April 29, 2016

News from Russia! Feminist Activism, White Nights, and Gianni Versace at the Hermitage

Putin merchandise

I went to Russia to give a workshop and a talk about feminist thinking in art. A bit strange, so I thought, to get invited for this topic in Russia, but the Goethe Institute must be knowing what they’re doing. I've heard about Pussy Riot of course, but I always thought of it as a smart marketing stint to get into the international art world (provocation is a good old one), which was then happily picked up by a lot of artists in the West to get attention for themselves on their turn (some activism is not so much about the other as it is about oneself). I was also weary about the image of Russia that Western media are propagating. What I did know is that there is no art blogging in Russia. Dilya Sharipova in Moscow told me so. Maybe because it’s better to express opinions when a magazine is backing you up? 

It's sure that feminism isn’t a supported activity in Russia. Art historian and curator Olesya Turkina told me so during the talk, she herself having co-curated in 2013 an exhibition titled International Women’s Day. Feminism From Avant-Garde to Our Days. A few months ago one tried to pass a law that would forbid feminism and the use of the word but without success. Turkina then summed up a whole bunch of feminist artists in Russia and asked me to do the same for the German art scene. I was a little baffled because I wouldn’t dare to call any artist here in Germany a feminist artist. It’s such a negative, stigmatized word that nobody wants to be pigeonholed into that niche. Who’s going to exhibit a feminist artist in these days? 

Polina Zaslavskaya, Masha Godovannya, Natasha Schastneva took me
to a Sovjet-Union style restaurant.
This is what you eat when you drink vodka!

Not that feminism doesn't have its relevance in the German art scene. The students of video artist Masha Godovannaya were surprised to hear about the numbers of women artists represented in the Berlin galleries. Masha Godovannya, herself a feminist activist, is teaching about feminism in art at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University. At night she took me for dinner with her artist colleagues Natasha Schastneva and Polina Zaslavskaya. They told me about their collaborative performance that takes place in a small five square meters kitchen, which is typical for the “khrushchevkas”, the concrete low ceiling apartment buildings constructed during the Khrushchev era. They changed the private space into a “queered” kitchen where desire can be acted out. During our night out, my dinner partners kept an eye on their watch. I learnt that at 1pm Saint-Petersburg opens its bridges, which makes it impossible to hop islands and get home till 5 in the morning.

The White Nights of Saint Petersburg also available in Moleskine

A café based on time

Dostoevsky lived here in 1844/45

Talking Saint-Petersburg, I think that the building in which my program took place in the context of a Rosemarie Trockel exhibition, was the only new one in the whole centre of Saint-Petersburg.  Everything is classical in Saint-Petersburg. That doesn’t mean that the city isn’t hip: I discovered a café where you have to pay based on the time you spent and not on the drinks you had. One hour was about 150 ruble, during which I had a coffee, a tea and some cookies. I also coincidentally came upon the house where Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Poor People in 1844/45 and I don’t know if it’s on purpose that it still looks poor. At the Hermitage Museum (one of the largest and oldest museums in the world according to Wikipedia) I found out the that the restrooms are designed by Gianni Versace. Funny detail, isn't it! 

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