, and he once bit an art critic on the ankle.

Art4.ru also features the Russian pranksters known as the Blue Noses Group, including their photograph of two Russian policemen kissing in a white birch forest, titled "Era of Mercy." The image has drawn angry denunciations from Russian politicians.

"This is absolutely the right time and the right place for this museum," said Vladimir Dubossarsky, half of a prominent painting duo with Alexander Vinogradov. The pair's work, which uses the language of social realism to expose Russia's new ideology of money, sex and glamour, is shown at Art4.ru.

"Markin is creating unusual projects to make people think more about art," Dubossarsky said.

The most successful exhibit this month consists of prototypes for a free-spirited monument to the late president Boris Yeltsin. A foundation started by Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko supports the controversial initiative, and more than 7,000 Muscovites have voted for their favorite entries online, according to Markin.

Markin said he would like to erect the winning model on Lubyanka Square, in front of the headquarters of the old KGB and its domestic successor, the FSB.

"This has gotten a lot of reaction," Markin said, standing in front of a monument prototype made of molten black plastic with white plastic people hanging precariously upside down, except for one standing on top. The actual monument is to be made of steel.

But, he added, indicating a work by Dmitri Kawarga, "it looks like this project will win." The work will eventually be built but probably not placed in front of the FSB offices, he said. "This is not the kind of monument that usually gets made in Moscow."

Indeed, Markin has gotten into trouble for placing a box in his museum for donations toward the cost of destroying all the monuments in Moscow by the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. Tsereteli is Moscow's best-known and most powerful sculptor, his massive, patriotic pieces rising amid, and occasionally above, the cityscape.

"I hate his work," Markin sniffed.

Tsereteli's grandson visited Markin and asked him to remove the box, and he did.

"We had already received enough money to tear all the monuments down," Markin said.

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