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Contemporary art special: Where are the 21st century geniuses?

9 жовтня 2006
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a billion dollars must be in need of art. Culture is a product of surplus: diverting profits from their railways and mines, the Guggenheims, Fricks and Carnegies endowed America with art galleries and concert halls. Now, the oligarchs of eastern Europe, enriched by the monopolies they seized when the Soviet Union collapsed, seem determined to do the same for their own fumbling, chaotic countries.

The Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk owns a steel company, four television channels and a tabloid newspaper. He is also the proud possessor of a sculpted pile of tin mugs, some mobile vinyl tufts that dance when you switch them on, and a cuckoo clock whose innards -a set of bright yellow-and-scarlet wheels - are visible outside. The mugs, the agile sprigs of vinyl and the jokey clock have been deposited in the Pinchuk Art Centre, which opened above a Bentley showroom and a branch of Villeroy &. Boch in Kiev in mid-September.

On the walls, models romp in baths of volcanic mud and treat an abandoned mine as if it were the back room of a sex club; video wraiths cavort on the white walls. At the inauguration, Pinchuk appeared flanked by a phalanx of bodyguards. The oligarch - who, as a weak-kneed female journalist whispered to me, resembles the young Jack Nicholson - beamed at his contemporary playground. "To spend money," he declared, "is much more exciting than to make it."

Amassing a billion, however, has excitements of its own. As a Jew, Pinchuk was denied the chance to study in Kiev during the 1960s; he retreated to industrial Dniepropetrovsk, gained a degree in metallurgy, and designed a pipe that became the source of his fortune. Perhaps it also helped that his father-in-law was Leonid Kuchma, the former president, who ran the Soviet Union's largest missile factory. Conve-niently, Pinchuk also served for eight years as an MP, ensuring that the law smiled on his interests.

After the orange revolution in 2004, things turned trickier. His acquisition of an $8oom steel company was declared illegal. Then a Vien-nese public relations company retained by Pin-chuk reportedly bit back at the young govern-ment by claiming that the cratered face of the new president, Viktor Yushchenko, was not the result of dioxin poisoning. The government abruptly reclaimed a huge arsenal that was to have been the Pinchuk Art Centre. Yushchenko's policies promote folklore, religious orthodoxy and nationalist myth, not the modish, deraci-nated novelties of contemporary art. Tripped up, Pinchuk retaliated by using private funds to customise three floors of a commercial block op-posite the Kiev food market. A French architect installed granite floors and a catacomb of parti-tions; in a video lounge on the roof, you can loll on rubberised white sofas as if floating on a cloud above the golden domes of the ancient city.

The art on display is the pretext for a political campaign. "I do this," says Pinchuk, "for the sake of the new country. It is a brand-making thing for us, here in the middle of nowhere. Our team got to the quarter-finals in the World Cup; in art, too, we must play in the highest league, speak the most universal language. On the day Turkey started negotiations with the EU, they opened a museum of contemporary art in Istanbul. This is how I promote Ukraine in the west."

This agenda troubled me a little, especially when I crossed the street to explore the arcades of the cavernous iron and glass market, where old women brandished saltfish or displayed bags of therapeutic herbs and spices and blocks of creamy cheese. Shouldn't culture be local, like food, rather than envying a pre-packaged, savourless internationalism? Pinchuk's artists have misgivings of their own about the glossy, affluent west. Boris Mikhailov's photographs of football, shot in Germany, show sport to be an alibi for sexual aggression and fas-cist belligerence. VasiliyTsagolov's painting Orgy peers towards the far limit of a drug-befuddled Hollywood, where Sylvester Stallone smokes a hookah, John Travolta clambers on to a prostrate starlet, and Quentin Tarantino rolls on the floor in a blissed-out stupor. Navin Rawanchaikul's Art or (M)art? mocks the profiteering of his colleagues in a gigantic parody of Veronese's Marriage at Сапа. The painter himself, posing as Christ, evangelises over sacred texts on con-tracts and marketing strategy.

At the launch, two of the art stars of Rawan-chaikul's satire stepped down from the wall and drifted around the gallery: the event was graced by the bald German performance duo Eva and Adele, who swilled drinks and scoffed canapes while claiming to be sculptures (though I have never seen statues with such appetites). "Wherever we are," as Eva and Adele put it in their chirpy refrain, "is museum." If this is moder-nity, I think Ukraine maybe better off without it. With a devious grin, Pinchuk promised a surprise at the opening party, which was a boozy

Contemporary art special

scrum in the courtyard below his gallery, with raucous rock bands and dancers writhing in cages. "It is an intrigue," he said. "You will all be very startled." In the event, it would be more accurate to say that I was terrified. At the height of the festivity, a symbolic wall of plastic was tugged down, and some equally symbolic fireworks ignited behind it. The combination of polyester and pyrotechnics had a quite foreseeable effect. Flames shot into the air, Pinchuk's battalion of beefy goons manhandled diminutive canisters of foam, and the guests fled. I'm not sure what moral should be derived from the mishap. Don'tmixyourmetaphors? Contemporary art emits toxic fumes?

"We now have civic values," said Pinchuk, surveying 15 years of Ukrainian independence. "We know how to be civil. What we must do is show the west that we are civilised." But after centuries in which their land has been trampled, first by Mongols and then by Tatars, Poles, Nazis and Russians, many Ukrainians have a laughing fatalism about their prospects. Toasting foreign guests ata dinner, an official of Pinchuk's charitable foundation raised a tumbler of vodka infused with chillies and, stifling a hiccup, cried out: "To the Urals! To the Balkans! To Russia! To Europe! And to China, which will unite us all!" History here revolves in annihilating circles, as the cheerful victims drink to their own destruction.

Oligarchs and their art

    Roustam Tariko
is a Russian vodka and banking oligarch who hit the headlines in May after shelling out more than $95m (Ј52m) for Picasso's Dora Maar With Cat. Worth roughly Ј1 bn, Tariko, a bachelor boy, is a connoisseur of both fine women and fine art - but his dog, Dow Jones, appears to be the true love of his life, taken on romantic escapes to Sardinia.
    Viktor Vekselberg
was born in Ukraine and made his money in oil and metals. He is now worth more than Ј5bn. While most oligarchs are reluctant to divulge the extent of their collections, he has made a point of patriotism by returning artefacts to the motherland. In 2004 he bought nine Faberge eggs from the Forbes collection for a reported $100m.
    Boris Berezovsky
was Russia's first billionaire, with large stakes in both oil and television. Now based in London, he fled Russia after Vladimir Putin gave the green light for investigations into his business dealings. He is believed to be the main force behind the rising cost of work by Russian artists. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was top of the Russian rich list until he was jailed in the Putin clampdown that began in 2003. Galleries and museums were the primary beneficiaries of his largesse: there is a room at Somerset House named after him, following his donation of a permanent Russian art exhibition.
Автор: Anthony Lane
Джерело: "Newstatesman"