A northern renaissance: Tim Stanley on St Petersburg's contemporary art scene...
Visitors are still drawn to St Petersburg by remarkable art and architecture of the past (think The State Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s oldest and largest galleries), but the city’s contemporary art scene is very much alive and kicking.
In this exclusive extract from the City-Pick series' upcoming St Petersburg title, journalist and resident Tim Stanley speaks to Mikhail Ovchinnikov, director of Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art for an inside look at controversy, orthodoxy and a new period of creativity...
Words: Tim Stanley
For a brief period in the early-20th century, Moscow and St Petersburg/ Petrograd/Leningrad stood alongside Paris and Berlin as one of the most important incubators of a revolutionary new artistic movement, the avant-garde. Something in the combination of political stagnation, evolving social unrest and huge pockets of wealth sparked a creative flame that found expression across a range of artistic forms – fine arts, design, architecture, drama, ballet, film, poetry. The movement soon splintered, but elements managed to survive the revolution and civil war that followed, only to morph into a new aesthetic, socialist realism, created to meet the objectives of the new society. Soviet art was directed by party functionaries from Moscow. With few exceptions, the country’s public artistic endeavours gradually calcified; anything innovative and not officially approved was driven underground or abroad.
Most people would agree that since the end of Soviet rule it is Moscow that has dominated Russia’s cultural landscape, although today the reasons for this are economic rather than political. In contemporary art terms the sheer number and scale of its galleries is unrivalled, and landmark projects such as Strelka, Garazh and Winzavod look set to extend this dominance still further.
But something is happening in St Petersburg, the country’s second largest city and ‘northern capital’, which may be about to challenge Moscow’s pre-eminence. The last few years have seen a slew of new contemporary art museums and galleries open across the city, perhaps seeking to capitalise on its proximity to Europe, its cultural and historical appeal, and the huge numbers of domestic and international visitors who arrive each year. Since the turn of the 21st century, a dozen or so new institutions have been founded, many by local businessmen keen to diversify their interests, create a legacy and give something back to their home city. September 2010 was surely the highpoint of this trend, when two contemporary art museums – Erarta and Novy (New) Museum – both opened on Vasilievsky ostrov.
What is behind this sudden northern renaissance? It is tempting to suggest that the same factors that made the city a centre for the avant-garde may be at play a century later.
‘There was a sudden energy, but of course these institutions do not just appear overnight. For a long time there was a lot of talk in the city about the need for a contemporary art space. When public sector initiatives failed to materialise, the private sector stepped in.’ That is according to Mikhail Ovchinnikov, director of Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art on Vasilievsky ostrov.
Erarta’s mission is to collect, exhibit and popularise original contemporary art from St Petersburg and, increasingly, from regions across the country. One of the reasons the city attracts some five million visitors a year is the fact that its historical centre remained largely unspoiled by the ravages of the 20th century, with its revolutions, civil war, Nazi bombardment – even Soviet town-planners. The city’s inhabitants consequently see themselves as proud and stubborn defenders of a unique aesthetic legacy. ‘The city has its own artistic schools and traditions which developed over the 20th century, independent of what was coming out of Moscow. It’s a harmonious town, but also quite focused on itself and its own history,’ Ovchinnikov believes.
And this combination of regional pride and self-consciousness can be seen in many of the works in the museum’s permanent collection. While the theme of the city is a constant, Erarta has also spotted an opportunity to broaden it, with works by artists from outside St Petersburg. It includes, for example, an extensive holding of works by the prolific Soviet artist Petr Gorban, from Stavropol. ‘We’re trying to extend the collection to include what artists across Russia are doing. Last time we looked, the museum collection included works of artists from more than 20 towns across Russia,’ says Ovchinnikov.
There is also much colour and humour to the collection. Nikolai Kopeikin’s elephants series replaces the figure of Peter the Great on horseback with a pachyderm in a take on Falconet’s iconic Bronze Horseman statue, and Nikolai Sazhin’s Catherine II and her Favourites presents a stylised version of the great monarch famed for her prodigious amorous appetite, alongside a list of her lovers and the amount of money she spent on them, in what may be a sly allusion to the excesses and whims of political authorities.
Many believe art has a responsibility to provoke and challenge both social and artistic conventions. As if any reminder of this was needed, the day I met with Ovchinnikov he had just returned from Krasnodar in southern Russia where he had been attending the opening of a controversial exhibit put together by Marat Gelman, a leading figure in the Russian contemporary art scene. Called the Icon Expo, it includes works by a number of contemporary artists, self-confessed Christians and atheists alike, and is designed to show how iconography can remain relevant even in non-traditional forms. In spite of receiving the tacit approval of the Russian Orthodox Church, the exhibit opening was marked with bad-tempered protests from local priests and Cossacks who were offended, including personal verbal attacks on Gelman and even a bogus bomb threat, which shut down the exhibition for a few hours.
At the same time, two members of female punk rock band Pussy Riot remain incarcerated for staging their anti-Putin protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, unofficial seat of the Orthodox Patriarch and something akin to St Peter’s Rome for Russian Orthodox Christians. I asked Ovchinnikov his opinion about the relevance of contemporary art to post-Soviet Russia. ‘One way to interpret the [Pussy Riot] action was not as an artistic or political gesture, but as an act of desperation. I agree with Anatoly Osmolovsky [a leading Russian artist and art theorist] on this point. Of course a church is not an appropriate place for activism, but maybe there are no other suitable places – if it had happened anywhere else, it would have seemed less extreme.’
St Petersburg is also home to Banksy-supported art collective Voina (meaning ‘War’), which has staged a number of sexually and politically provocative actions over the last few years designed to outrage. These included a kind of mass ‘fuck-in’ in a Moscow museum, and the drawing of an enormous phallus on a drawbridge in front of the St Petersburg headquarters of the FSB, one of the KGB successor agencies. ‘The role of museums and museum curators is to turn artistic activities like these into statements which can be comprehended by a wide audience. We want our museum to be a part of a normal civil society to be built in Russia. I think all cultural institutions in Russia have a very important historical mission to help create that society.’
The State Hermitage Museum, grande dame of the city’s artistic institutions and one of the world’s greatest museums, is working on a project it calls Hermitage 20/21 in which galleries of modern and contemporary art will be located in the recently acquired halls of the General Staff Building, opposite the Winter Palace on Palace Square. This represents something of a strategic shift for the Hermitage – although their extensive collection includes a large number of works by modernist greats including Picasso, Matisse, Malevich and Kandinsky, these artists have never been a priority for the museum. The collection will include sculpture, graphic arts, video and new media.
Some in the city might feel threatened by such a strategic shift on the part of its anchor artistic institution, but not Ovchinnikov. ‘This development by the Hermitage will be mutually enriching. The task of new generations of museums, funds, and curators is to integrate our authentic Russian art into a wider contemporary context.’ He pauses, then repeats: ‘We are on a historical mission.’
- Tim Stanley, ‘Contemporary Art in Petersburg: A Historical Mission’
Tim Stanley is a journalist based in St Petersburg, read more from him here.
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