Russia, it’s time to express yourself

Self expression was not a favoured outlet in the Soviet Union, but in the 24 years since its fall, the contemporary art scene is flourishing. Yet this is not just due to increased expression, but also due to a more globalised attitude to art, and a willingness to appreciate an art form that did fit into the Soviet rulebook: architecture. As a current St Petersburg resident, I thought I’d take a look at this city’s offering, both imported and homegrown.

Like most contemporary or urban art museums in St. Petersburg, Erarta is slightly off-the-beaten track, and from the exterior doesn’t have the same majesty of its more historic counter parts The Hermitage and The Russian Museum. However, a step inside, and you can already sense the eclectic, modern creativity that this hub of contemporary art provides (it’s Russia’s largest museum of its kind).

We got a taxi there (Uber is peanuts over here, such a treat) and intended to spend an hour or two browsing the various collections and maybe grab a coffee. Four hours later, we’d sacked off Pilates, it was dark outside and we were still marauding at will. The place is fascinating.

After browsing a couple of drab permanent exhibition rooms (I’m just not a fan of portrait), we suddenly entered into the modern pop-art world of Romero Britto. The Brazilian’s, glossy and fun display of cartoon prints and sculpture were a breath of fresh air, and made you want to enter into his world of crazy printed yachts and helicopters. Perhaps gimmicky to some, but as a magpie for block colours and dizzy pattern, I was all in. Having seen his work plastered on coca cola bottles and black cabs alike, it was unexpected to put a name to the face all the way in St Petersburg, but I guess that just captures the global and far reaching approach Erarta takes to its collections.

Unless you count the ‘moving’ eyes of the Mona Lisa, interactivity is an aspect that was popularised in more recent times (mainly due to the computerised nature of the field), giving the audience a chance to shape and control the work, and ultimately complete it in a more physical sense. The Finnish collective Animation Crank Handle provided this exact opportunity in their ‘amusement park’ installation at Erarta. From elaborately designed circuits that you could manipulate to produce sounds, to a full size circular rickshaw that allows a friend to push you round in a circle as you watch an animation come to life; this was a fascinating interlude in our trip. Yet this was just a tinkling of Erarta’s foray into immersive installations.

U-space, a series of immersive art projects set up in small rooms within the museum, invite small groups or individuals to be fully part in the artwork. Exploring themes such as childhood, loss and more exotically: the wonder of the Japanese Cherry Blossom. Watching a room come to life around you, as you play the role of yourself and hark back to personal moments, gives the pieces a real depth — although sadly, on a student budget we weren’t able to take part in every installation (Erarta is a private museum, with private museum price tags).

Modern interactivity aside, the standout temporary exhibition in the museum is actually retrospective look into the world of Soviet architecture. Yakov Chernikhov, the avant-garde ‘loner’ of the early 20th century, was not a revered architect of his time. Residing in limbo between Stalinism and constructivism, Chernikhov’s drawings, almost limitless in number, were to many more art than architecture. And maybe the critics were right — his collection, displayed over a huge space in the new wing of Erarta, is non other than a masterpiece. Intricate and bold graphics, colours, sculptures — the result is simply fascinating, and I’m truly glad that today these pieces are being celebrated alongside contemporary collections from all over the globe.

If you do get chance to visit this wonderful city, but don’t have the time to venture too far from Nevsky Prospect, I’d advise a trip to the humble modern art centre Pushkinskaya 10. Situated not on Pushkinskaya Ulitsa, as its name suggests — I know, because I live on Pushkinskaya 10 and redirect confused patrons to Ligovsky Prospect pretty much daily; this creative hub is a convivial space, hosting a collection of modern Russian works. Previously a squat occupied by musicians, independent artists and avant-garde movers and shakers, this art centre is now (as they proudly state) the ‘only non-governmental, self-regulated, independent art commune in the the Russian Federation’. They pride themselves on disseminating Russian contemporary art around the world, and harbouring local talent — with workshops, classes and internships functioning alongside the artists and exhibitors. They also have a cracking cafe, if you were wondering.

I guess the very existence of Pushkinskaya 10 itself speaks volumes about the way the Russian art world is going, and along with its (albeit) more flashy, private counterpart Erarta, the former USSR is careering far away from the self-expression suppression of old and starting to keep up with more established scenes across Europe, Asia and the U.S.A. Perhaps over coming decades, Russian names will become worldwide figures the way that Gosha Rubchinskiy has soared to glory for her depiction and moulding of Russian youth. Because let’s not forget, art here is not just a way for Russians to express themselves, but also a way to share their often misinterpreted culture with the world. We need more Rubchinskiys, more international exhibitions like the folks at P-10 are doing, in order to truly begin to build a bridge over the cultural gaps. Because trust me, over here, they have a lot to say.

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Originally published at on October 21, 2015.

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