‘Borderlands’ is hosted in the small exhibition space of the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, comprising works by Zhanna Kadyrova, Evgeny Granilshchikov, Nikita Shokhov and the artists’ collective ZIP Group, selected by curator and art critic Sergey Khachaturov.
Upon entering the gallery space with its wooden floors and light blue walls, we encounter Kadyrova’s large-scale sculpture consisting of a crumbling brick wall, one side laid bare, the other decorated with a kitschy pink wallpaper full of roses and intricate ornamentation, strongly contrasting with the roughness of the crumbling bricks on the other side. The wall’s shape is reminiscent of the Ukraine – falling apart with large chunks removed, calling to mind Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. The two contrasting sides of the wall also seem to indicate just how closely connected the two countries are and that essentially they represent two sides of a conflict. This duality also sums up the exhibition’s aim: to question where the line between aesthetics and activism can be placed.
Moving in the borderland between these two fields, one of the exhibition’s strengths is that it encourages us actively to engage with the works on display. Whether this means walking around Kadyrova’s sculpture to gain a sense of the piece as a whole, or sitting down to watch Granilshchikov’s video – a compilation of what young Russian women have to say about recent events, filmed on a mobile phone in partly authentic, partly scripted monologues – we’re prompted to participate in the construction of the work.
Probably the most engaging pieces are by the ZIP Group, who exhibit activist ‘fashion designs’ reminiscent of Malevich’s theatre costumes and have come up with a brochure entitled ‘Braintwister: Elementary Work Book.’ In the booklet, which we can take away with us, we’re confronted with naive drawings that challenge us to select ‘Who the next Russian president will be’ – providing a multiple choice grid of portraits which all look like Vladimir Putin – or we’re asked to decide which professions most ‘benefit people’, with a choice of policeman, miner, artist and waiter.
Yet all the works on display take very different approaches to the topic framing the show. In another example, Shokhov’s photographs avoid singular points of view – representing perhaps the dogmas of government – by combining multiple perspectives in photographs illuminated in light boxes. The result is reminiscent of a panorama phone picture with people moving while the shot is taken so the figures are blurred, distorted and hardly recognizable. Shokhov gives a positive note to this distortion by implying that multiple perspectives are – or should be – possible in a democracy. At the same time, he engages with the nature of photography, his work emphasizing that a single-shot photograph can only ever reflect the very narrow moment it was taken, a restriction he counteracts with the fluidity in his own work, combining several moments into one.
While all the works are fascinating and engaging, they nonetheless appear quite disparate. On the one hand, this suggests the numerous possibilities – the multi-facetedness – of a dialogue between activism and the aesthetic: a conversation brought into the now through a reflection of current issues and what contemporary media have made of them. Yet it’s the very diversity of the pieces that undermines the coherence of ‘Borderlands’ too: while fascinating individually and well displayed in the dim light enforced by Kadyrova’s sculpture, which blocks out much of the gallery’s front window, the works themselves feel too separate from one another for us to grasp the show as a whole.
That said, the individual pieces in ‘Borderlands’ prove an interesting engagement with artistic activism – involving us, appropriately enough, as active spectators – a body of work that moves compellingly between the fields of art and politics, with us caught in between.
Borderlands can be seen at the GRAD Gallery, 3-4a Little Portland St., until May 16th.