If any of you spent time in Tbilisi in 2011, you may have noticed graffiti around the city asking “where is the contemporary art museum?” I was always perplexed by these, until a Georgian friend (who studies at the Tbilisi Art Academy) informed me that it was part of a protest by Tbilisi’s art students, demanding some public gallery space be dedicated exclusively to new art.
Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian-Russian modern artist and current president of the Russian Academy of Arts, took it upon himself to answer their plight in February 2012 by establishing a shrine to himself on Rustaveli Avenue, in the former Cadet Corps building next to the opera house. Tsereteli (also rumored to be involved with plans for a Disneyland Russia…?) began renovating and expanding the 1909 building back in 2005. Today, “Tbilisi MoMA” is a three-floor homage to his decades-long career in various artistic media–although the women at the front desk assured us that in the future, only the top two floors will be reserved for Tsereteli, while the bottom floor will be devoted to rotating exhibits of less important modern artists.
Mr. Tsereteli appears to have led a very interesting life, working between Russia and Georgia throughout the Soviet period. According to the lengthy biography at the museum’s entrance, the artist managed to avoid persecution from the authorities by “balancing his avant-garde tendencies with his classical academy training.” This biography also goes on to state how he used his wife’s family name (descended from Byzantine royalty) and finances to support his career as a self-styled Renaissance man. But only his family crest is emblazoned over multiple doorways.
For those of you who think you aren’t familiar with Tsereteli’s work, you probably are–he is actually the designer of the St. George and the Dragon monument in the center of Freedom Square. Like his most famous statue, Tsereteli’s other work is also best seen from a distance. In fact, it looks a whole lot like somebody just bankrolled 300 projects from an overeager Central Park street artist to create the most obnoxious solo show ever. It was kind of surreal; I had moments where I felt like I was witnessing a Georgian Exit Through the Gift Shop.
That said, I’m the first person to admit that I’m a bit of a rube. As a whole, modern art isn’t really my jam. I wouldn’t decorate my bathroom with half the stuff in [the actual] MoMA’s collection. But I have professionals to back me up on this. First off, the statue of St. George is only in Tbilisi because somebody else turned it down, after which Tsereteli “generously donated” it to the new Rose Revolution administration. Tsereteli’s offers of statuary were also rejected by their intended recipients on numerous other occasions: Ukraine rejected a statue of Winston Churchill, Uruguay rejected a Magellan, Greece rejected a Colossus of Rhodes, New York rejected an FDR, and France turned down a Balzac. A certain highly reliable resource remarked that “Tsereteli’s works, though often welcomed by the authorities, tend to become objects of strong public criticism. His sculptures are often blamed and mocked for being incongruously pompous and out of proportion.”
The best thing I can say is that it’s free.