Bringing home the Bacon (and the Freud)
Russian heiress, fashion designer and socialite Dasha Zhukova is best known as the girlfriend of Roman Abramovich. Now she is out to make her mark on the international art scene (even though she can't name a single artist she likes). Can she turn her new gallery into Moscow's Tate Modern - or is she just a wealthy dilettante? Viv Groskop meets her
I first meet Dasha Zhukova in June, at the launch of her latest project - the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture (GCCC), an enormous new art gallery in Moscow, housed in a disused Soviet bus depot. She is dressed like something out of Breakfast at Tiffany's, complete with Audrey Hepburn headband, and spends much of the evening holding hands with the man his friends call "Roma": Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.
The evening itself is a spectacle. Most of the guests seem bamboozled by the generous hospitality: a feast of piri piri prawns, roast sirloin and cherry trifle flown in from London; a selection of cigarettes and vodkas and limitless Ruinart champagne, which is still flowing when I leave the after-party at 6am. Amy Winehouse plays a set that is rumoured to have cost £1m - a sum that Zhukova later denies - and although the singer is emaciated and definitely not sober, the appreciation of the 300-strong audience lifts her, and vocally she performs well. Zhukova unveils a stunning installation by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer - an interactive tree made up of thousands of lights, which pulsates in time to the beat of her heart. Abramovich looks on proudly, and, later, the couple dance.
The crowd represents the international art set: collectors, gallerists, artists including Jeff Koons, Marco Perego (Dolce & Gabbana's favourite artist) and British sculptor Conrad Shawcross. Although Charlotte Casiraghi (daughter of Princess Caroline of Monaco) turns up, Paris Hilton is a rumoured no-show. Not all of these people are Zhukova's friends - many at the launch have never met her. But they are part of the circle she is now keen to cultivate.
With the launch of GCCC, which officially opens in September, Zhukova, 27, a Russian heiress, is increasingly intriguing. Born in Moscow and raised in Los Angeles, she has already been a homeopathy student, fashion designer and international It girl - although her most famous role is as Abramovich's girlfriend. And now, all of a sudden, she has turned arts mogul.
How does she describe herself, I ask, when we meet again for breakfast at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London, a favourite hang-out for wealthy Russians. "I generally don't like this question," she says, wrinkling her perfect nose, "because it's so hard to answer. I have many interests and I like keeping busy and working on several projects at the same time. Right now I'm developing an arts centre. I don't see myself as a person who just does one thing. I understand that sometimes that might sound a bit unprofessional. But I disagree."
Whether she is a Renaissance woman or a wealthy dilettante, Zhukova, who is based between London, Moscow and Los Angeles, is keen to style herself as a serious force in the contemporary-arts world. As well as fronting Garage, as GCCC has already become known, she has dug deep into her own pockets to sponsor this year's Serpentine Gallery summer party in London on September 9 (the invitation reads: "With Dasha Zhukova, GCCC Moscow"). This is no small gesture: the party is one of the biggest events on the social calendar; previous sponsors include Yves Saint Laurent and Swarovski.
She already runs a successful cult fashion line, Kova & T, which is famous for its £75 Dasha Skinny jeans, and is beloved by the likes of Drew Barrymore. (The line is stocked by 50 outlets in the US, and sold in 12 other countries.) So why open a museum of contemporary art as well? "You know, I have no clear explanation," she says in her Valley Girl drawl. "It is a bunch of things. I like to create, to do something new, something that does not have a predictable outcome. I love art and this project excites me and it has an incredible potential to be immensely challenging and satisfying. Of course, everyone wants to make a difference and help people or provide things they would be happy to see . . ." She trails off. "I have had an interest in art since childhood. I loved to draw as a child and still do. Though," she makes a rare attempt at a joke, "my biggest admirer is my grandmother."
In her defence, she seems tired and slightly confused. She has come straight from a meeting at the Serpentine and, only hours before, more meetings at art galleries in New York. For the past few months she has been on a quest to educate herself in all matters concerning contemporary art. "I won't pretend to be the biggest connoisseur of the contemporary artists of today," she says, awkwardly, "though I know and love it quite a lot." She heads for the breakfast table and returns with a plate of tomatoes, croissant and ham. She orders still water. Up close, her skin is as dewy as a 16-year-old's and she has the most mesmerisingly flawless teeth. Her speech is peppered with Clueless expressions: "Or whatever . . . " "Oh, cool", "Yuh, yuh." But she comes across as oddly middle-aged and serious.
She is more comfortable speaking American English than Russian and even pronounces her own surname with a hard Z and a long "oh" like an American (Zoo-kohva) instead of the Russian way (Zhuk-ova, with the accent on the first syllable). She dresses demurely: black leggings and cardigan, white ballet flats, no makeup, hair tied loosely back - a sort of anti-Victoria Beckham. She aims for anonymity, especially in London: "Sometimes you see photographers in places you would not expect, but overall it is pretty calm."
Her Moscow art project is, in many ways, a surprising turn of events. Having spent her early years in Russia, she went to live in the US at the age of 10 with her mother Elena, a molecular biologist and authority on diabetes, who took up jobs first in Houston, then Los Angeles. Her parents had divorced when she was a small child, - her father Alexander is an oil magnate and business associate of Abramovich's. Both her parents remarried and went on to have twins, so Zhukova is in the unusual position of feeling like an only child while also being the eldest of five siblings. She lived in the US for 12 years before returning to Russia.
The lonely transition to American life cannot have been easy. She went straight to school the day after her arrival, knowing no English. For the first few weeks she sat reading Pippi Longstocking in Russian at the back of the class. "When you're 10, you don't realise it's difficult. It's an adventure. When you're in a situation that is foreign to you, you just have to pull yourself together and adapt."
She will be needing this can-do attitude to launch Garage. The space is an avant-garde constructivist masterpiece designed in 1926 by the architect Konstantin Melnikov, and is reminiscent of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. The centre will be privately funded by international sponsors, understood to include Abramovich, although Zhukova is also wealthy in her own right, thanks to her family's money. The director of the project is the aristocratic curator Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, with the Tate's Sir Nicholas Serota rumoured to be joining the advisory board. GCCC's first exhibition, a retrospective of the work of New York-based husband-and-wife installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, is eagerly anticipated. Labelled "non-conformist" during the Soviet era, Ilya Kabakov is well-known in the west as one of Russia's greatest conceptualist artists - especially since his emigration from Moscow in the late 1980s. He has collaborated with his curator wife Emilia (a distant cousin: they met in Moscow during childhood) since their marriage in 1992, and together they create powerful, imposing installations such as The Palace of Projects, a 40-foot spiral structure that had its debut at the Roundhouse, in London, 10 years ago. The Kabakovs' work has rarely been seen in Russia and this opening is regarded as something of a coup for Moscow's fledgling contemporary arts scene.
It is difficult to measure how much Abramovich is investing in the project, but in May this year, around the time of Zhukova's birthday, he was revealed as the mystery buyer of Lucian Freud's Benefits Advisor Sleeping (£17m) and Francis Bacon's Triptych (£43m). As one arts patron puts it, "You don't buy that kind of thing unless you really want to show off what a big collector you are." But Zhukova says, somewhat disingenuously: "I have never been a collector. I have a few pieces that I got for my birthdays or that I bought for myself: I acquire things that speak to me and put them on my wall. When I see things I like, I just know." She doesn't get any more specific: when I ask her which artists she particularly likes, she says: "I'm, like, really bad at remembering names."
Many in Moscow believe that Zhukova and Abramovich want to style themselves as among the world's most serious art connoisseurs and that the centre will eventually become a showcase for their own private collection. The money they have can easily make more of a difference than state investment. This could prove a controversial contribution, though: in Russia, there is still intense resentment towards the oligarch class that the likes of Abramovich and Alexander Zhukov, Dasha's father, represent, with much of the population believing that the wealth of these individuals was made by impoverishing the Russian people. Even now, many are offended by the large sums of money that change hands. While Abramovich was spending £61m in one birthday spree, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, announced an £85m expansion of Moscow's State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which attracts a million visitors a year and has one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world.
One interpretation of the Garage launch is that this foray into the art world is Zhukova's attempt to distance herself from Abramovich and establish her own identity. Despite the fact that I have met them both together, when I ask, she declines even to confirm their relationship, shaking her head whenever his name is mentioned. But all this mystery is to no avail: in Moscow, the gallery project is frequently linked to Abramovich rather than Zhukova. If it is annoying to find all your efforts being attributed to your boyfriend, though, Zhukova is too discreet to complain.
She brushes off the suggestion that she is part of a bigger cultural shift: the emergence of a privileged elite that is rediscovering its Russian roots and using philanthropy to invest in the motherland. This is, at least, one way for women to affect Russia's future. In Moscow, many dynamic women run businesses - often with a husband's or father's money - but few are able to break through into the well-connected circles of the super-rich. There are few women in Russian politics: when Irina Khakamada, once one of Russia's most prominent female politicians, ran against Putin in 2004, she said: "The first priority is not when will there be a first women president of Russia, but when the president will be someone not chosen by the oligarchs and the vlast [the powers that be]." (Khakamada resigned from politics in March this year.) Among the oligarchs there is only one woman, construction magnate Elena Baturina, wife of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Arguably, charity is one of the only routes dynamic young women have to affect Russia's future. Three years ago, Russian-born supermodel Natalia Vodianova (personal worth: £11m) launched her Naked Heart Foundation to fund urban playgrounds. Television presenter and socialite Ksenia Sobchak (daughter of the late Anatoli, once mayor of St Petersburg and Putin's political mentor) has dabbled in politics, founding youth movement All Free to little effect. Former Miss Russia Oxana Fedorova stood for election to the Duma and failed, and recently became a Unicef goodwill ambassador.
While Abramovich is understood to be on good terms with Putin, Zhukova comes across as apolitical. She won't even be drawn on the subject of her family's fortunes during the Soviet era: she says she doesn't know whether they were privileged or not. She is not remotely analytical about what she does, or about what it means in a wider context. "I definitely feel Russian. I feel Russian but at the same time when I'm in the States I feel at home too. I don't know if this is a patriotic gesture or just a lucky coincidence," she says: "I just saw the building and thought: what a great place. Nothing ever turns out the way you plan it or imagine it." Her plans for the centre sound ambitious but vague: she wants educational programmes, collaborations with fashion and interiors designers, a cafe, a library, a book shop.
Meanwhile, there are rumours that she and Abramovich are planning to marry in October. Abramovich has just rushed through planning permission for Britain's most expensive private residence - a £150m palace behind Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge - so perhaps she won't be spending that much time in Moscow after all.
Fedor Pavlov, director of the Russian arts group Marka:FF, says that this won't affect whether Garage is successful: "People will come and see the space because of Abramovich's name. He buys significant art works, giving a sense of assurance to those who are not yet sure whether it's worth collecting contemporary art. And Garage has an opportunity to become Moscow's Tate Modern - it will be for tourists, art professionals and just for ordinary people who want to know more about the taste of the wealthiest man in Russia." People in art circles have started calling the place "Dashkin Garazh" (Dasha's Garage), says Pavlov, adding that "Dasha's reputation is controversial. People who know her adore her. Those who were 'accidentally' not invited to the Garage private opening already started hating her." People are impressed, though, he says, by dynamic individuals who don't wait for state support, who just get on and do things: "She is a great sign for Russian contemporary culture."
There is only one other modern art centre in Moscow, the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, which opened last year. "Russians don't understand contemporary art," explains Moscow gallery owner Marina Goncharenko, "They are afraid of it. The level of appreciation is just not there. And the government does not support contemporary art." In this climate, someone with Zhukova's youthful celebrity profile is ideal as an ambassador, says Olga Sviblova, director of the Moscow House of Photography, who has herself persuaded Abramovich to sponsor several photographic exhibitions in London and Moscow: "Dasha is very intelligent and she educates herself very quickly about everything to do with the art world. I think she will be able to bring this to a new audience here. It's certainly one of the most original spaces in Moscow."
Others are hopeful, but sceptical. Goncharenko says: "It will be very upsetting and distasteful if it's all just a game. 'Let's all go and live in London.' 'Let's all collect art now.' To develop this kind of project, you need a big plan and I hope they have one. If they're just playing at contemporary art, the sooner it's over the better. But if this is their life's work then it merits respect. If it's serious, then it's worthy. To develop something like this in Moscow requires a lot of energy and huge material investment. Because Russian art deserves this kind of legacy."
At least Zhukova is trying to do something, even if it is not quite clear what. "Dasha's reputation in the art world is not yet well established," says Pavlov, "as people tend to think she is like a moth that flies to the light. To strengthen the Russian side of her character she would need to make more friends in Moscow just to become native - which is quite realistic given her Russian childhood. People talk of her as an exotic fruit from overseas."
- guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008