​exercising art in a moscow gym

On the fringe of Moscow Biennale for Young Art, a group of Russian, European and American artists staged a group show in an Muscovite gymnasium.

by Егор Софронов
09 August 2016, 7:40am

Having started as a small festival 14 years ago, the Moscow Biennale for Young Art is now a typical mega-exhibition of mostly international artists shown across multiple venues in the Russian capital. . This year, the main project Deep Inside, curated by Nadim Samman, occupies a redeveloping red brick textile factory, while two strategic projects are housed by the National Centre of Contemporary Art and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, respective co-organisers of the biennale. But each year, alternative spaces and smaller institutions enrol their contemporaneous programming in the parallel programme, a site for the experimental and new. The highlight of which, this year, was Planned Obsolesence. An exhibition staged in a Muscovite gym, that brought together a selection of young artists from across Russia, Europe and America.

The term planned obsolescence was coined by titans of industry in the 20s, when the assembly line became the defining principle of the economy. It means introducing intentional flaws in product design so that consumers replace gadgets and clothing items with new purchases every few years, all for the profit of corporations — and at the expense of everyone else.

The premise of the eponymous exhibition set in a Moscow gym in July, assembled by curator Alexander Burenkov in the biennale's parallel programme, is that this process of artificial renewal intrudes upon our bodies and minds via fashion, technology and athletic self-regulation, fusing and underwriting this chief characteristic of our time, in art and lifestyle. It carries a notion of plasticity, bodily and dematerialised, flexible and precarious. Its leisure seems like waste, its tokens of fun reek of sadness, like the confetti strewn across the floor, as part of Cory Scozzari's piece, Gabriel.

Inspired by the titular term, Patrick Goddard designed a poster juxtaposing smeared chewing gum, enlarged to resemble processed flesh, with a stock photograph of a fitness class, resentment belying wellness. Goddard is one of 15 artists gathered here. Most sent works from London and Berlin; one of the better known artists, Amalia Ulman, exhibited her Instagram-based video about faked pregnancy, Privilege, simultaneously here and at the Berlin biennale.

Burenkov's approach shares much with the Berlin biennale curated by online magazine and collective DIS. Burkenov was one of the first to adopt post-internet tropes and novelties in Moscow. He most visibly pushed them forward in a pop-up exhibition-cum-coworking space called Workers' Club, which reconstructed Alexander Rodchenko's 1925 pavilion, a hallmark of Soviet constructivism. Rodchenko assembled then new approaches to design, education, and the dissemination of print media into an intellectual leisure zone. Burenkov imagined its reincarnation in the precarious and acceleratingly networked labor environment of today, inviting artists to a string of iMacs for an online-streamed colab, visibly resembling Rodchenko's modernist tables.

For Planned Obsolescence, Burenkov partnered with a high-end gym in a new luxury condo in central Moscow and enlisted sponsorship from a raw food and juice company. In the three months spent assembling the show nightly after his day job at an art foundation, he corresponded with the artists he'd met last summer during his visit to Goldsmiths College in London, where his close friend Maria Gorodeckaya got her MFA. Gorodeckaya is a Russian who previously studied with Burenkov at ICA Moscow, another trendy art school where many of the ideas behind the show originated. Inspired by the trip and fuelled by the theories of Rosi Braidotti, Benjamin Bratton, and Beatriz Preciado, Burenkov decided to put on a show, and found the most improbable and befitting location. 

Clearly playing on the fad of Brad Troemel's so-called "athletic aesthetics", the exhibition is one of the first to take place in a gym—ideal for ironic mimicry of synthetic corporeality and the regimes of technologically advanced capitalism. Now mainstream in the art world, these themesdo not exhaust the message. Many of the works cryptically allude to issues of sex and gender. In a lyrical sculptural form reminiscent of Felix Gonzalez-Torres—an artist who, prior to dying of AIDS in 1996, made elegant works out of mundane objects, which incorporated insecure and mournful disintegration inside themselves—they succeeded in addressing the sensibilities now tabooed by Russia's government since Vladimir Putin's grip on power tightened following his re-election in 2012.

Thus, Josip Novosel's Opportunism (Bugchasing), alludes in its title to the pathological trend of individuals seeking to intentionally contract AIDS, perhaps in an attempt to find a lacking authenticity through an irreparable wound. It consists of plastic bags with apples - some with bites taken out of them - hanging on an exercise bicycle. Adam Christensen's Fleshy Pearls similarly inflicts decay on food: chocolate syrup, berries, and pears drizzled on plastic chair in a contemporary still life (dead nature): either as biological decomposition or non-degradable, mass-produced commodity.

Gorodeckaya's How to Survive the Art World, the show's centrepiece, is an installation that melds into a neighbouring shelf display used by the gym for promotional adverts. Stacked on shelves are slabs of silicon and cement, cigarette butts, body jewellery, sport flasks, protein shots, and water bottles filled with the artist's sweat (collected post workout on location) and cocaine. One of the slabs has words "Double penetration, whey protein, and small breasts," impressed into it — read as the author's intent to overcome stigma regarding her polyamory or insecurities about her body, a body that never coincides with the sheen of an Instagram princess (so perfectly satirised by Amalia Ulman) or prince, these days a bodybuilding narcissist, like the avatar fabricated by Tom Huett in his piece, Danny Taylor (Miami Pro). His artistic activity included posting, socialising, and promoting a high-performing homosocial alter ego, packed into a scrolling video on the gym's reception desk.

If Gorodeckaya relates a set of ideas about heightened bodily self-awareness, then Garbage and Sex: 5 Theses on Desire, by St. Petersburg-based Bogdan Ablozhnyy— four transparent textual panels site-specifically attached to a column—utilises pre-existing mirrors and a poster of a running woman to ruminate on subjective self-reflection. The work exemplifies the ambivalence artworks acquire in a space like this: sophisticated and nuanced, they nevertheless blend into illegibility. Another work, Stereograms, by Ruth Angel Edwards, is also based on an optical trick: rolls of collage with an athlete in glitchy repetition reminiscent of expensive yoga pants. This pattern was printed with commercial equipment, a move echoed by Anne de Boer in I Can See Everything an advertising stand with a print of a 3D-modelled fragment taken from an ancient statue. The components reproduced are the plinth and the club, alluding to a prosthesis underlying the image of bodily completeness.

A gym locker, too, can contain its skeletons, like Eloïse Bonneviot's Fight, 2016, a Frankenstein-ian mask bound by knots of colourful laces. A curtain by Racheal Crowther, Levonelle, has a retro-looking print of Betty Boop, the beautiful and ironic idealised cartoon female created during the period of austerity and war that also saw the introduction of planned obsolescence.

By drawing attention to the latter's accelerating, global dynamics, this exhibition resists geopolitical divides and isolationist agendas. Its treatment of the issues quickest to unsettle the right and its pandering government pursues a tactical, weighed direction. No small feat for a small exhibition gathering distant artists into one urgent theme, articulated outside typical art world haunts. But never enough, for perfection requires regular exercise.


Text Egor Sofronov

planned obsolescence
amalia ulman
maria gorodeckaya
alexander burenkov
cory scozzari
moscow biennale for young art