Artists Are Halting Collaborations With Russia—But Not Everyone Agrees That Cultural Boycotts Are the Right Approach

As the military invasion of Ukraine continued over the weekend, artists requested the closure of their ongoing exhibitions in Russia.

The organizers of the "Diversity United" group on view at New Tretyakov Gallery have demanded the show come down in light of the Ukraine invasion—so far, it is still on view. Photo: Julia Zaharova / Tretyakov gallery

As Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine continued over the weekend, artists and cultural figures reacted by requesting the closure of their ongoing exhibitions in Russia, or by putting collaborative projects on hold. But not everyone agrees that cultural boycotts are the right approach to the Russia-Ukraine war being waged by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who was behind the acclaimed inaugural show at the V-A-C Foundation’s newest venue, the GES-2 in Moscow, announced that he was ending his performance art installation ‘Santa Barbara – A Living Sculpture’ with immediate effect.

“In light of Russia´s invasion of Ukraine, I think it’s wrong to continue the performance of ‘Santa Barbara’ in the GES-2,” the artist wrote to the V-A-C on Thursday in a statement shared with Artnet News. He also decided to close the group show he co-curated at the GES-2. The museum implemented the requests, adding in its statement announcing the program shifts that it “cannot turn a blind eye to the tragic events we have all become witness to.”

Ragnar Kjartansson, Santa Barbara, (2021–22). Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Santa Barbara, (2021–22). Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

As the Russian army laid seige to multiple cities around Ukraine over the weekend, there have been growing calls on social media to boycott Russia in the cultural sphere. Pavlo Makov, the artist who is supposed to represent Ukraine at the 59th Venice Biennale in April, is among a group of around 25 signatories of an open letter demanding that the international art community apply strong “cultural sanctions” against Russia, including banning Russian artists from art world events like the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, and Documenta.

Anton Vidokle, a Moscow-born, New York-based artist and founder of the art platform e-flux, has similarly requested to end his exhibition, “Citizens of the Cosmos,” on view at the state-run New Tretyakov Gallery in the Russian capital. Initially, Vidokle—who has both Russian and Ukrainian relatives—had been against closure “because it would play right into the government’s hands: they don’t like critical contemporary art and have closed many art initiatives recently,” he said, referring to state censorship. 

Dutch artist Constant Dullaart successfully had his work removed from the large group exhibition “Diversity United” concurrently on display at the state-run New Tretyakov Gallery. Dullaart posted a video on Instagram of his conceptual installation, based on flags of various countries including that of Ukraine, being taken down on Friday by gallery staff. “I believe that whoever is in the capacity to retract their work from state galleries, museums, and exhibitions should do so immediately,” he posted on Twitter.

Constant Dullaart's work was removed from New Tretyakov Gallery. Courtesy the artist.

Constant Dullaart’s work was removed from New Tretyakov Gallery. Courtesy the artist.

The curators behind the group exhibition have also demanded the entire show, a major presentation of over 100 European artists, be closed immediately in “a gesture of protest against Vladimir Putin’s decision to wage war against Ukraine,” according to an email lead organizer Walter Smerling sent to the Tretyakov Gallery and seen by Artnet News. But so far both “Diversity United” and Vidokle’s exhibitions remain on view. Artnet News reached out to the museum to confirm whether it plans to close the exhibitions in response to the demands, but did not hear back by publishing time.

The cultural pushback has also taken place at an institutional level. Today, Herman Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, confirmed that the major German institution was putting its projects with Russian partners on hold, according to Monopol.

From within the country, projects are also being called off. The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, which was founded by art collectors Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich, issued a statement on Saturday that it would postpone its planned exhibitions on Anne Imhof, Helen Marten, and other international artists planned for this year, in light of the current crisis. Until “the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased,” the museum said in a statement that it “cannot support the illusion of normality.”

‘Targeting the Wrong People’

Not all artists are in favor of cultural boycotts of Russia. The French artist Ségolène Haehnsen Kan, currently in Moscow installing an exhibition of paintings at Surface Lab Art Gallery, is maintaining her solo show. “Art shouldn’t be prevented by war,” said Haehnsen Kan, who made a performance at WIP Art Center in Moscow yesterday in tribute to a Ukrainian artist friend. “It’s important for Ukrainian artists to know that artists in Russia support them,” she added.

The renowned Ukrainian, New York-based artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov said they “don’t believe” in cultural sanctions. “Cultural connections are things that may bring people together when politicians fail and dialogue is important as long as we are able to create it, especially through cultural exchange,” they told Artnet News.

The opening of the Garage’s new building designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas in 2015. Photo by Ivan Simonov, courtesy Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Belgian artist David Claerbout, who exhibited at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art last year, cautioned against the “dramatic gestures” of cultural boycotting. “The artists thinking of throwing their weight into the political balance by boycotting cultural life have no idea of how lightweight they actually are, and are probably targeting the wrong people,” he told Artnet News. Yet he said the thought of working on a Russian exhibition would be currently inconceivable: “Art during times of ‘flight or fight’ seems impossible to me due to the presence of shock.”

The Russian, Paris-based artist Olga Kisseleva said boycotting “amounts to depriving society of the support that these tools could provide.” Kisseleva has collaborated with Ukrainian colleague Taisya Polichuk on a performance video that will be presented during a forthcoming group exhibition, “Femmes guerrières, femmes en combat,” at the Topographie de l’Art in Paris.

Furthermore, the Russian, Paris-based artist Andrei Molodkin, who has long critiqued Russia’s “broken concepts of democracy” in transparent sculptures filled with crude oil, suggested the cancellation of exhibitions would be to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advantage: “It’s Putin’s dream not to have any contemporary art or critical discussion.”

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