Contemporary Art in Contemporary Russia

Lunch with the FT: Daria Zhukova
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/c3de7ab8-1a5d-11de-9f91-0000779fd2ac.html
By Peter Aspden
Published: March 28 2009 00:38 | Last updated: March 28 2009 00:38
I am in the mother of Moscow traffic jams and my driver is getting
increasingly vexed trying to find Mari Vanna, the restaurant chosen
for our lunch by Daria Zhukova, the city’s newest art patron, but
better known throughout the world for her romantic relationship with
the billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich. The driver keeps stopping
to ask the way and we are driving round in circles. There is much
cursing and muttering.

When we find the address, I step inside and almost turn straight
around again, thinking I have accidentally stepped into someone’s
front room. There is a television on the wall and family photographs
of stern-faced grandmothers all around. But a couple of young
waitresses in pea-green polka-dot dresses prevent me from leaving.
They don’t speak a word of English. Not without some relish, I give
them the name of my guest for lunch.

“Daria Zhukova? Daria Zhukova?” one of them asks incredulously. Either
they have never heard of her, or they can’t believe she is coming to
their front room, or they can’t believe she is having lunch with me.
“Da,” I say firmly. The waitress takes me to the table. There is a cat
sitting on one of the chairs, which is unceremoniously dumped on to
the floor.

Zhukova, known to all as Dasha, has warned me she is running late,
caught in the same traffic jam. No matter. I am being serenaded by
Elvis Presley ballads, of all things. There is a 1960s Russian variety
show on the television. I visit the bathroom, which is plastered with
Pravda front pages featuring assorted dictators, cosmonauts and film
stars. There is also a Salvador Dalí calendar, which is by far the
least surreal thing in the room.

I half-expect Zhukova to arrive with bodyguards who will sit on either
side of me and proceed to turn me into a Russian salad if I ask any
untoward questions. But she slips in without fuss and takes the cat’s
chair. She is, as has been frequently noted, strikingly beautiful, and
elegantly dressed. She has her hair up in a style that I would label
near-unkempt but that fashion experts assure me takes hours to
achieve.

I thank her for her interesting choice of restaurant. “Do you
understand the concept?” she asks, concerned. Not entirely, but it’s
always nice to hear “Love Me Tender”. “It is like an old Soviet
apartment from the 1960s or 1970s. See those circular frames?” She
points to the grandmothers. “They are very popular in Russia.”

We agree to have a range of starters, which she will choose, and then
some borsch, the traditional Russian beetroot soup, and then take it
from there. “We are going to need a bigger table,” says Zhukova
solemnly, reminding me of the line from Jaws, and we decamp to the
opposite corner of the restaurant. She tells me that the original Mari
Vanna is in St Petersburg and the owners are now thinking of opening
in New York, “which would be quite a funny idea”. She agrees that the
Elvis soundtrack is “really weird”.

Zhukova, 27-year-old daughter of an oil magnate father and molecular
biologist mother, was born in Moscow and brought up from the age of 10
in California, accounting for a characteristic lifeless drawl when she
speaks in English that, combined with her air of guardedness, gives an
impression of diffidence.

She is far from reticent, however, when discussing her latest project.
Across the city, the finishing touches are being applied for the
following day’s opening of a new exhibition at the Garage Centre for
Contemporary Culture, a spectacular constructivist building, designed
by Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in the 1920s, that used to
be a bus garage, now turned into a contemporary art space by Zhukova.

The new show presents highlights from the collection of the luxury
goods entrepreneur François Pinault. He is one of the world’s leading
collectors of contemporary art and the show is an ideal introduction
for anyone seeking to dip a toe into that most challenging of art
forms, ranging from a gorgeous neon-tube gallery by Dan Flavin, to a
harrowing anti-war installation by Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley.

Zhukova says she fell in love with the space when she first saw it at
the end of 2007, even though it was in an advanced state of disrepair.
“There was something breathtaking about it when I walked in,” she
says. The garage was owned by a Russian-Jewish organisation, which,
says Zhukova, was not entirely sure what to do with it. “I said to
them, ‘Why don’t you guys let me do it?’ And the more I investigated,
the more excited I got.”

The financial details of the deal have not been revealed but Zhukova
says the “informal” arrangement suits all parties. Her enthusiasm for
the project is palpable. She takes my napkin to show how the
parallelogram structure of the building has been adapted over the past
12 months to form a versatile home for future exhibitions. She says
she only ever thought about the Garage as a space for hosting “6,000
square metres of amazing contemporary art”.

When I ask how she first became engaged with art, she hastens to deny
any specialist knowledge. “I liked it, I liked going to Tate Modern in
London and then other galleries but I was never directly involved and
I didn’t take any art classes.” (Her degree, from the University of
California Santa Barbara, is in Slavic studies and literature). She
has assembled a formidable team of advisers for the Garage, including
Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota and Serpentine Gallery director
Julia Peyton-Jones.

Zhukova says the introductory element of the Pinault show, curated by
Caroline Bourgeois, is deliberately conceived. Moscow is a reluctant
embracer of novel art forms and she wanted to show a panorama of
contemporary art to what may be a grudging public. “I am sure a lot of
people won’t understand it. A lot of people will be confused and
sceptical. The most popular art movement here is Impressionism, that’s
what we were taught was beautiful.” She knows it’s a long way from
Renoir to the hyper-polished hearts of Jeff Koons or the raw visual
jokes of Maurizio Cattelan.

The food comes. It is hearty and plentiful, and Zhukova describes each
dish in detail. I’ll never remember it, I say. “Shall I take a picture
of it and e-mail it to you, or is that weird?” she asks. Not weird at
all, I say, but why don’t I take the picture? I can’t resist putting
her into the top corner of the frame. Daria Zhukova surrounded by
pickled foodstuffs. Perhaps Hello! magazine – or Tate Modern – might
be interested?

EDITORIAL FREEDOM

Experience not essential

Bauer Media’s recent appointment of Daria Zhukova to be
editor-in-chief of Pop, a biannual glossy style magazine, has raised
eyebrows in the media world, writes Bronwyn Cosgrave. As one newspaper
noted, Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend owns a Moscow art gallery and
successful fashion label Kova & T but she has no previous magazine
editing experience. This might, in fact, be an advantage.

High-fashion magazines have a long tradition of employing brainy
beauties such as Zhukova, knowing that their important social contacts
and glittering lifestyle are vital components of the aspirational
stories that fill their pages. Thus, for two years from 1933, the
aristocratic Daisy Fellowes, the best dressed woman of her time and
number one client of couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, successfully served
as editor-in-chief of the French edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Today,
Jemima Khan, Loris Azzaro’s muse, is a contributing editor at British
Vogue, and Vanity Fair’s editorial masthead is littered with a
roll-call of A-list jetsetters.

Similarly, magazines helmed by high-profile personalities have proved
innovative and successful. In 1969, for example, Andy Warhol launched
Interview, his magazine devoted to celebrity culture. Its pages were
filled with columns written by celebrities, photographs of the rich,
beautiful and famous, and the transcribed conversations of Hollywood
actors, European aristocracy, New York socialites, musicians and
authors. Warhol “wanted stars to just talk – their own words, unedited
– and to be interviewed by other stars. This was something new in
magazine publishing,” says Pat Hackett, editor of The Andy Warhol
Diaries.

In 1995, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr, the lawyer/socialite son of
President John F Kennedy, launched the glossy political magazine
George. Viewed sceptically by the mainstream political establishment,
the magazine ceased publication after Kennedy’s early death. Recently,
the political commentator Mark Steyn observed that George, with its
focus on “image and stardom”, was ahead of its time in delivering
“politics for a post-political age”. Maybe the time could be right to
relaunch George. Or perhaps Gordon Brown should grace Pop’s first
cover.

“I am not expecting a big revolution,” she says of the Garage
exhibition. I wonder if she sees contemporary art as an extension of
the fashion world, which she is already involved with, in the form of
her Kova & T label, formed with her childhood friend Christina Tang.
(She has also, in the preceding days, been appointed the new editor of
style magazine Pop; see panel, right.)

Again, she is cautious not to appear immodest in her reply. “My
involvement in fashion is not at the highest artistic level. The label
is quite a simple line that does basics. But do I think that the great
designers are artists? Absolutely. I know there is a lack of
acceptance from the art world towards fashion but I absolutely think
that.”

I say one of my worries about contemporary art is that it can appear
over-decorative, and shows little sign of engagement with social and
political issues. “That can be true but maybe people are tired of
political art and want something beautiful.” She changes course
abruptly. “Is it true that people don’t buy papers when they see news
about the financial crisis on the front page?” That would be alarming
for our paper, I say.

Zhukova offers me an entire clove of pickled garlic and crunches on
one herself. I hesitate, explaining that I am going to the Bolshoi
later, and don’t want to be stared at by fearsome women in fur coats.
“Is that what you are expecting? There is a very strong theatre-going
tradition in Moscow. It has stayed strong.” She assures me that the
garlic will leaves no noxious traces. (It doesn’t, to my knowledge).

I ask if her constant commuting leaves her feeling rootless. “I feel
rootless but also rooted everywhere. I feel very comfortable in LA,
New York, London, Moscow, Paris. It’s a nice feeling going to a city
that you are familiar with.” But was the city of her birth beginning
to pull her in its direction? “The Garage is a big, big anchor for me,” she confesses.

Zhukova has always declined to talk about Abramovich or her relationship with him. Art world gossip has it that he bought two British masterpieces, by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, for a
combined £60m last year as a present to her, or to her gallery. I ask if that is accurate. “If I answered that question, I would be commenting on matters which he wishes to remain private,” she answers with impeccable logic and not without charm. “Sorry.”

She says she is gradually building her own collection. “I have just started, and I am learning a lot about myself. I am very drawn to humorous work.” She says she bought a piece on impulse at Frieze last year, an old-fashioned computer from the 1980s that sings forlorn pop
songs in a computerised voice and has a cup in front of it for change. “I love the idea of a homeless computer,” she says. “Nobody wants it.” (The work is in a quiet corner of the cloakroom when I visit the Pinault exhibition the next day, where its pathos is yet more
pronounced.)

It is time for the highlight of the meal, the borsch. One of the pea-green waitresses serves mine, walks behind me, and clips a napkin around my neck. She leaves Zhukova alone. Why doesn’t she do that to you, I ask? “Maybe because I look neater,” says Zhukova, with considerable understatement. She has a scattergun conversation with the waitress. “She says men dirty themselves much more than women. I look a bit more together.” I feel like a schoolboy.

The soup is delicious. Presumably this was not what Zhukova was brought up with in California? “My grandmother used to cook it a lot. And I remember one Thanksgiving, I had some friends over and my mom cooked the Thanksgiving meal, and it was all things like this, and I thought, ‘Couldn’t we just have had some normal Thanksgiving food, some turkey and mashed potato?’” A rare note of dislocation.

We get into a discussion about pop music and I put my theory to her
that contemporary art has replaced music as the art form that most
energises young people. She demurs. “My teenage sister doesn’t know
much about art but is absolutely passionate about pop music, and all
its subdivisions – emo, indie, hipster.” “Emo indie hipster?”

“No, they are all different.” She chuckles indulgently. “She’ll kill
me if I go any further.” But it is young people, above all else, that
she wants to attract to the Garage. “I am really interested in that
energy. I want young people wandering around the gallery, in the
café.” She makes a list of galleries I should check out in Moscow, to
get a sense of the scene myself. By the end of the borsch, she is
slightly panicking about all she has to do for tomorrow’s opening. She
asks politely if she can leave me with the waitresses and the cat,
trying to decipher the menu.

Later that evening, at the Bolshoi, I am struck by two thoughts. The
first is that the opera I am watching, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of
Mtsensk, is a reminder of the power that art can have when confronting
politics: the composer was famously denounced by the Soviet
authorities for the work’s “immorality” and went on to suffer for his
indiscretion. Is there that type of courage and commitment in the
playful arena of contemporary art today?

The second thought is inspired by the production itself, which is
dull, stiff, and bloodless. The arts in Russia are, according to this
account, about 50 years behind the times. Zhukova’s experiment in
bringing fresh voices and forms to her native country is not just a
vanity project. Moscow, a city so rich in the culture of the past,
needs the Garage.

That view is reinforced at the gallery the next day by the Italian
artist Francesco Vezzoli, whose satirical takes on fame and celebrity
form part of the Pinault exhibition. “It is fantastic what she has
done,” he says when I ask him about Zhukova. “To have that vision, and
not be afraid to fail. It is Diaghilevian. She is the new Diaghilev.”

‘A Certain State of the World? A Selection of Works from the François Pinault Foundation Collection’, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture Moscow, runs until June 14

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
Preaching to the afflicted

Comments welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s