“Stay Home” balcony light installation in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of the artist, Ksyusha Pilipetskaya.
When Russia began gradually enforcing quarantines in late March, the country’s art community followed suit. Galleries transitioned to online, performance art became virtual and recreating famous artworks via Instagram went viral.
One project #HermitagefromHome (#ЭрмитажДома), a collaboration between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the hip Petersburg-based Sobaka Magazine, challenges participants to post their home reenactments of any artwork from the Hermitage’s three million-plus object collection. Instagramers use whatever is at their disposal, including laundry detergent, brooms, dishes and pets.
Another popular platform is the Facebook page “Isolation,” which describes itself as a “Covid Anti-stress Art Flash Mob.” It also asks participants to reenact famous artworks, this time from any museum collection. That said, its exhaustive rules page strongly discourages repeating artworks that have already been posted and specifically bans works that are too obvious, namely: “The Lovers” by René Magritte, “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” by Andy Warhol and Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square.” “Be original,” they sternly tell us.
On April 21, the Street Art Museum (SAM) in St. Petersburg announced its own home isolation contest: an open call for art-makers to create pieces for their balconies and windows. The contest is open to professional artists and amateurs alike from anywhere in the world. All you have to do is post a photo of your art to Instagram tagging the Street Art Museum and the hashtag #home_street_art.
The contest will end on June 1, when a jury of experts from the museum – director Tatyana Pinchuk, SAM’s team of curators and artistic director, Andrei Zaitsev – will decide on the best window-balcony art. The winner will be able to display their work at SAM when the museum reopens. So far, over 40 artists have submitted their photos. Most of the submissions come from St. Petersburg, but Russian artists who are in Croatia, Georgia, Estonia and Austria have also contributed.
Russia’s architecture is rich with balconies and therefore particularly well suited to this home art challenge. Neoclassical buildings boast balconies with parentheses of Roman columns, while the Khrushchev-era projects – built to quell a housing shortage that came with the end of World War II – often feature enclosed balconies made from a chaotic bricolage of wood, metal, concrete and fiberglass.
As in other art communities around the world, the quarantine has had different effects on Russian artists, both economically and creatively. Some told me that the quarantine has contributed to their practice – giving them a new topic to focus on and more open-ended time for reflection.
For Ksyusha Pilipetskaya, the artist of the St. Petersburg-based light installation “Sidi Doma” or “Stay Home,” window-balcony art is a way to offer her neighbors relief from the dullness of having to look at the same view day after day. “I hope to support others by inserting my images into this endless Groundhog Day we’re living through,” she said.
Other artists, like Van Gee of St. Petersburg, said the pandemic has not changed his practice. “Even in normal times, life in Russia is not exactly simple — you’re always out of your comfort zone.” This situation is obviously more pronounced, he added, but since it’s only been a couple of months and there is no shortage of art supplies, his practice has remained steady.
Tatyana Pinchuk, the director of the Street Art Museum, worries about opportunities for young Russian artists in a post-pandemic world. So far, Russian regional governments have done little to support cultural spaces (particularly private museums) during the pandemic.
In an interview with Sobaka Magazine published in April, Ms. Pinchuk said that when she asked St. Petersburg’s Vice Governor Vladimir Knyaginin why cultural institutions were not given support from the government in its coronavirus assistance plans, Mr. Knyaginin said that the government had “forgotten about culture,” but that they would come up with new plans soon.
Above: photos from Liza Dandy’s series “The Floating Balcony” in St. Petersburg.
Even before the pandemic, the market for contemporary art in Russia was limited by lack of funding and political censorship. Now, the environment will be even tougher.
“There is no market for contemporary art in Russia and there won’t be,” Ms. Pinchuk said. “Young artists will leave Russia to search for an audience and like-minded people abroad.”
That said, Ms. Pinchuk thinks the pandemic will increase Russians’ interest in art. Art supply stores, for example, have seen upticks in purchases as more people are drawing and painting as a way to pass time. Ms. Pinchuk predicts that this need for a creative outlet will make people more curious to visit museums and cultural spaces, once they can open again.