'This Is the New Russia'

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev

A glamorous Muscovite waves a magic wand over her menacing, dystopic city. And presto! She conjures a new museum.

In a forgotten corner of Moscow there is a ruin. One of those typical Soviet 1960s rectangular things produced by faceless architects. Trees have started to grow from the flat roof. The floor is broken. In what was once the central hall there is a mural in the deliriously happy socialist-realist manner: an orange sun, a young woman with flaming hair, a finger outstretched like the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel. The bottom of her leg is wrapped around with new graffiti: "PANKS!" it says ("punks" misspelled in Cyrillic). This sort of building is destroyed in Moscow every day. But Dasha Zhukova sees in it a thing of beauty.

"The mural, the tiles, the paint: it all reminds me of my childhood. Everywhere old buildings have been destroyed, as if someone sucked the soul out of the city. I love Moscow--the smell of subway, the smell of the asphalt when it rains. But the city is in turmoil."

Zhukova wants to do something about it. And as one of the world's wealthiest art patrons, the daughter of a mini-garch and girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, the ninth-richest oligarch in Russia, she can. This is where she will construct her modern-art oasis, Garage, part of the regeneration (no, resurrection) of Moscow's long-abandoned lung, Gorky Park. Imagine Manhattan had no Central Park, no Guggenheim, and imagine they were to appear suddenly, in one moment and in one place, and imagine what that would do to the psyche of the city.

Rem Koolhaas, perhaps the most admired architect in the world, has been brought in to build Garage. "I love Rem's work because he is so political. He always thinks what a society needs," says Zhukova.

"The plan is to maintain as much as possible," says Koolhaas, who speaks English with a whisper of a Dutch accent. 'In this way we can intervene in the holocaust of buildings from the era."

The mural, the graffiti, the whole patina will stay. The furniture will be inspired by forgotten Soviet designs. But Garage will reach forward too: wrapped in translucent polycarbonate, a "center for contemporary culture" with films, lectures, cafes, restaurants. "A progressive, happy space," says Zhukova, and a different way to engage with art than the Soviet tradition of ritualized homage through museums that feel like mausoleums. "This is the new Russia," Zhukova insists. "I hope this project will give Russia a new identity, an identity that will take everything the country has been through and bring it into 2012."

The need to bring reconciliation between Russia and the world is, one senses, something personal for Zhukova. She emigrated from Moscow at the age of 10, joining her academic mother in the disjointed peregrinations of an immigrant's life. They ended up in Southern California. Her voice still oscillates between breezy Valley Girl and tough Muscovite. Garage marries her connection to Moscow with her love for modern art. This has been her mission since 2008. "I was spending a lot of time in London, and I thought it would be great to have a space like that in the Russian context," says Zhukova, with the disarming simplicity only the really, truly rich can afford.

Modern art has a turbulent history in Russia. In the 1920s Moscow was the capital of the world's avant-garde. Stalin banned abstract art as bourgeois. The Soviets supported socialist realism: the CIA sponsored Jackson Pollock. Lines have become blurred since but modern art is still representative of a more liberal, Western worldview in the country. Recently official Russian art has favored the saccharine, self-important statues of Zurab Tsereteli; the Aryan, unintended kitsch of Ilya Glazunov. Zhukova brought over the ironic, giant rabbits of Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic lying naked under a skeleton. But in her previous, peripheral gallery Zhukova could only attract the already converted, the art aficionados. …