The Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale creates a multiplicity of meanings as it relates to Hal Foster’s statement that good Contemporary Art looks to the past to comment on the present. Myth, and specifically, the myth of the impregnation of Danae through a rain of golden coins is referenced so literally in this work that it calls into question the mystic aura of the past. Seeing actual golden coins fall from the ceiling makes you face the reality of the unseductive, and almost dangerous nature of the literal sense of the story. This graphic image has captured the imagination of many artists in the past and while the painted and sculptural representations of this myth has the power to draw the viewer in, this material actuality in which the viewer participates, takes away the lesson and replaces it with a fleeting experience. Even Vadim Zakharov’s explanation of the work seems a bit surface and hollow. He says, “What is masculine can only fall inside from above in the form of golden rain. The lower level of the Pavilion is a ‘cave womb’ keeping tranquility, knowledge and memory in tact.” As I viewed the work from above and experienced it down below, tranquility, knowledge, and memory did not immediately come to mind. The work in the Russian Pavilion, while trying to comment on contemporary greed and corruption, conveyed this idea through a literal spectacle reenactment of a mystical story from the past, stopping the myth in the present and preventing its future through material form.
Why did we giggle at the architecture of the Russian Pavilion when we first walked past it? What is it about Russia in general that makes us feel uneasy? When I went back, I tried to take a Kantian disinterested stance. The building was stately, large, and well kept. The top exhibited some ornamentation I associate with the onion domes of St. Petersburg or even Sitka, Alaska. The main entrance was a flight of stairs up from the ground.
Inside, one artist represented the entire country: Vadim Zakharov. His theme was a new reading of the myth of Danaë as “a symbol of human lust and greed.” The materials for the entire exhibition were listed on the wall, much like the composition of an art object: 3 parabolic antennas, 1 ladder, 1 saddle, 50 kilos of peanuts, 1 altar rail (arranged in a square around an opening in the floor), 200.000 coins (the Europeans use a period where we would use a comma in a number), 2.000 umbrellas (really?), 1 cave, 1 fountain, 1 bucket, 1 execution chair of love (how can you have an execution chair of love???), 1 rose, 1 coin elevator, 5 photographs, 1 lady, 2 gentlemen, participating audience.
Here’s what got to me most. The wall text was all in perfect English, and only English. They were making a point, obviously. I felt a bit overwhelmingly American. Then I read the text, and the point was obvious: “Gentlemen, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism (I’m glad they spelled that right, because I had trouble typing it in), Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality and…”
…and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity” it said in the next room. Wow, the seven deadly sins had grown tentacles. Was this directed at America? Was the artist talking about his own culture, but speaking to other cultures? It was true that there were not only a lot of native-English-speakers around me at the Biennale, but there were a lot of American English speakers. And all the guards and food service people spoke English, too. So I thought maybe I didn’t need to feel so defensive. After all, I was trying to take a disinterested, analytic, unemotional read on this pavilion. I was failing.
The guard next to the very tall coin conveyor said “Don’t Touch!” to some German-speaking fellows net to me. Yet the same coins were raining down through the huge hole in the floor (the one with the altar railing around it), and visitors below in the “cave” had translucent umbrellas and could walk into the “rain” and pick up coins. Whether or not the coins were “real,” money talks. And its noise and its shimmer spoke volumes.
In the first room, a well-suited man was in a saddle on a supporting beam below the large skylight. What did this mean? From time to time, he cracked open a peanut and let it fall to the ground. Peanuts for peasants? The wall text said that the peanuts were part of the “material flow of goods,” and that the purpose of the artist was “to demonstrate to a society that no longer believes in myths, the importance of its mythological personifications.” Huh. The installation prompted the question: Are there really no myths in society?