BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places – interview with curator David Elliott

In the framework of our East-West dialogue art research, our new article is dedicated to a large-scale exhibition BALAGAN!!! curated by David Elliott for MOMENTUM in Berlin in 2015. The exhibition included over 150 artworks by 75 artists from 14 countries from the former ‘East’ that all have one thing in common: the artists’ struggle to digest what they have experienced, and their attempt to reconcile this with their desire for a new, hopefully better, life and art. We’ve met with David Elliott to talk about the background of the exhibition, his observations on the Russian contemporary art, its roots and connections with Asian and Western artistic traditions and culture, as well as about his newly published book “Art & Trousers. Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Asian Art.”

Balagan!!! is a popular and much used exclamation in contemporary Russian art that describes, with celebratory gusto, a farce, a fine mess, the most unholy of cock-ups – but it is also the title of a major exhibition curated by David Elliott for MOMENTUM in Berlin in 2015, of the contemporary art of the “former USSR” and its former allies. The exhibition took place in three different venues: the museum spaces of the Max Liebermann Haus next to the Brandenburg Gate, the rough industrial interiors of Kühlhaus, a former refrigeration plant on Gleisdreieck, and in MOMENTUM, part of the Bethanien Art District in Kreuzberg. The exhibition included over 150 artworks by 75 artists from 14 countries from the former ‘East’ that all have one thing in common: the artists’ struggle to digest what they have experienced, and their attempt to reconcile this with their desire for a new, hopefully better, life and art.

AES+F, Inverso Mundus, People and Donkeys (still), 2015. HD video
Courtesy of the artists

Your international curatorial background extends from Australia, Japan and China to Sweden, Germany, Turkey and Ukraine. When was your first encounter with Russia?

My first encounter was not with Russia but with the USSR – in 1978 – when I made a first unofficial visit to Moscow as a tourist to meet the family of Constructivist artist Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956), then a relatively little-known figure. I had written to them previously about the possibility of making an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford where I was then the Director and had been delighted to receive the reply that I should pay them a visit to discuss the matter. It was an amazing experience being in the same apartment where Rodchenko and his partner Varvara Stepanova had lived and worked since the early 1920s and we started to work hard to make an exhibition possible. Then, in the climate of the Cold War, cultural exchange could only be through official channels and no loan had ever been made from a private collection to a museum outside the Eastern Bloc. Furthermore, the influence of Stalinism still dragged on and the work of Rodchenko, like that of many of his colleagues, was still officially non grata; he did not appear in the Soviet art histories or encyclopaedias, and his paintings and three-dimensional works were not on public display. Fortunately, all this soon began to change and the Rodchenko exhibition, that took place in 1979, was made with the participation of the Soviet Ministry of Culture and marked an important milestone on the road towards perestroika. In both the western and Soviet contexts, Rodchenko had previously been best known as a photographer and this was the first major display anywhere of the whole range of his work, going right back to his earliest years in Kazan, before the revolution.

Rodchenko exhibition poster, Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1979
Design by David King

– How did the idea of your exhibition BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the former Soviet Union and other Mythical Places develop for Berlin in 2015 and why at that particular moment? 

BALAGAN!!! is a popular and much used exclamation in colloquial Russian that describes a farce, a fine mess, a monumental cock-up which – because of its semantic relationship to the carnival and fairground as well to Aleksandr Blok’s ground-breaking avant-garde play Balaganchik (The Fairground Booth, 1906) and to the whole phenomenon of commedia dell’arte – highlighted a particular relationship between the history of Russian/Soviet political development and the phenomenon of absurdity and satire in Russian art, literature, theatre and film. The catalogue focused on how this had been an important element in the development of the cultural avant-garde both before and after the revolution but I had also discovered during my research for A Time for Dreams, the IV Biennale of Young Art, held at the Museum of Moscow in 2014, that this spirit was still very much alive, not only amongst a generation of young artists internationally, but particularly in Russia and China in the work of artists who had grown up under the autocracies of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Also, In its view of the contemporary art of Russia alongside that of the former Eastern Bloc, I regarded the exhibition BALAGAN!!! as an update of After the Wall: Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe that I curated in 1999 with Bojana Pejić and Iris Müller-Westermann, when I was director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm; it was planned to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Vyacheslav Meyerhold as Pierrot in Alexander Blok’s play Balaganshchik, 1906

– Do you think that this absurd critical “spirit” of balagan defines the “Russianness” of Russian art?

There are always dangers in generalization and different generations recycle similar ideas within different contexts and forms. In 2014 A Time for Dreams appropriated the words of Martin Luther King from the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s to lay a challenge to young artists who are often dismissed as “snowflakes” for their lack of engagement in politics and society. In 2015 in BALAGAN!!! I wanted to reveal how in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc the nature of such dreams – whether they were material or metaphysical, paradisical or nightmarish, self-centered or empathetic – were all part of a newly prevailing zeitgeist.

Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook

I cannot think of a place in the world where civil liberties are not now to some extent contested by vested interests. The impact of the 2008 world financial crisis and the increasingly evident effects of the climate change crisis have revealed the extent of neo-liberal cynicism as well as the way in which it has spread through its colonization of the global world. Russian artists are aware of this, but so are many others. The whole situation is balagan – not an inevitable state of existence but one that has been carefully manipulated and contrived by those in power. The social and economic “transformation” of the USSR/Russia at the turn of this century is a dramatic example of the catastrophic results of unscrupulous practices encouraged by lack of regulation and failure, or lack, of civil law; its aftermath remains in the present. Russia, therefore, remains an authoritarian country, only its management has changed. Similar turns have also taken place in China and Turkey and even, to a lesser extent, in the US, Japan, and the UK. Behind this is the widespread revival of popularism and racist neo-nationalism. In large thematic exhibitions such as the ones I have just mentioned, I try to respond to how artists everywhere analyze and respond to this moral, social, and political chaos. BALAGAN!!! enabled me to put my recent research in Russia and elsewhere to good use.

Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook

The BALAGAN!!! exhibition brought together different generations of Russian and Eastern European artists, whose artistic activities began respectively in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Can you identify an essence of “Russianness” in this progression, or do you think the discourse of being “post-Soviet” is still important?

In 1999, After the Wall focused on the generation of artists who had emerged in the 23 European countries of the former Eastern Bloc during the previous decade. One of its many “findings” was that although the Soviet empire had dissolved and many local and national characteristics had resurfaced, often they did so ironically, as critiques of both Communism and Capitalism. In Russia particularly, the categories of “dissident” or “non-official” artist disappeared overnight, and the Artists’ Union of the USSR was no longer the arbiter of official taste. For a time, the sense of liberation was palpable but the hopes of the years of perestroika in the 1980s soon evaporated into cynicism and into an absurd dark humour that had never really disappeared from Russian culture. It was clearly there during the post-Stalinist Soviet time in the works of such artists as Ilya Kabakov, Eric Bulatov, some of the Moscow Conceptualists, Pirate TV and Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, and continued, perhaps even more sardonically, during the 1990s in the works of artists such as AES+F in Moscow, Chto Delat in St. Petersburg and the Blue Noses in Siberia.

Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook
Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook

From the 1990s, the fresh complexion of power in Russia generated diverse new themes in art relating to celebrity, consumerism, feminism, sexism and racism that also corresponded with artists’ experiences overseas. Many of the 23 Russian artists and collectives under the age of 35 whose work I showed, alongside others, in A Time for Dreams, such as Olga Kroytor, Natalie Maximova, Recycle Group, Antastasia Vpereva and the Zip group, also expressed this same spirit in BALAGAN!!! along with other artists whom I had added specially such as Sasha Frolova, Polina Kanis, Irina Korina, Haim Sokol, Leonid Tishkov and Oleg Ustinov.

Exhibition catalogue to A Time for Dreams exhibition, the main project of the 4th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art

Over the past 15 years you’ve spent a lot of time in China. What are the structural changes happening in the national art scene there? In its artistic and curatorial practices, art education.

Recently it is becoming increasingly difficult to work in China as a foreigner and independent curator as under the banner of recently formulated “Xi Jinping Thought” the government is enforcing a prescriptive nationalist control throughout culture and education. Censorship is increasing yet nowhere is it made clear, other than in blanket terms of “criticizing the nation”, what is and what is not permitted; such discrimination is left to the discretion of local officials, most of whom wish to show how loyal and zealous they are in their duties. The works in each exhibition have to be approved by such officials and in getting approval any close link of the organiser to the Communist Party is certainly an advantage. When the rules are not clear the officials are super-frightened of making mistakes and censor both themselves and any art they encounter without mercy. Such stupidity makes them, and many others feel “safe”. You could say that this is another kind of balagan!

Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook

The cover of the BALAGAN!!! exhibition catalogue has an image of a donkey riding on a man’s back taken from AES+F’s multi-channel video project Inverso Mundus (2015). Your research on these artists seems to have been very influential on your idea of Balagan. Could you please tell a bit more about this?

I first met Tatiana Arzamasova and Lev Evzovich of AES+F in the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts where they were showing their new work Who Wants to Live for Ever…. in 1998, and I was researching for After the Wall in which I included examples of their Travel Agency for the Future that ironically depicted future world landmarks in deserts occupied by nomads, and camels and peppered with minarets (with this Islamic Project, a variant, took place in a Stockholm Shopping Mall); I have kept in closely touch with them, and other members of the group, ever since. Their panoramic, surround-sound video projection The Feast of Trimalchio (based on a short episode from Petronius’s Satyricon) was a centrepiece of The Beauty of Distance, the 17th Biennale of Sydney I curated in 2010; using a classical model, they created and distilled, and in the process critiqued, the seductions of a contemporary global world based on slavery and excessive consumption. I then showed their video projection Allegoria Sacra, that followed on from this, in The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, the 1st Kyiv Biennale of Contemporary art I made in 2012. When AES+F decided to premiere Inverso Mundus (The World Upside Down) at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, I wrote the catalogue and, later in the same year, I included this hyper-Bakhtinian work in the opening gallery of BALAGAN!!! in Berlin.

Image from the catalogue BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places
Design by Jonathan Barnbrook

AES+F’s extremely sardonic view of the world may be understood as a critique of the decline of Russia, but it is also an elegy about the death of idealism and addresses culture on a global rather than purely local scale. Unfortunately, their work is sometimes misunderstood as being a symptom of the situation it so obviously criticizes, a reaction that attests to the decline of criticism in art as well.

The art of revolutionary Russia is often understood as being only progressive and positivist while it was also chaotic, carnivalesque and “balagan”. From the 1920s through to the 1960s literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1889-1975) was deeply preoccupied with the critical role of absurdity and the “carnivalesque” in relation to power and, although his writings were known among intellectual circles in Russia, he was officially marginalized and unpublished. It seems to me that AES+F, at first instinctively, tapped into this rich vein in Russian (and world) culture by framing “Bakhtinian” ideas, attitudes and realities within a cultural provenance that is both timeless and contemporary. I find it frustrating that their challenging and fantastic work has not yet been awarded the wide recognition it deserves.

I see that you have a new book to be published later this month on the subject of Asian Art with the intriguing title Art & Trousers. Is there any Russian component in this?

Of course, this is difficult to avoid considering the deep Asiatic influence on Russian culture and the fact that such a large part of its land mass is situated in Asia. My book Art & Trousers. Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Asian Art is a compilation of existing texts with some new writing that embeds a number of artists’ monographs within regional analysis. Tibet, Mongolia and Central Asia are an important part of this story and essays on Central Asian art and “Contemporary Art along the post-Soviet Silk Road” are included. 


An absurdist meta-narrative concerning the symbology and history of trousers also runs throughout the book as a way of highlighting vital issues that impact on how history and criticism are, and have been, written: ethnocentricity and the relation of culture to racism; human and gender rights (often not synonymous); the impact of colonialism and its continuation through globalization, for instance.

It is split into three sections: Histories prefaced by The Slippered Pantaloon, the first, examines commedia dell’arte, circus, and the Bakhtinian aesthetic devices of turning the world upside down as they appear throughout Asian and other cultures. Here such diverse Russian luminaries as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Viktor Shkolovsky, FEKS [Factory of the Eccentric Actor, Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg], and Vladimir Nabokov figure alongside the work of contemporary artists from Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan and Thailand. In the second section Stories, prefaced by Who is Wearing the Trousers?,  I focus on the work of individual artists against a background of how, in different cultures, power has been gendered using diverse attributes and how these have often been subverted through travesti. But the main point is how in Asia, in line with developments elsewhere in the world, artists who happen to be women are now becoming much more visible and with this more powerful. The final section of the book Migrations, prefaced by A Short History of the Trouser, is self-descriptive and reverses many of the accepted narratives about this garment and through metaphorical extension also questions broader habitual narratives. The motif that runs through all the essays in this section is that many artists had to actually leave their culture in order to get to know it more deeply.

Incidentally, the earliest known depictions of trousers, made around 20,000 years ago, were “Russian”, incised on figurines of deer bone or mammoth ivory excavated in Mal’ta Buret in present day Irkutsk Oblast.  But, of course, like gunpowder, spaghetti and paper money, the earliest extant trousers, woven around 3,000 years ago, were found in China.

David Elliott’s latest book Art & Trousers. Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Asian Art has just been published by the ArtAsiaPacific Foundation. It is available in good bookshops and may also be ordered at the following:

in Europe ;  Art and Trousers by David Elliott, 9780989688536 at Book Depository with free delivery worldwide. 
in North America
in Asia: (Singapore); (Hong Kong).

The Balagan!!! catalogue can be ordered from Momentum Worldwide, Mariannenplatz 2, Berlin 10997, DE

David Elliott (born Manchester, 1949) is a British art historian, curator, writer and teacher who has directed museums in Oxford (MoMA 1976-1996), Stockholm (Moderna Museet, 1996-2001), Tokyo (Mori Art Museum, founding director 2001-2006), Istanbul (Museum of Modern Art, 2007) and Guangzhou (Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art, vice director, senior curator 2015-19).
He has been the artistic director of major biennales in Sydney (2010), Kyiv (2012), Moscow (2014) and Belgrade (2016) and has taught Art History/Museum Studies at the University of Oxford (1986-1996), National University of the Arts, Tokyo (2002-2006), Humboldt University, Berlin (Rudolf Arnheim Professor in the History of Art 2008), and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2008-2016).
A specialist in Soviet and Russian avant-garde, as well as in modern and contemporary Asian art, he has published widely in these fields as well as on many other aspects of contemporary art. 

David Elliott by Kate Elliott