View of Taus Makhacheva’s Performance, 2015, at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.

There was more art to see than I’d expected when I arrived at the 6th Moscow Biennale five days into its 10-day run. Bart de Baere, director of Antwerp’s Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, had spoken openly about the constraints he faced as the biennial’s chief curator: Russia’s ministry of culture had allocated a scant budget, and nothing could be hung on the walls of the venue, an expo pavilion built in the 1930s and now undergoing renovation. De Baere and his co-curators—Defne Ayas, director of the Witte de With, Rotterdam, and Nicolaus Schafhausen, artistic director of the Kunsthalle Wien—decided to present a program of daily lectures by social scientists and to commission artists to produce work on-site.

So I expected to find a near-empty pavilion. But Luc Tuymans had already completed The Worshipper, a monumental portrait of an Orthodox priest. It towered in the scaffolding rigged around the pavilion’s interior perimeter. Opposite, Ives Maes had installed diptychs of photos taken in VDNKh (Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy), the park around the pavilion, in February and in September to show its rapid development. Peer through lenses in the drywall and you’d see more diptychs stereoscopically superimposed. Qiu Zhijie, perched on a scissor lift, was putting the last touches on Map of the Third World, a massive ink painting with landmarks like Mt. Belgrade Conference, which looms over the Non-Aligned Movement River just beyond Cold War Canyon. Tajik workers fabricated a giant skull conceived by Els Dietvorst. Babi Badalov’s calligraphic wordplay hung on bedsheets in the scaffolding; one series read, “antifash east, commun east, monopol east, extrim east . . . ” He was curled up in a corner, asleep. 

The biennial’s mouthful of a title—“How to Gather? Acting in a Center in a City in the Heart of the Island of Eurasia”—elided the production of art with its social reception. And there was plenty of food for thought on the utopian and imperialist associations of “Eurasia” at VDNKh, where the Armenia and Kyrgyzstan pavilions integrate oriental ornament into the blunt neoclassicism of the complex’s Stalin Empire style. The park no longer serves its original purpose as an expo center for Soviet industry, but its kitschy grandeur makes it a popular place to stroll. The biennial was in Pavilion No. 1, the first edifice you encounter after passing through the entry gates. On the balmy last weekend of September, passersby rested on Michelangelo Pistoletto’s outdoor installation—park benches connected in three interlocking rings—while newlyweds getting their photos taken on the pavilion steps jostled with the line at the biennial’s box office.

In the back of the pavilion’s interior, restoration experts cleaned and repaired a bronze relief, separated by a transparent wall from the makeshift open-plan office housing young employees who busily updated the biennial’s website and social media accounts and prepared its catalogue. Boarded up for decades until its rediscovery last year, the relief depicts citizens waving a banner as iconic skyscrapers and dams of the Stalin period soar behind them. The frontal posture and upward gazes of the figures evoke an impassioned drive toward the future, a collective effort bracingly juxtaposed with the similarly forward-looking, albeit far more modest, task of documenting an ephemeral exhibition while staring into screens. 

Like the manual and clerical labor taking place, a constant stream of performances added energy to the event. Honoré d’O perambulated the pavilion carrying a candle or affixing surgical masks to visitors’ sleeves. Gabriel Lester had a string quartet play Shostakovich, their instruments and limbs jutting through holes cut in the drywall. At Taus Makhacheva’s instigation, students from a Moscow circus academy repeatedly hoisted each other into acrobatic poses, holding up paintings for 10 seconds each—just long enough for a smartphone snapshot.

When, in 1999, Maurizio Cattelan organized the “6th” (and only) Caribbean Biennial by arranging an all-expenses-paid vacation on St. Kitts Island for 10 artists, he identified an inconvenient truth about biennials. For all the talk of civic engagement and public benefit meant to justify their funding, biennials don’t do as much for their audiences as they do for their participants. A biennial is an opportunity for art world professionals to gather and learn about each other’s work as they make new, potentially useful contacts at dinners and after-parties.

Networking certainly happened at the 6th Moscow Biennale, which brought together over 80 participants. But since most of the artists were in the pavilion from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, there was little time for off-site hangouts. The socializing took place at the exhibition, and viewers were welcome to join. Art historian Tom McDonough led daily “intellectual workouts,” where participants discussed the biennial in relation to essays he circulated. David Polzin stood at the window of the Information Exchange Bureau, inviting visitors to write down a fact in exchange for a tiny scroll of his memories about German reunification. On a catwalk in the scaffolding, behind Qiu Zhijie’s painting, Augustas Serapinas built a tiny room decorated with the kind of mismatching floral patterns often found in middle-class Eastern European kitchens; if you climbed a ladder with a sign reading “Behind the Third World,” you could drink tea there with him.

During one of McDonough’s workouts, de Baere noted that the art world has embraced performance works because they often have scores that can be collected and reenacted, while irreproducible Happenings have been neglected. He said he conceived of the 6th Moscow Biennale as a Happening. Indeed, its active first phase depended on bodily presence. When I stopped by the pavilion early on day 10 (anticipating long lines at the entrance that evening for a lecture by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis), it was eerily quiet. A black-robed Orthodox priest and his entourage of businesslike youths were the only other spectators. The last works to be produced had been installed, and they disappointed: Birdhead’s perfunctory street photos, Anastasiya Yarovenko’s mousetrap sloppily rigged from a mirror and a Turkish rug. Now that stillness had replaced spontaneity, it looked like a standard international group show, and not a particularly good one. The 10-day run of the “documentary exhibition”—the biennial’s second, more conventional phase—was about to begin. But the show was already over.