Taking Contemporary Art Beyond Moscow’s Borders with Austrian Attaché Simon Mraz

Interview with Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum and cultural attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Moscow Simon Mraz.

Above: Leopeld Kessler’s Birobidzhan Driveway. Image: Yuri Palmin

Simon Mraz is Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum and cultural attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Moscow. He is famed for his work across Russian regions and is commended for his efforts in promoting contemporary Russian artists. Mraz addresses themes such as decentralization and the re-framing and rethinking of Russian cultural history and his curatorial practice is extended beyond curating exhibitions – he works with entire contexts. Simon is especially interested in curating art projects that gain meaning in relation to surrounding contexts, or need specific structures in order to play out. Projects initiated and led by Simon truly stand out; he is both an agent of change and a modern-day art patron. 

Simon, can you tell me about your background in the arts? How did it all start?

I was lucky – I became acquainted with art from quite early on in my childhood. My parents are historians and our holidays consisted of going to museums, galleries and visiting churches and chapels. As a child, I always was fascinated with guessing how old sculptures were – whether they were medieval, baroque or 16th century. I ended up as an Art History student and then went on to work at a Viennese auction house – the Dorotheum. This is how I came to Russia in the first place; I was sent by the Dorotheum to fill in a for a job and was only supposed to stay for 8 months. I ended up staying for 11 years and it is now my 12th year in Moscow. My job as Director of Austrian Cultural Forum is to support Austrian artists in Russia with their projects, and my passion is Russian contemporary art. But yes, it all started in regional museums somewhere in Austria.

Opening of exhibition “Polly wants a cracker” at Simon’s apartment in Moscow. Photo by Thomas Brandstätter

How did you end up being involved with the Russian contemporary art scene for this long?

My work is to support Austrian artists. But when you support Austrian artists, you shouldn’t just bring some art, you should also put it in relation to Russian art. Initially, when I first arrived in Russia, I only worked with the Old Masters. Prior to coming to Moscow I never worked with contemporary art. It was vital for me to try to understand how these artists think, what they worry about and what they are creating.

Is the Austrian Cultural Forum a part of the Austrian embassy?

Yes. When I started working here 10 years ago, there were only two people focused on cultural projects. Today, we are a team of five. I can proudly say that the Austrian Cultural Forum is the biggest department of the Austrian embassy. I am very enthusiastic about what I do and my superiors fully support my direction of work. We take our work very seriously and we do our best to interact with Russian artists and spaces. Things here are changing and you have to be proactive to understand what’s going on.

One of the recent developments in the Russian Art scene is the phenomenon of decentralization. The majority of Simon’s projects step outside the centre of Moscow and go far beyond the borders of big cities and museum walls. Decentralisation is truly changing the cultural landscape of Russian art in the most inspiring way.

Simon, you’ve chosen a very interesting niche for yourself as a curator, working with traditions and cultural history. What would you say identifies your curatorial approach?

Russia as a country is like a treasure box, it’s full of things nobody has seen.

I’m not sure any country in the world can compete with the abundance of undiscovered places, heritage and stories that you can find here. I am turly fascinated by it. You can find places that are so powerful in themselves – true sources of inspiration and starting points for reflections. Russia as a country is extremely important for artists, and there are, of course, many talented people within it. You really can’t fully discover the country in the span of a single lifetime. The art world here is still in its budding stage but I am seeing an increasing number of young, powerful and creative people across Russia’s regions. I am a huge admirer of Russian regions; regional cities are becoming more ambitious and competitive, and art is supported by regional administrations and businesses. Alongside this, you have the fantastic phenomenon that is self-organised spaces – truly independent and really focused on pure art.

Have you seen any remarkable self-organised spaces lately?

I have just been to Tomsk. There is this one incredible place there – Ars Kotelnaya. It’s run by two sisters in their twenties, Axynia and Veronika Sarycheva. In the span of just two years they managed to create a very powerful creative hub. I will be showcasing their works at the end of July in my flat.

What kind of projects take place in your flat? How often do you host these types of exhibitions, and what kind of people gather there?

I live alone, so I think it’s a good thing to bring some life to my flat. I live in quite a creepy place – the House on the Embankment. It has a heavy history but it is a fabulous place to showcase art. Artists and curators approach me with ideas, and I offer them my space for an evening. All in all I host about about four to five exhibitions a year. I find it important to share my home; because of this especially intimate setting, something unique is created.

They are brighter than us by Timofey Radya at the Special Astrophysical Observatory in 2016. Image by Yuri Palmin.

Has anyone worked on site-specific projects, focusing on the history of the House on the Embankment?

A lot of work has been connected to it, but not directly. One of the first shows in 2011, which was a part of the Moscow Biennial, was curated by Peter Weibel. The title was “Nice perspective”. In German, it was titled “Gute Aussichten” which has a double meaning: both “view” and “perspective”. My apartment overlooks the Kremlin, so this exhibition was really about the location of the place and the artworks reflected the identity of this house. This was one of my first shows. One of my most recent shows, which took place in Autumn 2019, was centred on the subject of domestic violence. The flat itself was the place these crimes were committed, so the structure of the flat was very much present in this project.

Simon has worked on projects spanning across the entire vastness of Russia, such as the observatory in the southern republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, at an icebreaker in Murmansk and in Birobidzhan, the administrative centre of the Jewish Autonomous region near the Chinese-Russian border. He also put on a contemporary art exhibition at The Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre and most recently, a multi-parted exhibition in the distant neighborhoods of Moscow.

Can you tell us a bit about these projects? What unites them?

Discovering unkown Russian artists in the regions became quite fashionable. Curators go to the regions and look for new talents, and bring these newly discovered artists to Moscow.

Much like the concept of Triennale in Garage museum, then.

Yes, or like the Nemoskva project by Alisa Prudnikova. What I wanted to  do is to focus on making the places themselves the central topic. It’s not merely about the artist originating from that place or about them living there, it is about the reality surrounding the art. I think this is still largely unknown, at least in the Western world. I travelled to the Far East, to the North and the South of Russia and I was fascinated by all these places. There are, of course, thousands of places which are all hugely important, but I simply can’t research and work with them all. After my Birobidzhan project I was quite tired of travelling, so I began to focus on the districts of Moscow. There are so many nuances and stories; this country is huge in every sense. I think that Russia could have been enormously powerful in the art sphere, so much more so than it is now. It’s moving, it’s changing, but there is still a lot more to do.

Are you inspired by any international art projects?

The only thing I know is Russia. I started with the Old Master paintings in Austria and then went straight to Russian contemporary art. I rarely go to Venice Biennale or other big art events. If I do go somewhere, I end up feeling like I am losing a week that I could have spent in Lyublino (one of the Moscow’s districts).

Daria Kravchuk
Daria Kravchuk
is a curator and art manager with an MA in Museology from Amsterdam University. Her international projects are focused on the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and anthropology. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.