Last weekend, Russia presented its own unique contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale: an installation by conceptual artist Vadim Zakaharov. At the entrance of the Russian pavilion, a man in a blue suit sat in a saddle suspended beneath the ceiling, where he passed his time spitting peanut shells at the visitors. Golden coins engraved with the words "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" trickled down from the top of the two-story building and into a cave built in the basement. Only women were allowed to enter the cave (though they were banned from talking). There, they were offered transparent umbrellas that they could use to shield their heads from the rain of coins.
Some knelt on a red velvet pillow on the floor and looked up at the shower of gold, others poured coins into a bucket that was periodically raised to the second floor, where its contents replenished the flow. Another man, his hands buried in the pockets of an identical blue suit, stood guard at a hole in the floor where the buckets emerged, two stories above. His job was to make sure that no one tried to steal any of the loot. His pale face expressionless, he explained to visitors: "I am an official. I control the circulation of money."
Zakharov was using the Danae myth, a story that evokes the complicated relationship between money and desire, to reflect upon the strange realities of present-day Russia. To prepare the installation, Zakharov spent three months in Venice under conditions of strict secrecy, creating underground spaces in the pavilion building designed in 1914 by the Russian architect Aleksei Shchusev. When I met Zakharov in Venice, he offered several of his own interpretations of the work: "You can read multiple ideas here: A Plato's cave created by men, who control power, money, and the flow of corruption. ... The women locked in the cave are silent for now, but there is a sense in the air that it's time to listen to women's voices."
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But reality has its ways of overcoming art. As if to demonstrate Zakharov's point about Russian men's control of wealth, billionaire Roman Abramovich arrived in Venice on his gigantic Luna yacht, which he anchored ostentatiously in the lagoon. That prompted complaints from locals and tourists, who objected to the way the ship blocked the view. But Abramovich is a major patron of the Biennale, so nobody dared to ask him to move his yacht away. The only critical statement was a painting by William Morris, which depicted the artist casting Abramovich's yacht into the lagoon in fury and disgust.
Zakharov's pavilion triggered a heated discussion among visitors gathered outside during the opening. Russian curator and art critic Valeri Kabov saw it as "a sad poetic allegory about Russians' helplessness and despair." The poet Lev Rubinstein said that he liked the installation. "Vadim's interpretation of the Danae myth illuminated the issue of control over the circulation of gold in nature," Rubinstein said with a smile.
Rubinstein, it should be noted, has spent much of the past two years organizing anti-Putin protests among writers and artists -- yet it made perfect sense for him to show up at the Biennale. For Russia, where protest art has taken to the streets across the country over the past two years, the Venice Biennale offers yet another chance to address the country's political and social problems.
There's a bit of paradox, though, in the fact that the Russian entry is actually sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, so Zakharov's rain of "trust," "unity," "freedom," and "love" was actually controlled by men in suits. (To touch upon one of many attendant ironies, the current culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, is a controversial historian who is notorious for urging Russians to consider the "positive side" of Stalin's rule.) Russia in the age of Putin is also not exactly known for promoting political expression. Maria Shubina, a writer and frequent Biennale observer, expressed her skeptical view of Russia's presentation in Venice: "I believe that the biggest contemporary art statement in Russia this year was Pussy Riot -- but they're in jail." In jail or a cave?