In Moscow

Tom Overton

Outside his Moscow house and studio, the president of the Russian Academy of Arts, Zurab Tsereteli, has a bronze statue he made of Vladimir Putin in judo robes with a tiger at his feet. Inside the house, which used to be the German Embassy, there are photographs of Tsereteli and Putin in front of To the Struggle against World Terrorism, the monument he gave to New Jersey to commemorate 9/11, and of Putin pinning one of many presidential orders on his lapel.

One reason there are so many of Tsereteli's sculptures around the city – including a 98-metre Peter the Great, which stands on the grey breadth of the Moskva river like something adrift from Pirates of the Caribbean – may have something to do with his friendship with Yuri Luzhkov, mayor from 1992 to 2010. But there are also huge Tseretelis in Georgia (where he was born in 1934), Puerto Rico and London. In 1990, Good Defeats Evil went up outside the UN in New York. Among the materials in it are dismantled Soviet and American missiles. Owen Hatherley has described Tseretli’s work as ‘furiously kitsch’, but the category seems somehow too narrow.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said last month that relations beteen his country and the West were worse than during the Cold War. But the international art market is aloof from such differences. I went to Tsereteli’s house for the opening of an exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), which he gave to the city in 1999. The 14 musicians who played during the banquet looked as though they’d stepped out of the floor-to-ceiling hang of Tsereteli’s lurid, Chagallesque paintings.

The exhibition, General Rehearsal, is the ‘curtain-raiser’ for GES-2, a new art gallery complex being built on the site of an old riverside power station designed by Renzo Piano: Tate Modern on Moskva. I wandered round the building site the next morning, trying to imagine the birch forest that will be planted round it. There will be residential artists’ studios in part of the building that has at one time or another been a vodka distillery and a salt cellar for the Kremlin. More recently, the tour guides told us, it was the sauna for a swimming pool which filled the foundations of an aborted project to built a monument to Lenin. GES-2 should open in December 2019.

It follows the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park, established ten years ago by Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich, which describes itself as ‘the first philanthropic institution in Russia to create a comprehensive public mandate for contemporary art’, and claims to have had more than 700,000 visitors last year.

The funding body for GES-2, known as V-A-C, was established by Leonid Mikhelson, in honour of his Courtauld-trained daughter Victoria. V-A-C calls itself ‘a platform for open discussion aimed at redefining the contemporary landscape’. Mikhelson’s money comes from the Novatek gas company (which the Obama administration imposed sanctions on). The foundation opened a gallery in Venice last year, and has an expanding collection of both internationally fashionable names and and contemporary Russian artists, including Anatoly Osmolovsky, who photographed himself smoking a cigar on the Mayakovsky monument in 1983, and Arseny Zhilyaev, who was born in 1984. I bumped into him lugging an IKEA bag through the installation of a show across the river at the State Tretyakov Gallery, surveying the work Zhilyaev and his contemporaries made in the 2000s.

General Rehearsal aims to give the Russian work its place in an international conversation. The starting-point is Again, more things (a table ruin), a 2014 piece by the British artist Mike Nelson which took works from the V-A-C collection – Brancusi, Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois – off their plinths and placed them on a level stage of reclaimed floorboards. General Rehearsal imagines itself as a production of Chekhov’s Seagull in which the works take the place of the characters. Introducing his translation in 1988, Michael Frayn argued that the play looks ‘beyond the simplification and formalisation by which the world is represented in art … to show the raw, confused flux of the world itself, where nothing has its moral value written upon it, or for that matter its cause or effect, or even its boundaries or its identity.’

Frayn's interpretation of The Seagull also involves him, necessarily, simplifying and formalising for his Western audience. I spoke to the editor of V-A-C’s publishing arm, Dmitry Potemkin, who has taken on the massive task of translating and publishing Western art theory proscribed under the Soviet Union – Wölfflin, Greenberg, Kraus et al – in cheaply available, not-for-profit editions. Because these texts’ decades-long weaves of terminological references to each other simply wasn’t happening in parallel in Russian, he’s creating a new language as he goes.