Think of art in St. Petersburg and you will undoubtedly imagine the Hermitage, architectural splendour, cathedrals and Neoclassical mansions lining the Neva river. Whilst these classical monuments are unquestionably worthy of our awe and attention, the modern art scene of such a city can often be overlooked by visitors. Indeed, my friend and I had intended to pay a visit to the Russian Museum last Monday morning. A regular pit-stop for travellers to the city, the museum sits moments away from Nevsky Prospekt and is one of the largest collections of fine art in the country. Unfortunately our visit was not to be. Arriving and finding a queue that stretched around 2 sides of the building, we decided to change plan and head to the Vasileyvsky Island to search for Эрарта [Erarta], a modern art gallery that I had never heard of and had only been mentioned in passing, not even as a recommendation, to my friend by her Russian flatmate. I didn’t know what to expect from the gallery, but I felt pretty indifferent about going. Which made it all the better when I came out 4 hours later feeling like this had really been a gallery worth visiting.
The five-floored building of Эрарта, whose name is an amalgamation of the words эра [era] and арт [art], holds a variety of temporary exhibitions and one main permanent exhibit, in which the works of various Russian contemporary artists are displayed alongside anecdotal information boards and films of the artists discussing their art. There is a very personal atmosphere connecting the audience to each individual artist, and self-portraits of the makers, highlighting the range of artistic styles and approaches housed under this one roof, line the stairs as the visitor moves between floors.
When I visited the gallery [March 2017], I was really impressed by the range of exhibits on show, from multimedia to photography to paintings to film. The collection that I personally found most inspiring was that of Sergey Shnurov, lead singer of the group Leningrad and, theretofore unbeknownst to me, a visual artist specialising in the theme of Brandrealism. This particular exhibition was a retrospective collection of works celebrating 10 years since the birth of the concept of Brandrealism, which discusses society’s unhealthy obsession with material possessions and artificial products created to fit our cult worship of “the brand”. Shnurov’s works were eye-catching, thought provoking and unashamedly real, aptly described as “art that owes nothing to nobody”. For me, the art I enjoy most is always something that illuminates some aspect of life and society that I have perhaps never even considered, or that have been drawn to the surface of my mind. Art, for me, is at its core a conversation between artist and audience, and Shnurov’s message was vibrantly expressed.
On the other floors lay a collection of black-and-white photography, a small cinema room showing animations discussing art with Malevich’s (in)famous Black Square as the main character, fantastical paintings depicting flying бабушки and everyday scenes mixed with whimsical abstractions. The permanent collection asked the viewer to consider modern art at its most basic level. What is modern art and if you consider abstract as opposed to classical paintings unskilled, why so? Do you look at these paintings and want to say that your kid can paint like this? This theme of inclusion, inspiration and reflection runs throughout the whole gallery, as the viewer is not patronised but informed and questioned without assumption of knowledge or interest, and not treated as a mere observer, but as an equal to the art itself. With selfie screens, interactive exhibits and the opportunity to write about any piece of art that particular fuels your imagination and have it put up for display alongside the work, we as an audience are totally immersed in Эрарта’s atmosphere. There is no element of art snobbery here, everyone’s opinion is not only valid but of equal importance. Whilst each collection has a different artistic voice, the gallery as a whole allows for a cohesive and flowing journey that questions the very idea of our concept of art today.
The gallery also hosts a range of events throughout the year, and has a piano bar, restaurant and coffee shop (the cheesecake was divine) where you can take a break. Inviting, inclusive and fresh, Эрарта opens its doors to even the most skeptical of modern art critics. It was a great new discovery for me personally, and I will definitely be visiting its sister collection in London someday!