MOSCOW — Russia, which covers an eighth of the Earth, remains a leading supplier of the carbon economy and its government seems unwilling to change course: In a place where Chernobyl continues to be a living memory, the government is shipping a floating nuclear reactor across the Arctic Ocean. Yet The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics, 2030–2100 at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow is a remarkably insightful and challenging exhibition on the climate emergency.
The exhibition, which opened in June, compiles work in a range of media by 50 artists from around the world. Curated by Snejana Krasteva and Ekaterina Lazareva, it is an ambitious portrait of a dark future in which the world has run out of its resources, but still hasn’t found a way to “Planet B.” In its conceit and organization, it builds on the ideas about ecology of writers like Timothy Morton, and the notion of ecological entanglement — that humanity is no longer the foregrounded actor set against nature in the background. “There is no nature” is a mantra repeated throughout the show.
“The time has come to change our understanding of the environment,” the curators write on the exhibit’s website. “The more we think of ‘nature’ as independent from us, the more we distance ourselves from the changing world. Humans are a part of the ecosystem, meaning our everyday activities shape our future.”
Major exhibitions on climate change are becoming standard in 2019 — for example, Olafur Eliasson tackles it in his current Tate Modern show, and several pavilions engaged with the topic at the Venice Biennale. The Coming World attempts to spark engagement in ways similar to the other shows, such as quotes on the wall panels from teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, workshops about ethical consumption, and panel discussions imagining life after “petropolitics”; in addition, texts are digital instead of printed on paper.
But Moscow and the Garage Museum are unique environments for a serious climate emergency exhibition. The Garage was founded in 2008 as a vanity project by Dasha Zhukova, the now-former wife of billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose vast fortune came from (among other things) privatizing the Russian state’s oil and gas reserves. Zhukova was herself born into oil money, and over time the Garage evolved from an arts center into a platform connecting Moscow — and its new generation of ultra-wealthy collectors — with the international art world, which floats beyond the political realities of its location. Today, Moscow is the capital of an authoritarian oligarchic state whose wealth — in large part derived from mining, petroleum, and other extraction industries — is hoarded by a kleptocratic ruling class that clings to power with increasing desperation, through rigged elections, riot police, and mass market distractions.
It is an almost overwhelming context for this exhibition, yet a number of artworks powerfully impress their environmental message. Among the highlights is John Akomfrah’s “Purple,” co-commissioned by several institutions, including Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which also showed it over the summer. The six-screen video installation, displayed in a wide space bathed in this deep and embracing color, combines new footage of nature and industry with archival footage and a swirling mix of music, sounds, and voices to address climate change around the world. The footage often portrays static figures in a monumental landscape, inverting traditional narratives of human dominion over the natural world.
Doug Aitken’s “The Garden” (2017/2019) comments on mankind’s violence toward nature more literally, and less successfully, inviting visitors to don a white jumpsuit and goggles and smash furniture in a glass-encased living room set within a lush tropical garden. (The museum notes that the furniture is recyclable.) The action feels staged — the one time I saw it “activated,” the most pronounced responses were giggles from friends with cellphones watching outside.
Other galleries provide context for the climate emergency theme; one considers the ever-evolving exchange between humans and nature through a Flemish tapestry from the 1500s, Dutch landscapes, and Le Corbusier’s urban planning schemes. It also includes photos from “A Minute Without Breathing,” a 1977 performance by the Soviet-era underground art collective Gnezdo, in which attendees held their nose for a minute as a meaningless gesture to reduce their own emissions.
Another gallery tries to make sense of the issues hurtling down the pipeline. Unsettling, hyperrealistic models of possible animal-human hybrids by Patricia Piccinini address the dissonance of bioengineering and what it means to be human. A complex installation of wall art, imagined documentary film, and sculpture from the art collective ULTRAFUTURO uses yeast cells injected with the so-called “God gene” that supposedly explains humanity’s predilection for the supernatural to create a relic that challenges how science and faith intersect. And a work by Rimini Protokoll called “win><win” (2017/2019) involves two-way mirrors and a hypnotic tank of jellyfish that questions what it takes for a species to survive.
While the show’s politics are implied in many works, a few are more direct: An installation by the Critical Art Ensemble collects water samples from around Russia and asks viewers to vote on which burbling crisis deserves the most attention; a large installation by Susan Schuppli features pages from each issue of the newspaper Pravda dating from the day of the Chernobyl disaster to the day it was publicly revealed. The 20 pages tick off the ephemera of late-Soviet life — preparations for May Day, profiles of successful farm managers — while just at eye level a projection of ominously dark storm clouds almost imperceptibly drift past.
Overall, the exhibit fosters an inescapable sense of defeat and frustration in the face of an enormously complicated set of threats. How that translates into political action is a key problem at a time when liberal democracy is under assault around the world. This summer, Moscow saw its largest street protests since 2012; the demands were for fair city council elections and the right to peacefully walk anywhere in the city. The thousands who attended risked arrest or worse from an army of riot police trucked in for the occasion.
In the park that houses the Garage Museum, city authorities hastily organized a series of free youth festivals at the exact same time as protests, with live music and free food to discourage people from turning out to protest. But Russia is already seeing that ecological awareness can prompt action. In Yekaterinburg, plans to build a church on a beloved green space sparked a major opposition movement. And people across the thinly populated Russian North villages and regions have protested plans to build dumps for Moscow’s garbage in their areas — a rallying cry that has even appeared in graffiti around Moscow.
But what can selfie-ready art installations with Instagrammable, cool-hunting cred do? Especially in a Rem Koolhaas-designed building partly made possible by money from carbon emissions and existing within the same establishment as the militarized police that beat up students and passers-by just miles away? I remember the biggest art exhibition in Moscow in summer 2018: an enormous show at the Central House of Artists across the boulevard from Gorky Park featuring prints, photos, and recreations of the work of street artist Banksy. Of course Banksy had nothing to do with it; it was a scheme organized by a few shady collectors. Yet the throngs of mostly young people who went through that show saw work that celebrates civil disobedience and the value of freedom in the face of arbitrary authority. However we get there, and whoever is behind it, a show demanding a “new politics” to face the ecological threat ideally prompts even one small step leading to a mass movement.
The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics, 2030-2100 continues at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (9/32 Krymsky Val st., 119049, Moscow, Russia) through December 1. The exhibition was curated by Snejana Krasteva and Ekaterina Lazareva.