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At the boundary of art and politics: ‘Borderlands’ at GRAD reviewed

2 May 2015

Just after the first of the Soviet monuments were toppled in Ukraine at the end of 2013, several art institutions began to organise their own responses to the conflict that continues in Donbass. The result has been twofold. The Garage Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow (now the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art), for instance, hosted a major exhibition celebrating the ways art can overcome conflict, while another blockbuster exhibition – ‘My History. The Ruriks’ at the Manege Exhibition Centre in Moscow – has been criticised as blatant propaganda.

(2015), ZIP art group

Brain-twister. Elementary Workbook (2015), ZIP art group

Compared to the show at Garage, GRAD’s ‘Borderlands’ exhibition in London intends to question whether art can be as political as it is aesthetic; this is the conceptual border to which the title refers. The ZIP group from Krasnodar are artists and activists. One of their past projects includes the B.O.P., a one-man portable picketing booth which allows its user the space, anonymity and protection to express their opinion. For ‘Borderlands’, however, the group have presented a series of costumes inspired by the Constructivist designer Varvara Stepanova. ZIP are not the only collective to use clothing as a means of making political art in Russia. Costumes are also integral to the work of ‘The Factory of Found Clothing’, a collective from St Petersburg. ZIP’s handmade T-shirts, in particular, carry a do-it-yourself political message.

(2013), Nikita Shokhov.

Without Dictatorship of the Gaze (2013), Nikita Shokhov. Courtesy of GRAD

Also interested in the border between art and reality is Evgeny Granilschikov, whose film Courbet’s Funeral, named after the French painter, is made up of real and staged everyday conversations. Both Granilschikov and another artist, Nikita Shokhov, challenge the documentary format. For his photographic series Without Dictatorship of the Gaze, Shokhov used a slow shutter-speed, scanning a scene from different perspectives in one shot. He is able to capture the energy of the massed protesters, but the faces of individuals blur. This supports what a character in Courbet’s Funeral suggests: in the age of mass media, it’s impossible to be yourself.

(2014), Zhanna Kadyrova

Untitled (2014), Zhanna Kadyrova

The Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova’s sculpture – the remains of a wall that appears to have been bulldozed – stands apart from the other artworks, and not because of its size. Hewn roughly into the shape of her home country, the work reflects the reality of Russia’s military intervention. It reinforces the idea behind Borderlands, that identity is a battleground.

‘Borderlands’ is at GRAD, London, until 16 May.