“SLEEPING OR AWAKE, I am always dreaming of Petersburg,” Russian author Nikolai Gogol once wrote. He wasn't the only one. St Petersburg has long fuelled the imagination of poets, artists and writers. Tchaikovsky composed here, Pushkin penned poems here and Dostoevsky set some of his greatest novels in this city.
Decades on, Russia's former capital still has creativity coursing through its veins. Nestled amid the city's pastel-coloured palaces and myriad canals is a growing number of contemporary art museums, galleries and collectives. “There are a lot of creative clusters starting to appear,” says Dmitry Konovalov, who works at Taiga, a hidden independent art space near the Neva River. “Before it was quiet, but now people are really exulting.”
When we arrive in late September, the city is in the throes of an Indian summer and the art scene is a hive of activity. Manifesta 10, the travelling European biennale, has opened at the State Hermitage Museum. The revered halls of the Winter Palace, normally dominated by traditional works, have been transformed with brazen contemporary art: a sexually graphic gay painting by Nicole Eisenman sits by demure classics such as Monet's water lilies. Meanwhile, slumped across the inner courtyard of the General Staff Building, is Thomas Hirschhorn's monumental installation of a collapsed building that has been sliced open. In doll's-house-like furnished rooms at the top of the 14-metre-high edifice, respected Russian masterpieces hang on the walls. Below, the facade gives way to a pile of detritus consisting of cardboard and tape. Other rooms are filled with immersive installations and video works by international heavyweights such as Bruce Nauman.
The next morning we head to Loft Project Etagi, a former bakery turned experimental art playground, for a taste of the local scene. We walk through corridors of the raw, industrial building, passing poetic video works by Irish film-makers and a rustic restaurant whose terrace is dotted with playful parrot sculptures. On the top floor in an attic-like space is a fun exhibition featuring mug shots of celebrated photographers. Each holds his or her favourite photograph and has handwritten the back story behind each image. Crooked wooden stairs lead to an expansive rooftop strewn with bohemian types reclining on beanbags. Navigating a web of electrical wires and makeshift wooden railings, we find a spot beside a bunch of young hipsters listening to Russian rock.
We spend the afternoon at Vasilyevsky Island, visiting the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, a yellow neoclassical building housing an expansive collection dating from World War II to the present day. The brainchild of Marina Varvarina, widow of murdered timber magnate Dmitry Varvarin, the 107,000-square-foot space is the country's largest private museum. Of the some 2,000 works on display, we're drawn to the angst-filled self-portraits and fantastical paintings by “underground” Leningrad artists such as Yury Gusev and Vladimir Ovchinnikov.
“During the Soviet time, rules for artists were very strict, but they fought against established styles and forged their own way,” explains Head Curator of Exhibition Projects Pavel Markaitis, stressing their importance. Since it opened, he says, the museum has been on a mission to travel the country acquiring works to preserve historic pieces while also shedding light on the emerging generations of young Russian artists.
Instigated by well-heeled women, private institutions like this are the lifeblood of the contemporary art scene, as the state volunteers little institutional support in this area. “Russia actually has a tradition since the 18th century of women being patrons of the arts,” says cultural-tour operator Sergey Mstislavskiy. He cites Empress Catherine II as a prime example: “She essentially founded the Hermitage collection. When people were going bankrupt in Europe, she was known for sending her agents to acquire all their art.”
Today, fashionably dressed patronesses across the country follow in Catherine the Great's footsteps and set up private art foundations. Nowhere is this phenomenon as prominent as it is in the capital. Dasha Zhukova, partner of billionaire Roman Abramovich, founded the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow's Stalin-era Gorky Park. The building in itself is an impressive structure: a sleek circular pavilion with glossy columns made from locally sourced paper designed by the celebrated Shigeru Ban.
When we arrive in the park, jazz is blasting as young Muscovites rollerblade past clusters of wild apple trees. Outside the entrance of Garage is a stunning sculpture made from a large creased sheet of copper. Part of Danh Vo's work We the People, it's a fragment of a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Inside is a tightly curated show exploring art emerging in the decade after the Cold War, with works ranging from massive monochrome billboards of birds in an ominous sky by Cuban-born Félix González-Torres to Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez's disturbing film piece on airplane hijackings in the late '60s.
Often seen as Zhukova's rival is Stella Kesaeva, the long-legged wife of tobacco king Igor Kesaev. After living abroad for years, she developed a love for contemporary art and created the Stella Art Foundation. Today she's also known as the commissioner of the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. When I visit the foundation, the towering blonde happens to be in town and greets me warmly. Cigarette in hand, she's clad in typical art-world garb: a tight black ensemble with a plunging neckline and teetering heels. Her cosy space has vibrant pop paintings by artist Konstantin Latyshev, a Russian Andy Warhol of sorts, of characters having comical conversations.
Our next stop is one of the capital's most ambitious projects: Winzavod, a contemporary art hub housed in a former winery. “In the Soviet Era this stood empty,” says Alexander Sharov of 11.12 Gallery, explaining that a woman named Sofia Trotsenko was behind the revival. I ask if she's the wife of a billionaire. He nods and breaks into a smile: “This is Russia.” Now more than a century old, the red-brick complex spans more than 215,000 square feet and houses some of the city's most prominent private galleries.
Sharov shows me around his three-storey, loft-like space with soaring ceilings. For his current exhibition, a young artist has recreated elements of a Soviet kommunalka (communal apartment) including a bed, crockery and postboxes and transformed each item into a game that he encourages viewers to play. Next door, down a staircase, is a communal project space used by various artists deep in the winery's labyrinthine cellar. Arriving at the bottom, we're plunged into darkness for a moment until our eyes adjust to the haunting projections of ocean waves coursing across the ground. Spread across the dark expanse of water are cylindrical posts with bodies painted on them. Each stands gazing eerily into the horizon.
The work makes me think of the bleak perception of people observing Russia from the outside. Putin's haunting presence, the anti-gay crackdown and the invasion of Ukraine hang like a dark cloud over the country. In the art world many were vehemently against holding Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg.
“All the world turned their back on Russia,” says Sharov quietly. “But culture takes another stance. It's about being open and expanding your mind.” Throughout history, minds like Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Pushkin have rebelled against the establishment and offered a new way of looking at the world. Today new generations of Russians continue to do the same. Many see the country's creative renaissance as just beginning. “We don't stop,” says Sharov firmly. “We have to keep making more exhibitions so [our] culture will live for all time.”