This review of the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art was published in the February issue of Art Monthly:
The Slavic folk tale of Koschei the Immortal, a predatory male figure who steals maidens from their suitors and escapes death by hiding his soul in the eye of a needle, placed inside an egg, which is itself hidden inside a duck that flies away if one tries to catch it, has medieval antecedents. The story has been given a new lease of life by the participants of a workshop conceived for the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial by MIT-based artist-scientist Joe Davis, who has made storing digital data in the DNA of live organisms his speciality. Preserved in mineral salts, in which they can survive for hundreds of millions of years, halophile bacteria bearing Koschei’s image and story encoded in their DNA stand a pretty good chance of outlasting us as a species.
Titled ‘A Needle, an Egg, and the Future of Information Keeping’, Davis’s talk brought to a close a four-day symposium timed to coincide with the Biennial’s opening in mid September and exploring its rich central theme – immortality – from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Other keynote speakers included philosopher Yuk Hui, whose seminal 2016 book The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics informed curator Xiaoyu Weng’s main exhibition project, calling ‘For a Multitude of Futures’. Weng drew on Hui’s theories in an attempt to ‘re-negotiate our relationship with modern technology, which is exclusively determined by Western epistemologies’, according to her curatorial statement. But in trying to bring unfamiliar, non-European perspectives to bear on the pressing issue of technological development, which is all to the good, Weng did not shy away from generalisations such as the above, which made reading her otherwise well-informed wall texts somewhat tiresome.
Placed at the outset of ‘For a Multitude of Futures’, the bulk of which was installed on the fourth floor of the Ural Optical and Mechanical Plant (a working factory located in the city of Ekaterinburg), James T Hong’s Three Arguments about the Opium War, 2015, confronted on opposing video screens rival British and Chinese takes on the mid-19th century Opium Wars that marked the onset of industrialisation in China and, as Weng suggests, spelled the end of traditional Chinese cosmologies that were increasingly deemed backward. Spirit-writing, 2016, by another Taipei-based video artist, Chia-Wei Hsu, who conducted a dialogue with the frog god Marshal Tie Jia by means of a divination chair, was among several artworks on view that could be seen as an attempt to rehabilitate time-honoured crafts, rituals and beliefs that fly in the face of progress. By blaming everything on ‘Western technological thought’, however, Weng appeared to be ignoring China’s own role in stifling ritualistic practices that smack of superstition. The fact that Marshal Tie Jia’s original temple in Jiangxi’s Wuyi Mountains was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, for instance, was simply brushed aside.
More compelling, given the Biennial’s overall theme and where it is held, was the inclusion of Anton Vidokle’s Immortality for All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014–17, three essay films addressing complementary facets of the philosophical movement that saw the achievement of corporeal immortality for the living and the dead alike as the ‘common task’ awaiting mankind, in the words of its founder Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (1829–1903). Previously published on e-flux, which Vidokle edits, an expanded Timeline of Russian Cosmism was prominently displayed at the second of the main exhibition venues, the Coliseum Cinema where the first ever film screening in Ekaterinburg took place, rebranded for the occasion as the ‘Pavilion of Immortality’. In a nod to the last film in the trilogy, looking at the museum as a place where lives are preserved ahead of a resurrection to come, Arseny Zhilyaev’s Anton Vidokle’s De Cosmos Recreation Center, 2016–19, with its rejuvenating ‘museum spa’ offering a range of colourful therapies, playfully subverted the utopian propositions of Russian cosmism. The diminutive Museum of Sand Grains, 2017–, by the artistic collective Gorod Ustinov, meanwhile, called on visitors to shift grains of sand about with tweezers, an exercise which evoked the working methods of another wellness centre, the Marina Abramović Institute, aka the MAI.
Most of the Biennial projects that engaged with the Ural region and its industrial heritage were the product of the artist-in-residence programme. Exhibited on the second floor of the Ural Optical and Mechanical Plant, the works of ten artists and artists’ collectives from Europe and Russia, who had spent a decent amount of time in operating factories spread across the Urals and beyond, included London-based Hannah Perry’s 2019 video Study in Masculinity that weaves together images of factory workers engaging in leisure and work activities; Swedish artist Cecilia Jonsson’s purified wastewater from mines contained in a tall glass cylinder, the average height of a human body; and a bouncing castle presented alongside a video featuring wacky wall murals and a giant flying ball in Ekaterinburger Krasil Makar’s playful take on the Ural-Siberian painting tradition. The most intriguing of the special projects that I saw was the ‘Ural Mari. No Death’ exhibited at the Yeltsin Center Art Gallery. Working in collaboration with the anthropologist Natalya Konradova, photographers Aleksander Sorin and Fyodor Telkov had realized a series of documentary photographs and videos charting the daily rituals of the animistic Mari people who perform various white magic acts to ensure their dead stay forever alive.