Impressions of a British Artist in Moscow – a diary in difficult times


This is the diary of young artist Andrew Hancock who was invited to exhibit his work in the  Russian capital Moscow two years’ running – 2014 and 2015 – including at the National Centre of Contemporary Art for the 6th Moscow Biennale.

What he could not have known was that Anglo-Russian relations were going to plunge into deep-freeze just as he was setting out. Here is Andrew’s unique account of his impressions and experiences.

Summer Haze in 2014

It was the last day of my first visit to Moscow in July 2014  that I was called in by the national radio station Voice Of Russia (now Sputnik News). “ Can you come in to record an interview right away?” they asked me.

Within a couple of hours I was on the air, deep in conversation with host Estelle Winters, for ‘Anytime’, Voice of Russia’s international arts and discussion program. As a young British artist exhibiting in Moscow during the Russia-UK Year of Culture in 2014, I was keen to recount my experiences. There is so much to be said for exploring new cities and here, to be critically engaging after just a few days was a case of almost psychic automatism.

Over the course of a beautiful, clear, bright week I saw a city anew, knowledge of which had been completely obscured for the entirety of my youth. It was like looking through a mirror, a real looking glass feeling everywhere. But there was an uneasy atmosphere pervading Moscow that season.

A photo of the artist Andrew Hancock. (Courtesy: Catherine Asanov)

A photo of the artist Andrew Hancock. (Courtesy: Catherine Asanov)

Only one week prior to my trip, the fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had been brought down over the Ukraine and no one knew how the situation in the Baltic would unravel. This crisis came at the height of the dramatic tension then escalating between Russia and the West. On the part of the Russia-UK Year of Culture, it had turned into a sour experience for many but I had made the leap to remain positive – culture must brace the gap even when politics is failing.  Despite the official boycotting by the UK Government of the events, the determination to continue and the friendliness of the popular reception was encouraging, if impotent on a grander scale.

Rewind to the start of the week – which, as my luck held out, came with an invitation to the ‘British Polo Day’, as Eton played the Moscow Polo Club. Another bastion of cross-culture! These occasions are out of time and place, full of fun and ceremony, after the climax of which and as the late afternoon long shadows grew, we wined and sunned ourselves into a blissful merriment on the field, with no division between the British and the Russians in sight.

Staying in a friend’s apartment at Mayakovskaya was a perfect spot for seeing the city. Moscow in July was ablaze with bars, public scenes of spontaneous dancing amongst the fountains and sculptures laid out in Gorky Park. Crowds of expatriates too, work and play in this world capital, congregating at their favorite haunts. From the first, the ‘Strelka Institute’ and its summer terrace bar on the Bersenevskaya Embankment of the Moskva River was the place to be and a pilgrimage after every exciting day.  It is a cosmopolitan spot that could be New York, Manchester, Berlin, but for the onion-domed churches and the vast battlements of the Kremlin with its spires facing from the far bank.

The exhibition I had been invited to take part in was a grand affair at ‘Gallery K35’ to the west of the city. A caravan of enormous cars was parked outside; inside, a show of many burgeoning young Russian and international artists. Young artistic expression is very telling as to the state of popular experience, and I found many of the Russian artists to be engaging in gritty, expressively pained mannerisms, burgeoning upon nihilistic despair in their inward looking concentration and critique of political and economic extremes.

Such engagement has become more acute in the UK where satire especially finds outlets in joyous display and counter-cultural celebrations mixed with out and out protest.  But Russia has seen wave after wave of political interference in the arts to the position where many young artists (Pussy Riot aside), are cornered into a resigned melancholia and peasant-like self-mythologizing, mixing the imagined safe past with a fracturing contemporary experience.

A film still from the Moscow Bienalle

A film still from the Moscow Biennale. (Courtesy: Moscow Biennale)

OCTOBER 2015 – 6th Moscow Biennale & the First Flakes of winter

Fast forward only one year, when I created a new work for the 6th Moscow Biennale, invited by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation’s Deputy Director General and the dream-like curator Anna Dorofeeva at the NCCA (National Centre for Contemporary Art). This second trip was the perfect counterpoint to the hot summer of 2014, punctuated by long drives into the countryside where, staying in a grand ‘dacha’ amongst the woodlands and rivers felt like a fairy-tale.

The Biennale was a different affair, not just an exchange, a handshake and a pat on the back between two nations, but a truly international and almost unrestricted expose of living breathing culture.

In a radical departure for me, I composed a conceptual art film combining analogue and digital work, including painting, photography and animation. The 28-minute piece, “Oracle I (Temple of the Unseen Artist)” was manifest as an imagined temple for the muses and debuted in October 2015 as part of the show ‘Dialogues of Light & Sound’, as the first snows of winter began to fall.

Later, I had the honour too, and the challenge, of delivering a lecture and conversation in front of an audience with the imposing, challenging Mr. Vitaly Patsukov – a grandee of Russian art, the penetrating Q&A leaving me a little off-balance but exhilarated.

I had not taken any steps to self-censor – as the work is steeped in classical references – but I was becoming acutely aware of the recent backlash that any inclusion of ‘religious’ content is having in Russia, as reactionary activists – seemingly unopposed by the state – attempt to impose a radical conservatism upon the cultural landscape with alarming effectiveness to freedom of expression at a domestic level.

On this occasion there had been a definite shift. In the popular rhetoric I took from conversations with locals, the public had increased its confidence in their authorities and the Ukraine ‘crisis’ had been one almighty triumph. A few days before my arrival, there had indeed been that historic ‘awkward’ handshake between Presidents Obama and Putin, and despite the dramatic differences, they were embracing as allies – at arms length – and at long last.

It is clear, that despite the turmoil and the clashes of the conservatives and liberal peoples of this incredible metropolis, the progress towards internationalism remains at the vanguard. In this great city, the concentration and wealth of art, as well as the juxtapositions of new and long-established cultural institutions is a thrill for the seasoned traveller. The engagement in the cultural life among its younger citizens is such a keen, bright and encouraging scene also still, despite or perhaps in constant retaliation to the right-wing backlash amongst a vocal clique of neo-traditionalists.

But there have been hugely exciting leaps forward which will bring me back to the city. The miraculously appointed ‘Electrotheatre Stanislavsky’, a new world-beating contemporary arts theatre situated across from the InterContinental in Tverskaya for one.

The ambitious and long-awaited ‘Garage Contemporary Art Museum’, had opened recently too. I got a chance to see Louise Bourgeois’ “Structures of Existence: the Cells”, where you see the breadth of her astoundingly pervasive influence on contemporary artists. Most of the large venues are fairly concentrated in the center of the city so are very accessible, especially via the city’s immense tube system. The startling way these have been designed too, festooned with art and chandeliers and marble-faced pillars, surely makes it a wonder of the 20th century.

As I wander in discovery, on street corners and in the decorated subways I hear some of the finest young classical and contemporary musical talent in the world as they stand busking. And as I walk amongst the monumental soviet architecture and public fountains, I am reminded of the magnificent Bolshoi, and the need to visit the banya for some old-fashioned R&R.

Aside from my own exhibition experiences and the scene of contemporary art in the city, it’s vital to situate all this alongside the context of Moscow’s older histories, and to make the most of formal visits to the likes of the Pushkin Museum and MMOMA. Then you understand the unstoppable force of art as a constant progressive force.



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