One of the popular trends in contemporary visual art today, which is distinguished by its urban character is street art. There is also public art. The difference is that street art is illegal, uncoordinated art without a budget, while public art has a customer, an initiator, often has a curator. Sometimes these notions are confused with each other, and some people may associate any art in public places with vandalism.
In order to dispel the notion of street artists as vandals and showcase the best of street art, a public art project Art Block was created in Saint-Petersburg. Artists from various Russian cities took part in the project: Vladimir Abikh, Natasha Pastukhova, Maxim Ima, Anton Artabstraktov, Misha Marker, Stas Bugs and others.
“Projects like Art Block are useful because people pass artworks in public spaces every day and can scan the QR-code to find out more about the artist and the work. They can explore Instagram account of artists and see how street art is a work of educated adults. This is a very important. For example, the work of Volodya Abikh (a Russian street art artist; instagram: @vladimir_abikh), tells us that art becomes art when someone calls it art. Contemporary art is largely confronted with the fact that the public expects it to prove that it is art,” says Anastasia Pronina, curator of the Art Block project.
Anastasia Pronina is also an art historian, curator of the public space “Benua 1890” and the Benua Art Garden exhibition project. In her interview Anastasia talked about contemporary street art in Russia. She suggested a few reasons as to why contemporary street art in Russia as a whole, and St. Petersburg in particular, may be slightly behind many countries and cities.
Firstly, there is only a small number of galleries presenting contemporary art within their walls:
“For example, in St. Petersburg, with population of 6mln, I think there are only seven galleries,” comments the curator. According to Anastasia, in order for development of contemporary art in Russia and St. Petersburg, more online art platforms and online galleries need to appear. All of this will not only expand the number of collectors, but also will lead to more people becoming interested in art and buying artworks.
The second reason is that there are just a few street artists whose work is of a high standard and can be easily understood by any audience.
“Street art, I think, develops in a unique way in Russia. If we consider, for example, muralism (a movement in the monumental painting of North and South America in the 20th century), we have very few Russian artists capable of doing work at an international level. There are some artist in Russia, for instance, Alexey Kislov (instagram: @kislow), who creates great murals. But if you look at how many people create good art in Spain – the difference is catastrophic,” explains Anastasia Pronina.
In general, Russian street art is very different, while the work of street artists is often text-based and is in Russian language, this means the audiences for this art is limited.
“Audience engagement with Russian street art would be higher, if artists used English language, but then they wouldn’t be Russian artists. For example, Yekateriburg artist Tima Radya (instagram: @tima_radya) puts meaning into his work. In many ways only Russian-speaking people who have seen the same movies and read the same books, can understand him. Otherwise, it becomes just a phrase. A good example is his work is the phrase “Счастье не за горами,” (“Happiness is just around the corner”) which has become a symbol of the city of Perm. At the same time, it completely loses its meaning with the change of location. The work was created to stand in a field, with a cottage community under construction next to it. The phrase “Счастье не за горами” is a mockery. That’s the essence of Russian street art, and it is hard to translate it into English without losing context.“
Russian street art is very conceptual. The work of Russian artists often has 2-3 meanings. For example, comparing Russian street art with American street art, I notice that street art in the U.S. is more diverse, bright and figurative.
The third reason is a small number of Russian street art festivals. Major street art festivals would not only stimulate development of street art in Russia, but also help to build dialogue and ideas exchange with artists from other countries. In St. Petersburg there are no such festivals at all.
“When something officially agreed upon appears in the city, this is the impetus for the development of street art. And if you do it systematically, every year, write about it in the media, tell people that public art is art, then the attitude of urban residents will change as well,” Anastasia says.
Funding of street art projects is yet another problem: “In St. Petersburg it is difficult to get funding for street art projects, after all, this is a city with a unique cultural and architectural landscape. Thus, the initiator of the project should be either the committee on culture or the Ministry of Culture, as the institution that will say, “Let’s do it!” And of course then the issue of approval will go easier.”
As early as the 19th century German and Swiss artist Paul Klee said that modern art was not created to represent the visible, but to make it visible. Russia has many talented street artists, who need to be supported and whose works need to be showcased to the rest of the world. We also need to work with audiences to help them understand public art, make it more accessible, through festivals and projects like Art Block.
The public art project Art Block can be seen at the address: 7 Akademika Pavlova Street, St. Petersburg, Petrogradskaya metro station