MOSCOW — A sculpture by Pawel Althamer, a small knight by Marino Marini, a terracotta head by the Nok people from Nigeria: all are grouped together on a rough wooden platform, with no apparent logic, in Mike Nelson’s “Again, More Things (a table ruin)” (2014). First shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Nelson’s piece greets the visitors of the exhibition General Rehearsal, closing soon at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s (MMOMA) historic Petrovka Street Gallery.
Sculptures by modernist masters such as Alberto Giacometti, Constantin Brâncuși, and Henry Moore are juxtaposed with those by contemporary artists, including Sherrie Levine and Thomas Schütte, as well as other canonical figures like Louise Bourgeois. The exhibition collects objects across three international collections: the V-A-C Foundation (the private organization founded in 2009 by tycoon and philanthropist Leonid Mikhelson), the MMOMA, and the Kadist in Paris. The installation — in which some works are at the center of the platform, distanced from the viewer, while others sit directly on it without plinths — makes it difficult to appreciate the individual pieces. As a result, viewers are pushed to consider the piece as a whole environment.
Accordingly, Nelson’s platform can be thought of as a theater stage (rather than an exhibition space) onto which different styles and narrations take place. This perspective introduces the conceptual frame of General Rehearsal, in which artworks are reimagined as actors.
Following the model of a play, the exhibition has been divided into three metaphorical acts staged over a five-month period. For each, the curators invited an author to write scenes for fictional productions on the second floor of the gallery, selecting works of art instead of characters.
The first act (which ran from April 26 to June 17), written by the Russian group Theatre of Mutual Operations, was based on fragments from Chekhov’s play The Seagull, while the second (June 21 to July 22), by Armen Avanessian, called Metaphysics from the Future, took a philosophical stance. The third and current act (July 27 to September 16), by Maria Stepanova, is called No-one’s. According to the website, it “is a play about objects rather than about their owners.” If the exhibition’s concept sounds ambitious, its realization is even more so, involving a collaborative approach to curating the display of some 170 works.
To create a sense of visual unity among the different floors of the museum, Belgian artist Koenraad Dedobbeleer has been commissioned to design tables, displays, plinths, and seats. These witty objects, featuring a dominant turquoise green color, are one of the highlights of the exhibition.
Artworks are installed in inventive ways, taking advantage of the domestic character of the gallery, which used to be a private dwelling. When I visited the first iteration, based on Chekhov’s play, each room had a different theme.
The gallery’s architecture was ideal for Philippe Parreno’s “My Room Is Another Fish Bowl” (2016), comprising colorful fish-shaped Mylar balloons floating at various heights, delicately moving through the space. The delightfully gentle movements of Parreno’s balloons were as hypnotic and pleasurable as the experience of watching fish swimming in a tank. A similar sense of theatricality was found in Lucy McKenzie’s “Lina Mouton” (2016), an installation featuring Art Deco-style furniture made from stretched canvases with trompe-l’oeil paintings and assembled from cut-out patterns.
One of the major merits of the exhibition was its re-introduction of the work of the late Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. Russia’s most celebrated performance artist and a master of impersonation, he played a crucial role in re-presenting Russian recent history, often satirizing the political establishment and the country’s cultural heritage.
In the photographic series Tales of Lost Time (2001), appropriately exhibited in the same room with a Cindy Sherman’s “Film Still” (1978), Mamyshev-Monroe dresses up as some of Russia’s and the world’s iconic figures, staged in humorous tableaux vivants. By stepping into the shoes of each of his characters, the artist forces viewers to contemplate the influence of stereotypes and the different ways cultural material is perceived and imparted in societies.
Paraphrasing General Rehearsal’s title, the exhibition as a whole could be seen as the final rehearsal in anticipation of the much-awaited opening of GES-2, V-A-C Foundation’s upcoming cultural center, due to open in 2019. A former power station built at the beginning of the 20th century on the banks of the Moskva river, the almost 215,000-square-foot building is currently being renovated by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop with the idea of turning it into a civic, free space destined to contemporary art. Once completed, GES-2 will include temporary and permanent exhibition spaces to host the foundation’s collection, apartments and studios for artist residencies, fully-equipped workshops, a library, a restaurant and a café, as well as a wood of birch trees.
At a time of ever increasing tensions with the West, this is a more than welcome sign that not everything is hostile in Russia. Until then, General Rehearsal offers some enlightening commentary on the world stage.