Russian premier Vladimir Putin's choice of his hometown St. Petersburg as the site for this year's G8 Summit cemented the city's status as Russia's cosmopolitan cultural capital, far removed from the frantic flash and muddled glamour of Moscow. In theory, the event should have provided sufficient impetus for the city to shake off its summer slumber and greet the visiting dignitaries with a nice show of hospitality. On the whole, however, the summit was met with annoyance and dread, as citizens anticipated the hassle of blockaded roads, increased security checks and still more cogs in Russia's convoluted bureaucratic machine.
St. Petersburg's professional galleries -- and there are really only three or four -- echoed the general indifference and kept their doors shut, reluctant to interrupt the summer hiatus for a three-day event sealed off in a suburb well outside the city. The G8 organizers had initially planned a substantial cultural program, but with the press of topical events, not to mention an already overloaded agenda and considerable security concerns, the plans were scrapped.
So it was left to the city's major cultural institutions to entertain the few visitors who trickled outside the summit's official compound. And led by the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg's museums laid out a surprisingly dazzling and diverse spread of exhibitions.
Topping the list is the rousing exhibition of late de Kooning paintings at the Hermitage [see "Artnet News," July 11, 2006]. Against the white marble walls of the museum's Nicholas Hall, de Kooning's spare compositions whirl and churn with a sheer eloquence of movement that echoes a survey of Italian and Russian Kinetic art located one floor below. "Experiments in Visual Kineticism," as that show is dubbed, is a bustling array of optical illusions and motorized artworks by Alberto Biasi, Vyacheslav Koleichuk, Francisco Infante and several followers of Victor Vasarely, among others. Mesmerizing.
Over at the Russian Ethnographical Museum, a white-and-pastel-yellow Neoclassical structure dating from 1934, there's "The Nature of the Cosmos," a rather odd exhibition that surveys avant-garde Russian abstraction alongside sketches of the cosmos made by the Russian astronaut Krikalev, who was famously stranded in space after the completion of his mission. Organized by Sergei Bugaev-Afrika, the show includes several members of the Sterligov School, a Leningrad-based "secret school" that helped preserve the teachings of the Russian avant-garde throughout the Soviet era. Particularly striking are Svetlana Tsirkonova's three-color collages and Ivan Govorkov's veiled, allover abstractions, which crackle with crystalline precision. Afrika's own contribution consists of twin compositions in olive and aquamarine, mixing a pop sensibility with the avant-garde esthetic, and charged by a swath of empty canvas.
Returning to the roots of these visual experiments, the State Russian Museum quite literally casts new light on a once-estranged avant-garde son, Pavel Filonov, with the startlingly original "Pavel Filonov: Witness of the Unseen," the only exhibition to be officially included in the G8 agenda. A member of the St. Petersburg avant-garde in the early part of the 20th century (he invented his own "analytical realist" style, which he also called "anti-Cubism"), Filonov took part in the Russian Revolution and headed his own school in the 1920s, but was suppressed during the Stalinist period, and died of starvation in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad.
Curators met the challenge of hanging Filonov's dense and multifaceted works -- which can seem dizzying and grotesque in large doses -- by submerging the space in darkness, transforming the halls into an otherworldly temple. This ingenuous lighting gives each painting an unsettling glow, though at the cost of a certain loss of visibility of texture and technique. The effect is amplified by a lurking soundtrack, which is generated by the museum's marvelous ANS synthesizer, which somehow translates the image of one of Filonov's graphics into sound.
Plans for an installation by U.S. artist Jenny Holzer to accompany the Filonov show have been postponed, and the collaboration is now slated to occur this winter when the Filonov exhibition opens at the Puskhin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. But the St. Petersburg installment of "Filonov" does include an ancillary project by a contemporary wayward son of the Russian art world, Vadim Zakharov. Born in 1959, Zakharov was a key figure in Moscow Conceptualism during the 1980s and was recently given a retrospective at the State Tretyakov Museum in the Russian capital.
In St. Petersburg, Zakharov's ostensively light-hearted homage to Filonov consists of a seven-foot-tall, baby blue sculpture of a toy lion with collapsible legs, positioned on a four-foot-tall plinth. The proud bearing of Lion-Filonov dips and turns at the touch of a button -- as is the fashion with this type of toy. As a commanding voice rings out from the sculpture, reading excerpts from the artist's autobiography, the toy's various contortions seem to mimic the tortuous trajectory of Filonov's life. With an additional twist of irony, Zakharov has purposefully given the lion random movements, adding another layer of complexity to the triumph and tragedy of this artist.
The remainder of the Russian Museum's Benois wing is dedicated to the "Times of Change," a rather incomprehensible survey of industrial-era Socialist Realism from 1960 through the '80s. Admirable in its intent, the show is noticeably crippled by absences resulting from the museum's hearty number of outstanding loans to concurrent exhibitions (in particular, the Guggenheim's "Russia!" show, currently in Bilbao.)
Picking up where "Times" drops off is the "Essence of Life, Essence of Art," a show of more than 200 graphic works by over 30 artists from Russia and Eastern Europe. Located at the Russian Museum's ornate 18th-century Marble Palace on the banks of the Neva River, the show has an insistently casual atmosphere, as if one has just waltzed through the studios of some of the most well-known names in contemporary Russian art -- Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Eric Bulatov, Oleg Kulik and many others.
Eastern European artists in the show include Braco Dimitrijevic, Rosa El-Hassan and Mladen Stilinovic, reflecting the widely scattered interests of Sarajevo-born curator Jadran Adamovic, who envisioned "Essence" as a showcase for his friends and acquaintances rather than a manifesto exhibition organized around a unified esthetic. The show has already traveled to Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest; for its run in the Marble Palace, "Essence" has been expanded to include St. Petersburg artists Timur Novikov and Olga Tobrelutz, as representatives of the city's New Academy of Fine Arts.
Outside the official institutions, a decidedly more political response to the G-8 has been organized under the heading "Art-SOBES" ["Art-Social Security."] The project comprises several smaller initiatives, most notably "Babylonian Dream," a joint exhibition of open-air installations by young Russian and German artists. Held in the garden of the Anna Akhmatova Museum, "Babylonian Dream" is curated by the enterprising Andrei Rudeev (b. 1966), now fondly remembered for populating the temporary scaffolding around the city's Museum of the Artic and Antarctic with six-foot-tall Styrofoam penguins in the fall of 2005.
A viewer can't help but remember the penguins when confronted with Rudeev's own contribution to the show, which is placed in the woods and titled The Meeting. Eight faceless businessmen in severe black suits, carved of painted Styrofoam, are seated at a table that is covered with foil so that it looks heavy and metallic. The work is a "reference to the Iron Curtain," the artist explained, "which everyone assumed was more sturdy and less elastic than it really was." Rudeev was reluctant to make a direct link between his sculpture and summit, however -- the crux of his work is its empty anonymity.
Ilya Gaponov contributed a kind of faux chandelier to the show, an ordinary towel rack hanging from the trees and draped with kitchen towels, titled Non-Handmade Sterility. The grease smudges on the towels turn out, on closer inspection, to be portraits of the various leaders in the Group of Eight. Still very young for the Petersburg scene, Gaponov (b. 1981) already has a fine-tuned sense of irony. Recent installations have featured coffins filled with Western name-brand laundry detergents and cleaning supplies; a graveyard of light boxes whose models wink and tease with the promise of eternal youth; and the absurd installation of two imperial sphinxes standing guard at the door of the artist's humble school in the industrial village of Kemerovo, an installation that immediately elevated the prestige of his town of origin.
Laying siege to another part of the garden, the festival "Artists against Poverty!" is rife with good intentions and mixed results. In addition to the contests for architectural design of contemporary cardboard housing and documentary photography under the dubious charge "Snap Poverty!," the program offers the group Protes, whose members have been raising a ruckus recently by papering gallery openings with handmade fliers professing their indifference to everything but the free wine and finger foods. To fit the socially conscious air of the event, the group slathered an oversize acrylic canvas with a rather pessimistic take on the social situation, in a style reminiscent of the late-'80s-era expressionism that took hold of the Leningrad art scene.
During the three-hour-long, bilingual round table preceding the opening of "Art-SOBES," Russian and German artists and critics debated the hypocrisy and futility of such "socially conscious" exhibitions, a criticism embodied by the general embarrassment when actual homeless people began to arrive, peddling street journals. It all ironically echoed Berlin artist Jan Forman's Becedka, a clean white bench that had been crafted into a closed circle, negating any practical value.
This confusion of audience and intention gives an apt illustration of the overall effect of the G8. Under the siege of the summit, the city itself lay shockingly still. Tourists have been discouraged by the four-day closure of the Pulkovo airport, and locals have long since fled to their dachas for the summer. Nevksy Prospect, normally swarming, sat wanly waiting in an unseasonable emptiness, calling into question the idea that the summit actually brings benefits to the city.
As for what St. Petersburg has to offer, the planned reception for the G8 representatives at the Russian Museum was canceled at the last minute and, instead of world leaders, the summit organizers sent the youth delegation to the event. Nevertheless, the museum provided each G8 representative with a copy of the catalogue for "Pavel Filonov." As to how each delegate responded to the legendary avant-gardist's images of leering abstractions and fractured faces, that can only be imagined.
KATE SUTTON is an American art historian and critic based in St. Petersburg.