Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2018
4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art Exh. cat. Ekaterinburg, Russia: Ural University Press, 2017. 488 pp.; many color ills. Hardcover (9785799622442)
Ekaterinburg, Russia, September 14–November 12, 2017
Installation view, 4th Ural Biennial of Contemporary Art, Ekaterinburg, Russia, September 14–November 12, 2017 (photograph © ZIP group; provided by Daria Kostina)

The theme of the 4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art was “New Literacy.” The biennial’s curatorial team conceptualized this theme based on interventions into global communication that have arisen from the current “industrial” revolution in the field of information technology. The curator of the Main Project, João Ribas, deputy director of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal, described the theme as having been built around three key aspects: image as a witness, the persistent word, and capitalist choreographies (63–65). These three concepts were part of the biennial’s broader focus on various dimensions of the question “how?” How is the new world designed? How should we manage its unstoppable changes? How should we describe our past, present, and future? All of these related issues became starting points for the biennial’s different elements including its Artist-in-Residence Program, Special Projects, and the Performance Platform.

Located on three floors of the Ural Instrument Production Plant, the biennial’s Main Project served as a large-scale platform for contemporary art research. The exhibition included works— most of them mediated by gadgets—by more than sixty artists from nineteen countries. The works, installed in the plant’s wide, empty corridors as well as in separate spaces such as offices and laboratories, examined the inconsistent and contradictory human practices associated with making use of the world and its resources on the one hand and trying to be of use to it on the other. Various directions on the plant’s walls, once meaningful to its employees and intentionally left untouched by the curator, accentuated the exhibition site’s semantic importance. The biennial’s narrative of development without guidelines unfolded within the plant’s layout and design, which was meant to enforce discipline.

The instructive texts from the plant’s previous life, which told employees what to do in case of emergency, created a dialogue with many of the artistic works. For example, the ZIP art group suggested imagining an invisible aggressor and learning how to competently defend against it. In the project Aerobics (2015), the group taught people basic techniques of self-defense. Performances were supplemented with posters on the walls that schematically explained the main moves. The installation revealed that the difference between the ZIP group’s project and the instructions on the plant’s walls were smaller than one might have expected. The artists emphasized that fitness training, which they offered to spectators several times during the biennial, is a collective practice by a group consisting of individuals. The plant’s instructions also addressed the employees as a collective, but the surnames of the specific individuals responsible for workplace safety were also included in the wall texts. While plant instructions called for vigilance during work processes, Aerobics called for self-help.

However, despite the unsafe circumstances and frustrations that experience today in our increasingly complex world, we frequently ignore instructions. One of the exhibition’s key works, Robert Morris’s interactive installation Bodyspacemotionthings (1971–2011), was equipped with five illustrated guides. These hung from the walls and columns and showed visitors how to correctly interact with the installation’s scaled wooden cylinders, ramps, and walls. Most of the biennial visitors, however, were uninterested in the instructions and what they taught, preferring instead to take photos of themselves and their friends with the work’s sculptural elements.

While this kind of inattention to instructions could be perceived as ordinary, distracted behavior, failure to follow directions can also be seen as an expression of harmful intent. In her 2008 video project The Trainee, Finnish artist Pilvi Takala explored the borders between the permissible and the unacceptable by documenting her internship at Deloitte Corporate Finance in Helsinki. The video showed how, during her time on the job, Takala refused to perform the tasks expected of her. As a result, she became a person that company employees discussed and eventually avoided.

Ekaterinburg photographer Fyodor Telkov’s examination of methods for resisting the mastery of particular skills followed Takala’s reflections on forms of anti-disciplinary protest. In his work Artless Confessions (2009–17), Telkov photographed graffiti drawings that students at the Ural State University of Economics had made on their desks. The various symbols, animals, scenes, and inscriptions revealed what the students were actually thinking during their classes. At the plant, Telkov’s photographs were placed on desks so that viewers could feel as though they were in a classroom with sincere messages documenting students’ silent rebellions against their lecturers’ words and demands.

Questions about the mechanisms that humans devise to protect themselves from meanings were also reflected in Jenny Holzer’s well-known work Truisms (1978–87). Each of Holzer’s one-sentence clichés addressed a different aspect of life and represented statements that were used by people to prevent themselves from being introspective. Today such assertions, which may seem reasonable, fill social networks and multiply there, reflecting the power of social constructs’ impact on people’s consciousness.

Doug Ashford’s video installation Bunker (2016) also referred to the uncontrollable multiplication of information. The work presented scans of the New York Times from 1982 to 2016 in an accelerated slideshow that made them impossible to read. Here the artist suggested that the speed of digital media presents so much new data every second that it cannot be comprehended. Indeed, the work’s title can be interpreted as a metaphor for that incomprehensibility. With too many forms produced too quickly, the content of the information we encounter remains inaccessible, as if locked inside an invisible bunker. Both Holzer’s and Ashford’s works raised questions about the broken balance between human abilities and the challenges of the new literacy.

Melvin Moti’s astonishing video No Show (2004) expanded the discourse about contemporary human ability that Holzer and Ashford generated in their works. In his short film, Moti reconstructed Hermitage employee Pavel Gubachevsky’s 1943 excursion for Soviet soldiers. Much of the museum’s collection had been evacuated to the Urals during the Second World War. Walking through the Hermitage’s empty halls, Gubachevsky spoke from memory about the paintings that had been on display. For many soldiers, this was their first tour of the Hermitage; it not only required them to plunge into the meaning of Gubachevsky’s words but also forced them to mobilize their imaginations to envision invisible masterpieces. There was no technology at the time that could help the listeners with this task, and in his video Moti shows only an empty exhibition hall as if to suggest that no digital instrument can do what Gubachevsky did.

The question of whether technology can ethically replace a human being was central to Harun Farocki’s video installation Eye/Machine II (2002). Farocki asked the viewer to consider whether the implementation of intelligent military machines, such as fighter planes or rockets that have the ability to act autonomously, absolves us of our human responsibility for the consequences of war. This work provoked questions about how this war model has become a critical component of the global economic system and, in particular, an arena for technological innovation.

The Urals have always been known for their industrial identity, but for modern regional residents who grew up during the post-Soviet era of industrial extinction, this identity is often not clear. The Artist-in-Residence Program organized visits to the region’s industrial sites in an attempt to determine what is still industrial in the “industrial Urals.” The Artist-in-Residence Program interpreted the industrial development problem of how to turn one substance or product into another in a highly poetic way. In so doing, it linked the artists’ residency to the biennial’s Main Project. The final exhibition of the program occupied an entire floor of the plant and was organized around several themes, including the “context documentation” of meetings between artists and spectators at industrial sites; “gestures of immersion” projects that tried to devise an industrial metaphysics; and the integration of individual projects into a particular regional production process or industrial site. The exhibition brought the modern spectator closer to industry and offered a kind of guidance on how to understand this important layer of the Urals’ past and present. The process of transformation of materials and mentality was a key focus of the Artist-in-Residence Program, and the lyrical perspectives of artists such as Hector Zamora, Tatyana Akhmetgalieva, Rudy Decelière, and others helped reveal humanity’s vulnerability within our technological reality.

The 4th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art’s narratives focused on one central problem: the striking discrepancy between the scale of industrial production, contemporary immaterial digital technologies, gadgets, and the human. The artists’ diverse works clearly demonstrated that at the moment there are no guidelines that could help reconcile all of these discrepancies in scale and potential.

Daria Kostina
PhD Candidate and Lecturer, Department of Art History and Museology, Ural Federal University

Please send comments about this review to