Art is a relevant and tricky way to signal your intentions, especially if you like to boast a fading imperial power .
By Michelangelo Freyrie
Back in June I decided that it was time to take a brief break from the messy world of international politics (with the army of self-appointed experts out there it´s not like my absence would have been greatly felt anyway) and pay a visit to the Biennale Art Exhibition of Venice. The Russian pavilion however made sure to remind us that ideology is a power to be reckoned even in 2017, and that international relations may have something to learn from dead philosophers.
Debuting at the twilight of the 19th century, the Biennale is still permeated of the same spirit of international contest that characterized the Belle Époque´s international affairs. Despite the efforts of the last few decades to shift the focus of critics and visitors on the central pavilion, the numerous national spaces can still be considered the backbone of the exhibition. From here small and (predominantly) big countries engage in a contest on who has can establish an artistic primacy over its neighbors. Walking around the humid and diverse gardens of Ca´ Giustinian, one can´t fail to recognize the ambition of the different pavilions to sell its unique way of understanding culture to the world: the structures themselves transmit an almost caricatural architectonic nationalism heavily underlining that yes, they proudly have very little in common with their literal neighbor, and have you seen the American building? Who thinks neoclassicism is an original style anyway?
The Russian pavilion is located on the easternmost alley of the Exhibition, on a gravel path shared with the historically more interesting hosts – right before the Japanese and Korean expositions, and directly facing its minimalist Scandinavian counterpart. The building itself is a perfect symbol of the cultural relapse the country has lived in the last decades: replicating tsarist architecture of the early 1900s, its style has survived the revolution and its constructivist ziggurats to become a monument to an era to which, according to many Western observers, Russia looks back nostalgic.
As the main work exposed inside reminds us, the truth is far more complex.
After a few stairs leading to the first floor of the microvilla, the visitor is greeted by a monstrous reproduction of the two-headed eagle, the reminiscent coat of arms of the Federal Republic, its exposed chest of industrial mechanisms proudly towering over a mass of anonymous people. Two rooms to the right, we´re offered a panoramic view of what at a first glance seem to be isolated assemblies of toys and statues, almost as if somebody had emptied a closet and neatly distributed miscellaneous junk on the table. The description explains that:
In Scene Change, there is no movement of time. There is no “yesterday”, no “today”, and no “tomorrow”. Time has been compressed. The Archaic glimmers through the Contemporary. Throughout history, the “new” has always preserved the memory of “the old” […]. The work is the metaphor of a new emerging world order where growing aggression, terror, the irrational life of the masses, and unprecedented control and monitoring strategies permeate the life of out contemporaries. […]
Sculptor Grisha Bruskin juxtaposes the ancient symbols of Russia´s atavic past with symbols of past and present power, creating a unique parade of revolving actors on the political stage of the country, making the “new world order” a direct heir to pre-Christian icons and likening terrorists to ancient bomb-carrying sphynxes. In this miniature spectacle, history is apolitical, not product of conflict; it´s black-and-white, void of ideological strife. There´s no struggle, just a choreographed dance.
Now, last time I checked this blog didn´t have neither the resources nor interest in art reviews. But maybe this could be the perfect exception to the implicit rule to stick to technicalities. Modern international relations have been largely purged by ideological considerations beyond the confrontations between internationalists, realists and the like. The thrust to build a study of global affairs solidly based on a theories of power struggle and sharing has been a remarkable feat of modern political experts. A dangerous side effect of such scientific ambitions has however led to abandoning a useful tool such as ideological critique.
Bear with me. Critical theory has gained a doubly bad reputation in the last 30 years: first as an hypocritical approach by the radical left to rid the world from any illusion that no, Marxists had indeed no sensible proposal to correct society´s wrongs; second, as a darling of postmodernist hipsters feeling empowered by the alt-right´s advance to find solutions in the writings of intellectuals defeated by the death of ideology. These accusations both hold great injustices and truths to them. More importantly, they fail to realize that ideologemes, meaning systems of seeing reality on which ideology is built upon, are basic human constructs resilient even to cataclysmic events such as the end of the Cold War. Being reality almost impossible to grasp in an objective manner, its apparent contradictions and voids poke holes in our perception of the world that need to be filled by something. America was reminded of this concept when the only candidate selling a smooth, credible explanation of its citizens mishaps was elected (credible doesn´t equal true or logical).
And despite how explanatory power-distribution theories and economic considerations may be for the survival of the Russian regime, one cannot ignore its theoretical pillar. Constructing an identity of Russia as an eternal civilization rather than a nation state in which change is inevitable the Kremlin is trying to impose a vision of the country engaged in what is an existential struggle of apocalyptic scale. The aim of this misrepresentation is clear: in a clash of civilizations there are no politics, no pluralism and no middle ground, just loyalty to an arbitrary cultural construct.
The trouble with ideology is that it´s hard to distinguish to which degree its preachers believe in it. The non-existence of history may well last thing the ruling clique thinks to when planning their actions, but it´s important to mind that this representation of Russia abroad is the one officially sanctioned by the Kremlin. Semyon Mikhailovsky, the curator of the Russian pavilion, has been expressively selected for this role by the Ministry of Culture to replace his more critical predecessor. If nothing, this means that the regime wants to be perceived as a power which is not resigned to fade away from world politics and to succumb to demographic decline and economic weakness. It´s unlikely that a Western-loving, money obsessed elite really believes or cares that the government justifies how it justifies its “transcendence of democracy”, but if someone in the highest echelons of the State has decided to adopt this line, it should be at least interpreted as a signal to the forces Putin wants to further mobilize: nationalists, Eurasianists, irredentist. At least until it´s useful to do so.