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Culture news
Incidents in museums
10.07.2004 17:17

traditional_museum_festival St Petersburg Times

By Andrei Vorobei


There are a lot of museums in St. Petersburg, but few receive many visitors, let alone visitors from overseas. But for several years one of the most engaging and promising attempts to solving the problem of low visitor numbers has been the "Contemporary Art in the Traditional Museum" festival.

The festival, which is run by the Pro Arte Institute and which has become one of the of highlights of the local cultural calendar, opened last weekend, after a year's hiatus, for the fourth time.

The idea behind the event is to exhibit contemporary art projects in a traditional museum setting. On the one hand, the festival supports contemporary art, and on the other promotes traditional museums by attracting visitors to them.

Most of the "traditional" museums selected by the festival organizers have a narrow focus; they include museums that cover the history of ethnographic subjects, science, geology, botany, communications history, political or military history, religion, medicine, physics, and so on - that is, everything except art itself.

The festival organizers want to coax the "art crowd" to hidden, under-promoted "non-art" museums. This is what makes the idea of the festival important from the arts- and museum- management points of view.

However, this exciting and promising idea stands or falls on the quality of the art on offer.

Unfortunately it doesn't look like the festival benefited much from its year off.

This year's festival features eight contemporary art projects in eight traditional museums (which are linked together in a special route by organizers to direct visitors from one to the other), but less than half of the projects are really worth the time and money one would spend to visit them.

However, it is possible to draw up a route that includes the places that are interesting for both the contemporary art and permanent museum exhibits on display.

Start at the Military-Historical Museum for Artillery, Engineering and Signal Troops, which is located in an extensive brick building opposite the Peter and Paul Fortress. The permanent exhibition of the museum consists of a huge collection of historical arms, rockets, guns and other stuff like this, a review of which will convince you, along with the artists whose work is displayed here, that humanity should definitely forget about a happy ending.

The museum space is occupied by nine young media artists - Pro Arte institute students - within the group project "Voinushka" (the Russian word for a children's war-game). Voinushka is word from childhood and the artists' main efforts are directed toward dumping the adult, military mood of the museum. "Toy" by Yulya Grebneva, at the entrance of the museum, is a poster showing a giant child using all the guns and tanks in the museum's courtyard as playthings. Among the more refined, poetic artistic decisions are those made the artists in the fascinating "Soul of a Tank" by Viktoriya Ilushkina and in "Kaleidoscope," by Ulyana Apatina, in which a kaleidoscope resides in the muzzle of a gun.

The only piece that works in the other direction by echoing the pathos of military evolution as expressed by the museum's permanent exhibit is "Perfect Soldier" by Mikhail Shtarker and Kirill Shamanov. In it, military technology has evolved to a point of true pathos, to include man; the work is composed of large computer-generated posters of genetically-modified soldiers.

After leaving the museum, head west to Birzhevoy Most and cross to Vasilyevsky Island. Go right along the Universitetskaya Embankment as far as the building opposite the two Sphinxes. This is the Academy of Arts, the first and, for a long time, only educational institution for artists in Russia.

"Way of Life" by Tantyana Goloviznina, the best work of the festival, is displayed here. Among the young generation of local artists Goloviznina, is one of the most interesting and well-established figures.

The artist has taken a very delicate approach to the large collection of gypsum copies of classical sculptures housed in the Academy. Around the figures of young athletes, she has placed a carpet of live green shoots, and she revives the dead antique sculptures by playing the sounds of human breathing. The artist's intervention is finished by a video installation, which is a stylistically as well as conceptually perfect match to the permanent exhibition.

To get the last worthwhile show in the festival venue you should go further along the Naberezhnaya Leitenanta Shmidta embankment, turn right on the 19th Liniya ('19th Line' street) and go as far as the intersection with Sredniy Prospekt, where the solemn building of the State Geology Institute and Museum is located.

Here local artist Pyotr Shvezov has installed his "Columbarium," a nice mix of brutal concrete and elegant Indian ink intended as memorial for extinct species of animals. Next to Shvezov's work the museum offers an exciting mineral collection which is framed in beautiful old museum cases.

Another marvel at this museum is a grandiose and unique geographical map of the Soviet Union from 1937. At around 5 meters in length and 3 in height the map was displayed during the World Exhibitions in Paris and New York. This map is very interesting in artistic terms, since it is made from precious and semi-precious stones which form a relief map of the country, from malachite forests to granite mountains to turquoise rivers and lakes.

It is certain that without the "Contemporary Art in The Traditional Museum" festival, the casual visitor would be unlikely to discover such unexpected treasures.

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