Driving emptiness out

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Text: Oksana Popova
Photos: Oksana Popova, Sergey Pnev, Polina Zaslavskaya

Street art-objects are a part of town identity. The most interesting ones are those that were created at the initiative of town dwellers, not that of government or business. These objects are always a statement of the creator about the way he wants to see the town environment; they are his attempt of artistic transformation and often they are an array of conceptual stresses. The creator’s statement expressed by a town beautification can be accepted and supported by the town dwellers and can come across counterstand. I tried to follow up the destinies of several Irkutsk art-objects in order to find out what helps and what hinders them from being accepted by the town.

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Happy stairs

Research Question

Why do the art-objects in the town environment have different destinies?

Private initiatives to improve town environment or to fill in empty spaces in Irkutsk are not occasional, but they are not always accepted. One of the happy stories is that of a stair that leads from the railroad lyceum to Glazkovsky Bridge and was decorated by a ceramic mosaic.

It took a long time to choose a stair that deserved mosaic inlay. The author of design Elena Nosova (at that time a student of the technical university) hoped to find one in the center or not far from it but the stairs there usually require restoration and it means they require investments. Among the options was 130th Kvartal but the negotiation process with owners scared them away, especially the fact that some of the stairs have more than one owner. In the end the left bank got lucky where a stair that was relatively intact was found. But after all a little bit of restoration was needed: the upper part of the steps was damaged and Elena’s father concreted them.

Three years ago many Irkutsk’s media sources were talking about Elena Nosova, who made all 3227 tiles by hand. And the work caused acclamation that is quite unusual for Irkutsk. In a comment to one of the publications someone even said: «Good job! I wonder if there is at least one person who is not happy». Only some of the passersby using the stairs were grumpy but it was only during the mosaic installation when the passage there was closed. But the main prove that the town accepted the work is the nowadays state of the décor. Three years later it almost hasn’t changed: the mosaic is a bit damaged only on one of the lower steps (it may be the result of winter fight with ice cover).

Final project can be fulfilled either in the urban or indoor environment. Usually graduates choose indoor projects. Anna, a project supervisor, explains that urban projects are hard both physically and financially, but Elena wanted to work in the urban environment all along.

“I love projects, I physically need them. I’m very glad when what I do is needed by someone. And I always want to do something awesome in my town”

Elena Nosova

How can we explain the lucky destiny of the art-object? Everything was thought over beforehand. Elena used materials that are resistant to frost and physical impact including intentional impact, plus for the pattern she chose muted floral design and tender colors that naturally fit in the surroundings.

The other stair in Universitetsky district (the pedastrian zone – so called Broadway) was decorated by an artist – Sergei Pnyov in the summer of 2016. For a month and a half the locals watched the group of enthusiasts (in the first place professional artists and students) that was painting the walls that used to be covered with advertisements. First the anniversary memorabilia appeared on the surface, later it was fleshed out with recognizable shade pictures of Irkutsk’s buildings.

During one weekend they fulfilled most of the work, the rest was finished in the evenings. After festive banners appeared, the flower beds and fences had color emphasis in place, the space became organic whole.

The artwork for the “Broadway” was created in connection with Irkutsk’s 355th anniversary. The project included painting of several walls, framing the stairs. Sergei prepared sketches, got the approval of territorial self-government “Universitetsky”, attained project approval.

«How does an artist usually work? It is a closed private process; a picture is not seen by anyone before it is finished. And in our case it all was public and you get the response of the viewer immediately»

Sergey Pnev

The idea to decorate the stair itself – to paint the steps – was born on the fly, already during the process of work, luckily they had more than enough paint. Passersby including children offered their help and readily began to paint. Sergei says that he received a great pleasure from the work. Now he is ready to offer new projects and they are again for the certain town environment.

The battle of statements

Not all Irkutsk’s art-objects were as lucky as the stairs. Some were vandalized, some even more than once. Iconic example is that of a sculpture in shape of a cello that was installed on Uricky Street in 2011.

That place was chosen by Ilia Stavsky, a sculptor, not by chance. Street musicians often play here in a small square next to the trade center “Dom Byta”. The square itself is not interesting at all and the cello gave it an additional meaning separating the space from the shopping street. Maybe that is what annoyed the vandals: they were breaking the very delicate parts of the sculpture that were emphasizing elegance and delicacy of art (a fiddle bow, a soundboard, strings). It is interesting that the sculpture was inviting people for an interaction, for a game. The vandals understood the invitation in their own way: for them it became a way to make a statement, to show off the power in return.

After the first wreck the sculptor restored the work but later got tired to deal with vandals and the sculpture was removed. The other works of Ilia Stavsky – «A Tourist», «A Man in Love», «A Sun Clock» – stand safely up to now successfully fitting in the town environment.

In 2012 a sculpture “A King’s Chair” with a king poking out behind the chair’s back was installed across the puppet theater “Aistyonok”.  It was a work of Victoria Vodyanskaya, another graduate of the technical university, doing her diploma work for the Applied and Decorative Arts department. The chair took on, it invited kids to play: they were supposed to look for the keys that were hidden on the legs, under the seat, on the chair’s back, in the king’s hand. The staff of the theater liked the sculpture too.

The sculpture was waiting its destroyer for two and a half years. One early morning a drunken man chopped the chair’s legs by an axe. A worker of the theater ran out to protect the sculpture and she was just in time to do it. The chair was removed later and given to the creator for the restoration. After it the theater wanted to have the well-loved sculpture back, but Victoria could not:

Victoria chose the place for the composition out of the list offered in the town administration, and after a talk with the head of the theater “Aistyonok” about sculptures next to the theaters in other cities she decided to make a composition – three chairs with fairy tales characters – a king, a fool and a princess. All the materials were bought on the money of the graduate, that’s why only one chair was created, that of the king.

«If it got broken maybe it means that something is not right with it and somebody won’t like it again and break it?»

The supervisor of the graduation project was sure that the matter was not in the object, it was in the man. But the chair wasn’t returned.

By chance Sergei Popov, a dweller of Irkutsk, heard of the unclear future of the sculpture and decided to take part in its destiny: “People were making it, doing their best – we need to save it somehow, all the more it is nothing to me”. As a result the chair ended up on the territory of the town clinic №1, where Sergei has the studio. The sculpture again got into a risky position on the new place: the chair was placed close to the road where driving up cars could damage it. That’s why the third place was found – not far from the blood donor center.

There the chair will be installed in 2017 and will be under protection there so we hope it will be safe from vandals and assaults. But the access will become limited not only for vandals. And the place the sculpture was designed and created for is empty again.

You can bump into a collection of benches and chairs on a small space between the bank of the Ushakovka River and houses on Polenov Street. In the fall of 2015 a bench with a chess board, an umbrella-bench, a sling-bench, a composition “Bond of Wedlock” next to it and a funny garbage bin “A Mouse in a Carpetbag” were installed. Next spring several small chairs, a carpet-bench, a gigantic rainbow bench, a sewing machine, a flying broom and a phone booth joined the company. Most of the art work is made of metal and decorated with intricate smithing. All of them are created so that you can interact with them – to sit, play, have rest, and take pictures with. They are not statues that are created to be looked at from a distance; you can touch them and give them a twiddle.

The mover and keeper of all the variety is Svetlana Tkachenko, she lives in a house nearby. Svetlana was fulfilling beautification projects before (for example, you can still see a mosaic next to a house on Lyzina Street, the creation of it was her initiative several years ago). She was even a head of property management company “Prioritet”. Now she continues to create new objects and looks after their condition. Her family and the above mentioned Management Company support her in her efforts.

In 2010 when the house was put into commission there was a waste land there. The dwellers collected money for the sandbox and benches, put a small fence around the yard, installed outdoor fitness equipment on the river bank. At the time Svetlana Tkachenko was a director of   property management company.

Soon after that the fitness equipment   was broken and thrown into the river. It was taken out, restored and installed again but that time it was put into the inner yards. The situation repeated several times. Now one piece of the fitness equipment undergoes repair again.

“Now and then I lose heart, when a kid is breaking something down and his mom is just standing there and doesn’t say a word to him. Or when adults go away and leave without putting back the toys their kids scattered around. Then I have to go out and place them back myself”.

Svetlana Tkachenko

The objects get broken regularly: the chipboard seats (bloated after heavy rain) are pushed out the chairs or the broom gets crashed. But new objects are constantly added and the old ones are restored. By that Svetlana and her assistants stand their ground, they try to nail down new meanings (friendliness, coziness, safety) for the area. In the fight with vandalism Svetlana even finds the reason for optimism: last year one of the toys had to be restored six times, this year – only twice. From time to time they succeed to be proactive: there is a video surveillance on a square by the river and sometimes they manage to talk with the teenagers from other houses and districts that start to break the objects and in such way they manage to stop or avoid the damage.

A cow and a dragon: different destinies

There are a lot of empty spaces in the center of Irkutsk. It is not surprising that people try to fill them in regularly. Let’s compare two such attempts with different destinies.

The dental clinic on Lenin Street has an experience of developing surrounding area – installation of ice sculptures, of new street lamps and repairs of the broken ones, creation of a square. The mover of these processes is Vasily German, the director of the clinic. The first all-weather sculpture in the square was a bronze cow. Its symbolic meaning was not clear. An official explanation is that the matter is in milk and calcium that strengthen teeth. However the passersby were looking for other explanations – the animal was perceived either as a holy cow or a cow that was installed in honor of some Mr. Cow who donated money for the sculpture. As soon as the square started to be filled with other sculptures (as envisioned by the creators some of them should remind about the stages of life, others – about the eternal truths), it became clear that the whole had more value than individual meanings do.

Irkutsk’s dwellers size up the sculpture park in many ways. Some see a strange mixture and laugh crammed meanings (monkeys that symbolize a Buddhist principle of not causing harm, milky cow, Big Ben, All in one place), but it doesn’t prevent the passersby and clients from having rest there. That tiny piece of land is always clean, it is comfortable, safe and pretty calm there despite that main busy streets are just couple meters away from there.

Nobody makes an attempt to destroy the sculptures. Maybe because they are on a private territory but maybe because they became customary: the social networks are full of pictures of Irkutsk’s dwellers and tourists hugging the eclectic sculptures. By the way these philosophical sculptures do not evoke any visible activity of fans of ideological revelations.

There was much more fuss and discussion about a dragon sculpture that was in a square on the corner of Gorky and Sukhe-Bator Streets until 2012. The square had been empty before the dragon installation. Maybe that is why the creator managed to get permission for the installation. Vera Kondrateva, a professional blacksmith, made a gift for the town meaning that a dragon is a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity in the Orient. Besides next to that place there were the office of the company established by Vera and her husband and Blacksmith’s Union, that’s why the dragon was looked after, repainted regularly, they planted flowers around it.

Pretty soon the sculpture had the critics finding other meanings in the dragon installation. Some people thought of it as an ad of a Japanese restaurant across the road (by the way the restaurant disappeared right after the dragon was moved out). Others considered that it was installed in honor of the mayor as he was born in the year of dragon. The third party was strongly opposed to a non-Christian symbol and was offering to demolish it or add a sculpture of St.George next to it.

While adults were discussing the fate of the dragon, kids played around the dragon with pleasure – they climbed on top of it and looked into his jaws to count its fangs, and the groups of tourists were taking pictures with the mythical creature. But unlike the sculptures next to the dentist clinic the dragon didn’t hold its ground.

Maybe it was because it was located in an open space in front of everyone. And maybe it was too close to the central square with its administrative functions. When the town authorities were offered to place a square dedicated to Yury Nozhikov, the first governor of Irkutsk Oblast, on the place of the dragon, they decided to accept the offer: the memory of historical figures is more appropriate in the city center than a mythical creature. The dragon was demolished, although the public opinion wasn’t so univocal. The website Irk.ru offered the users all together to choose a new place for the dragon. Most of the comments were for the restoration of the dragon and installing it back to the original place and for creating a new square for the monument of the governor.

But it was the dragon that had to look for a new place. Now after the restoration it stands on the territory of medical rehabilitation center of Russian Railroad on Baikal highway. There is a center of Tibetan medicine next to it. Mythical east and practical one now complement one another. And in the center of Irkutsk that is geographically close to great oriental cultures the symbols of the Orient cause too much annoyance yet.

The laws of survival

Why do some art objects manage to survive while others perish? The chances for a long life are bigger for the initiatives that successfully fit in the environment: they don’t cause annoyance, they look natural, and sometimes they are even hard to be noticed like the mosaic stair covered by the autumn foliage for example. By the way discreetness protects from vandalism: the brighter the object is, the more eminent parts it has, the clearer the meaning of the object is, the higher the chances are that the object won’t be accepted by the town (by vandals or by those who don’t like the meaning of it). In that situation the creator’s insistence in restoration of the broken can help, although sometimes it seems that control is more effective than conviction: the objects are better protected by fences and video surveillance.

Does it mean that fresh perspective of an artist or any other town dweller has no chances to survive without fences and protection? The chances will be much higher if the creator captures other with the desire to beautify the town or bring new meanings, if the meanings are clear and accepted by the dwellers as their own. When Irkutsk people are not only recipients or viewers of the changes but co-authors and co-creators they will care about the future of their creations.

Of course there is always a possibility that even accepted work like “A Dragon” will become less valuable than the context – the sustainable connections and conventional characteristics of the chosen place. But while there are private initiatives there is always a chance to convince, to make the space attractive and transform its meaning.