Controversy widens to take in rival media groups

ST PETERSBURG. Nearly two months after the Kandinsky Prize for Best Project of the Year was awarded to right-wing artist Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt, controversy and intense passions continue to resound and may have a long-lasting impact on the Russian contemporary art scene.

"These were unprecedented divisions in a community which hitherto has been more-or-less united to promote contemporary art in and outside Russia," said Matthew Bown, a Russian art dealer based in London.

The controversy began during the 10 December ceremony when the 2007 winner, Anatoli Osmolovsky, stood up and lambasted Beliayev-Guintovt when he was announced the winner (The Art Newspaper, January 2009). In the days and weeks that followed, prominent dealers, critics and curators readily gave interviews accusing the artist of being a "fascist" and "ultra-nationalist" for his views, and his art style that harks back to Stalinist-era aesthetics.

Among his detractors is Ekaterina Degot, a Moscow art critic, who told Russian media that Beliayev-Guintovt made a gesture akin to a fascist salute when he accepted his award.

"The problem is that Beliayev's art represents and serves the official Eurasian ideology of the Putin government [which calls for Russia to turn away from the west and ally itself with the east],'' said Ms Degot. "If the Kandinsky Prize was a state prize then I wouldn't object, but it's billed as a private event for the art community."

A few weeks later, Friedhelm Hutte, a jury member and representative of Deutsche Bank, the prize's co-sponsor, disavowed his vote for Beliayev-Guintovt in an interview with the German website, Taz.de.

Emelyan Zakharov, co-owner of Triumph Gallery, which represents Beliayev-Guintovt, thinks the controversy is rooted in a conflict between two media groups. Ms Degot is a senior editor at Openspace.ru, a web portal for the arts launched last summer by Art Media Group; at the end of December it also launched the Russian-language edition of Art & Auction magazine.

Art Media Group's main competitor is Art Chronika, one of Russia's oldest and most established art magazines and published by the Art Chronika Foundation, co-sponsor of the Kandinsky Prize.

Soon after Ms Degot's column that was critical of Beliayev-Guintovt and Art Chronika appeared, the latter's website reported that Art Media Group's owner Valeri Nosov had been arrested on corruption charges. Hours later, the allegation was removed from the site as the claim was false.

Whatever the state of the argument, and despite the economic downturn, the Kandinsky Prize and all the surrounding controversy have done the winner no harm at all. Triumph Gallery reports that prices of Beliayev-Guintovt's works are up by 30%.

John Varoli
The Art Newspaper