Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture is to open what will be Russia’s first public library dedicated entirely to contemporary art. As firsts go, this is remarkable in itself, given that it is taking place against a backdrop of censorship, orchestrated under the tutelage of president Vladimir Putin.
And this is just the tip of the potentially seismic iceberg. This open and very accessible library is going to contain unofficial art of the Soviet Union, much of which has never before been seen by members of the public, nor scholars for that matter.
The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Explicitly so, in fact, as it is happening at a time the Russian Federation is “choking” freedom of expression in the country, a sentiment that was expressed by 200 leading international authors including Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass and Margaret Atwood in an open letter to Putin back in February.
This extensive 10,000 volume collection of rare books, catalogues, texts, documents and images will, at least for now – for who knows how the administration will respond to the reality of a liberated, uncontrolled collection of powerful and affecting material – offer Russians and indeed the wider world a fascinating overview of contemporary art’s development.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Sasha Obukhova, the head of research at the Garage, said that one of the main aims is to provide people with an unfiltered and to all intents alternative history to all aspects of contemporary art since the 1950s: “[Russian] students don’t have access to this information—they’ve been working not with a history, but with legends.”
It was, after all, business as usual after the second world war with regards to art – any form that did not prescribe to what the state determined as correct, and that which attacked the ideology of the Communist Party, was suppressed (in effect until Glasnost and Perestroika). This forced artists to go underground and the work they produced could only ever be received or enjoyed by a small audience.
While the library goes some way in correcting the mistakes of the past, they can never make up for all the art that has been lost over the years. For example, artists were forced to destroy their own work during this unfathomable period, fearful of the repercussions they faced if caught with perceivably negative art.
Nevertheless, there is an inherent contradiction in this, which the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture is all too aware of. While there isn’t expected to be much noise rumbling out of the Kremlin with the display of work from the eighties and earlier, more immediate work is expected to ruffle a few feathers.
“It is much more difficult to deal with the art from the 1990s to 2010s, since artists from younger generations have criticised recent Russian authorities,” Ms Obukhova told the online art newspaper. Consequently, the institution is approaching this will extra care and will showcase more recent material cautiously.
This is as best as progress comes in an age where much of the enthusiastic talk of modernisation and the expansion of freedoms promised when the iron curtain finally collapsed has slowly disappeared into a black hole of authoritarian control. This is history.