Art in the public eye

Art in the public eye

The ‘Critical Mass’ project brings installations by Nordic artists out into the streets, parks and gardens of St. Petersburg.

Published: June 8, 2011 (Issue # 1659)


Kalle Purhohen’s ‘Dinosaur Egg’ made of hubcaps sits atop a plinth that used to house a Lenin monument.

Love it or hate it, public art has been a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in cites around the world for decades. And despite a period in the 1980s and ’90s when it came to be seen as overly decorative, or as a de facto stamp of approval for corporate culture, respected contemporary artists have used it to humanize often alienating spaces, addressing important cultural issues along the way.

Not so, St. Petersburg. For all its expansive public parks and gardens, spanking new business centers and pedestrian zones, contemporary art seldom rates a place at the table. Whereas most city governments and corporations actively place works of public art around town — think of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture affixed to the side of the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street, the kinetic fountain created by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle in the center of Paris, or Anish Kapoor’s enormous chrome spaceship that recently touched down in Chicago — Russia just doesn’t seem interested.

Part of the reason is, of course, historical: The Soviet state was concerned with art as a means of consolidating power. But it is also the result of apathy on the part of the general public, and ignorance of its virtues on the part of government officials. A new exhibition that opened last week and that runs through the end of the month, however, is trying to change all that.

Years in the making, “Critical Mass” is nothing if not ambitious. It began with a fact-finding trip to the city in 2009 by a group of Nordic artists, whose remit was to assess the ills that plague the city — an excess of traffic, land control issues, corruption, the disconnect between local government and city residents, and a general neglect of public spaces — and create work that specifically spoke to these matters. The resulting artworks have allowed the organizers to present important emerging art in a public context, to begin to assess the public’s reaction to that work, and open new channels of communication between artists, audiences and local government. All of which is certainly easier said than done.

In a city center where every square inch is classified as being of historical significance (except where the chance to make a quick buck exists), erecting even a temporary structure is fraught with difficulties and brought the organizers up against the first of the problems the project was formulated to address. In the end, the only outdoor spaces made available to them were far from the historic heart of the city. Curator Anna Bitkina, however, remains hopeful.

“While getting permission from the different committees, we have established contact with them and in the future are planning to continue conducting ‘Critical Mass’ projects in those parks that are neglected and need to be revitalized,” she said.

Probably the most successful in this context is a sculpture by Finnish Artist Kalle Purhohen installed on the dusty square in front of the Troitsky Center for Culture on Prospekt Obukhovskoi Oborony, near the Proletarskaya metro station. An impressively scaled dinosaur egg constructed of hubcaps, the sculpture sits on a plinth that formerly supported a statue of Lenin. It astutely brings together associations about the automobile as an endangered, soon to be extinct, species and references Faberge’s St. Petersburg workshops, discredited ideologies, and popular myths about fossil fuels being formed from the remains of dinosaurs.


Kaarina Kaikkonen’s work ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’ on Yelagin Island.

Meanwhile, over at the Kirov Cultural Center toward the western end of Vasilyevsky Island, Norway’s Lars Ramberg advocates public debate by offering a pile of wooden crates meant to inspire and then, quite literally, support the undertaking. Titled “Last Dying Speech (Speakers Corner),” the interactive installation is constructed of numerous wooden boxes bearing various slogans that can be taken down and stood upon. The artwork stresses the importance of freedom of speech, both locally and globally. But whether the boxes will be used by residents to air their grievances, to showcase the talents of young Hard Bass dancers or, as seems most likely, disappear one by one remains to be seen.

Other works in the exhibition include Latvian artist Laura Feldberga’s mirrored disco ball snowman in the Kurikina Dacha garden (two parts of which were stolen overnight following the opening), and work by Finland’s Kaarina Kaikkonen and Iceland’s Hrafnkell Sigurdsson, both on Yelagin Island.

One thing that is certain is that during the next few weeks, local residents out for a Sunday stroll will come across some surprising structures that will hopefully prompt a collective experience as accessible as the movies or popular music, demonstrating art’s ability to reach larger audiences. With any luck, the conversations that are begun — between the artists and the location, the audience and the works of art, and between the local government and the city’s residents — will have a beneficial effect. Dialogue, after all, is what it’s all about.

Critical Mass runs through June 26 at various locations around the city.

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