Moscow, Russia

Garage Museum Steps Back in Time

  • Sotheby's Museum Network
  • 28 Feb 2018

The first auction ever held in the Soviet Union was organised by Sotheby's. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow has mounted an exhibition that revisits the historic sale. We spoke to the museum's directors, Anton Belov and Kate Fowle, and the curators of Bidding for Glastnost: Sotheby's 1988 Auction in Moscow, Andrey Misiano and Vika Dushkina about their vision for the exhibition.

What is the significance of holding the Bidding for Glasnost: Sotheby's 1988 Auction in Moscow exhibition in 2018?

Anton Belov and Kate Fowle:
It is the 30th anniversary of the auction, which was in 1988. In many respects the auction represented potential, and in the years that have passed since it's interesting to see both the advancements and stasis in the Russian art scene. It was significant and controversial at the same time, as for many artists, especially "unofficial" ones it opened the door to an absolutely new world, and for some it was a boost to their long and successful careers overseas. And it somehow established the market for Russian contemporary art. Our idea was to remind people of this cultural initiative in its anniversary year; to tell the story of the 1988 auction and the changing political landscape of the time by giving voices to its participants, curators, collectors, and witnesses as with the passage of time, this event has become a kind of a myth.

SIMON DE PURY AT THE ROSTRUM IN THE SOTHEBY'S AUCTION AT THE SOVINCENTR, MOSCOW, 1988.

You're using virtual reality to bring the exhibition to life and transport viewers back to this historic event. The archival material used is fascinating; what can viewers expect?

The archival material is animated through virtual reality that brings history to life. One can attend the 1988 auction and try investing in the Russian art as a Soviet or international buyer. We believe it is a great opportunity to wed technology and historical narrative and a unique experience of attending the 1988 auction, learning something new and sharing it. The technology expands the ways in which we can tell the story. The agency Up’n’Beyond have been extremely creative in presenting the documents, photographs and letters. Viewers will love it.

The idea of this sale was quite radical at the time, can you talk us through the idea behind the original sale and its exhibition?

The original sale happened with a great deal of chance and luck: it was initiated by auctioneer Simon de Pury who was the Sotheby’s executive director in Europe. Once he was travelling from Moscow and left his passport at the hotel, so had to go back accompanied by the Ministry of Culture official Sergey Popov. He just asked him if a Sotheby’s auction could ever happen in the USSR and Popov said: "yes, why not?". That's how it all started. As for the Garage show, it was conceived during the work on the Exhibit Russia, The New International Decade, 1986-1996 publication dedicated to the most phenomenal events in Russian art in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

THE CROWD AT THE SOTHEBY'S AUCTION AT THE SOVINCENTR, MOSCOW, 1988.

Our curatorial team saw the event being mentioned frequently in the book and decided to explore this monumental sale in detail. The sale took the Russian and Western art worlds by surprise with its resounding sales which established the market — albeit fleetingly — for Russian contemporary art. The event prompted a new wave of emigration by artists eager to benefit from the auction’s domino effect. Signifying the changing political landscape of the time, the auction ended up being the last international cultural initiative to require special approval by the Soviet government.

SIMON DE PURY AT THE ROSTRUM IN THE SOTHEBY'S AUCTION AT THE SOVINCENTR, MOSCOW, 1988.

The face of the art world has shifted hugely in the last 30 Years. What do you see as the future of making — and exhibiting — art in Russia?

What is key in Russia is the development of an ecosystem that has a past, present, and future. By this I mean all aspects of the infrastructure for a thriving art scene need to flourish and gain support, from artist studios to artist run spaces, from kunsthalles to contemporary museums, and from art criticism, to philanthropy and collecting.

Garage Museum continues to push boundaries in the contemporary art space in Russia. Is it important to look back over historical events in order to forge new cultural journeys?

The importance of this can't be underestimated, as history and the past are a source of invaluable experience and lessons to learn. From our perspective it is imperative to build and record history to forge new journeys. Sometimes looking at the past is valuable to understand why things are like this today. For the art world and art market, especially the Russian one, to be able to trace this evolution is essential. The past explains lots of today’s processes and sometimes helps to predict the future.

Bidding for Glastnost: Sotheby's 1988 Auction in Moscow curators Andrey Misiano and Vika Dushkina discuss the initiation of the exhibition

Every year, Garage organizes a historical exhibition which is based on its archive as this is an important part of the museum's mission. During research for the book Exhibit Russia: The New International Decade, 1986-1996, many artists, curators and cultural administrators alluded to this auction, naming it one of the most controversial and highly significant events in art of late soviet era.

The highly unexpected outcome of the auction took both the Russian and Western art worlds by surprise, particularly because of the resounding sales. It sparked momentary international visibility for unofficial soviet artists, whose works had entered some important western art collections, thus establishing a market for Russian contemporary art.

ALEXANDER RODCHENKO, CLOWN, CIRCUS SCENE, 1935.

The exhibition includes seven original lots from the 1988 sale, such as early twentieth century avant-garde works by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova; Fundamental Lexicon (1986) by Grisha Brushkin, which was the highest-selling contemporary work; a piece by Ilya Kabakov — All About Him (1971) — that was bought by Alfred Taubman —then chairman of Sotheby’s board of directors — and presented to the USSR’s Ministry of Culture as the founding artwork for a future museum of contemporary art.

Paintings by then younger generation of Soviet artists: Svetlana Kopystiansky's Landscape no. 4 (1988), Sergei Shutov's Assa, Nephews! (1987) and Vadim Zakharov's A4 (1985), are also included.

GRISHA BRUSHKIN, FUNDAMENTAL LEXICON, 1986.

We consulted the original participants of the sale and interviewed the main organisers of the sale; Simon de Pury, Lord Gowrie, and Pavel Khoroshilov, as well as coordinators' from either party — Paloma Botin, Vals Osborne and Elena Lungina. Then we talked with most of the artists of the sale or their families. It was really important for us to hear as many voices and learn as many memories as possible to kind of tell the story of this contradictory event through their personal accounts.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF BIDDING FOR GLASTNOST: SOTHEBY’S 1988 AUCTION IN MOSCOW. © GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART 2018. PHOTO: YURI PALMIN.

An exciting virtual journey provides an opportunity to immerse into the late 80’s USSR context and even take part in the Auction’s bidding – as a Western art-dealer or "rightless" Soviet citizen. The installation also features a 360 film about late soviet art-scene and its relations with the political reality of that time.

Bidding for Glastnost: Sotheby's 1988 Auction in Moscow is at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art until 28 February 2018.

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