The Venice Questionnaire #25 – Semyon Mikhailovsky

The curator for the Russian Pavilion tells us his thoughts on the Venice Biennale

Sasha Pirogova, GARDEN, video, 2017. Courtesy Sasha Pirogova and the Russian Pavilion, Venice Grisha Bruskin, Scene Change, 2016-2017. Courtesy the  artist and the Russian Pavilion, Venice Recycle Group, Blocked Content, 2017. Courtesy the artists and the Russian Pavilion, Venice

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening (13 May – 26 November). 

Semyon Mikhailovsky is curation the Russian Pavilion, which is located in the Giardini.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

We’ve been incredibly lucky with the pavilion that was built by Alexei Shchusev on the eve of the First World War. It really is one of the best. Located in the Giardini, with its ‘gingerbread’ facade and a terrace overlooking the lagoon. The fact that it is a National Pavilion implies some degree of responsibility. However, I am not confined in my choice of themes and I am free to choose artists based on my own ideas.

The pavilion, entitled Theatrum Orbis, is theatrical in its concept and form and includes sculpture, installation, video and sound across three emotively connected parts. We will be exhibiting Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova alongside contemporary Russian composers. The exhibition title alludes to Abraham Ortelius’ atlas (Theatrum Orbis Terrerum, or ‘The Theatre of the World’) published in Antwerp in 1570. This was the first modern atlas to unite knowledge and experience across science and culture accumulated during the Age of Discovery. 

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

The Biennale is different from other places in practical terms: the budget of any exhibition is twofold. That’s because it is an expensive brand in high demand with its own history. One hundred years is quite the time.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ one’s country? Do you find it problematic?

Over the last few years our pavilion exhibited the Moscow conceptualists, which I can’t say was unexpected, especially because we invited Western curators to emphasisе our integration into the world process. Thankfully, we are on great terms with all of our neighbouring pavilions. Although there may be territorial differences in geopolitics with Japan, for example, here, in the Giardini, we are just next-door neighbours, there is nothing but a natural hedge with chirping birds between us. We often talk to the Americans, British and Scandinavians who are right opposite to us. This is an excellent form of friendly соexistence.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artists, gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening? Or the general public that visits in the months that follow?

The opinion of the visitors, the viewers, is incredibly important. They have an opportunity to compare one pavilion to another, one exhibition to another. Of course, we want to be special, to have our own individuality. In art, just as in architecture, dramatic and powerful statements are valued the most. Our time is a difficult and complex one: there are challenges of the time and we need to respond to them. This year is the centenary year of the revolution that changed the entire world. We cannot suppress these emotions.

The opinion of critics is important, but I was concerned with that more before than I am now. The distribution of the Biennale prizes is often preprogrammed, they are not always awarded for art, but, rather, for certain views. The world wants to be politically correct. Not too long ago prizes went to pavilions of Angola and Bahrain – but does anyone remember what for?

What’s your earliest or best memory of Venice?

The first time I came to Venice was many years ago, more than twenty to be precise – it was actually in the previous century. We were doing an exhibition at the National Pavilion dedicated to Russian utopian projects that had never been fulfilled or realised. It is, after all, our typical habit to have our heads in the clouds. Things are better there than here on earth. We collected a huge number of projects, sorted them by themes and built an archive. The architect Yuri Avvakumov manufactured some lopsided crates painted in the colour of old blueprint paper. The most spectacular projects were animated. The exhibition’s budget was ludicrously small – these days it’s ten to fifteen times higher.

There was no European Union then, we paid for things in Liras, using those beautiful lilac notes with portraits of great artists. I remember faces of Caravaggio and Bernini. We had very few Liras. By the way, the first one-Lira coin was a silver one with the image of the Doge of Venice and the winged Lion of Saint Mark. What I encountered in Venice was not only the amazing monuments I knew from reproductions (such as my beloved Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the church Santa Maria dei Miracoli), but some enterprising people as well. Although I haven't tried, I’ve been told it’s easier to deal with a Bedouin. The city is so strongly sought after that people can just relax and do nothing: their money would multiply by itself. It’s no surprise that the adventurous idea of selling off city art collections was actually discussed at a high level.

Venice is really only visited by tourists, which strongly affects the minds of the local people. It seems that one is always on stage here. I was once in Venice during a severe fog and I had never before experienced such an amazing feeling of phantasmic quality of all the things around.

I have lived all over the city but I especially love the area around Santo Stefano. Right now I am living near Santa Maria Formosa, with its numerous winding streets. My windows look out onto a rather large square by this city’s standards. The smell of the lagoon is very special, it’s like a very powerful drug.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

I always relish in visiting Palazzo Fortuny. It is a truly remarkable place, with squeaky floorboards and both old and modern paintings hanging on the walls draped with precious textiles. I also enjoy going to Fondazione Prada. This is something separate from the Biennale, but it is always very exciting. Sadly, I don't think I'll have the chance to see dozens of exhibitions around the city.

Click here to read all the Venice Questionnaires so far

4 May 2017