In July 2012, Moscow and the surrounding Moscow Oblast region merged to create the first megacity in Europe. As Moscow becomes more centralized and people move from surrounding towns and villages towards the city center, many regions are thinning out. Settlements that were thriving 20 years ago have been abandoned, now ghost towns of the recent past.
Part of this “New Moscow” includes a vibrant contemporary art and architecture scene. Former industrial buildings have transformed into art spaces: a bus garage is now Moscow Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, a wine-bottling factory is the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, a theater lamp factory is the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, and a chocolate factory is the Red October art complex. Several new biennials have popped up as well, including the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, and the Moscow Arch Biennale.
Despite this general shift towards the city center, however, some New Muscovites are heading back to the hinterlands to view and create art and architectural interventions in the Russian countryside, and to take in the fresh air, open spaces, and slower pace of life that the pastoral landscape seems to offer.
Nikola-Lenivets, a former agricultural area located roughly 200 kilometers southwest of Moscow, is quickly becoming a new creative hub outside of the “center.” Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, life in Nikola-Lenivets and the eight neighboring villages was centered around the kolkhoz, or state-run collective farm. When the kolhoz dissolved, the area began to fall into economic depression and structural disrepair, and subsequently, five of the villages turned to ruins. The three villages that retained inhabitants, Koltsovo, Nikola-Lenivets, and Zvizzhi, have a combined population of about 200 residents.
However, the area began to take on a new identity in the early 2000s, when Nikolay Polissky, then a landscape painter from Moscow (who was introduced to the area by his architect friend Vasily Schetinin), set up shop in Nikola-Lenivets, employing locals to work in his studio. Informed by his new surroundings, Polissky began to create large-scale environmental installations, constructed from the materials at hand, such as snow, twigs, and hay. In 2006, with Polissky’s guidance, the village hosted the first Archstoyanie architecture festival. The event now takes place annually and brings in acclaimed architects from Moscow and beyond to create new temporary and long-term installations for the “Nikola-Lenivets Park,” attracting a growing audience of art and architecture enthusiasts.
Most of the visitors to Nikola-Lenivets make the trek from Moscow–including the young Russian billionaire Maxim Nogotkov. Nogotkov, who made his fortune in telecommunications, was so taken by the place when he attended the 2007 Archstoyanie festival, that a few years later he ended up buying the land encompassing the Nikola-Lenivets Park. Earlier this year he established ArchPolis, an organization to carry out his vision of transforming Nikola-Lenivets into an international art and architecture destination.
Since then, development of the area has been expeditious. This summer brought about the construction of new infrastructure to accommodate the growing number of visitors. The 2012 installment of the Archstoyanie festival, which was partially funded by ArchPolis, brought in an estimated 6,000-7,000 attendees to experience the 32 sculptural and architectural works sprinkled across the forests and fields adjacent to the Ugra River and Ugra National Park. New roads were built, an organic farm is in its first season, a campsite and cafeteria debuted in July, and hotels and other guest housing are in the works. This July also launched new, ambitious arts programming sponsored by ArchPolis, including artist panels, musical performances, children’s workshops, and an artist in residence program, for which an international group of architects, artists, arts administrators, and curators (including myself) was invited to the village to help advise on. The artist residency, led by director Inna Prilezhaeva and curator Georgy Nikich, focuses on multidisciplinary, research-based projects, rather than the large-scale structural interventions commissioned by Archstoyanie and created by Polissky.
This recent, rapid change is a far cry from the village’s inherently slow pace (the Russian words “Nikola-Lenivets” translate to “lazy sloth”), and has been met with mixed reactions. Why bring in outside architects and urban farmers to come up with new farming strategies for the rural area when long-time residents such as Sergei, the former kolzhoz president, have decades of experience running the farm and feeding the village? For ArchPolis, and other Nikola-Lenivets stakeholders, the challenge lies in developing a creative community away from the city that embraces the new energy, ideas, people, infrastructure, and capital that have been rapidly introduced, without neglecting the local natural resources–the long-time residents, raw materials, and skills that already exist in Nikola-Lenivets—that brought Polissky and other creative visionaries to the area in the first place.
About this column:
The Fringe seeks to make greater connection between Atlanta and the art world at large. Now with writers contributing from around the country, the column continues to follow contemporary art that addresses the unique qualities of the natural, built, and social environments. The Fringe will unfold as several collections of articles bound together by a theme.
This article continues the collection I have named “Life as Form” after Creative Time’s second annual summit. The correlating exhibition entitled Living As Form combined artists, theorists, curators, and activists to consider how creative projects can restructure relationships between people and the places they live. Similarly, BURNAWAY will reflect on artistic form and public engagement in projects based in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Charleston, Berlin, and Atlanta.