Artists take dissenting view of Russia's new oil riches

The Baltimore Sun

Moscow -- In Russia, nothing - perhaps save Vladimir V. Putin - is as supreme as oil.

Profits from drilling it, and selling it at historically high prices, have filled state coffers - and private pockets. Entire towns have been built on oil's back; the capital of one resource-rich Siberian region, Khanty-Mansisk, has a new airport, seaport, university and art gallery. Oil pipelines have been proposed, or are under construction, in every direction from Moscow.

So-called black gold has given the country a reason, once again, to strut on the global stage.

But there is another side to the world of crude, explored in a temporary exhibit, Petroliana: Oil Patriotism, at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art at Petrovka. In this world, while oil might make nations like Russia financially flush and politically powerful, it does so at a human, and ecological, cost. In this world, oil - quite literally - spills onto the gallery floor, and is mocked for having become a kind of global religion. "Russian Orthodox oil," one of the artists calls it.

"We can't imagine our world without oil now," said Elena Sorokina, the Russian-born independent curator who put together the show, one of a few she has done exploring oil as a theme. "On the other hand, everyone knows that this way is not sustainable.

"The origins of oil are closely related to modernist utopias: progress, energy, labor-saving inventions and the American dream," said Sorokina, who is based in Paris. But, she added, "Oil has become an extremely negative image, linked to climate change, environmental irresponsibility, greed of big multinationals and a great number of wars."

The exhibit, which includes the works of about 30 artists, touches on all of those images, and more. A painting by the French art group BP, a sardonic play on the name of the oil company British Petroleum, consists only of the words IN GOD WE TRUST, painted in - what else? - oil. In a photograph by Russian Andrei Molodkin, the black tentacles of an oil pump snake around a religious icon in the snow.

Molodkin regularly uses oil - Chechen, Armenian, Iraqi - in his works. In a 2005 exhibition in New York called Sweet Crude Eternity, he filled the letters of the word DEMOCRACY with oil, and had oil dripping from the wounds of a sculpture of Jesus; he has called oil "global blood."

"It's an instrument. It's our national identification," said Molodkin of oil in an interview from Paris, where he spends part of his time. "I like the saying, Russia drinks oil at the lips of the elite."

The idea for Petroliana stemmed from a similar, but much smaller, exhibit Sorokina showed in Manhattan in 2003, shortly before the start of the second Iraq war, which is what got her interested in oil in the first place. By bringing the show to Russia, she's trying to make a point in a nation whose soaring economy revolves around it, and where dissonant voices are not often heard - even in painting or sculpture. She calls oil not black gold, but "fool's gold," and lets viewers decide how to interpret "oil patriotism." "That's the question: Was it bliss or damnation? Did we use it the best we could?" asks Sorokina, 34, who left Russia in 1991 to study art history in Germany.

It's oil, she said, that has allowed for Russia's comeback, for the revival of "patriotic nationalism," and the country's prominence, once more, in global "power games" - for better and, even perhaps more often, for worse.

In Petroliana, Christoph Draeger, a Swiss artist based in New York, explores oil in the context of catastrophe - and addiction. On one wall is a series of paintings done with a mix of oil paint and used motor oil, marking the world's major oil spills. Arranged by location according to an invisible map of the world, they show the tanker name, date and size of the spill, in gallons: Amoco Cadiz, March 16, 1978, 220,000; Gulf War, Jan. 26, 1991, 816,000; Erika, Dec. 12, 1999, 20,000; and so on.

The piece draws the viewer up a short wooden boardwalk, through an arch, into a room with a model oil spill, prepared with a liter of oil and 1,000 liters of water. A screen plays a video that, at one point, shows only a tanker moving slowly across the water, on its way into port.

Other works are more subtle. Among them: a typed letter from conceptual artist Yevgeny Fiks, sent in 2003 to ExxonMobil, seeking a small quantity of oil he planned to use in his works. More letters hang alongside it, including ones in which Exxon - and Shell and Chevron and Wintershall and Lukoil and British Petroleum - politely decline.

"Thank you for your recent letter," wrote BP. "I regret we are unable to assist you with your request for 5 gallons of Crude Oil for use in your artwork, but we do wish you every success with your project."

In name alone, Demian Kuleshov's painting "One Barrel" tricks one into thinking of a single barrel of oil, the price of which makes news here and around the world every day. Instead, it depicts a round red blot on an orange background, in the middle of which is the silhouette of a man holding a rifle. The barrel points off to the left.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad