Winzavod: Between Chaos and Control
Text Ray Nayler
Photos Alevtina Kashitsina
I first visited Winzavod on a date. It was a rainy wet Women’s Day during the Second Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art. With the help of a city map, we found our way to the vast art complex on the grounds of a formerly abandoned wine factory, walking under a sodden underpass to the rumble of trains overhead and picking our way through the industrial district beyond. Near the complex gates, stray dogs wandered. A few people idled in the courtyard, Biennale brochures in hand. Everything about the place was as raw as the weather: dust everywhere, puddles outside and sometimes inside, broken brick, and the constant sound of construction. In a word, unfinished.
Exhibits were announced by hasty signs scribbled on paper taped to the musty walls, and it was often unclear what was and was not part of the exhibit. In the disused activity hall of the former factory, now filled with rows of bronze busts, a smashed piano lay in the corner. Throughout the buildings, art was set up against walls patterned by decades of painting, tiling, repainting, and neglect. Was that a dusty room full of broken chairs — or an exhibit?
Under the darkened arches of what is now the Red Hall, a projector presented dancing ankles on a screen with musical accompaniment. We paused for a moment to take in the breathtaking combination of place and exhibit as the soundtrack echoed off the exposed brick of the walls. It was the perfect place for a first date: endless subjects for conversation.
One of the crown jewels of that Biennale, Oleg Kulik’s “Veru,” was housed in the factory’s former wine cellar (now known as the Arched Hall), which was dominated by a bulldozer under a black shroud — an accidental piece of the exhibit. The whole place smacked of Dadaist playfulness, of the shifting boundary between art and life. More than anything, there was the sense that art was actually happening; the creative process was going on around you. The beer bottles in the hands of visitors and cigarette butts underfoot contributed to the impression that the entire place was a living work in progress. There was a feeling of chaos and, perhaps related, of creativity, mixed with decay. In other words, very Moscow.
Winzavod makes demands of artists, insisting on inventiveness and sometimes compromise. This is what makes it special.
Over the next year I visited Winzavod several more times, and each time the place seemed to be cleaning up its act a bit more Hip galleries put up the obligatory white walls, glass doors that didn’t fit their decrepit surroundings, and various other design disappointments. Nevertheless, the feeling of newness at Winzavod persisted. A good number of the exhibits seemed relevant, even cutting-edge compared with other Moscow fare. It was, of course, inevitable that Winzavod would have to develop: You can’t just have the public tripping over exposed wires and sloshing through puddles forever (although we can all produce examples right here in Moscow to contradict the last statement).
I kept expecting Winzavod to take that one unforgivable step that would ruin it for me, to lose its authenticity and become an empty-headed art complex whose top priority was the bottom line. So I’m pleased to say that, despite a number of changes, Winzavod has avoided taking that step.
Instead, there is an increasing stream of people making their way under that dank overpass and past the stray dogs to the galleries in Winzavod. Even so, the place retains a decidedly underdeveloped feel. Certainly, the White Hall is just another formalized exhibition space, if a good one; little remains of its original rough edges. However the Red Hall beneath it is like the id of art galleries: loose tiles clattering against the dusty floor, spotlights on photographs hanging above antiquated radiators. In a city where a galloping capitalism has done its best to render art a mere footnote to excess, the very roughness of this space is encouraging. Also encouraging, though perhaps not to the staff and proprietors of Winzavod, is the incorrigibility of the Arched Hall, where the Veru exhibition was mounted. Too large for most exhibitions, the hall has a tendency to overwhelm the art on display with its sheer size and the gloomy, industrial brutality of its architecture.
It might be the very difficulty of taming this vast complex of buildings that will save it — there’s just too much to fix, and the task of trying to shoehorn art galleries or studios into parts of this decrepit space is certainly daunting. They appear, though, to be trying their best: a salon school is a recent addition to the mix.
Almost exactly one year after the Second Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Photobiennale was using several of Winzavod’s exhibition spaces, and its face had most certainly changed: Visitors were met in the courtyard by a PR representative armed with a color brochure about the complex. The booklet’s introduction compares Winzavod and the surrounding industrial wasteland to New York’s Chelsea and London’s Soho. The sell seemed geared to investors looking to capitalize on stillcheap, polluted real estate in the area. Luckily, the reality on the ground was a bit different.
We were escorted to a series of ambitious international exhibits. The exhibitions were quite good, especially those in the Red Hall, which never fails to force an exhibit to respond to the architectural space around it. This created a feeling of uniqueness, of something that could happen only here and nowhere else. In contrast, the White Hall is a kind of generic “no place” that could just as easily have been in Paris or some other city (except that to get to it we had to wend our way through the grubby, dismal, cigarette butt-strewn Kursky Station).
The magic of Veru and the other exhibitions of the Biennale was that they were forced into a dialogue with their surroundings, and it could not have been the same dialogue elsewhere. It was art with a context. Winzavod is a place that makes demands of artists, insisting on inventiveness and sometimes compromise. And this is what makes it special.
The exhibitions last year were inviting enough to the public that visitors felt perfectly at home sneaking off to a quiet corner for a cigarette, laughing at particularly pretentious pieces, and ignoring things that didn’t move them. This year they still seem at home, sipping coffee on beanbags, wandering aimlessly. The crowd is slightly more family-oriented, and a little more upscale, but there is still a real mix here, with packs of teenagers wandering the exhibitions as well.
So whither Winzavod? It is a complicated question. At the moment, Winzavod has struck a precarious balance between chaos and control. The chaos of the original Biennale at Winzavod was unsustainable, though it was a particularly uncanny (and possibly influential) moment in art history. Today the place has developed a measure of orderliness while preserving elements of its more anarchic past. However, overdevelopment, especially with a muddled vision of the end result, risks turning the complex into just another boilerplate art space.
So far, Winzavod has managed to maintain a delicate balance Let’s help that it can continue to do so and remain relevant for years to come.
1 4th Syromyatnichesky Pereulok, Bldg. 6
M. Kurskaya, Chkalovskaya