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Russian art historian, writer and curator Ekaterina Degot wins the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory 2014

7. November 2014

This year the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory is sending out a strong signal to Russia. The first prize (EUR 40,000) goes to Ekaterina Degot, the art director of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne, who is known for her critical comments on the official politics of her home country. One of the three Igor Zabel working grants (each worth EUR 12,000) is traditionally awarded by the laureate. This year it goes to the Russian activist, writer and translator Kirill Medvedev for his publishing house, Free Marxist Press. The jury awarded two grants to theorists who examine the close interaction between political and cultural developments: the art theorist Karel Císař from Prague and the art historian Miklavž Komelj from Ljubljana.

With this year’s winner, the Igor Zabel Award is sending out a clear signal of support for the new Russian dissident scene. Faced with the overheated nationalist climate created by the conflict in Ukraine and a new era of East-West confrontation, the scene is finding it increasingly difficult to attract attention within and above all outside Russia. Ekaterina Degot was awarded the prize for her interdisciplinary work as a critic and curator who primarily focuses on socio-political and aesthetic topics in Russia and Eastern Europe. Her recent blog contributions to the debate on a boycott at Manifesta in St. Petersburg received a great deal of attention. In a subtle manner, she made it clear that it would have been fatal to cut off Russian artists from international exchange at this moment in time, even though there was always a risk that the renowned exhibition could be misappropriated to cultivate the image of an undemocratic system. “I am extremely grateful for the award, especially because I see it as a gesture of solidarity with intellectuals of Russia in one of the darkest moments of this country’s history”, commented Ekaterina Degot the decision of the jury.

Kirill Medvedev, whose publishing house Free Marxist Press was awarded an Igor Zabel grant by Ekaterina Degot, is also known for his outspoken dissident stance. The non-profit publishing house sees itself as an educational project to promote contemporary Marxist and critical theory, political art and poetry. Publications and campaigns broach the history of labour, socialist and antifascist groups, as well as women, homosexual and minority movements.

Miklavž Komelj is an art historian, poet and translator in Ljubljana. He examines relations between art and politics in a similar way to the man this award was named after, whom he also knew well. Komelj was awarded an Igor Zabel grant for his impassioned writing. His interests focus on art that receives little attention and artists who are often overlooked. He secured Partisan art a permanent place in the collection of Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana.

Karel Císař is an assistant professor of aesthetics and art theory at the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague. The jury awarded him an Igor Zabel grant because he “bridges the gap between western and eastern art and art theory by working and thinking in international and interdisciplinary contexts”. In doing so, he uses various media, such as photography, film, literature, architecture and design.

Endowed with total prize money of EUR 76,000, the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory has been awarded every two years since 2008 and will thus be awarded for the fourth time in 2014. The prize is an initiative of ERSTE Foundation and is offered in cooperation with the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory (Ljubljana). It honours exceptional cultural achievements by art historians and art theorists whose work is related to Central and South Eastern Europe and encourages cultural dialogue. The prize winners are selected by an international jury. In 2014 the jury consists of philosopher Keti Chukhrov (Moscow), artist and architect Apolonija Šušteršič (Ljubljana) and the curator and deputy director of mumok, Rainer Fuchs.
The awards ceremony was held on the evening of 6 November at Viennese Secession in a setting designed by the Austrian artist Josef Dabernig. It was followed by a party featuring music from Lüften (Rainer Binder-Krieglstein and Andreas Fränzl), providing the Viennese art scene with an opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with the laureates.
In the afternoon the prize winners presented themselves at a conference, whose motto “Continuing Dialogues” was borrowed from Igor Zabel. It took place at the mumok and the prize winners gave insight into their work in interviews with the jury members. Karel Císař talked to Rainer Fuchs about his exhibition “Figures and Prefigurations”, which was on show at City Gallery Prague in 2013. Miklavž Komelj and Apolonija Šušteršič exchanged thoughts and opinions with reference to the secession’s motto “To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” by Ludwig Hevesi. Conference participants looked forward to the discussion of the Russian panel with great anticipation. Keti Chukhrov, Ekaterina Degot and Kirill Medvedev chose the topic of “Neo-Patriotism and the Options of Dissidentship”.

The Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory was first awarded in 2008 to the Croatian curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW). Piotr Piotrowski, art historian and former director of the national museum in Warsaw won the prize in 2010, and the Macedonian art historian Suzana Milewska was awarded with it in 2012. The next Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory will be presented in 2016.

Igor Zabel (1958 – 2005) was a Slovenian curator, writer and cultural theorist who, during his entire life, was actively involved in many fields of theory and culture – as a philosopher, author, essayist, modern and contemporary art curator, literary and art critic, translator, and mentor for new generations of curators and critics of contemporary art. In his theoretical and curatorial work, he tirelessly called for the profound exploration of those political, social and cultural undercurrents that had the potential to give us a better understanding of the modern and contemporary art.

Photo: Winner of the Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory 2014 – Ekaterina Degot © Barbara Zeidler