Contemporary art was suppressed in Russia for most of the Soviet era and has been largely ignored there since, so the opening of a major, privately owned contemporary art museum in Moscow was always going to be significant. In the last decade or so, contemporary art galleries have managed to gain a foothold in former industrial areas of Moscow, St Petersburg and other major cities. The Russian capital has its Viner Streets and its Hoxton Squares, but only now, in the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, does it have its Tate Modern.
The new museum’s location in Gorky Park is of central importance. Three days before it opened I walked past to see bulldozers and workmen frantically putting in paving stones. Lax project management, perhaps, but oddly appropriate for a park that has been in a constant state of repair or disrepair ever since it opened in 1928 (the first redesign took place a year later). In a city of imposing, monolithic architecture, Gorky Park has always been an unstable, dynamic exception, always on the verge of becoming. This is an ideal site for contemporary art, a living, evolving discourse rather than a fixed canon requiring some marble pantheon to house it.
Over the last few years Gorky Park has been transformed from a place in which drunk soldiers used to sleep among disused fairground rides into a carefree, Instagram-friendly hipster haven. In this new incarnation, complete with boules cafe, gardening club, beach volleyball courts, outdoor cinema and now, cutting-edge contemporary art museum, the park’s original purpose as a site of relaxation and cultural edification (its full name is the Gorky Central Park of Culture and Rest) has been restored. As somewhere green, free, fun and irreverent – everything that the rest of Moscow isn’t – it is a place that Muscovites love and sorely need.
The museum shares this spirit with the rest of the park, and even feels like an extension of it. It would have been easy to design an austere white cube, but instead Rem Koolhaas has placed a shiny polycarbonate shell around the skeletal remains of a Khrushchev-era restaurant. In doing so, he has breathed new life into a two-storey ruin that once thrummed with the great and the good of Moscow society. The Four Seasons was about as trendy and sociable as it got in the USSR, and in reanimating the building as a gallery, Koolhaas seems to want to restore its function as a place to mingle and be seen – less a museum than a hip cultural destination.
On opening day, I am greeted by Erik Bulatov’s Constructivist-inspired mural enthusiastically proclaiming ‘Come to Garage!’ in the bright, spacious atrium. There is a buzz of excitement in the air and friendly staff are on hand to help. (This is unprecedented in Russia, where I once got told off for smiling in a museum.) I can hear the chaotic clattering of ping-pong balls echoing down from an upper level. I’m not imagining it, because one falls down the stairwell in front of me and bounces to twice my height on the polished concrete floor.
Going upstairs, the source of the noise is revealed as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Tomorrow is the Question, which involves visitors playing each other at dozens of ping-pong tables while catering staff serve pelmeni dumplings on trolleys. The installation is aware of the history of the building and the park, and is in some kind of theoretical back-and-forth with Július Koller’s ping-pong themed photographs on show in an adjacent room, but the overall sense is of leisure and interaction rather than serious conceptual art. On the same floor are two immersive Yayoi Kusama installations, one room full of tiny flashing lights and another full of giant polka dots. This is populist, selfie-friendly stuff.
These opening exhibits successfully announce Garage’s intention to be a new kind of Russian museum. In an atmosphere of increasingly hysterical conservatism in Russia, it will be interesting to see to what extent the gallery will provide a platform for material that is socially or politically critical. But for now, Moscow’s new home for contemporary art is welcoming, approachable and fun, which in itself makes it a groundbreaking, and perhaps even radical place.