Russia: Reflections on Revolutionary Aesthetics, Street Art and Marina Abramović

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On the face of it, the contemporary Russian art scene has little in common with the country’s older and more dynamic revolutionary tradition. Indeed, for the visitor to Russia what may stand out most are staid and grey Stalinist-era monuments. Take, for example, the drab Soviet Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad in St. Petersburg, or the Marx memorial in Moscow which has now become a glorified tourist attraction. Other sites seem literally and spiritually dead such as the Krymskaya statue garden. Walking through the area, I glimpsed Soviet dinosaurs such as Leonid Brezhnev gazing back at me in eerie stony silence. No less deadening were wall monuments carved into the façade of the old Finlyandskiy railway station, or hyper-stylized statues near the All-Russian Exhibition Center, sites which extol the virtues of obsolete proletariat workers from the Soviet past.

Despite such eyesores, recent international exhibitions have sought to illuminate an earlier and more innovative period of Soviet art. On the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution, scores of shows have showcased Constructivism, Suprematism, art deco and the like at international venues like London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The latter show, which focuses on painting and sculpture, compliments the Design Museum’s centennial exhibit depicting Russian architecture, and a Tate Modern show which principally examines graphic design. In the U.S. meanwhile, centennial shows have gone on display at the Hoover Institution, located at Stanford University, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Titled “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” the latter show covers artistic developments starting in 1912 and ending in 1935, at which point Socialist Realism replaced earlier experimentation in favor of state-sanctioned aesthetics.

Revolutionary Conundrum

Just how to commemorate the centennial in Russia has become something of a conundrum for politicians who view the revolutionary era with unease. Reportedly, Putin’s cultural envoy remarked that the Kremlin could not bring itself to celebrate an event which still proves so politically divisive. Nevertheless, Moscow’s Pushkin Museum put on a show last year featuring Soviet avant-garde art, and at long last the Hermitage Museum, located in St. Petersburg, also curated a revolution-themed exhibit. Oddly enough, however, administrators had to be prodded into holding the show, which is entitled “The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: History Was Made Here.”

The director of the Hermitage only decided to curate the exhibit when the museum’s branch in Amsterdam expressed shock at the omission. In honor of the show, the façade of the Winter Palace was bathed in red light while the exhibit featured revolutionary banners. The show also displayed Czar Nicholas II’s diary entries and other objects such as the bayonet which was used to kill him and his family. Apparently, the revolutionary banners and red lights did not go over well with some patrons, and museum administrators received hate mail featuring slogans such as “Return Lenin to Wilhelm” (the German Kaiser).

Despite such political antipathy, St. Petersburg has participated in centennial celebrations to a degree. In addition to the Hermitage, the city’s Street Art Museum recently put on a show entitled “Brighter Days Are Coming,” dealing with the underlying theme of revolution. Though strictly speaking the show doesn’t go out of its way to depict the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, some exhibitors have clearly been influenced by such styles. Take, for example, French artist Kazy Usclef, whose work is informed by Futurism and Suprematism. But while I appreciated the likes of Usclef very much, I could not help wonder whether the topic of revolution may appeal more to an international audience as opposed to the ambivalent Russian public. Indeed, the exhibit was jointly organized by the Goethe-Institut and artists hailed from twelve countries.

From Poster Art to Gorky House

In an era in which red stars and scarlet banners have ironically been employed to sell such capitalistic items as vodka and fast food, recent centennial shows hark back to a more idealistic period prior to the Stalinist crackdown on artistic self-expression. But in a country still wrestling with the revolution’s political legacy, it was clear to me during a recent visit that Russia wasn’t exactly going out of its way to emphasize the country’s earlier forays into artistic experimentation. To be sure, I did manage to spot some some anti-capitalist posters from the revolutionary period at Moscow’s State Central Contemporary History of Russia, though the images seemed oddly juxtaposed against other patriotic and militaristic displays.

At their exhibit in the Tate Modern exhibit in London, curators have showcased the diversity of eclectic artistic styles which flourished during the early years of the revolution, ranging from folk art to art deco cubism to art nouveau. I got a sense of such cultural trends while touring St. Petersburg’s Museum of Political History, which had originally been known as the Kshesinskaya art nouveau mansion. In 1917, Lenin arrived at the aforementioned Finlyandskiy railway station and promptly occupied the mansion, which was transformed into a fortified military headquarters and Bolshevik nerve center. Today, visitors can get a look at Lenin’s desk and other revolutionary paraphernalia.

As it turned out, such home décor was hardly unique as evidenced by my visit to the nearby Kirov museum, which displays the original art nouveau home of Sergei Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik leader during the early phases of the revolution. Though I was the sole visitor at the exhibit, I spotted more patrons at Gorky House in Moscow, which served as a home to writer Maxim Gorky. The building is considered to be one of the most prominent examples of art nouveau in Russia. A keen social observer, Gorky himself worked at many menial and proletarian jobs during his youth. Though he later became a Marxist, he was often at odds with the more authoritarian tendencies of the Bolshevik Party and Lenin.

Public’s Indifference

Are Russians interested in rehabilitating some of the earlier, democratic impulses of the revolution or celebrating more eclectic architectural styles such as art nouveau? Judging from conversations I overheard at the Gorky Museum, which were conducted in Spanish and German, most museum patrons were foreigners. And ironically, given the large number of exhibits held abroad which focus on Russia’s revolutionary legacy as opposed to the relatively few exhibits held in Russia itself, the public may be somewhat indifferent to artistic ferment of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Perhaps, that isn’t surprising in light of attitudes as a whole towards the earlier, more idealistic phase of the Russian revolution. Indeed, with the possible exception of a few leftist activists or academics who debate precisely when the revolution went awry and succumbed to anti-democratic forces, the public at large isn’t involved in such apparently esoteric discussions. Moreover, in the age of Putin, which has been marked by a sense of cynicism and apathy, the notion of promoting political art, let alone “revolutionary art,” may seem fanciful or even downright risky.

At Pushkinskaya-10, a kind of underground art space in St. Petersburg, I spotted some subversive work in the form of Nikolai Yakimchuk’s “Putin Rasputin” and a somewhat drole sculpture piece entitled “Putin Soap Opera.” However, it is doubtful that many tourists, let alone natives, make their way to the gallery which is housed in a grungy building squirreled away in back of a nondescript downtown courtyard. Furthermore, evidence of underground, rebel culture in St. Petersburg is in short supply with no graffiti or street art to be seen.

From Marina Abramović to Street Art Museum

In the midst of such political deficiencies, and hoping to uncover any silver lining which would restore a sense of idealism, I caught up with noted performance artist Marina Abramović during a side trip to Ukraine. Having grown up in the former Yugoslavia, Abramović has her own personal insights into the fraught relationship between politics and culture within closed Communist societies. Russia is certainly a very traditional society, she says, but on the other hand the artist is encouraged by the rise of feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot.

Looking back on the legacy of the early phase of the revolution, she adds “We should never forget figures like Mayokovsky and Kandinsky, from which sprung life. They represented a culture of transition which in turn gave rise to revolutionary ideas.” To be sure, Abramović says, “radical ideas can be blocked, canceled or crushed but in the end, good art has many lives.” Fundamentally, however, Abramović believes that such art must aim to disturb society.

With Abramović’s words in mind, I head to St. St. Petersburg’s Street Art Museum on a rainy day to check out “Brighter Days Are Coming,” the exhibit dealing with themes of revolution. The show itself is multi-faceted, with large-scale wall installations accompanied by sculptures in open spaces. In a sense, the very notion of a “Street Art Museum” harks back to the Russian avant-garde which spent considerable time developing propaganda posters. Moreover, in the early days of the revolution, and particularly during the civil war of 1918-21, futurists decorated public spaces in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

In terms of sheer physical scale, the Street Art Museum outpaces Pushkinsaya-10. However, the space is located miles from any nearby metro stop and far away from the central tourist zone with its Hermitage museum. If the distance factor wasn’t enough of a difficult sell, the museum’s thematic focus is a bit risky since it goes without saying that in Russia, many tend to avoid political discussions, let alone discussions about the historical legacy of revolutionary politics.

Industrial Setting

Nevertheless, the privately-owned Street Art Museum has apparently gambled that young millenials, who have known little else besides Vladimir Putin and may chafe under his authoritarian rule, will be interested in the exhibit’s edgier fare. If my visit is any indication, organizers may have hit a nerve since all patrons I spotted were millenial twenty-somethings. Catering to its youthful constituency, the museum has set up a trendy hipster burger restaurant on site.

Walking through the entrance of the museum, I was greeted with a huge placard upon which was inscribed a kind of manifesto reading “Revolutionary art has always played an integral role in mass political uprising…The need for radical change and a desire for breaking all ties with the past became the impetus for people to take political action into the public.” The Street Art Museum, the manifesto continues, seeks to “reflect on the phenomenon of revolution through art and to create a dialogue between modern artists from different countries.”

Musing that the museum had set a rather high bar for itself, I proceeded to walk through the front gate and found myself in a desolate industrial landscape. The museum is located within the Sloplast plastics laminate works, and today the plant operates as an active factory. Indeed, chairs sitting in the museum’s café are manufactured from the factory’s own products and assembled by workers. Nearby, beyond the gates of the museum, there are innumerable other factories and the area provides a vivid contrast to St. Petersburg’s ornate, over the top 18th and 19th century buildings. No doubt, the museum’s “industrial chic” may appeal to hipsters, whose aesthetics and retro sense of taste have been exponentially spreading from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg to Moscow and beyond.

More Irony than Confrontation

Does the Street Art Museum live up to its own manifesto in the entranceway or succeed in “disturbing society,” as Abramović strives for? One of the exhibitors, French artist Kazy Usclef, doesn’t seem particularly intimidated by Russia’s climate of political fear. In one work, “Rebel Sex Love Resistance,” two female figures are entwined while one wears a balaclava, a not so subtle reference to Pussy Riot which famously sports such gear. In another work, “Makazyhnovchtchina,” Usclef urges society to rip down barriers by proclaiming open borders.

Despite such combative work, “Brighter Days Are Coming,” seems to embrace irony rather than confrontation, which is hardly surprising in light of institutional political pressures. In recent years, the state has prosecuted Pussy Riot and censored art which is deemed degenerate and Europeanized as opposed to upholding traditional Orthodox religion. State-funding for the arts, meanwhile, is difficult to come by and arts schools tend to be academic and stodgy. Needless to say, owners of the Street Art Museum are reportedly friendly with the authorities and members of Putin’s own party United Russia have visited the exhibit.

As I walked within the museum’s inner industrial courtyard, what struck me most was a huge street mural painted on the side of a building. The work, which is entitled “The Hermitage is Ours” is a replica of St. Petersburg’s Czarist-era Winter Palace, which today houses the Hermitage Museum. Originally constructed in 1732, the Baroque Winter Palace served as a royal residence to the Romanovs, and in 1917 the building became the seat of the provisional government until the Bolsheviks stormed the palace later that year.

“The Hermitage is Ours” embraces the ironies of Russian history by superimposing the Hermitage’s exterior on to an industrial brick front, thus hinting at the clash between Czarist and Soviet styles. In a further nod to such juxtapositions, a statue of Lenin sits in front of the superimposed Hermitage, set against the backdrop of a pile of old industrial-era containers. The statue was donated by another factory which had wanted to get rid of it, and resembles many other common Lenin relics to be found in junky flea markets all over St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Ironies of a “Street Art Museum”

All things being equal, the Street Art Museum certainly provides a well-needed counterpoint to St. Petersburg’s traditional art venues, though I mused about the inherent irony of exhibiting street art within the fixed confines of a museum setting. “For many critics,” notes an article in the Huffington Post, “Street Art belongs in the street, so the very existence of this institution is a non-starter.” Nevertheless, since one typically doesn’t see “AntiFa post-Soviet graffiti furiously scrawled” in the streets of St. Petersburg, which lacks its own “organic” street art scene, the Street Art Museum may serve as a “comfortable protected space for debate about theory and history.”

It’s not as if such underlying ironies have been lost on organizers of the Street Art Museum itself. Speaking to the Guardian, curator Nailya Allahverdiyeva remarked “In general, I hate street art expositions, because I consider that to be a profanation of street art.” On the other hand, Street Art Museum producer Albina Motor adds, “We are not a museum in the conventional sense. It’s just a name for much more.” Indeed, other organizers hope the exhibit will prompt the public to reflect on the nature of revolution itself.

Yasha Young, a German museum administrator who helped curate the show, has remarked “I believe it is very important to not thoughtlessly throw about the word ‘revolution.’ What kind of revolution are we talking about? Why is revolution always associated with violence? It doesn’t have to be violent.” Speaking with the Goethe Institute, curator Florian Malzacher added, “The topic of the Russian Revolution is challenging and important. It gives us the chance to think about how we should consider utopias and political movements in the past as well as the future. It is always impressive to see how contemporary many artistic, philosophical and political ideas seem and how far we still are from their realization.”

In the political context of St. Petersburg, Malzacher’s comments may seem like an understatement and that is putting it mildly. Currently, Putin’s Russia is hardly what one might consider an open and democratic country, let alone some kind of far off utopia. In light of such stark realities, perhaps the question is whether the public is truly ready to re-examine or reassess history one hundred years after the revolution. While such a possibility seems a little remote, Street Art Museum owner Dmitri Zaitsev sounds an optimistic note. “I want the world to have a thousand factory museums,” he has said.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer.