Bidding for Glasnost continues a series of research exhibitions at Garage devoted to various events and phenomena in the history of Russian and Soviet contemporary art.
On July 7 1988, Sotheby’s held an auction in Moscow that would become the most controversial art event of the Soviet era. Initiated by auctioneer Simon de Pury, more than 100 lots of avant-garde and “unofficial” contemporary works were offered to international collectors flown in especially for the event, watched over by incredulous local artists and intelligentsia, who were not permitted to bid.
Bidding for Glasnost: Sotheby's 1988 Auction in Moscow will feature raw video footage of the full sale led by Simon de Pury; new interviews with the organizers and ten of the participating artists; a virtual reality installation that transports visitors to the original venue to witness the event; and press reviews and archival documents that together reveal the contradictory perspectives which shroud the auction to this day. The exhibition will also include a number of original lots from the 1988 sale, such as early twentieth century avant-garde works by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova; Fundamental Lexicon (1986) by Grisha Brushkin, which was the highest-selling contemporary work; and a piece by Ilya Kabakov—All About Him (1971)—that was bought by Alfred Taubman—then chairman of Sotheby’s board of directors—and presented to the USSR’s Ministry of Culture as the founding artwork for a future museum of contemporary art.
The term glasnost has been used in Russian for centuries, to refer to or call upon a public process of justice or governance. Variously translated as openness, transparency, or publicity, its closest meaning in the English language is freedom of speech. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Communist Party General Secretary in March 1985, he introduced the term as one of three slogans in his campaign to reform the Soviet Union, calling for glasnost in public discussion, perestroika (restructuring) in the economy and political system, and novye mneniya (new thinking) in foreign policy. Signifying the changing political landscape of the time, the Sotheby’s auction was the last international cultural initiative during the period of perestroika to require special approval by the Soviet government. It also ended up being the most successful example of commercial exchange through culture to ever occur in the Soviet Union, changing the outlook of the Union of Artists and other official channels of the Ministry of Culture, who quickly recognized the benefits of foreign interest in unofficial art, particularly from the surge of foreign currency it brought into the country.
The sale took the Russian and Western art worlds by surprise with its resounding sales, which established the market—albeit fleetingly—for Russian contemporary art. Taking place during Perestroika—the period of restructuring Soviet economic and political policies—the event caused the collapse of the stark separation between the Soviet official and unofficial cultural systems; brought rivalry and competition into the art scene; and prompted a new wave of emigration by artists eager to benefit from the auction’s domino effect. Over time, the auction has become a myth, as outlined by writer Andrew Solomon: “It was in fact so heralded an event that in the years that followed critics, curators, collectors, and artists variously credited the auction house with discovering a movement, inventing a movement, and destroying a movement.”
The Sotheby’s auction is also featured in the book Exhibit Russia: The New International Decade 1986-1996, published by Garage. Focusing on fifteen major group exhibitions and events—those which jettisoned Russian artists to international attention or introduced Russian publics to Western art stars—the book provides readers with a unique perspective on the dawning of the global art world.