CASH: IX Shiryaevo Biennale of Contemporary Art

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A sociological view on the international contemporary art biennial of Shiryaevo or Immersion of international artists in a traditional Russian village: between hyper-modernity and tradition

The Shiryaevo biennial has been taking place for 8 years in the traditional Russian village of Shiryaevo, located in the Samara region. This biennial aims to experiment Contemporary Art in such a particular context. Artists from Russia, Germany, France, Estonia and Switzerland did already take part to this Biennial. The theme of this year's 5th edition was “Home: between Europe and Asia”.

As underlined in the press release, this event “helps to set current tendencies in cultural dialogue between Europe and Asia”. It comes true since the main component of the Biennale is an art workshop. During this phase of two weeks, the artists live in local people's houses and this total immersion in an isolated village imposes many confines on artists. At the end of the residence, all the works are shown through a singular way of exhibition: the “nomadic show”. Spectators take A boat from Samara and during one day, they join participants of the Biennial for a walk in the village, following an itinerary from one piece of art to another.

I have been participating to this Biennial as a “urban sociologist”: I am working on urban planning and housing. The aim of this article is to give a sociological point of view after 2 weeks of participating observation, through a report of some significant elements. The branch of sociology I am working on deals with interactions between living conditions and social practices. Indeed, it striked me that this event has obvious social effects, and that the living conditions of the artists have important impacts on their artistic expression. At first, I'll briefly describe the village of Shiryaevo and the functioning of the residence. Then, I will try to analyse the social interactions and the influences of the living conditions on the artistic practices.

Shiryaevo: a “traditional” Russian village?

Shiryaevo is a village located near Samara, the sixth-largest city in Russia with 1.5 millions of inhabitants. Situated at 900 km in the south-east of Moscow, Samara was founded in 1586 as a fortress and later grew into a major social, economic and industrial centre of European Russia. Samara became a main Russian city because it is an important river port along of the Volga, a main arterial river for Russian transportation of goods. The city is historically twinned with Stuttgart (Germany), what can partly explain the large presence of German artists in this biennial.

The easiest way to go to Shiryaevo from Samara is by boat: it takes between 2 and 3 hours to reach the village. The village is geographically limited by the Volga and the Zhiguli mountains. The presence of these natural elements attracts a lot of inhabitants of Samara who lives in Shiryaevo during the summertime. Indeed, Shiryaevo is widely inhabited in this season by Russians who own secondary residences within the village called “dachas”. The concept of secondary houses is now quite popular and the village is mainly composed by blue and green self-erected houses. The natural elements (the Volga and the mountains) and the presence of these old coloured houses give an attraction to the village and create a special atmosphere.

These dachas are traditionally made in wood but the most recent ones are built with modern materials. The village evolves a lot since a few years and two types of dwellings coexist nowadays: traditional coloured dachas, equipped with water and electricity (some dwellings are linked to the gas network) and modern houses with all the comfort which seem bound to higher social classes. The modern houses are mainly located around the river.

The urban sprawl seems limited so that the village is relatively compact. Each dacha is located on a parcel of land with a garden so that there are a lot of green spaces in the village. Recently, the construction of the gas red disrupted the geography of the village. It is now crossed by 2m50 height gas pipes.

Some public facilities structure the village: a disused school and a post office. There is also a couple of shops where one can find some food and various goods. Moreover, there is a museum in the village, near the Volga. Indeed, Shiryaevo is linked to a very strong tradition of the Realist School. The artists Repin and Vasilyev worked there and developed the practice of outside painting. Repin's house has been converted into a museum.

This few elements of description highlight why this village was chosen to organize a contemporary art biennial (beauty of the village, conditions of social isolation but accessibility to Samara, presence of natural elements, historical tradition of art in the village, dachas where artists can live…). Moreover, it enables to understand the living conditions in the village that will be described hereafter.

The functioning of the residence

One of the main characteristics of the Shiryaevo Biennial is the residence: artists live and work two weeks in the village. They sleep in dachas, alone or by groups. Most of the artists interviewed during the workshop have a positive opinion of their living conditions, even if they don't have access to modern comfort. Most of the dachas used by artists don't have hot water, toilets are in the garden and some dachas are not linked to the gas red. Mainly, artists consider the facilities in Shiryaevo or lack thereof as something “exotic”. In this relatively isolated village, the conditions of “elsewhere” are put together: disaffection, other language, other way of living. The daily life experience enables artists to discover cultural, sociological and anthropological differences.

The daily activities are free but the organisation of the meals creates a frame. Artists are having their meals together in a canteen specially set-aside during the residence. The two daily meals are served at 01:00 pm and 07:00 pm. This rhythm creates a temporal pace that regulates the daytimes. Moreover, some dachas are away from the restaurant and this walk becomes part of the daily life, especially when the weather is really warm. This organisation allows regular exchanges between artists, as we will see below.

Within this frame, artists organize their work the way they want. They alternate times of creation and realization of their works of art, and leisure such as swimming in the Volga… The gardens are used as ateliers for artists who need space. But the living conditions are such that artists often have the impression that “everything takes a lot time”. In the village, the pace of meals, the pedestrian moves, the concrete tasks made the artists feel that they “spend a lot of time doing anything”. We can venture the hypothesis that despite these constraints, artists are experimenting alternative forms of action, communication and solidarity. They are adapting their work to all these contextual elements (difficulty of communication, distance to city, rural living conditions…). Moreover, artists often need to go to Samara during the residence to get materials or to have their photos developed. These one-day excursions are lived by artists as escapes or, on the contrary, as a hard expedition, depending of the level of satisfaction of rural living conditions in Shiryaevo.

In the evening, artists are often joining together in a dacha garden or on the beach. They are making a fire and talking around it. Along the residence, this becomes a rite organised with an unmovable ceremonial. It often takes place in the same dacha. Some artists are going to pick up wood while others are starting the fire. During the evening, others are arriving by small groups, joining their colleagues around the fire. At the beginning aggregated by nationality, they sit after with another spatial dispersion in relation with social or professional affinities. The social function of this ritual will be described below.

The residence ends with the nomadic show. During 8 hours, artists and spectators walk in the village, going from one work of art to another. This year, the route started from the quay and finished in the mountains. They stopped at each work to see a performance or an exhibition. They made a break in the school where many works of art were exhibited. Firstly grouped, the spectators left little by little, tired by the hike and the warmth.

The social interactions

The concept of the residence naturally creates many relations between artists from different nationalities. The material constraints are so important that artists have to become in solidarity: for example some lent their laptops, photographers

exchanged material to hang their photography for the exhibition and asked each other where they could have their photos developed…

The living conditions are the way of the interactions artists are eating and partying together. Parties around the fire described above have the anthropological function of an “interacting rite”: it creates a community with a similarity of interests (participants are living in the same conditions, sharing the same difficulties and having the same objective to finish their work for the day of the exhibition). They can discuss about that around the fire, make an appointment or meet the directors of the Biennial... This ritual is festal to show emotions and talks which would not happen without the help of this theatrically self-staging: beach, fire, common meals, alcohol create conditions of exchange in the community. Sometimes, these exchanges can give birth to short or long-run collaborations (common performance for the nomadic show, exhibitions in Stuttgart, proposal for art workshops in other countries…).

The residence although creates interactions between artists and inhabitants. Firstly, the artists have social relations with their hosts. There are two distinct type of housing for the artists: some are living with the owner of the dacha, some are alone and the owner lives in another house, usually close to the dacha. This has many consequences on the social integration of foreigners and on the achieved level of cultural exchanges. Living with an open-minded and quite welcoming old woman, I had the opportunity to communicate with her, mostly with non-verbal exchanges.

The fact that artists live in the village during a relative long time creates lot of micro-sociability with inhabitants: exchanges with shops assistants, neighbours, bystanders who are seeing artists at work… Moreover, some artists are integrating the local population in their works (for example, pictures showing inhabitants), sometimes with difficulty or intercultural problems, as it was the case with an artist who tried without success to buy inhabitants their domestic trash for his project. This cohabitation between local population and international artists can naturally create conflicts or simple lack of understanding. For instance, a scene during the nomadic show gave a perfect illustration of what we can call “interculurality” (chocks which occurs when people belonging to different cultures meet): two German artists planned to make a performance in the Repin museum. One of the artists was acting as a cat and she was wearing pink clothes while the other was wearing blue ones. Irrelevant to the biennial, a show with traditional and folkloric songs was organised in a very closed place, near the museum. This cohabitation of two radically different kinds of event was an illustration of the misunderstandings inherent in this Biennial that – let's recall it, plans to make contemporary art in a traditional isolated village! The German performance occurred with a sonorous background of traditional Russian songs, as a demonstration of “interculturality”.

During the Biennial of Shiryaevo, many tensions develop between different social environments: rural/urban; Russia/Western Europe; contemporary art/tradition… All these pairs of opposition are expressing themselves during the time of the Biennial to produce an event: the nomadic show.

The links between the living conditions and the artistic practices

This question is all the more interesting since the theme of this edition was “Home”. Basically, the invited artists knew the whole title of the Biennial “Home: Between Europe and Asia” and they treated the notion of home in many different ways: Home as dwelling; intimist interpretations (“at home”), my “universe”; in a comparative way between Europe and Asia… Even if a theme is imposed, the artists have the freedom of its interpretation. The curators didn't collect artworks connected to the theme they had chosen in order to exhibit them. They chose living artists and asked them to build a piece especially for the occasion. Consequently, we can observe that the adequacy between the direct aspect of the pieces shown during the exhibition and the theme of the biennial is more or less loose.

In the field of urban sociology, one study the impacts the living conditions have on the user's behaviour(s). Social practices and spatial environment are strongly interdependent.

Moreover, artists are living during two weeks in this village without proper ateliers or anything they are used to have following their processes of work. At different degrees, this too has consequences on their artistic expression. Firstly, difficulties to find material or to get access to technologies restrict their work. Moreover, the principle of the biennial is to create during the residence, and not to come with a fully realized work. These rules (realizing the pieces during the workshop with all that can be found in Shiryaevo or Samara) are well integrated by most of the artists, especially by foreign ones who don't have easily access to something else than rudimentary material. These constraints mainly orientate artists in the kind of art they practice. In these conditions, performance and installation seems to be the two most adapted forms. Thus, the concept of this Biennial largely impacts the artistic practices. Artists have to develop strategies to find material they need or, what is most frequently, to adapt their idea to what they can find on site. It can be considered as constructive constraints that surround the process of creation. For example, this concept was used during the early seventies by arte povera when artists chose to use any medium they could get for free or very cheap such as sticks, rocks, rope, iron…We can consider that the Biennial of Shiryaevo encourages as well new process of creation around the couple freedom/constraints: freedom let to artists to work as they want, around the imposed theme or not, and constraints imposed by the living conditions.

The links between the physical environment and the artistic practices are illustrated in a clearer manner by the pieces themselves. Some artists use the village not only as a support to show their works but as a material too. The village is marked by old works: graffiti on ruined buildings, vertical poles or gas lines… These interventions leave traces on the physical aspect on the village so that the village looks “habited” by the Biennial.

Conclusion

At the Shiryaevo Biennial 2007, while I was showering in the garden with cold water, I could hear my companions talking about the way they could tinker a projector before they just decided to give-up and construct a cube with plastic bottles.

The territorial aspect is preponderant in the process of creation proposed in Shiryaevo: the village is everything but a white cube. Such an event tries out original forms of creation and exhibition. The conditions seem sometimes "extremes", regarding to the localization of the biennial and the means ready for artists. The show is nomadic, transience and in the presence of the artists. All these conditions put together generate an original event and produces a two weeks long working community.

Two questions are crucial for the future of this Biennial:  the balance between the artists from different nationality? as a determining factor for social interactions ? and the capacity of the village to absorb a growing event.

Catalog 2007

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