A Cultural Project. Interview with Stella Kesaeva

Elena Panteleyeva, Blacksquare, December 2008 / 01 December 2008 A Cultural Project. Interview with Stella Kesaeva

Having closed this year with an exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Viennese Kunsthistorisches Museum, Stella Kesaeva has already made her plans for the future. These include participation in France-Russia cultural exchange program, a European tour of the Foundation’s collection and founding a contemporary art museum and academy. BS tried to glean some details of these ambitious and impressive plans.

BS. How was the contemporary Russian art presented at the exhibition in the Austrian capital?

Stella Kesaeva: To me, this is a very important project. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is one of the world’s five largest museums. The exhibition featured work of Russian artists from 1975 to the present day. It is a fact that contemporary Russian art has never before been shown at a prestigious museum of that level. I am going to take the exhibition from Vienna to Venice and Paris, then it will be brought to Moscow. The exhibition largely includes well-known names, such as Kabakov, Monastyrsky, Osmolovsky, Kosolapov, Chernysheva, Zakharov, Avvakumov, Orlov — artists our Foundation has been working with from its inception in 2003. Yet, many of these names remain virtually unknown to the Western audience — something we became aware in the course of preparing the exhibition.

BS. What are the lines of activity of the Stella Art Foundation?

S.K. Much like many other foundations, we are involved in charity and exhibition work, while building up our own collection. One of our new areas of activity is a literary club, where I try to bring together contemporary artists and writers in collaborative projects and discussion of new ideas. I believe, this kind of joint creative practice can bring very interesting results. In the 1970s, “lyricists” were fighting “physicists” and making friends with artists. I would like to recreate that atmosphere. For example, recently, a young Greek author read his poetry at the invitation of our Foundation in Salonica against the backdrop of works by Vagrich Bakhchanian. Another point of contact of different cultural streams in the Foundation’s activity is music. Conductor Valery Gergiev is a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and we have implemented a whole range of collaborative events. Valery Gergiev almost invariably supports our exhibition events with special musical programs. In turn, the Foundation is always willing to support the conductor’s experimental projects. For example, the Foundation was instrumental in organizing the premier of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at Mariinsky Theatre last summer in combination with video installations by Bill Viola. The resonance was tremendous.

BS. So, you see the work of your Foundation as a multi-cultural project?

S.K. Our core activity is the contemporary art, but I would like to mix it with very high-quality poetry and with talented music and present it all at a high cultural level. I can cite as a very good example the opera by Philip Glass in which the composer used poetry by Leonard Cohen: originality of the project was based on the fact that Philip Glass didn’t employ operatic voices. Poems were simply recited to the music — it was very beautiful, very unusual and just great. When I told Valery Gergiev of this experiment, he told me such collaborations could also be arranged with our composers and writers.

BS. Do you keep working with young artists?

S.K. Of course. I am pinning my hopes here on Vladimir Levashov, a curator whose knowledge in the field is second to none. It is very difficult to discover a talented artist these days, which is due to the lack of educational infrastructure. This is exactly why I am going to develop some training programs in the future. We might set up an academy of contemporary art, with lectures offered by Russian and foreign art historians and master classes conducted by well-known artists. One thing that is very important in the artistic effort is a personal example. I went to San Francisco recently and visited the studio of Bill Viola, the famous video artist. He told me that if he didn’t meet Nam June Pike at some point in his life, a man whose oeuvre and personality made a strong impression on him, then, maybe, there wouldn’t be any Bill Viola today.

BS. I know that you want to open a museum of contemporary art.

S.K. At a reception held by Alexander Avdeyev, the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, we mentioned the fact that Moscow didn’t have a world-level public museum of contemporary art. I suggested that the government establish such a museum in conjunction with our private Foundation. The minister’s reaction to the idea was very positive, and he signed a resolution to create such a museum.

BS. So, how soon will the museum be built?

S.K. Not before 2013–2014.

BS. What is your personal motivation behind your activity?

S.K. I am planning to arrange exhibitions at the highest professional level. In my opinion, this is the only proper way to go about it. I would like to enhance the reputation of the contemporary Russian art, both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, it is often treated in the West as some second-rate stuff that can be bought cheap at the moment and later sold at a premium. I never pursued this mercenary practice of putting a piece of art to storage and just waiting for its price to go up.

BS. What do you think about the excitement about the contemporary art and the attention it is attracting?

S.K. Everybody wants to be trendy. However, one has to go a long way to become a successful artist. An artist can’t become popular in just a couple of years. It isn’t even about the amount of money invested. A reputation is earned with the quality of museums and galleries that exhibit an artist’s works, the way the exhibitions are arranged, proper choice of curators, etc. It all takes a lot of work. No pains, no gains — one has to get through all of this. And the key thing for an artist is to have a sense of history.

BS. Why did you decide to abandon gallery business and establish a Foundation?

S.K. The gallery business doesn’t justify my ambitions. It is very unstable. Besides, Stella Art Gallery was also engaged in noncommercial projects: works by Zakharov and Monastyrsky just wouldn’t sell. But what I am really interested in doing is something that is fun and is also good for our artists and the cultural processes in Russia. For me, it is important to see that the things I do leave some results.

BS. What illusions did you have to part with and what new knowledge did you gain from your art activity?

S.K. When I first came to this world, I had most rosy perceptions about people making art. Unfortunately, all my disillusionments had to do with the human side of the story. One should not enter the world of art wearing one’s heart upon one’s sleeve, because the rocks of hypocrisy and commercialism may cause painful injuries. But, of course, the thrill of the engagement with human creativity, talent and interesting ideas outweighs all these negative factors. The bottom line is that I gained more than I lost during these five years.

BS. How does your Foundation participate in the program of the Year of France and Russia?

S.K. Vladimir Levashov came up with a very interesting project entitled “Love of the Space.” As you can easily guess from the title, it is all about the interaction of the space and the artist. The exhibition will be featuring work by Erik Bulatov and Dmitry Gutov, Yuri Zlotnikov and Vladimir Yankilevsky, Ivan Chuikov and Vladimir Koshliakov. We plan it as a very serious and ambitious project. At the moment, we are in talks with the Centre Georges Pompidou about taking this grandiose exhibition to Paris. Most projects involving contemporary Russian art were realized in some lopsided and scandalous manner — people put on show all sorts of ludicrous things with matryoshka dolls, Lenin and Gagarin. Our task is to make sense of the modern artistic trends and structure them, displaying old names in a new context, as well as discovering new ones. We would like to add some positive touches to the image of contemporary Russian art.