By Alice Pfeiffer
MOSCOW — From the Jean-Michel Basquiat show opening on Friday at the Muse?e d’Art Moderne in Paris, to the street art retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in April, highbrow institutions in the West are opening their doors to graffiti art. Now Moscow is promoting the urban art form as well. The city is increasingly becoming a stage for local and international graffiti artists — creating a dialogue within the community, and highlighting the difficulties of surviving as a street artist in contemporary Russia.
“It is especially tough to be a graffiti artist in Russia,” said Oxana Bondarenko, a curator who specializes in street art and lives in Paris and Moscow. “The state invests millions of rubles in hunting down graffiti artists and painting over the works.”
According to Sergey Glandin, a lawyer in Moscow, there is no law specifically regulating street art, but those caught making graffiti can be penalized under the criminal code. In most cases, this means an arrest and a warning.
Those seeking to make art and not to vandalize, however, are starting to find more outlets for their creative energy. “It’s about time we respect the value of their work,” Ms. Bondarenko said.
One early proponent of street art in Moscow was the Street Kit Gallery, which has been operating there since 2008. The gallery created a Web site that allows Russian and international artists to show and sell work online and organizes nomadic events in galleries, pop-up spaces and streets all over the capital.
“Our streets are a blank piece of paper,” said Sabina Chagina, the gallery’s founder. “It is now becoming easier to organize drawings and art on some streets,” and artists are now slowly being given legal permission to paint on certain walls, she added.
The gallery is working on a large event called “Flow Masters,” to take place next summer, that will include indoor and outdoor arts and performances. From 10 to 15 local and 5 international street artists will be invited to Moscow to create individual pieces, as well as contribute to one big collaborative composition. The event will be held in various streets, galleries and other spaces all over the city.
Ms. Bondarenko said events like these were giving the artists a platform and support that was previously lacking in the city. She spearheaded the effort last summer, when in the context of the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, she began a section dedicated to street art, a first for the country.
It consisted of group show — including installations, paintings and sculptures — of French graffiti artists commissioned to reflect on what Russia means to them today. “We wanted to show breadth of possibilities of street art: not vandalism, but a viable art form within an indoor space,” she said.
One of the participating artists, ZEVS, who is based in Paris, did an in situ piece of a gigantic hammer and sickle on a red background that he “liquidated” in front of the public: with giant paint- filled syringes he created a melting effect of the famous symbol, which he said “still emanates an incredibly strong force.”
The artist will be participating in a show next month at the National Museum of Kiev, the “Mistetskiy Arsenal Culture,” also organized by Ms. Bondarenko, that will bring together Russian and international artists.
Other efforts to encourage communication between local and international artists include the launch in Moscow last summer of a book by the Parisian gallery owner Magda Danysz, who represents graffiti artists like JonOne, Quik and Seen. The book looks at the history of the movement from the 1960s to the present, and its launch in Moscow was a way of adding the city to the “street art map,” said Ms. Bondarenko.
And later this month, a group of British artists including Pure Evil and DBO will come to Moscow to exhibit their work at the hip art space Artplay.
Make, an old-school graffiti artist who in 2000 created the first Russian graffiti crew, RUS, says that street art is important because it can show the local population’s own, uncensored voice, and it can push artists to express their own vision. RUS made a name for itself by being especially daring, he said, painting regional trains with illustrative, pictorial tales and American-inspired graffiti. “We were caught by the police several times,” he said with a hint of pride. (They were arrested but released soon after).
Today, Make has evolved into a respected artist, has had solo exhibitions in Moscow and abroad, and last year was a finalist for the national Kandinsky art prize. Some of his recent work is reminiscent of Russian constructivist art and, provocatively, Communist propaganda.
Despite his rise, Make still believes art on the streets has a stronger impact than that shown in galleries. “It’s much more powerful than in white cubes,” he said.
He is now focusing on a new series of wire sculptures that he installed in different streets around Moscow, like security cameras. Through these pieces, he attempts to make public statements, he explained, and question the government as well as issues of surveillance and authority.
The Kiev-based duo Interesni Kazki (Interesting Fairy Tales) is another group that has found success in Russia. The artists, Waone and Aec, have been involved with Street Kit gallery, but also show worldwide, including an exhibition in Lyon last winter and one in Milan next spring. They have been making large murals for more than 10 years, reminiscent of tongue-in-cheek fairy tales.
“Our art is not only for Russian society, it is for all people, all over the world,” Waone said. We “don’t intend one single message. We want every person to create his or her own meaning.”
For more information, please contact the gallery or see available works by Zevs here.