6. Representations of Ethnicity

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My friend and colleague in Los Angeles, Ken Gonzales-Day, asked me to make sure to note representations of race and ethnicity in the many artworks and displays I would see in Russia while on residency with CEC ArtsLink. His work in considering the “historical construction of race and the limits of representational systems” in its service would dig much deeper than the following can do, and I can draw no conclusions after having only been in Russia for a month, but I will try to keep here some visual notes on the subject of what I’ve seen.

The image above is a detail of a painting at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg I believe depicting the conquest of Siberia, and these, of course, are the people being conquered. Perhaps what’s most interesting to me about this fairly conventional “history painting” is the fact that the people being conquered are the ones whose faces face the viewer. We see their fear and their determination to defend themselves. We see the backs of the people doing the conquering, and their ranks (if that’s a term one can use with seafaring conflict) come a bit closer to us in the left foreground. These devices make us feel as if we were one of the conquerers. This is not, though, precisely the way I would characterize depictions of ethnicity – and therefore a relationship towards ethnicity – in Russia. This way of depicting seems borrowed, as much of 19th century Russian aesthetics were – from Western European tradition.

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I can and will list here some of the various representations, that more or less overtly “other” an ethnic group, but I want to preface this post with the fact that it would be inaccurate to evaluate these representations the way one would in America. I will tell you why, but first, some visual notes. Just keep in mind that this is all 19th century borrowing from Western European depiction, and that the attitude in general is not what I’m witnessing in the more present time. In fact, abbreviating the attitude towards the depiction of ethnicity or more generally the human relationship to ethnicity in Russia would be wrong. Still, here you go. Some depictions from the museums:

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“The Praying of Khans”, an early 20th century painting, above, and a detail of a market scene depicting citizens of Cairo, below:

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“At the Entrance to the Mosque”, 1873.

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A portrait.

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“Head of Kirgiz-Convict” an 19th century painting.

Ok, so you see what I mean? There’s nothing to learn from these depictions except with respect to the 19th c. Russian perspective on Western European painting traditions, really: the desire to emulate those tactics.

What is really specific to Russia – that’s something else.

First of all, I want to say that as an American, all my cues are off here. I come from Los Angeles, California, which is one of the ten most multicultural cities in the world. Sure, I see people of many ethnic backgrounds on the streets of St. Petersburg, but I can place none of them. I don’t have reference points for the features of those from Central Asia, and I don’t know about immigration patterns from Africa to Russia, so I don’t know where anyone is from based on what they look like. I notice that there are few people on the streets of medium to light brown skin, and this implies to me an absence of Hispanic immigrants, and I notice that the police seem to stop only males of slightly darker complexion to look at their documents. My fellow resident artist is from India and he was detained at the airport; I wasn’t (and I am an ethnically ambiguous small white girl.) That’s all I can say about my bias in observing an everyday relationship to ethnicity, just as the above is most of what I could say about observing an aesthetic norm as far as how ethnicity was represented in paintings or sculptures in the museums’ collections of 19th century artwork.

But what I find really interesting is what I think I am right in characterizing as a relationship to ethnic minorities that differs from the American relationship to same. I will show you two things that suggest that although the Russian Federation or the former Soviet Union or the Tsarist Russian Empire has included countries other than Russia in its territory – many because of, I’m sure, acts of violent takeover at one point or another – the attitude towards individuals from those countries is represented as a point of pride. Again, I can’t speak to whether or not that plays out in terms of everyday interactions – I was not in Russia long enough to know whether or not intermarriage between ethnic minorities is common or to know anything specific about discrimination – but two things I saw suggest to me that rather than ethnic minorities being represented as burdens, they are represented as boons.

If I’m right about that, it may be because imperialism or empire was viewed by the Soviet state as the highest form of capitalism, and therefore something to be denounced. Although the Soviet state maintained control over multi-ethnic and multi-lingual territories, the couple of representations of the presence of people of multiple ethnic backgrounds within the Federation that I have seen are positive rather than suggestive of conflict. Again, I know too little also about state control of such representations – if this is a kind of modified Socialist Realism – to say anything about what kind of representations might be suppressed in mass culture, but I anyway, will finally get to showing you the two things I saw that made me question my approach to looking for ethnic representations.

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The first was the Ethnographic Museum, which is described thus on its website:

“The Russian Museum of Ethnography in Saint-Petersburg is one of the largest  ethnographic museums in the world.  The objects of traditional cultures of Russia and  neighboring countries are kept in its walls.  The museum has more than 700,000 artifacts and  photographs,  which represent the cultural heritage of 157 peoples of European Russia, Siberia, Far East, Caucasus and Crimea and embrace the period from 18th century to present times.”

Its history and perspective is described here and its architecture, here. In short, the museum proudly houses items representing the lifestyles and aesthetics of the citizens associated with the Russian territories. It does not represent the cultures as dead cultures; even if it isolates aspects of daily life, it does not suggest always that these items are no longer useful. It clearly demarcates where each piece is from and how it is used.

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Its wall text interestingly demonstrates equal pride in the explorers’ tastes in electing distinctive articles of clothing and other cultural artifacts for the collection.

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The exhibits are thorough in terms of what they display.

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They are also quite often theatrical in terms of how they display the objects.

The museum suggests on the one hand the power of the enveloping state, but also quite a bit of respect for the people within that envelope its collection represents. I won’t spend the time here to put my finger on the difference between this and, say, the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, where Native American cultures were represented, or the various Jewish Museums around the world, where Jewish culture is represented. I will hint at the feeling, though, that I get in the Southwest Museum or the Jewish Museums – that the artifacts of cultures represented there are always presented as if they derive from time gone by, because the people who used these artifacts in the past are dead. Sometimes makes me mad. Didn’t get that feeling here.

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The second thing I encountered that represented ethnicity in a way slightly different from the way common to America was Mimino, a film from 1977 by Georgi Daneliya. In this film, a Georgian helicopter pilot, Valentin Konstantinovich Mizandari (Mimino), goes to Moscow, where he happens into friendship with an Armenian truck driver, Ruben Vartanovich Khachikyan. Mimino had dreamed of flying international planes, but eventually, after numerous hardships, returns to flying helicopters. Along the way, however, the film emphasizes the friendship between the two men and thereby the potential friendship between ethnic groups.

The film achieved cult status in the USSR, and influenced a generation of young people in terms of language, music, and, among other things, I imagine, attitudes towards ethnic others. It is a comedy, but very human, and I have trouble thinking of a corollary in the American repertoire that might represent the kinds of class and ethnic issues represented here, or especially the kinds of attitudes ascribed to in this film.

You can view Part 1 of Mimino (with Russian overdubbing and English subtitles) here, and Part 2 (also with dubbing and subtitles), here.

So if I were really looking at the limits of representational systems in Russia, I would not necessarily stay focused on painting and sculpture. I’m sure there is a lot there – just in the affiliation with the Western European painting tradition at all – but I think evaluating representations of race and ethnicity in Russia might be more fruitfully pursued through other mediatic outlets. I’d start with the institutions themselves, look at the relationship of Imperial Russia, the USSR, and now the Russian Federation to the cultures and countries within their boundaries, look at what kinds of collections conquerors or explorers brought home, then how those collections were displayed and where, and how they are viewable now, after the evolutions of regime. Then I’d look at pop culture – movies, movie posters, and other locally available representations of ethnicity. The 20th century painting and sculpture I saw that did not reflect only a Western European painting tradition (but was instead more influenced by locally developed constructivist thinking or responses to Socialist Realism) did not have as much to say about ethnicity as it did to say about class. Just a thought. Again, I could only see so much while I was there and I would welcome further reference points.

 

5. Transliterating “СТРИТАРТ”

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On Saturday, May 14, 2016, St. Petersburg’s Street Art Museum opened its summer season.

I had heard about this institution via Instagram, where Korean artist Jazoo Yang was posting images of the installation’s progress.

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I soon became aware that the theme of this year’s work was going to be borders, and this interested me in particular, as the research of my summer is dedicated to migration on my levels.

The МУЗЕЙ СТРИТАРТ is situated on the active campus of the Laminated Plastics Factory, a company owned by Dmitry Zaitsev. Apparently his son, Andrey, took an interest in graffiti parties, and, in part to legitimate that taste and in part to enliven the factory, Zaitsev made Andrey director of his very own industrial art park. It was registered as a private cultural institution in 2012 and has enjoyed now three summers of international invitationals.

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The landscape reminded me of PS1 in New York, with repurposed shipping containers forming an entry arch and a perfect grid of black steel creating an easy information booth and food court.

IMG_5057.jpgRafael Schacter, a British anthropologist a core subject of whose is street art, curated the current exhibition, “Crossing Borders/Crossing Boundaries” in light of the importance of parsing issues of migration in today’s world. Borderlands, he says, are “a space in which contact between differences is unavoidable, in which cultural confrontation is mandatory… So too [though] borderlands become active edges, sites in which interaction can act as a source of renewal and revitalization, sites in which the intimacy of difference can enable a new form of cosmopolitanism.”

I would disagree with the notion that the cosmopolitanism represented at the Street Art Museum is of new form, because of course art has always been a global network. Conquerors have always collected. Artists have always been granted citizenship and welcomes in new places that other kinds of citizens were not. This is the first of a few international art gatherings I will see this summer – next up, the Venice Biennale for Architecture, and then Manifesta in Zurich… I am also currently on a residency the nature of which is international cultural exchange. I arrive in new countries with minimal local language skills and am welcomed into communities of educated, interested people. One young curator asked me in St. Petersburg, “So how does it feel to travel knowing that everywhere you go, people will speak your language?” It’s odd, honestly. But yes, the art world was probably one of the first virtual cultures: linking people across cultural borders with visual literacy and the “active edge” of appreciation and learning. And the fact that the word “Street Art” isn’t translated into Russian before it becomes the name of this institution – but is rather transliterated from the English words – that indicates something too, of the liquidity of cultural currency, how it moves across borders on its own, how movements become a thing unto themselves, even the most casual of them, even the least institutionalized. Street art has crossed a border into being named rather than just being an uncollectable number of public gestures.

Maybe that’s not what he’s talking about though; maybe Schacter means to say that literally borders create that tension and that spark – not the art world as a context for the mingling of cultures. And of course in that sense, he’s right. As the 21st century’s Great Migration unfolds, we see educations find new purchase in new places or lie dormant in the name of survival, we see contemporary fashion and technology – skinny jeans and mobile phones – crossing borders in the least technologically contemporary ways – by raft, by foot, through tunnel, over fence. These threads of intellectual currency – portable, all – bleed together linguistically, spatially, temporally, and will, no doubt, create new form, to say nothing of new content.

So did I see any new form at the Street Art Museum opening this year? Ok, not so much, but I still enjoyed being there and seeing what the artists were able to accomplish. Apparently part of the deal of this residency is that the factory is at the disposal of the artists, so that one artist was able to ask for plastic doors, for example, for his installation:

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The doors in this installation were meant to be permeable from both sides. The structure feels circular, the panels deliberately confusing, and the process of migration represented a bit like a fun house. (Indeed, kids had so much fun with it that they tore the panels apart, to the chagrin of the artist. I didn’t think that was such a bad thing in the end; there’s a signifier always in the way artworks are used, approached… how they are in the world instead of just what they are.)

I imagine also that the artist who produced these flags, which brought together the designs of multiple nations’ flags in each, was able to accomplish this through the factory.

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I’m not sure how in particular the nations were matched on the flags, but it’s a concise design decision.

Perhaps the wall on which these flags were situated, grimy with however many years’ industrial dust and decorated with casual intentionality, was a place where the gesture of the “street artist” was most present.

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Street art has always been related somewhat to what, in more codified art worlds, we would call surrealism – the quick gesture, the snarky observation, the cheap fix. When it’s good, it takes advantage of site, and I mean that in the least neutral way possible.

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Most of what is situated at the Street Art Museum isn’t really street art in that way. It parasites off of the site and uses its apparatus (of plastic making), has some of the industrial aesthetic tendentially associated with street art, and has a timeline of the temporary. Still, it is concertedly commissioned work in the unmonumental tradition.

Portable objects like chess games:

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Painting on the scale (and surface) of the built environment:

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(I love this one – with the grammatically specific text messages about borders.)

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One of the strangest pieces for me to encounter was this one by Jonathan Hollingsworth, and it was strange because so local to my hometown. Instead of the border between Russia and Ukraine or the trajectory between Syria and Southern Europe – both more geographically relevant to where my feet were planted at the moment of observation – this artist contended with the U.S. Mexico border, picturing the objects associated with migrants who have died along the course of their move. He used wheat paste, in a classic street art move, to install the photographs.

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Not everyone used methodologies associated with street art, and some – most, maybe – aestheticized tropes of migration to the extent that they were fun rather than moving, particularly.

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Maybe for me one of the most successful pieces was this lightshow in the warehouse. (I don’t know about the video behind it.) It transformed the environment of the warehouse without papering over it; I was still aware that the warehouse was a warehouse, filled with pallets, but it felt haunted now by the notion of being looked for.

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In Los Angeles, we have these lights. We have them all the time, especially in the neighborhoods I have lived in. The lights are not looking for migrants per se; they are looking for people who the state has decided have something wrong. The contest between authority and the individual is a universal condition, regardless of the identity of the nationstate or citizen. It ends up being the job of the migrant as much as it is the job of the artist to test boundaries for their legitimacy. We all know how it feels to be pursued or to fear pursuit, and it is the job of the artist, at least, to face that fear and pursue authority figures right back.

4. Alternative Conventions for Display Conventions

There is more than one way to hang a picture; more than one way to display a sculpture; and more than one kind of space in which to do either. One aspect of travel – especially of travel to places influenced by differing 20th century political histories – is collecting notes on these alternative display strategies. I thought a bit about the development of framing devices and display conventions for photography in an essay called “Reframing Mirrors and Windows” in 2008. Here, I want to take some notes about how I’m seeing display taken care of in St. Petersburg.

There are obviously a lot of things in common in the global language of contemporary art. We are all fluent, for example, with the notion of an installation – here, the Kabakovs at the General Staff building at the Hermitage:

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We are all familiar with the rendering of any space into a white cube, although I must say that in Russia I am always thrilled to see that cube interrupted with these amazing tiled furnaces, as here at Rosphoto:

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And we are all familiar with the notion of vitrines to protect artifacts:

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And a white frame around an image to both offset and protect it, but also make it a part of the white walls around it, here with a Rodchenko painting at the Benois wing of the Russian Museum:

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But what really interests me here is something that has more in common with Constructivist set design than with Modernist white cubes… it’s a kind of system for display. No, really, a system – a systemic growth of woody lines that connects the pictures on the wall or the vitrines in the room, for no structural reason, necessarily, at least on an engineering level. It implies psychological or conceptual structure, which is a different kind of engineering and potentially necessary in a different kind of way.

I first saw this at Nabokov’s apartment and considered whether or not this might have been his own idiosyncratic display convention for hanging his butterfly collection:

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I also noticed at Nabokov’s house a lovely vitrine system that connected the contents of the glassed-in shelving to its lighting.

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Both of these systems reminded me a little of my friend Taidgh O’Neill’s woodworking practice, but I wasn’t sure if this was just an isolated aesthetic phenomenon. I could see how the simple vitrine might have been related to a type of object with a similar function I see at many of the museums here that looks fairly Western European in design:

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Then I went to the Theatrical Museum and I saw again this strategy, in this case connecting video screens displaying a variety of historically significant actors and singers, whose images and voices one could scroll through by hitting a flatscreen elsewhere in the room. Technology: fine. Wood hanging system: awesome.

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It was my third institutional visit – to the Museum of Ethnography – that made it clear to me that some of the spatial issues I rambled out in my last post in fact truly are a part of Russian display convention.

Here, lighting rendered through systemic thinking:

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Cases connected to one another through an overhead swarm of angles:

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Pictures connected to vitrines connected to dioramas:

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And a kind of maypole that enabled the gallery to exhibit multiple flags at once on top of a map of all the territory the artifacts of which were shown in that room.

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I would love to connect these connecting devices to the way the Ethnographic Museum hinged glass book pages together, but I’m sure that’s reaching:

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Whatever. Everything connects.

3. Space Status: It’s Complicated

St. Petersburg is a city of double courtyards because the buildings are constructed deeply rather than vertically. It is a city of double paned windows to modulate temperatures inside. It is a city of complex religious visuals that combine, in the context of architecture, illustration, and set design, multiple vantage points to tell a story. It is a city in which architecture was created for multiple types of citizens to navigate differently, oftentimes in the same building. Servants, families, and visitors would have used some of the spaces now used as apartments or museums differently than do we. Translating that architecture for contemporary citizens renders some of it complicated to navigate.

My body, at least, navigates some of these spaces with some pleasant confusion. I grew up in a city built for the populations that used it to use it in the way that, largely, we currently do. I grew up in the wake of Modernism on all fronts, and in Los Angeles, a city with little architectural history to revise, that means that domestic, educational, retail, and corporate environments were all built in a way that succinctly tied them to these singular purposes. Even if, for example, my current art studio used to be a garage or a warehouse, the space was designed for a business owner of some kind to produce something physically, as do I. I enter from a parking lot directly into my space, and therein I continue to a bathroom, an area for food, an area for dirty work, clean work, and administrative work. That’s all.

My eyes, too, came of age on Modernism. (That’s not how they were raised, but more on that in another post.) The distillation of an idea into its most essential form, rather than its evolution towards something complex… The notion of material as message, especially at the Minimalist turn – this is the lunch food of American artists and writers. Even if we also come from more specific individual cultural histories (our breakfast food?), we contend with the Modernist period in school and in the space of critique and exhibition. Certainly there is a backlash against this monolith in American art historical narrative, or rather a cultivation of support for more diverse narratives that can flourish without responding – even without refuting – Modernism. Some artists don’t want to distill; they want to decorate, complicate, or otherwise fuck with or elide power structures. (Dinner food.) And yet, in America, or certainly in California and I think New York, Modernism and the cult of the elegant proof is a way of testing both its language and our own.

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Camilo Ontiveros, Pink Lady Kenmore Dryer, 2009. Found dryer and automotive paint, 43 1/2 x 29 x 26 inches.

I remember an exhibit in 2009 of work by Camilo Ontiveros at Steve Turner Contemporary: “I Want Your Washing Machine.” Interested in issues of immigration and notions of value, Ontiveros purchased used washing machines for $15 using homemade flyers in Spanish. He then had them repainted at an auto body shop so that they looked like candy-colored Minimalist finds.

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Tom Burr A Few Golden Moments, 2011 Aluminum, steel, glass and hardware 70.87 x 141.73 x 2.17 in / 180 x 360 x 5.5cm

I also saw many reactions to the Modernist and Minimalist legacy in grad school peers’ experiments with plywood as one example of an available material that could be inexpensively appropriated for such commentary; I see it in leading artists’ work like Tom Burr, whose sculpture speaks, among other things, to queer narratives using minimal forms.

(I see a ton of it in bourgeois architecture, where people with more money than imagination try to replicate the notion of elegance by clearing their homes of detail, but I won’t get into that, because that’s actually a global phenomenon and also not a leading one.)

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Anselm Reyle, Pflug, Found object, metal, wood, and lacquer, 33 x 89 5/16 x 26 ¾ inches

I saw a lot of this tendency in the New Museum’s exhibition of 2007, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” wherein artists like Anselm Reyle used found objects to make a direct commentary on Caro, no? From the museum’s website: “’Unmonumental’ also describes the present as an age of crumbling symbols and broken icons.” And so it described not just a compromised political faith, but also a compromised faith in an art historical narrative associated with the period that has come just before ours.

But what if the symbols that crumble and the icons that break don’t have to include Modernism, nor Minimalism? What if there is an alternative history of spatial organization to respond to? There is certainly that here.

The double courtyards, I mentioned: what I mean by that is that one enters many buildings in the city centre through a metal gate and then continues to a first courtyard, where there will be a door or doors to floors of businesses or residences. At times, there is also a second courtyard, behind that first, with further doors to further floors of further units. Sometimes, on one’s way, the courtyards split around the buildings so as to accommodate vehicles.

When one arrives at the actual door to the business or residence one is seeking, one usually then opens that door to another door, and opens that one too. This is not quite a foyer phenomenon – just a kind of weatherproofing, I imagine. Windows also often are structured with a first set of framed glass panes that one can open, and then a second set as well. The double grids that this creates fracture one’s perspective of a view in or out of a space. Similarly, the double doors and the double courtyards fracture one’s bodily experience of the notion of destination.

St. Petersburg is also a city in which much of the architecture was created for multiple types of citizens to navigate differently than one another, oftentimes in the same building. Contemporary citizens now navigate them in the same way as one another. Servants, families, and visitors would have used some of the spaces now used as apartments or museums differently than do we.

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One can enter the enormous Russian Museum from its main entrance or one can enter from an underground door in the back.

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If one does that, then one walks through a corridor and navigates a number of cloakrooms, stores, bathrooms, and a cashier. These I would imagine were all servants’ passages.

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Finally one arrives upstairs to higher ceilings. I cannot imagine that the original occupants of the building would have all followed the same corporeal pattern as do contemporary visitors.

The same social reorganization of space is true at the perfect Yusupov Palace – truly the only palace in St. Petersburg that I am able to navigate easily, as if it were already a familiar place. (Three cheers architects of the Yusupov Palace. At the General Staff building of the Hermitage, I had no hope of keeping track of where I was.)

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One is as impressed by the Yusopov entryway as original visitors would have been, greeted by aristocratic sphinxes at the base of the grand staircase…

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…and then awed by looking up.

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But now, one is able to go downstairs at the Yusupovs’ and navigate the servants’ passages as well on one’s way to the bathroom or the cafe.

On a less aristocratic level, I visited the home of a friend here, and was shown that her children’s’ quarters were probably once the servants’ quarters. In fact, I believe I am currently staying in the servants’ quarters of an apartment.

Like the issue of the double courtyard and the double paned window, but more socially so, the reissue and repurposing of space can complicate it. These palaces and apartments probably once made more sense, when one knew one’s place in them. Now that they have been opened to those who can pay for more space or for access at all, they confuse the body.

Am I reading too much into these details? Maybe, since they are such practical parts of everyday construction techniques, and maybe also because the ones I mention are associated mostly with the buildings that are largely inspired by Western European architectural history. Still, they affect my body and my eyes: when I am standing in my apartment’s courtyard and I look up, I don’t see directly into the apartments above me. I see through the first panes to the second set, which is curtained. The grid is doubled, deepened. It is guarded but penetrable. If I were reacting to Modernism, I would say it was undermined, but I am not at all reacting to Modernism.

The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is an interesting example of why I may not be reading too much into these details. This structure was built in the late 19th century for Alexander II by his son. The father had been murdered at this spot in 1881 by a politically motivated group called the People’s Will (Наро́дная во́ля) that advocated for socialism specific to Russia and an end to tsarism. Alexander II’s son wanted to build his father a memorial in the style of 16th and 17th century Russian churches, to emphasize an architectural history specific to Russia. (Otherwise, Petersburg is peppered with Western European Baroque and Classical architecture. Without looking further into this, I don’t know what the relationship between a pro-Russian tsar and a pro-Russian revolutionary group; I don’t know, in other words, if Alexander III sought to promote the grandeur of Russia’s capacities in the face of their rebellion, or if he sought also or instead to suggest that one can be pro-Russian without being anti-tsar.)

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In any case, this structure is insane, if sanity is defined in terms of Modernism. Its posture is as vertical as are the straight-backed couches and chairs one finds all over this city’s museums and theatres. It does not soar, though; it is at once compact and tall, on a sturdy base that splinters into windows and towers and rises through kokoshninki to onion domes and spires. It suggests movement as does a Rubix Cube, a toy that, by the way, was invented by an architect.

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Inside the church is no different: that sense of space, splintered, makes viewing one picture always not lead to the next, but include it. You cannot look at one thing at once. Nothing exists in isolation, nor is that a value in this context. The seams between spaces fork into further spaces and are also spaces themselves, insofar as both seam and its alternative are decorated with a constant stream of pictures.

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When one thinks one’s eyes might finish somewhere – say, the apex of the interior of a tower – one arrives instead at another picture. When those pictures have eyes, they remind me that I am part of this interlinked spatial and optical event. When those pictures are in fact windows or mirrors, they remind me that everything that is not the church, inside and outside this church, is as manufactured as is the church. I imagine that the architect wants me to believe that the ultimate manufacturer is God.

The one thing that the commissioners here could not escape about Western European aesthetic histories is something that makes space here even weirder. The mosaics – and there are more here than in any one building anywhere in the world, I’m told – are all rendered in deep space. Because the church was built in the late 19th century even if modeled after styles from the 16th and 17th, the pictorial strategies of the mosaic artists cannot help but incorporate later techniques of rendering. Yes, there are outlines, as would define the flatter space of stained glass, but there are also shadows, and so much subtlety in the smalting of the cheeks of the martyred Christian figures that the walls suck in at their suffering.

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This…

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…is not the flat rendering of medieval icon makers, such as this.

The multiple vantage points at work architecturally here tell a story beyond the intended narratives of each image, were any of these possible to isolate or link linearly. They tell a story of space that is not just deep or tall or broad, but all of these directions at once.

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It’s derivative of the kind of comic book spatial organization of a medieval work such as this, but it’s different, because the seams of the page flower into the seams of the building.

A stage works that way too, but strangely, and theatre, of course, is as much a part of Russian urban tradition as are churches.

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At the Theatrical Museum, I see models of the Marinsky Theatre, which I had visited the day before to see the Firebird, and other Russian theatres.

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I also see models of set designs.

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Note that the image of the two models is quite different from set designers’ sketches. Why? Because a sketch like this is a page. It’s a two-dimensional plane with limits…

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…although at times the artists, sketching, seem to think in multiple planes.

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A set design model like this one builds off of the notion of the two-dimensional plane but cuts it up. It takes the deepest space of the sketch and makes a back plane to suggest distance. It takes each successive closer space of the sketch and makes successive layers of wings that frame one another until the foreground. Cutting the two dimensional plane takes into account a) the existence of an audience facing the stage rather than in the round; and b) the needs of actors to enter and exit the stage on more than one of its latitudes. It is essentially an exploded one-point perspective with hidden inlets to the sides, as well as inlets above and below, as we only know from the model of the theatre as a whole.

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Again unlike Modernist spaces or strategies, all of this is accomplished through mannered activity: fabrication that breaks down up close. The illustrative frames for the stage are sometimes painted, but in the Theatrical Museum, they also show up close some that are made with painted strips of fabric, seamed together, and then sewn to netting.

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The shapes are exaggerated to be seen far away, as are the expressions of an actor on stage or the drama of advertising seen from the road.

This kind of theatrical set up is not indigenous to Russia. The first kind of theatre recognized here is that of vagrant skomorokhi – musicians, dancers, and acrobats, sometimes with bears, who used unfixed text to follow well-known plots to their well-known conclusions. Apparently actors in this model of theatre could even change places with the audience at any moment.

Skomorokhi were popular from the 11th century to the 17th, when European models grew fashionable. Peter I wasn’t only interested in actors, however; he sponsored fire paintings depicting moving allegories – otherwise known as fireworks more complicated than are modern explosions. In 1756, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna established the Russian Theatre and this significantly affected the Russian State’s integration into European culture, propagating ideas of the Enlightenment through the era of Catherine II. (I’m getting all of this from text printed on fans one can hold at the Museum.)

At the end of the 19th century, People’s Houses were established to show the best theatrical performers to the working class. Also at that time, the Theatre of the Literary Artistic Society began showing serious literature. The Mariinsky Theatre was built in 1860 and with theatre reforms at the verge of the 20th century, you begin to have innovative staging techniques from Meyerhold and inventive set designs by Korovin and Golovin. (Look through the pictures of this beautiful staging of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, “The Golden Cockerel”, with Korovin’s designs. They are as complex as is the music.) At this point also, Nijinsky and Pavlova are taking the world scene by storm with their dance with Diaghilev’s Les Saisons Russes. Don’t worry… I’m getting back to my point soon…

Meyerhold was an enthusiastic Bolshevik, and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he started his own theatre in 1920. He worked in scenic constructivism with stage sets by Vesnin, Popova, and Stepanova.

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Popova’s three-dimensional, bare-wood set on an otherwise bare stage for the 199 staging of The Magnanimous Cuckold by the Belgian playwright Fernand Cormmelynk. This was Meyerhold’s first Constructivist performance and it opened in 1922.

This is where space gets back to the native complication of Russian churches, if abstracted. Shapes and forms lead one to see multiple spaces at once. Later designs by Aleksandra Ekster and the Stenberg brothers went on to influence Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, as well as early Soviet cinema.

Much of this kind of complicated spatial thinking was brought to an end by Stalin’s notion of what was right for Soviet citizens. Not for me to consider right now. But what I can consider, what I am left with, is my notions of space… my ability to refract, to complicate – socially and formally – what I had come to see as best to simplify.

 

2. Scale is as Scale Does

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I remember two notes about scale from high school art history. The first is with respect to the Venus of Willendorf. The statue, made between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, is 11.1 centimeters (4.4 in) high. It does not have feet that would make it freestanding. It was found in Lower Austria in 1908 (near Willendorf), but is carved from a red limestone that originates 136 km northeast of there. Without knowing that, though, the size and feetlessness are clues as to the fact that this was an object in the possession of a nomad. It is small enough to be carried; it is small enough to be carried a long distance when the carrier need pack other things as well; and it need be carried, because it cannot stand to be viewed.

Corot.jpgJean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1860/1865, oil on canvas, 46 x 59 cm (18 1/8 x 23 1/4 in.)

The second note I remember from high school is with respect to the departures many Impressionist painters made from the artists of the official Salon. In place of large-scale work, their paintings were often small. They could work outside because paint became commercially available in the 1830s, and so they could work faster and investigate everyday subject matter in terms of its temporary, temporal conditions, resulting often in perceptible brush strokes. All of this changed the notion of what constitutes a finished work of art. These paintings, unlike the Venus of Willendorf, were meant to be viewed rather than carried for ritual purpose (unless viewing is that), but looking at them one can still see that smallness means something here. The way they were made is a constituent part of the value of the work and it belies the notion of larger size as innately more powerful. The small size also made the paintings easier to buy for the new bourgeoisie of the 19th century.

andreas-gursky-the-rhein-II.jpgAndreas Gursky, Rhine II, 1999, Chromogenic color print, 61 ¼ x 10’ 1 ½ inches (155.6 x 308.6 cm)

As an undergraduate majoring in photography, I became frustrated with the notion that size is so underconsidered in photography. People talked about small prints being intimate and large ones being like history painting, commanding attention, but those blanket statements never did it for me. I did have an experience the year I graduated from college, 2000, of seeing Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II at MOMA during his retrospective and realizing that in order to really be with the picture, I had to walk its sidewalk, and that that required steps. I liked that physical response, and the tie it suggested between the print’s size and its subject.

For the most part, however, photographic prints at the end of the 20th century were big, without tremendous consideration to how big, or why, beyond references to painting and cinema. On the other hand, in the middle of the 20th century, photographic prints were generally small, and the choice of dimensions here was mostly a default, rarely considered beyond the capacity of the photographic negative to fill the page without pixelating: 5 x 7 inches, 8 x 10 inches, 11 x 14 inches, 20 x 24 inches. (Forgive me my ignorance of the metric equivalents.) I began to notice after college the fact that many camera-based photographers would make editions of their work in multiple sizes, charging less for the smaller sizes and also less for the first tier of the edition sold, and so on. I couldn’t imagine why they wouldn’t have given any particular thought to which size best suited the work. What would it mean for photography – or for any medium, but camera-based photography especially because its relationship to size is so theoretically manipulable – to resist manipulation?

I have spent the years since the year 2000 thinking about scale a lot, and I have been reminded to do so in St. Petersburg, especially yesterday after a studio visit with artist Petr Shvetsov, who is based here, and an opening at Luda Gallery with the Oslo-based collective, Locus. Questions of significance in art often start with very practical issues, and this, with respect to the issue of scale, is especially true.

Shvetsov’s studio is on the 7th and top floor of an otherwise residential building with no elevator. He has had this studio for years and it is full of the accumulation of experiments and interests as much as it is full of – and as much as they are a part of – artworks.

IMG_4361.JPGOne is ushered through the studio door through the shadows of birdcages and into a large atelier one can abandon briefly on the building’s ledge through an open window.

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Inside, Shvetsov is working on a variety of projects: some small, some large, but all essentially made where they need to be made and afforded their size accordingly.

IMG_4349.JPGOne type is a graphite drawing from his imagination: a forest landscape in three vertical panels. The landscape is rendered darkly, with detail in these darks, but two irregular circles of brighter rendering draw attention to certain regions of the picture plane. Like spotlights with no beam or the lens of some kind of scope, they make emphasis of nothing in particular, scanning the junctures of fallen trees for meaning.

On a practical level, the scale and material of this drawing is such that it wouldn’t have been done in situ in the landscape; the marks would take too long to execute outside – the paper would be wet with dew by then – and there would be nothing flat enough big enough outside to pin it to to make the marks anyway. These aspects of its form are legible; without even talking to the artist, then, one might know that he made it in the studio, if not from his imagination. On another practical level, getting it out of the studio and down the seven flights of stairs is a matter of rolling each panel up.

IMG_4345.jpgIn another corner of the studio, Shvetsov is growing bacteria from tea into jelly-like planes that drape and oxidize on top of slim bent steel (hangers?) Here, the material itself determines its scale, although he may ostensibly limit it. These and other such experiments become small, mutable sculptures that again are portable. They require supports, as do the drawings – and as, for that matter, did the Venus of Willendorf – but unlike the Venus of Willendorf, the supports are built into the sculptures he puts together, which might, I suppose, be understood as scientific assemblage.

IMG_4351.jpgMuch of another wall is taken up by a grid of small paintings that Shvetsov does on vacation during the summers. The underpainting of all of these is a hot pink, from which the oil paint on top derives a fantastic glow. They are landscapes, initiated en plein air quickly, often in the fifteen minutes or so before sunset, and clearly the small size helps him carry the stretched canvas, hold it, make the sketch, and take it back to his temporary studio, wherever that may be, to layer in further observations from memory with the occasional improvised encaustic or varnish. The light in these is carefully observed, even in the darkest of paintings, and yet by an inverse logic the practiced speed of their making – and their portability – is a part of the equation that makes that possible.

Shvetsov also works in installation. These are not in his studio, per se. He shows one on the computer:

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Detail, Tanya, 2013, Tiles on wall, 118 x 314 in.

This, he made for a show at American University’s Katzen Art Center in 2014.

It is a wall of tiles that he glued to the Katzen’s wall, and then that he carefully removed to cut with a tile cutter until a pattern suggesting brute force emerged. The work is ostensibly about the fall of the Soviet Union, but in general in this post I am eliding subject matter and focusing on form and its relationship to the artist’s needs and the social and practical space of making and moving art.

Given Shvetsov’s interest in biological patterning in his studio, it is hard not to see in this careful chaos a kind of nature’s math. (I love Wikipedia’s definition of cracking so much that I will link to it here, but in short, cracks “are linear openings that form in materials to relieve stress” and the relative elasticity of the material upon which stress is applied affects the way the pattern occurs.)

In any case, my point here is that Shvetsov was careful when he built this wall, and careful when he broke it, but he did not take it home. He says about this and other installations that he leaves them there – “there” being wherever they were made. Sometimes, it is okay to let big things go.

I am finding that is important that artwork made to be brought to Russia be portable. I say that with no knowledge of the process of shipping work or anything here, except by hearsay. (I did try to ship a book to someone I’ve met here, but it would cost more than the book to get it here, and so I may have to try another strategy.) My gallerist in Los Angeles has mentioned the difficulty of ensuring that a work will arrive in Russia, and several artists and arts managers here in St. Petersburg have reiterated that observation.

IMG_3506.jpgClearly, at the General Staff building of the Hermitage, where, in the east wing devoted to contemporary art, a thorough retrospective of the sculpture of Tony Cragg has been mounted, that is not an issue. State-sponsored shipments may be easier than private ones to rely on.

In speaking with Tanja Thorjussen, of the Oslo-based collective Locus, again, I hear about the ways in which practical concerns of portability affect practice. I met her at Locus’ opening at Luda Gallery a few hours after my studio visit with Shvetsov.

IMG_4382.jpgHer contribution to the exhibition, “Collected Stories”, is called “Tupilaq Totem” and is 210 cm x 70 cm. She says that she planned for the piece to be 70 cm wide because it would fit in a tube, and she could carry that tube on the plane with her for her installation in St. Petersburg. She laughingly describes defending the tube against airport authorities who insisted that it was rather big; “It is very fragile,” she maintained over and over again, and won, stowing it in the carry-on of her planes on both legs of her journey.

The shape of the paper support for the drawing – its narrow linearity – is also of course appropriate for the notion of totem, and totem I did see before hearing that that was the work’s title. The drawing has the essence of an exquisite corpse – that subconscious practice of conjoining unrelated forms – and something also of the essence of the tattoo – that compound pictograph in which a mermaid’s tale is linked to the skull of a harpy or an hourglass becomes a weeping face. All of these associations hint at ritual, and the value of an object associated with magic – something that one might want to clutch closely from place to place.

Thorjussen made this piece based on her observations at a residency in the far north of Norway, near Russia, where she saw the totem’s constituent animals over the course of time. Can still images be time-based? Can they imply time? The quick sketch of a painting, yes. The movement of a camera’s lens. In this case, the sequence of forms ascending or descending the totem does that trick. The picture of course is also not only possible for Thorjussen to have easily gotten into the country for her installation, but also to have easily made on another residency away from home.

This is also true of the other artists’ work in Locus: it can all travel. Marianne Darlén Solhaugstrand showed a grid of lyrical figurative paintings each no bigger than a novel. Thale Fastvold showed small black and white photographs of landscapes the picture plane of which was obstructed by black shapes – also, of course calling attention to that picture plane. Javier Barrios’ pieces were painted, cut, and layered, and also portable – and flat. Amelia Beavis-Harrison  made performance out of of course her body and that of her partner in performance, but also out of a fabric she purchased in Mumbai on an artist residency. And so in general, the artwork took license to fly from, in part, its size.

None of this is to make virtue out of smallness, per se, but rather to notice the prevalence of choices as surround portability. It can be large if it changes shape, i.e. rolls or breaks down; it can be small and flat; it can be small and shaped, if supported; it can be a large if the space of the room it ends up in is included in the dimensions with which it is understood; it can be large if left. It is best if the notion of the portable is built into its existence: why it is portable is as important if not more so than the fact that it is.

Likewise, even if not portable, the most important aspect of size is that it be considered not just out of the notion of practical necessity but out of the notion of its marriage to a work. There is no political argument for largeness or smallness that cannot be refuted by its opposite: the Impressionists worked small in order to combat their status quo, but this enabled the bourgeoisie to buy it. Working small makes one’s work generally more accessible to buyers, as dealers tend to price by the square inch on the one hand and on the other because it doesn’t take up a lot of the buyer’s real estate, and so on both hands takes less commitment. It’s also easier to gift or steal. Large work can be written off as self-important, but it can also be read as resistant to commerce, architecturally or spatially responsive, or simply defined by bodily relation and psychoanalytic effect. So the political ramifications of a piece again can’t be pinned specifically to the issue of the work’s size or portability, nor can its goodness. I mentioned at the beginning of this writing some memories of notes on scale from high school and college. Here I remember one from grad school: Charles Ray told me that I would always know a piece was finished when I figured out its scale. Size matters when it matters; it matters when it takes effect.

1. The Retail Road

Major airports play a particular role in marketing representations of the “local” and the “global”. They provide retail space to goods and brands that one can truly find anywhere, but they also make available something specific about the place in which one finds oneself. Both the familiar – the globally recognizable – and the specific – the ostensibly local – fall quickly into abbreviation and quotation; they are deliberately generalized and truncated. This abbreviation process makes me feel like I do when I have on occasion found myself in a casino: there, due to architecture and retailing, I have no idea what time it is, and in airports, I often lose my purchase on where I am in the world. Surely, on the Silk Road, the third century traveler was unable to forget that he or she was far from home, but then again, who knows? Maybe this is a condition of traveling and trade that 21st century economies and communication have only made more obvious.

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Traveling from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg on May 1, 2016, I stopped in Amsterdam for three hours. To see Victoria’s Secret and Esprit at Schiphol is to know, sure, that one can find a pair of underwear and a shirt in a pinch; to buy a coffee at Starbucks there is to compare currencies – “Ah, I can get the same product for this much here, so now I know what the money’s worth.” Other than the slight differences in graphics between the Dutch and American versions of advertisement and display, the sameness is disorienting. The brands connect locations to the extent that I feel, “If goods were to ground me, and this is where I am, here is anywhere.” Luxury retailers like Chanel or Burberry can be leaders in a kind of creativity, but in airports, one loses sight of that; at an airport I could only, if I were so inclined, purchase something like a quilted Chanel bag or a beige Burberry raincoat. Available in other words are only the most recognizable items of the brand, the lowest common denominator that proves affiliation, and these are available whether one is at Heathrow or Haneda.

In fact in this era when diversified conglomerates are back in economic fashion, individual brands are owned by corporations with multiple holdings, and the materials and labor that comprise each product are made in any variety of different countries, so having a Starbucks or DKNY at an airport can’t even be said to suggest an American cultural diffusion like the one I remember from the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy. At most, it can be said that seeing these brands everywhere is boring, but not immediately politically compromising. It doesn’t set our villages to fighting. Perhaps it should. Sometimes “boring” is politically compromising; it dumbs us down as a world and makes us forget to look more widely for new techniques and ideas or to look more deeply for the traditions upon which new techniques and ideas are based. It makes us forget to invent new techniques and ideas as well, since it suggests that maybe everyone really does want the same thing. The question for the companies becomes, how to make it cheaper, how to make it easier, how to make it more disposable, how to make more people like the same thing so that fewer variants need be made. The question for the worker in the store becomes, how to pass the time more deeply invested in my phone than in the boring sameness of my environment in which I have no stake.

Contemporary airports’ solution to this sameness is to deploy the most obvious of products associated with the place: in Amsterdam one finds tulips and cheese, and by extension, the capacity to give gifts that prove that one has been in Amsterdam. Thoughtless gifts, these: gifts that prove only that one didn’t think of one’s loved ones until the last minute one’s feet touched foreign soil. (I kind of appreciate that the International terminal at LAX has a Fred Segal store; at least this specifically represents one kind of buyer that is local to the area and that doesn’t abbreviate LA to the conventional Hollywood sign or mirage of plastic surgery and tans. It’s still a misrepresentation of LA as a whole, but at least it is a lonely, elite piece of the real puzzle rather than of a fake one.) Perhaps one takes home a t-shirt that advertises that one has been in the city the airport is near. I could have bought a t-shirt like that in Amsterdam even though I didn’t leave the airport. I could have bought some tulip seeds although I had seen no flowers in situ on my own. One’s own experience of the world – even while traveling through it – can become like the youth on Instagram who appropriate others’ photographs of places and foods and post them as their own. Been there, done that, without the need to leave one’s phone.

On the Silk Road, finding lapis lazuli meant one had made it to Badakhshan. Perhaps, though, again I should stop myself short of romanticizing the past: trade has always been trade, and traders have always found the easiest way to please tourists. Apparently, for example, Chinese jade carvers along the Silk Road figured out that travelers liked the gold carving of the steppes, and so began to imitate the Scythian designs of animals locked in combat. This cut out a step in their process, saved them money, and shows that hey, sometimes you have to get off the road if you want to fetishize the notion of the original and the specific, as I admittedly do. I defend myself: I am not hung up on a fixed notion of the authentic. I just don’t want to be told the quotation of the quotation of the quotation of the authentic before I have seen the original. I was raised on primary sources. (This is probably why my work as an artist has no sense of irony, and why I am not the right audience for contemporary art that does.)

Even when leaving an airport, and entering a city, one finds versions of this global/local branding issue, at once providing a sense of disorienting cultural diffusion and cultural abbreviation.

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In St. Petersburg, I see McDonalds, Starbucks coffee, Citibank, and Subway sandwich stores. Not only are they here, but, visually, they provide continuity even beyond language. Their signage maintains the palette and font of their English counterparts. Even those who do not read Cyrillic will know the type of commerce in which they can engage when seeing these signs, if they are members of the McDonalds, Starbucks, Citibank, and Subway tribes.

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They will trust commerce at these locations even if local variants of sandwiches and coffee would certainly be better. These global chains provide variations for each locale: McDonalds in Los Angeles includes kale salads on its menu and notes the calories of each item one can order; in India, there is no beef at McDonalds; in Spain, there is McGazpacho; and here, in St. Petersburg, the Big Mac arrives in a folded bread like the pita for a Gyro. There are no salads and certainly there is no kale.

Otherwise than through global brands, cities – like their airports – invite visitors into their fold slowly, through a veil of retail touristic opportunities. At first in the city center of St. Petersburg one finds that one can buy Matryoshka dolls at almost every turn. I have a friend who wants one, and yet I am having trouble bringing myself to get her one of these. I want to find one better – more specifically – made, that I will feel proud of having found for her. I was raised to give gifts the story of which and the thought behind which were sometimes better than the gift; I have to learn to separate my family’s values from those of others. There’s a kind of vanity in the well-storied gift, and in this case, if she wants a campy Matryoshka doll, then that’s what she wants, and she will appreciate that I purchased it for her in Russia. Everywhere in the city center one can also buy amber – and apparently one had better use a lighter on it to make sure it is not plastic. Haven’t tried that yet. Authenticity sometimes has real tests.

 

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Branding goes beyond brands, beyond a notion of cities representing themselves in airports or in particular items available at global chains: branding can encompass whole cultures. I see signs in Cyrillic in St. Petersburg for sushi; these take on a font that suggests Japanese. I see that in English as well, back home, as in the case of Chinese food (here, in Cyrillic, but in a Mandarin sort of font), and an Irish pub called Mollie’s the font of which looks like Celtic even though it is, again, Cyrillic. These and other signs are portals into an abbreviation of these cultures; it happens everywhere, all over the world. One can call it kitsch because it relies on the notion of mass production and popular culture, but it is almost the mass production of a culture, the popularization of a culture. How odd to call a whole cultural representation kitsch: a kitschy notion of the Irish, a kitschy notion of the Chinese, even a kitschy notion of the Russians, in Russia. And I mean no disrespect to this beautiful city for exhibiting this phenomenon: it happens everywhere, and I choose not to ignore it even though, as an artist, I have swift access to other currents of culture. In Los Angeles, my home, we abbreviate and brand ourselves as well. My bartender in the airport at Amsterdam – pouring me Scottish whiskeys in a quiet second floor setting full of copper and wood – said he hated LA because he spent all his time there tracking down our kitsch, and our kitsch – on Hollywood Boulevard – is dirty, damaged, and disappointing.

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As a visitor to a new city, one would only find oneself frustrated if one expected that on a first day or two one would suddenly have insight into difference, and so these first days are the ones one spends wandering around with too little water and too many destinations in mind. St. Petersburg was generous with what appeared on the other end of this initial quest. It is so beautiful a city that the retail road washes away. 18th and 19th century architecture seems to have impressed generations to the extent that no revolution has altered the façade of much of Невский Проспект. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is no Hollywood Boulevard; its palette and forms are at once complex and over the top, and tightly controlled.

 

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Students at the Imperial Academy of Art learn to paint as have Russian artists throughout history: icon paintings in both flattened space and the beginnings of three-dimensional space… they can learn to fresco, to mosaic, and to make stained glass. Their training is conservative insofar as they stick to representation and materials that the country and European art history is grounded in, but they learn about where they are from. They develop a shared vocabulary from which to depart later. So starting from these brief histories – the Art Nouveau detailing on Дом компании «Зингер», the use of plaster in architectural detailing in the servants quarters of apartments and the use of wood in country carving – where next does a new generation of Russian creatives go? Eventually, at the end of my first week, I found myself off of the touristy Нéвский проспéкт, discovering handmade lace at Вятские промыслы, contemporary design at 4 Dots, and refined retro at Мармеладовa. Beyond finding gifts like sunglasses made from lightweight Siberian wood, thick felted тапочки in the shape of wolves, and men’s two-piece suits sewn from loose woven local linen, I also feel I am beginning to see innovation in Russia that makes use of both traditional and contemporary technique, that does not halt for the false desires of tourists limited by what they think they know.