Behind the splendid facades of St. Petersburg there stirs an alternative scene, where musicians and artists are changing the image of Russia’s second-largest city.
Saint Petersburg is a beautiful city – it’s that simple. It’s known as the “Venice of the North” for its many rivers and canals, but at the same time, the Peterhof palace complex is referred to as the “Versailles of St. Petersburg.” It’s as if the city took its cue from all the beauties of Europe: the water features, the magnificent churches and palaces. There’s a discovery to be made on every side street, each building a story of its era, which is beautiful, but also a tad overwhelming. And so we set out to take a look behind the facades and discover that there’s also another side to St. Petersburg, one that breaks with established traditions, revealing new truths – and new art.
The city’s artists are venturing out of the shadows of its venerable institutions, such as the world-famous Hermitage, and taking up residence in places like the Street Art Museum on a factory site in the industrial east of the city. Artists from all over the world are painting and dressing up inside and outside walls and fences and even production buildings where plastic sheeting is still being produced. There’s one wall, for instance, with a huge Hermitage facade painted onto it, that peeps out between a gas station and a D.I.Y. store. Then there’s the broken-off concrete slab from a Moscow Metro that a Russian graffiti pioneer has sprayed with the child’s face symbol from the Soviet version of Kinder chocolate. “This is a living museum,” explains art mediator Zola Buksha, 25. Because the artworks change and are constantly being painted over; and because the artists explore the structures of a working factory “by including conversations with the workers in their art as it takes shape.” In the summer, the museum has up to 1000 visitors a day. “More and more people want to see art in their daily lives,” says Buksha, “they want to ask questions themselves and find their own answers.”
The Russians claim that if you love Moscow, you cannot love St. Petersburg, and that “real St. Petersburgers” will often refer to Moscow as a village even though it is larger in terms of both area and population. St. Petersburg was always famous for its artists, poets and musicians who proclaimed their sentimental devotion to the city, lavishing loving words on their St. Petersburg, affectionately known as “Piter”, in literature and songs that praised the wonder and melancholy of the White Nights, the quiet beauty of its broad avenues and canals.
The man whose trademark is a black Tom Waits hat is Billy Novick, and he knows every single poem dedicated to St. Petersburg. Novick, 43, is a self-taught guitar player and songwriter and the singer and bass player of Billy’s Band, which has also made a name for itself outside of Russia. They play what they call “romantic alco-jazz,” a term they coined because they couldn’t find a genre that fitted their songs – music that’s “like being drunk without alcohol,” a state rather than a sound. Billy’s Band started out in 1998 in a basement where Andrej Reznikow, the band’s guitarist, used to hold jam sessions with friends and host small concerts. Billy, a man with perfect pitch but zero musical training, stumbled on the basement and its musical world one evening when he was delivering beer for the musicians. In a corner lay a Tom Waits record that none of them knew, but which had a life-changing effect on them all. Andrej and Billy listened to the record for hours, each holding a guitar, attempting to pick up the songs.
The band had their first real gigs in Germany – on Marienplatz square in Munich – at the invitation of a cultural society. Delighted by how impressed the German audience was with their sound, they carried on after their return to St. Petersburg. Today, they tour internationally, playing top events like the Toronto Jazz Festival; audiences rave about Novick’s voice and even compare him to Louis Armstrong.
Although the band, with its blend of Dixieland, polka, jazz and Novick’s gravelly voice, has a distinct musical style and deeply emotional lyrics, its spirit is nevertheless very much in the tradition of Russian songwriters: sensitive, profound and poetic. The band’s songs feature flashes of other artists who loved their city, like Joseph Brodsky and Sergei Dovlatov. This may explain how the indie band, which for years has turned down every label and management contract it has been offered, conquered the city: first with gigs in small clubs, later in large halls. “We make more than music,” says Billy, “we do what it was not possible to do in Soviet times: We talk with the audience.” In the old days, anyone who publicly criticized the authorities would be relentlessly persecuted; today, Novick simply lets rip, saying “anything that comes into my head.” It could be a monologue, or he might spontaneously address a member of the audience before returning to the music at some point.
Between the Soviet years, and these days of newly acquired “freedom of speech” came what another artist terms the “nation’s birth trauma”: Perestroika. Peter Belyj was born in 1971 in a city called Leningrad. The end of socialism was a time of confusion for young people, but also one of dashed hopes. “We were raised with values that were suddenly no longer valid,” says the artist, “our departure from the Soviet utopia was protracted.” Like so many, he grew up in the belief that the communist dream would come true, that one fine day, citizens with equal rights would live in a flourishing country. That belief in the unstoppable progress of history crumbled away in the face of reality; emotions could not keep pace with events.
Belyj, 47, became famous for his large-format installations, which feed on that tragedy: plasterboard skyscrapers that all look the same, which he built and tore down over and over again. “Danger zone” is the name of one of his works, “Standard mausoleum” another. His works are exhibited not only in Russia, but also in the United States, in Milan, Italy, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Ironically, while Belyj focuses on the disappointments of the past in his art, in his work as a curator, he has his sights very much on the future. In St. Petersburg, he founded an “off-gallery,” an exhibition space for young art. With a crowd of like-minded people, he creates installations as part of the urban landscape and organizes exhibitions in site trailers, like the one on Novaja Gollandiya, “New Holland,” a man-made river island dating from the 18th century that is now home to galleries, fashion boutiques and restaurants. Such locations are immensely important for a city that to this day has no museum for modern art.
We were raised with values that were suddenly no longer valid
Moments ago, Jana Romanova, 33, was teaching a class at art school. Now the photo and video artist is sitting in a cool café next door: brick walls, lounge couches, wooden tables. “I want to throw myself into issues I feel strongly about,” she explains, touching on social issues with great clarity. Standing on a ladder, she photographed sleeping couples waiting for their baby to be born. Sometimes they are lying under white, sometimes under printed bedlinen, facing away from each other or entwined; sometimes young children snuggle up to their heavily pregnant mother’s stomach. The pictures reveal vulnerability, and they may seem intrusive, but they are devoid of all malice. The photos went around the world and spread through social media. Waiting, the book Romanova drew from the project, attracted a great deal of attention among experts on modern photography.
“Contemporary art is now gaining more recognition in Russia, even from art historians, but there’s little interest in photography,” says Romanova. In a bid to change that, she holds “photo book clubs” at festivals and in libraries, evenings when she examines images with her guests and discusses with them how the images can be “read” and “felt.” Her aim is to help spread a new, lively understanding of art. She is not alone; artist Peter Belyj also proudly states that St. Petersburg has long been more than the Hermitage and other old buildings. He wants the creativity in the heads of St. Petersburgers to finally be more visible. “The city should be a modern art festival,” he feels, one that jostles its way into the old beauty – and is a new, contemporary match for it.
Art, soccer and cool wheels: white nights
The free All Together Opera festival takes place downtown July 12 to 22.
Downtown Konyushennaya Square will be the official fan mile during the World Cup.
In July, bridges will light up and “dance” a special ballet.
The Harley Days in August will delight motorcycle fans.
GETTING THERE FROM GERMANY
In July, Lufthansa is flying three times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and twice daily from Munich (MUC) to St. Petersburg (LED). Use the app to calculate your miles.
Download here: miles-and-more.com
NEW HOLLAND ISLAND
THE HAT BAR
STREET ART MUSEUM