Outside a typical apartment block last autumn in Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia’s Far East, a jeep drove up a ramp onto wooden scaffolding and carefully came to a halt outside an open window on the first floor.
The driver got out, shut the door, and climbed through the window.
This was not some local DIY innovation, but an installation created by Vienna-based artist Leopold Kessler, known for his work exploring the line between the public and the private. Birobidzhan Driveway was a comment on poverty (Russia’s elite are known to enjoy elevators that bring their cars straight into their luxury apartments), and a nod to the aspirations of the pioneers who came to Birobidzhan in the 1930s to build a Siberian Zion for the Soviet Union’s Jews.
Kessler’s construction was part of an exhibition in the city, under the aegis of the International Festival of Jewish Culture and Art, which featured contemporary artists from Austria, Russia, Israel and the United States. It was the brainchild of Simon Mraz, the head of the Austrian Cultural Forum and an attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Moscow, who has carved a niche for himself as a curator working with the traditions, cultural history and beauty of far-flung locations across Russia.
“The Russian regions are a huge treasure box in terms of inspiration for artists, writers and scientists,” Mraz says in an interview in an office inside the Austrian Embassy that is cluttered with artwork. “It is a huge part of the world and has been largely ignored culture-wise.”
A genuine, if eccentric, figure and a doyen of the local contemporary art scene, Mraz was posted to Moscow nine years ago from Vienna after leaving an auction house job working on pre-1800 European painters. In Russia, his work stands out from many other cultural-diplomatic initiatives, which often stick to distributing financial support and nurturing a staple fare of classical culture in the major metropolitan centres.
Aside from Birobidzhan, which is closer to Beijing than Moscow, the locations for Mraz’s exhibitions have included an observatory in the small southern republic of Karachay-Cherkessia and a decommissioned Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker now moored in the northern city of Murmansk. He has run a project on the topic of Russian powerhouse industrial cities and, for the centenary of the 1917 revolution, put on a contemporary art exhibition about the Russian village in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in what was once the largest Lenin museum in the world.
Mraz says he prefers places where there is unfamiliarity with contemporary art because reactions are more sincere — and unpredictable — and because it is simpler to generate interest. “It’s easier to work with people who have never done a project than with a big institution that is doing big exhibitions all the time,” he says. “You already have an art crowd in big cities… it’s more of a challenge to expose yourself to a general public [in the regions].”
Perhaps the most striking example of this was his 2016 exhibition in Karachay-Cherkessia in an observatory that once housed the world’s largest mirrored telescope. The artworks were placed around the observatory and the local town, which houses a scientific community, blurring the boundary between art and the sciences and sparking debate among researchers. One light exhibit suspended in the night sky read, “They are brighter than us.”
“The Russian regions are a huge treasure box in terms of inspiration for artists, writers and scientists. It is a huge part of the world and has been largely ignored culture-wise”
In Birobidzhan, the initial reaction was largely one of predictable bafflement. Local television showed a series of interviews about the projec, with one woman observing Kessler’s Birobidzhan Driveway telling a reporter from Rossiya 1: “they’re planning to shoot a film of some sort, Jewish probably, I don’t know.” Nina Nyukhalova, the elderly owner of the apartment used for the installation, appeared equally stumped. She said Kessler had told her apartment was most suitable because it had old window frames.
Mraz says he co-operates closely with the artists to help them generate ideas, which are rooted in the culture and history of the locations in which the finished works will be exhibited. “I don’t do anything else apart from find interesting places and discover them with creative people,” he says.
Other artists involved in the Birobidzhan project were Moscow-based Haim Sokol, who did a series of video performances, including reading the lyrics of the Internationale in Yiddish and planting small Hebrew letters made of metal in the ground, to New York-based Anton Ginzburg whose film Birobidzhan Atlas explores the region’s interweaving of Soviet architecture, Yiddish immigration and local Chinese influences. All the works were displayed in a final exhibition in the city’s hulking 1980s concert hall, the Birobidzhan Regional Philharmonia.
Aside from his curating day job, Mraz is also an art collector, and his Moscow apartment is filled with acquisitions. Collecting, he says, is “my passion and my life… other people have cars or families but I don’t have a car and I can’t afford any type of girlfriend because I live like a monk.” His contemporary art purchases are deeply personal and not a form of investment. “What is in my flat is an interaction between the artist and myself: I trust the artist,” he says. “When I am old I will look at them and say: I bought these because I love this work. I will remember something that I liked when I was 40. This is a very beautiful and intimate thing.”
Russian contemporary art has gone from strength to strength in recent years, although there is little mainstream recognition, or understanding, of what is going on outside Moscow and St Petersburg. But Mraz names several cities where the local scene, often driven by one dynamic art centre, is particularly exciting: the southern city of Krasnodar, the western enclave city of Kaliningrad, Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, a few hours to the east of Moscow and Yekaterinburg by the Ural Mountains.
Mraz is coy about his next project and for how long he plans to continue working in Russia, but admits there are many more opportunities. He says: “Austria is a small, small country — it’s full of history and culture too, but you know you can manage it and in two years you will have seen the most important things in Austria. But in Russia the fascinating thing is that it is endless: one life would not be sufficient; even if I lived to 90 years old I would never have seen the whole country.”
Russian artists, according to Mraz, are freer and more sincere than their Western counterparts because they are not constantly catering to the demands of the latest trends or trying to second-guess what museums and galleries are looking for. He says they are more resilient because being an artist there is a much tougher calling. “Art that survives is always created by strong artists,” he concludes.