The Demise of Petersburg

The Demise of Petersburg



The demise of Petersburg is a chronically recurring illness.

Surrounded by gloomy prophecies, the city has been anticipating disaster from its very beginning. Through literature, this predicted devastation became part of the Petersburg myth.

At critical turning points (the reign of Peter the Great, 1812-1825, the age of avangarde, perestroika), the image of the future replaces reality. Appealing to the future grants endless privileges in the present. The descendant’s verdict annuls the contemporary’s verdict. It seems that historical progress can be made by force and that only time separates it from triumph.

Saint Petersburg, in the words of Lotman, is “…the future Russia. The city that must engage the future.” The city as a project and a mission. When the project is not completed, a premonition of local eschatology emerges from the depths of Petersburg’s text.

After the 1991 referendum, the city was given its current name. The country renounced the past. The name change became symbolic. What started the Soviet era should finish it. Renaming was an attempt to engage the future; it was called to restore “historic justice” and declare liberal democratic values.

Engaging the future was unsuccessful. Faith in the free market, the new rule, democracy, pluralism, and independent elections dissolved quickly. Freedom of speech, the right to private property, the sanctity of the constitution, and a free culture turned out to be shaky and vulnerable. Increasing tensions between different ethnicities and religions, along with the aggressive foreign policies of countries that seemed to be models of democracy, became sources of disillusionment with the possibility of creating a world based on universal values.

The city that changed its name under the noisy influence of liberal rhetoric was disappointed in its substance. The project perished. The future did not arrive. But the irretrievable past returned to the present.

The corresponding terminology was also resurrected. The word “stagnation” resounded in politics and economics. Articles about art flashed labels: “formalism,” “nonconformist,” “critical art,” “bourgeoisie,” “capitalism,” “dissidence,” “political regime,” “Marxism,” and others. Of course, the old notions are now used in a different context, and the current situation can’t be seriously identified with the period when Brezhnev governed. However, it should be noted that it is the range of problems causing the search for this analogy that has put the vocabulary of the 1970’s back into circulation.

Non-verbal expression went through a similar transformation. Body language often becomes the interlocutor, the commentator, or even the opponent of the main message. This duality begets a semantic polyphony, a multidimensional work. Body language and its etymology are the main characters in this exhibit.

Modern art is gradually becoming filled with meditations on and recollections of the late 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s.


How can a young, enlightened artist building a career in modern art work with an assortment of images from Popkov, Salahov and Ossovsky, practically using their own language? Miners, cosmonauts, Biblical themes, heroic torsos and angels are great, if it’s a joke. Yet Ilya Gaponov does not leave even a shadow of irony. The miners and cosmonauts are actually who they seem to be; the metaphors are traditional and the allegories are transparent; allusions are not disguised. The artist’s aims are inheritance and exploration, rather than distancing.

Yet we cannot put an equal sign between him and them. Using butiminous glaze as a technique returns us to the sphere of modern art. Butiminous glaze is a coal derivative, accentuating the region the artist is from, and carrying the theme of connection with the homeland. In early projects this looked like ethnographic entertainment. Later, the technique developed new depth. The varnish took on a classical gleam reflecting museum-style seriousness and the pursuit of grand forms.

The composition is based on unrealistically dramatic objectives. It is as if the viewer cannot get enough distance (breadth of vision?) to see the picture as a whole. Cutting off edges in a frame is a trick used in photography, film and TV to emphasize the scale of what is being filmed.

Socialist realism, the icon, religious painting of the late Renaissance, baroque still life – Gaponov is performing an audit of monumental and heroic images.

“Sebastian’s Nights” is one of them. The world of a classical painting, the naked body, is pierced by protruding sticks. It would be logical for them to seem like arrows, the instruments of St. Sebastian the martyr, but impertinent objectivity and three-dimensionality sooner bring to mind construction lumber or concrete buildings being erected.  The figurative order makes the radiance of the martyr resonate with the torture of “classical” Petersburg caused by construction for renovating and accommodating practical needs.


The painting is a part of the expansive series “A Cargo Culture View”.  The activities of Grikovsky’s characters (who might seem to have modern Russian artists hiding behind them) appear to lack a point or a result. The only motivating factor is the hope of copying someone else’s conscious, meaningful actions to gain “manna from heaven”.  A perplexed glance at the sky is the leitmotif of the project.

Curiously, criticism of modern art as a theme of modern art (a common phenomenon in practice everywhere) in this case fits in with the Russian tradition of condemning “slavery to imitation of the West”. The graphics recall the masters of Soviet magazine illustration V. P. Visotsky, Grinshtein, Punkisevich and P. Y. Karachentsov. They are all familiar to us from childhood, completely forgotten, and opportunely remembered.

The stimulus for creating “Something Happened” was the author’s impressions from the terrorist attack in Vladikavkaz in 2010. All that Valeriy Grikovsky saw when he found himself at the site, a few minutes after the explosion, was a crowd of people pensively staring at the sky and making calls on their mobile phones.

The artist uses this image to demonstrate dissociation and alienation and the extinction of social unity. Grikovsky isn’t expecting anything from society, does not feel he is a part of it, and questions its existence. Society is presented as a mechanical unity, rather than a meaningful one. Petersburg as a socium and an intellectual environment is dying, having lost its unified values and moral reference points.


The artist calls his own efforts the “New severe style,” voluntarily voicing his connection with the aesthetics of the age of stagnation.

Video is not a typical medium for Alexander Dashevsky. The removal of new street names from the map, the story about the self-toponym “Piter” and the stylization of a film about civil defense from different perspectives all narrate a story about the fragility of modern Petersburg. “Historical Justice” models preparation for a new round of renaming to cater to the new imaginary concept of the history of Russia. “Piter” is a historical tour through the history of the city’s nickname and a discussion of its connotations that is filmed in the style of a popular science program from Soviet television. “Basics of Everyday Safety” is a replication of the doomsday premonitions of a Petersburg resident.


Vitaly Pushnitsky works in the grey area between narrative and formal objectives. He has often been heard saying that what is depicted in a painting is unimportant or secondary. Nevertheless, his paintings are almost always figurative. Sometimes they are metaphoric or even didactic. We must believe him anyway – formal indicators, such as the round format, roam from project to project, while the narrative varies.

When looking for the artist’s starting point for creating his own artistic language, the easiest target would be the East German expatriate, G. Richter. We may recall our own hyper-realists, Bazilev and Faibisovich. We can note that the artist’s abstract sculptures surprisingly resemble mockups of Soviet modernist architecture. But these ties are unobvious and hard to prove.

What firmly ties Pushnitsky to the age of stagnation is his academic education. The artist is still trying to sort out his complicated relationship with his education, and builds his work around it. One of the constant themes of Vitaly’s work is the tragic degeneration of modernity in the face of “Culture with a capital C” and “classics”.

It is from within those academic walls that the artist has taken the idea of “classic,” “major,” “real” and “exemplary” art. On the one hand, this is the cornerstone of any academy, from the time of the Carracci brothers until the beginning of the 20th century (and in the case of St. Petersburg, right up to the present). On the other hand, idolizing culture and treating it as a territory free from totalitarianism or ideology is a defense mechanism of the scientific and artistic intelligentsia of the age of stagnation.

Brodsky wrote: “…Petersburg, the creation of poetry and Russian prose.” The plot of “The Mind’s Dream” is built on the identification of Petersburg with Petersburg literature. “Little People” and “The Humiliated and Offended,” having become literary heroes within the “Petersburg text,” are themselves weary of that very text. Withdrawal from culture and from the “major age” (Averintsev) deprives a person both ontologically and chronologically. Vitaly sees the demise of Petersburg as the disintegration of the cultural myth and fatigue from the overwhelming burden of classicism.


«I'll Be Back» is the only work in the exhibit that directly responds to the current political situation. By the norms of the genre, we would expect a critical statement. The inscription should have hinted at yet another social upheaval, which is what traditionally goes along with switching the capital in Russia. And the style of the text should communicate the totalitarian nature of the government. The artist is taking the scenery from a completed “concentrated performance” (Guy Debord) and performing another one in it – one that is just beginning.

This perception is not unfounded.

But if we look at the work as part of the mass of the artist’s works, different meanings jump out at us.

It is tempting to call Andrey Rudiev a nostalgic eclectic pop artist. One of his artistic tricks is to take several fetishes, like David Bowie, deer antlers, martians, and award boards, and put them all on the same surface, enjoying the associative space that they create. The nomenclature of Rudiev’s “pets” is huge: shamans, rock musicians, flying saucers, policemen, penguins, characters from advertisements, old refrigerators, and others. Most of them share the same origin – the USSR. Fictitious and real heroes of the official and underground material culture make up imaginative series of images whose main purpose is to breathe life into the spirits of a time gone by.

In this particular case, Andrey is working with popular propaganda of a vanished empire, the memorial inscription. The artist, with his love of the science fiction futurology of the 70’s, could not fail to be delighted with the prospect of making a memorial plate for a future event. Moving the government to St. Petersburg is as open to discussion and realistic as an alien invasion. Plus Putin is a media character, James Bond for Russia and Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the West, besides being the namesake of a different fan of train travel… This is the level where we should search for Rudiev’s artistic motivation; he usually does not make use of the denunciative, propagandistic capabilities of modern art.

So this is more likely not about criticism, but about moving the nervous energy and noise concentrated around the upcoming elections to the artistic plane.


The artist’s self-perception in social space has changed. Nevertheless, it is not correct to speak of modern art returning to the underground format. The spread of the boundaries of art, which not too long ago was a life-affirming game in the eyes of a sympathetic public, has reversed itself. To the contrary, art found itself in danger of capitalist and political appropriation. Combined with limited freedom of speech and the lack of open communication with authorities, this led to artists’ alienation and a tendency, if not to inward emigration, at least to the fortification of the borders of art.

The fact that these artists, without pre-arrangement, have each started to modify the language of the 70’s in their artwork most likely testifies not to stagnation, but to sharpened retrospective vision and the formation of a new identity and subject matter in modern art. The demise of Petersburg as a project city has turned the discussion back around to the extensive historical layer that is evaluated with one-sided bias by the latest native culture.