KRASNODAR, Russia — Most things in Mikhail Smaglyuk’s basement workshop whir, spin, buzz or hum, from the Soviet-era Magnetophon tape recorder mounted to the wall to the handmade gizmos seemingly tailor-made as punchlines for Smaglyuk’s endless string of one-liners. Zhorik, his parrot, clucks by the doorway.
“This one’s about money — easy come, easy go,” Smaglyuk said, pulling on a miniature money sack with wings hanging on a string from the ceiling. The money sack bounced. In “Iron Curtain,” a furnace door lifts to reveal a photograph of a ram mounting a sheep labeled “USSR.” Every wall in the studio is covered — with broken sunglasses, 19th-century photographs of Cossacks, handmade violins, plaster busts, a collection of metal plaques from defunct Krasnodar insurance and credit unions, and hundreds of other objects that Smaglyuk has recovered from the city streets.
On a recent afternoon, Ekaterina Inozemtseva, a curator at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, was coaxing him to cart some of his treasures off to Moscow, nearly 750 miles due north, where Smaglyuk boasts he hasn’t been in 15 years.
“I’m not saying we’re going to move the whole studio to Moscow. There’s no need for that,” Inozemtseva said. She gasped and giggled as she slipped on a steampunk set of jewel-encrusted goggles titled “Diamonds in the Sky.”
“We just need enough,” she said, “to create a poetic constellation of these objects.”
Undecided, Smaglyuk waggled his mustache, which descends in elegant handlebars over the 65-year-old’s pursed lips. He is used to controlling his own space: for the past three decades, the self-taught jeweler and conservator has worked from the same studio in the courtyard of Krasnodar’s Felitsyn State Historical and Reserve Museum. He makes his own hats and shoes (using leather from an old Italian briefcase), like a Wes Anderson caricature of an artist come to life in Krasnodar, a city in southwest Russia near the Black Sea.
Local reporters have dubbed him the “Kuban Faberge,” for the river flowing through Krasnodar and the Russian jeweler, respectively. He doesn’t like the nickname.
“Katya, it’s not possible to just pack it up,” he said. “This has taken years. . . . I knew you were going to ask. I don’t really want to go, and the work can’t go without me.” He asked Inozemtseva to come back that evening and take a stroll with him to his gallery. From experience, she was already sure he would accept.
“They can teach everything about how to be a curator except for how to love artists,” she said.
You would think that when the Garage, arguably Russia’s premier contemporary art museum, planned its first triennial of Russian contemporary art, artists from across the country’s 11 time zones would beat a path to the Russian capital.
But instead, the Garage went to them, sending six curators on a far-reaching mission: a year of pounding the pavement in cities from Grozny to Vladivostok, in what the museum calls the “largest-ever survey of art practice across Russia.”
The exhibit that resulted from their efforts opens this week and will feature works by more than 60 Russian artists.
For Inozemtsova, the trip to Smaglyuk’s studio capped a hectic year of exploration, reading lectures and holding portfolio reviews in the mostly-Muslim republics of the North Caucasus and in cities in northwestern Russia.
“It was Kate who told us, ‘Each of you has to travel,’ ” Inozemtseva said in a cafe overlooking Krasnodar’s main square, referring to Kate Fowle, the museum’s chief curator. “At first, none of us wanted to. It was a huge project, a lot of time on the road.”
“I didn't really expect that besides Moscow there’s an enormous class of artists who are really making good art,” she said. “It was a surprise for me.”
The Garage was founded in 2008 by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his partner Dasha Zhukova, who said at the time that her models included London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
One criticism of the museum is that it has paid more attention to attracting established international artists than to developing the Russian scene. (Inozemtseva contested that, noting that the museum provides grants for emerging Russian artists.)
But “there was definitely a desire to increase the presence of Garage in the lives of local artists, in the local scene, to engage with Russian art,” she said, comparing the exhibition to the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City. The museum, in a news release, sounded slightly more ambitious: “Just as the Revolution encouraged Russia’s first Avant-Garde, Garage is looking to spur the next.”
Contemporary art can be a hard sell in Russia.
Recent blockbuster exhibitions in Moscow’s art museums have featured pre-revolutionary masters, among them the Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky and the portraitist Valentin Serov. Lines for the 2016 Serov exhibition were so long (some impatient museum visitors broke down a door at the State Tretyakov Gallery) that they became an Internet punchline.
“Tastes have changed,” Inozemtseva said with a sigh. “There was a time when people stood on lines like that for exhibitions like ‘The Great Utopia,’ ” a review of Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde art from 1915 to 1932.
Partly, the reason is political. The art created since 2012 has been made during a “strange sort of frozenness” in Russian political life, she said, and artists are focusing “more on their inner worlds, on personal life.”
Many Russian cities have few platforms for artistic expression. Inozemtseva’s journey began in Stavropol. “Strange city,” she said. “There’s nothing there. One museum and no alternative spaces.” Next, she traveled through the north Caucasus with her husband, a sculptor, in a taxi blaring the chanson ballads usually associated with seedy nightclubs.
But there were thrilling chance encounters. In Chechnya, in a basement “anti-cafe” housed on Putin Prospekt in downtown Grozny, she met Zaurbek Tsugaev, a young filmmaker with a “fantastic eye” who showed her a silent video of an elderly woman using an iPhone, contrasting “hands so old they are like a landscape” and “the perfect flatness” of the smartphone.
“People of my generation, we grew up with this idea that Chechnya is a place with a painful past that you don’t go,” Inozemtseva said, showing pictures on an iPhone from her visit. “We see very little, we travel very little. And this place had its own color, its own energy that I had never seen.”
Inozemtseva said she did not see artistic trends by region. She tends to think in categories, how groups of Russian artists works in isolation and are strongly influenced by their surroundings, while others are in dialogue with the “international language of contemporary art.”
The exhibition is organized similarly, grouped into seven “vectors,” such as Art in Action, Street Morphology, Fidelity to Place or Common Language.
Smaglyuk will be categorized under “Personal Mythologies,” works that “live in the collective consciousness of the nation” but also may “serve as an escape, or a refuge, from the ordinary course of daily life.”
Here in Krasnodar, refuge is a fair way to describe Smaglyuk’s pristine, manicured gallery — one or two people may drop by in an evening. That is “more than enough for me,” he said with a hint of melancholy.
Inozemtseva preferred the energy of the workshop, the human layering of bric-a-brac accumulated over a quarter-century of hoarding.
It was long past dark when Smaglyuk agreed to go to Moscow. The curator had triumphed. “I was fifty-fifty” about going, he said saccharinely. “Then Katya made it fifty-one.”