exhibition design since 1983


Art Shows

“Certainly, I have heard of him before, but my admiration for Yuri Avvakumov, or, more precisely, for his gifts and skills began, when he worked in Düsseldorf on the installation of our Tatlin exhibition. Recommended to me by Anatoly Strigalev, grace to whose long-standing commitment and deep-rooted knowledge we were enabled to realize the first fully comprehensive retrospective exhibition of that outstanding Russian avantgardist, Avvakumov was invited to do what conventionally is called the exhibition design. Already that invitation was as exceptional as the exhibition itself. Usually a Kunsthalle curator would try to develop a concept of display of his or her own, except if an exhibition was to be installed together with a contemporary artist. This habit of ours had quite a few reasons, but mainly we were afraid that an exhibition designer might use the artworks more to celebrate his or her design than the design to illuminate the art. Also, in the case of Tatlin, we felt obliged to do everything necessary in order to show his works in the most convincing way. At the same time we knew, that we had to make an exception from our habits. And since hardly any western designer would have been sufficiently familiar with an art so rarely seen as Tatlin’s, we decided to ask for a Russian professional.

The first striking experience with Avvakumov was, that he worked in a manner totally different from what we were accustomed to. He took one of the corners of the main hall as a starting point. From there he drew a

specific perspective of display, determining even the site of the panels in a second room connected to the first one, beyond a balcony. Never before had an exhibition designer ignored the existing architecture of our building to such a degree, and yet succeeded to win. Besides, his installation proposal derived from Tatlin's own esthetics. Referring to the typical curved line, the construction of the exhibition panels was inspired by the stage design for Zangesi. He also practiced the language of material in the Tatlin sense. The panels, made from plywood, were not painted, and the construction itself remained visible. I liked this kind of procedure, since I myself have always tried to take installation devices from plastic means genuine to the artist I had to deal with. Simultaneously I was aware of how misleading such an approach can be. I also remember an incident, which, I think, was crucial for our mutual appreciation. During the installation work we had different opinions about where exactly to place one of the famous counter-reliefs. After a fiery dispute I agreed with Avvakumov’s proposal because his argument, based on strictly visual observation, proved to be most competent. Our exhibition spaces are known to be „difficult“, and he had a lot of problems to solve. But whatever he suggested to do was in favor of artistic evidence. Later, when I saw our Tatlin exhibition in the Tretyakov Gallery, I had to reconsider my former judgment of some early paintings. In the Tretyakov Avvakumov had the opportunity to show these paintings in a much wider space, with the effect of revealing qualities, which had escaped my attention in the narrow Dusseldorf gallery.

The next exhibition he was asked to work on in Dusseldorf was the retrospective of Michael Vrubel. Again, I felt, that we should consult an exhibition designer, who would know how to relate to a body of works never seen outside of Russia. And again did we have to cope with unusual difficulties. We had fabulous loans: some large paintings, almost murals, sketches for others, which were either destroyed or never executed, precious ceramic sculptures, two fireplaces, and a hundred drawings and watercolors, all of them most sensitive to light. We had to invent an exhibition-architecture, which would combine spaciousness with intimacy, fragmentation with the urge for the „total artwork“ (Gesamtkunstwerk), and theatre with religion. All that had to fit into the Kunsthalle with its peculiar conditions, not to forget our concern for conservation. But the most complicated issue was color. Vrubel's works were not made to be seen on white walls, the common background of modernist display. On the other hand, in our building any traditionalist fashion would have created a caricature of a museum setting. Therefore, I looked for a painter with an „eye“ for Vrubel’s colors - until I met Alyona Kirtsova. And what began with a random talk ended with a sophisticated concept for painting our walls with a variety of 16 different colors. Meanwhile Avvakumov had asked for floor plans with detailed indications, based on the points of concern mentioned. He almost immediately responded with a proposal that hit my mind. Everything I had indicated was erased and substituted by a radically different approach, and yet his proposal remained in full accordance with our curatorial needs and ideas. His panels had the shape of crosses, and he entitled the whole setting as „“ruins“ of neo-Russian architecture“. I wonder whether this title somehow reflects the slightly ironic attitude we can also trace at Avvakumov’s „paper architecture“. Apparently his intention was rather realistic, even if only to the point of avoiding historicist clisheous. At any rate, the result, strongly determined by Alyona's color-device, was an excellent example of what it means to rely on the advice of an architect, whose qualification is rooted in a comprehensive understanding of culture in general as well as in particular.
After we shared this experience, I challenged Avvakumov with an even more daring commission. Within the series of several so called „global art“ manifestations in the Rheinland at 2000, the Kunsthalle pursued the idea of a highly complex thematic exhibition called „The Fifth Element – Money or Art“. The central part of this exhibition was conceived as a „Museum of Supreme Values“, and this „museum“ was determined to feature a setting of the late 18th century, the epoch, when the modern relation between taste and money was established and the museum-age began. I imagined an interior design, which would figure in-between a museum and a bank, and I stumbled on Sir John Soane’s architecture. This famous British neo-classicist had rebuilt the Bank of England in London during the last decade of the 18th century and later installed a museum of his own in his London house. The task, as I put it, was to transfer Soane’s architecture of the bank’s stock office to the main hall of the Dusseldorf building and to use the facilities for showing museum items of high value in terms of both money and spiritual heritage.

I did not know anybody, who could have done this job better than Avvakumov, but I was afraid, that he might reject the commission. At the beginning, I think, he found the demand exacting indeed, if not simply impossible to realize. But than he agreed, on condition that the existing proportions of Soane’s architectural elements are being respected, regardless of any change of dimension or any differently applied combination. Secondly, he objected to the notion of post-modernism, but also, again, to a historicist kind of reconstruction. He had to accept, though, some crucial curatorial preconditions, like a central axis with Egypt and roman sculptures in front of opposite walls, and four show cases, as big as shop windows, in a symmetrical position. After a short while he had adopted Soane’s elements in such a way that he disposed of them at will. For instance, he designed a special aedicule for the roman Isis-Fortuna. The color coating of the ensemble however was done again by instruction of Alyona Kirtsova.

One key-element required a special solution: the dome. Neither the big show cases nor the space above allowed constructing a support. On the other hand the dome, a reference to the pantheon, was imperative - for Soane’s architecture as well as for our Museum of Supreme Values. Avvakumov solved the problem at one blow by suggesting that the dome should be suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. Eventually he invented an extremely topical alternative, a hovering cupola armed with sheets of aluminum, which served as mirrors to reflect upon the site below and around. Seen from downstairs, one could detect images of a classic medusa printed on the inner side of the mirrors. Thus, he managed to transform an antique model into an object of contemporary art, alluding even to the utopian appeal of the former Russian avant-garde”.

Juergen Harten, 2002