Curator, Erarta Museum
Erarta Museum, located in St. Petersburg, opened its doors to the public in 2010 and became a city landmark as Russia’s largest private museum of contemporary art. Prior to the establishment of the museum, contemporary art’s presence in the city was limited to temporary exhibitions in commercial galleries or underground venues, despite St. Petersburg’s established status as a Russian cultural capital.
Museum History and Mission
Figure 1: Dmitry Zhukov, Arta, 2009; image courtesy of Erarta Museum.
At the entrance of the museum, each visitor is greeted by two sculptures by Dmitry Zhukov: Era (2009) and Arta, (2009) commissioned by the museum. (Figure 1) The titles of the two sculptures combined form the name of the museum that, loosely translated, means “The Era of Art.” The bronze anthropomorphic figures, one – Arta – resembling Nike of Samothrace, and the contemporary architecture of the entrance portal, adjoin the neoclassical facade of the former Communist Party Committee building constructed in the 1950s. The integration of contemporary and classical allusion emphasizes the inextricable connections contemporary Russian art has to the country’s communist past and its own, classical fine arts traditions.
A substantial part of the museum exhibit is comprised of a private collection that was started in the early 2000s. Today it includes over 2,800 works created between the 1960s and the present day by more than 300 Russian artists from all over the country. The collection highlights the main trends of the post-war Soviet art, the formative period of contemporary art after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also acquaints visitors with emerging artists already making waves in the art world. The wide-ranging collection features paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, video art, mixed and new media and more, and is presented in a series of thematic clusters, which introduce topics for dialogue and establish communication between the artist and the viewer.
Erarta is very audience-oriented and recognizes the viewer as the most important person at the museum; it openly strives to create an environment that is conducive to understanding and relating to contemporary art. Its interpretive materials include short essays written by both staff and visitors, describing the thoughts and feelings triggered by particular works that are showcased next to works in the galleries. Interactive sound and video installations invite the viewer to “step into the shoes” of a painting. The “BB Square” cartoon series screened at the museum’s cinema halls tell the adventures of characters from famous paintings. These and other programmes are especially designed to build bridges and develop personal relationships between the viewer and the works of art.
The museum collection is constantly expanding, with new works added on a regular basis. In addition to its permanent collection, Erarta also stages over 30 temporary exhibitions every year and organizes several travelling exhibitions to major Russian cities.
Erarta has a strong collection of works by the “nonconformists”― artists who refused to adhere to the Soviet state-sanctioned style of Socialist Realism, and were thus excluded from exhibitions at state-run arts institutions. Although many of these works did not make overt political statements, and were, in essence, merely searches for new art forms, the Soviet government severely cracked down on any forms of free thinking or deviations from the official party line, and these artists experienced harassment and discrimination. In the place of compulsory subjects like communist leaders and outstanding achievements by the labour force, nonconformist artists often turned to mythology and spiritual practices for the subjects of their works. The works of the famous Leningrad artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, for example, largely fell into the style of “magical realism,” featuring scenes from everyday life combined with traditional religious symbols and characters.
Figure 2: Vladimir Ovchinnikov: An Angel at the Telescope, oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cm, 2007 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
In the mid-1980s the Soviet Union set a course for "perestroika." Under this reforming political movement, total state control over all areas of public life was replaced by the policy of glasnost, a policy that newly permitted open discussion about political and social issues, and precipitated the fall of the Iron Curtain. In Russia the 1990s were a period of sharp contradictions: intoxication with the unfamiliar feeling of freedom was coupled with fears over the crumbling of previously fundamental traditions and an uncertain future in the incredibly difficult socio-economic climate that followed the collapse of the USSR. Artists reflected upon this conflicting period in different ways. The Meal of the Impious (1990) by the prominent St. Petersburg artist Vladimir Shinkarev, addresses a typical Russian genre story, “The Three-way Split” (of the bottle). (Figure 3) Three men with blurred faces lean over glasses being filled with vodka, desperate for the alcohol’s numbing effects. The composition of the painting also strongly echoes the classic iconography of the Holy Trinity and the fusion of holiness and impropriety is intended to reflect the ambivalence of the Russian character.
Figure 3: Vladimir Shinkarev: Meal of the Impious, oil on canvas, 64 x 78 cm, 1990 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Many works from the museum collection are dedicated to the mass repressions that took place over the course of Russian history and cost millions of lives. One such notable work is entitled Big Brother (2010) and was created by the famous dissident Yuliy Rybakov. (Figure 4) The artist vividly portrays the fragility of human life in a totalitarian state: an unhatched egg is cradled by a nest of barbed wire, carrying shades of the martyrdom associated with a crown of thorns, and is balanced directly under the muzzle of a revolver. The overall setup resembles a microscope, underlining the predetermined fear and danger of a life lived under state surveillance and rigid control.
Figure 4: (left) Yuliy Rybakov: Big Brother, sculpture of metal and wood, 45 x 30 x 20 cm, 2010, (St. Petersburg, Erarta Museum), image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Figure 5: (right) Anatoliy Gankevich: The Russians are Coming, oil on canvas, 2014 (St. Petersburg, Erarta Museum), image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Russia’s communist past remains relevant in contemporary society and nostalgia for the great empire of the Soviet Union. Certain communist ideals are still promoted by the Russian state and genuinely supported by the majority of the population. A highly symbolic work by Anatoliy Gankevich entitled The Russians are Coming (2014) shows a classic Stalin-era parade of athletes. (Figure 5) Hundreds of identical toned women robotically marching together express absolute willingness participate in the state machine. However, instead of traditional flags, the women march under elaborately patterned carpets, a symbol of material wealth in Stalinist Russia. This conspicuous materialism calls into question the sincerity of their public actions and their show of support for common interests over private ones.
Andrei Filippov serves his Last Supper (1989) on a table entirely covered with red cloth, as was customary at Communist Party meetings. (Figure 6) However, his version features threatening hammers and sickles (the symbols of the Communist party and flag) instead of traditional cutlery. The red tablecloth is decorated with the black fringe traditionally used in Russia to cover coffins. At a table barren of any food or drink, the “last supper” of the Communist Party reflects communism as a failed religion that failed to provide sustenance and prosperity to its adherents.
Figure 6: Andrey Filippov The Last Supper 1989 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Filippov's work shares its name with another work from the permanent museum collection – The Last Supper (2010) by Pavel Grishin. A cultural archetype, Leonardo Da Vinci’s composition is easily recognized in the contours of the heavy burlap draped over the figures at the table. Playing with cultural codes rooted in the viewers’ minds, the artist uses spare presentation and austere material to transmute the iconic image into his own stylistic language.
Figure 6: Pavel Grishin: The Last Supper, 2010 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Figure 7: Anfim Khanykov: Crucified Shiva, 2012 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Another reflection upon religious symbols can be found in Crucified Shiva (2012) by Anfim Khanykov. (Figure 7) The familiar image of the Christian crucifix in this sculpture takes on an unexpected, multi-armed form and raises the sensitive subject of religious tolerance. Religious freedom and acceptance is a potent issue in Russia, which is a multi-confessional country. The work, which seamlessly unites the imagery of two deities - Jesus Christ and the Hindu god Shiva - in a single style, is intended to remind the viewer of a core biblical value: that all men are brothers.
Archetypal images can also often be found in the works of Nikolai Polissky, known for his large-scale installations in both urban and natural landscapes. His monumental work Borders of the Empire (2015), which is integrated into one of the museum’s halls, is comprised of six massive wooden pillars reminiscent of pagan idols. (Figure 8) Such structures were used to mark the routes of Caesar’s soliders while they were expanding the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The pillars were meant to not only mark the new borders, but to also terrify the newly conquered subjects. It is for that reason the artist shaped them as gallows and cages adorned by threatening spikes. The gigantic size of the pillars symbolizes imperial grandeur and command unquestioned obedience to the political regime.
Figure 8: Nikolai Polissky: Borders of the Empire, 2015 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
In Sergey Karev’s installation The Track of a Worm (2009-2010) is another large-scale work integrated into the museum’s exhibit halls. A gigantic worm burrows his tunnel through the halls of the building: the steel scales and ragged edges of the heavy tunnel bulkheads create an impression of an industrial monster, emerging from the ground and tearing apart everything in its way. Some viewers have ascribed the work a modern-day symbolism, drawing parallels to online worms and viruses that can bring down computer networks while remaining invulnerable and impossible to kill. Other viewers have contemplated how the mindless appropriation of the environment by humans can trigger processes, from natural disasters to the erosion of resources, that become impossible to reverse or control
Figure 8: Sergey Karev: The Track of a Worm, 2009-2010 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Figure 9: Dmitry Petukhov: My House – My Fortress? "U-Space", 2009 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
An innovative and groundbreaking project is Erarta’s “U-Space”. The U-Space project comprises eight installations that each fully occupy a hall of the museum and may only be attended in groups of no more than 5 people for a private session lasting a total of 15 minutes. Immersion in each individual atmosphere is designed to give the viewer a unique emotional experience. For instance, the My House - My Fortress? (2009) U-Space, made in collaboration with the artist Dmitry Petukhov, recreates the atmosphere of a Soviet communal apartment with swollen parquet flooring and leaking walls. (Figure 9) The “dam” of rusty panels is supported by birch trunks, the pastoral symbols of Russia. The forthcoming breakdown of the wall and the unavoidable flooding of the entire space is obvious, however, the invisible inhabitants of the apartment are trying to ignore the threat, taking miserable comfort in their sagging armchairs, TV sets, and traditional Soviet lucky charms - seven elephants stacked by height on top of cupboards and bedside chests. The atmosphere of hopelessness is accentuated by the fact that whatever TV channel is chosen by the viewer, it only shows natural disasters and catastrophes. The viewer is invited to think seriously whether the "walls" of their private space are able to protect them from the challenges posed by the outside world.
The “Origins” U-Space is a reconstruction of a traditional dwelling in a Russian village. (Figure 10) The wooden sculptures and paintings by Gelya Pisareva adorn the wall in the form of an iconostasis (a wall of religious icons and paintings found in Eastern Orthodox Christian churches). Her works have a sense of warmth and motherly love. The devotion to folklore and tradition in the works is not naive, but rather light and lyrical in their simplicity. The figures of village women going about their daily work, the calm melodies of folk songs playing in the installation, the beautiful angel hovering under the ceiling, and the smell of hay and fragrant herbal carpets draw the viewer into a meditative state, attempting to remind viewers of the need to return to their “origins” for centering and jolting their genetic memory.
Figure 10: Gelya Pisareva: Origins "U-Space," (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Figure 11: Dmitry Gutov: The Angel, 2012 (St. Petersburg: Erarta Museum); image courtesy of Erarta Museum
Erarta’s primary goal is to help even the most inexperienced viewer to learn how to see and fall in love with contemporary art. The Angel (2012) by Dmitry Gutov is to some extent an allegory of contemporary art: only when viewed from a particular angle, do the disparate scraps of metal coalesce into the clear figure of an angel. (Figure 11) The same can be said about contemporary art - it only becomes relevant and meaningful to those who have learned how to interpret it. With its focus on patron-centered dialogue and experiential learning, Erarta hopes visitors walk away with a greater mastery and appreciation for contemporary art in addition to an exposure to the Russian canon.
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