Kronstadt

The two-year site-responsive project undertaken in the town of Kronstadt, a settlement founded by Tsar Peter the Great on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland in 1704.

took place over two summers, in 2003 and 2004. The two projects were based on periods of residence on the island together with in depth research about the unique history of the place, and the peculiarities of its landscape.

The 2003 project, Cross Encounters, which took place during the 300 year anniversary of the nearby city of St Petersburg, was about the arrival, the immediate impression, exploring the differences and coming to terms with what we found. The 2004 project, Interconnection, which was timed to coincide with Kronstadt’s 300 year anniversary, delved deeper, and focused on its role in the history of communication, as the site of the first ever working radio broadcast.

A gathering and exchanging of artistic ideas, methods, temperaments and skills in a unique architectural and historic site, bringing together Russian and international artists.

By the standards of most European settlements, Kronstadt is very new, only 300 years old, but has an astonishing amount of unique and significant marine architecture. Peter I built Kronstadt as the most modern structure in the world. The design of Kronstadt seen from above, or on a map, is like looking into the mechanistic workings of a clock – everything was built to precision and purpose. However, the structures which were built to make Russia a great naval power are now in severe decay.

Kronstadt is a powerful symbol of both strength and resistance, and is not only a part of Russian history but part of world history. As well as defending the Russian and Soviet empires against Western invasion and Nazi conquest, Kronstadt played an instrumental role in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the defeated rebellion against the Bolsheviks in 1921 – all of which directly affected the course of world history.

Until 1996, Kronstadt was a closed area to all foreigners. The fascinating Petrine-era and later architecture, its vast naval storehouses and canals, its elegant palaces and exquisite naval cathedral were known only in illustrations. However, now Kronstadt is in a state of transition as the systems that supported and maintained its splendour have disappeared.

For the people of Kronstadt, who saw their historic town fall into decline, were are issues of pride, isolation, opportunities and the impact of globalisation at stake. And so Kronstadt is not only a small island town off the cost of St Petersburg, but is a microcosm of the world in its state of 21st century flux and uncertainty, where wealth and poverty exist side by side but rarely touching, where a sense of the past and one’s place in it is continually challenged by feelings of insecurity and the ever-quickening rush of time.

The project residency  focused on trans-communication, about meetings, merging and creating something new out of what is already there. The artists sought to blur the boundaries of dichotomies such as art/life, past/present, nature/civilisation. public/private… The interconnecting or coming-together into a flow of artistic endeavour was symbolised by the water which surrounds and flows through the island via the canals and pools.

The themes of the project, encounters and interconnections, meant that the experience of being resident in Kronstadt was not an end in itself, but is part of an ongoing process. We hope that exhibiting this project will both stimulate an interest in Kronstadt itself, and to show how site-responsive art can begin a dialogue to help communities reappraise and re-value their locality.

Curator: Gillian McIver. Assistant: Oleg Yanushevsky. Lead Artist Julian Ronnefeldt. Project hosted by the National Centre for Contemporary Art, St Petersburg and supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

RESIDENCY

In summer of 2003 Gillian McIver, Hilary Powell and Julian Ronnefeldt of Luna Nera went to make a site-responsive project in Russia. The site was the historic naval fortress town of Kronstadt, which is located about 29km north west of St Petersburg on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great created this sea fortress in 1703, seeing it as a vital extension of the capital on the river Neva. Guarding the approach to the city, for 300 years Kronstadt offered protection to the Russian Empire and became a starting point for many great journeys of exploration out of Russia. Celebrated Russian navigators studied and researched here with many inventions made, tested and pioneered in the town. These include Popov’s invention of radio, Butakov’s mechanical telegraph, undersea mines, torpedoes and submarines and pioneering anti plague and water chlorination laboratories. But perhaps Kronstadt is best known due its role in the first and last popular armed uprisings against the rule of the communist party. Kronstadt sailors played major roles in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and, in 1921, they revolted once again against what they saw as the betrayal of the revolution by the Bolshevik regime.

Today Kronstadt suffers from the public neglect that has been plaguing Russia since perestroika. The approach to Kronstadt is notable for the long drive past expensive dachas of the rich, high-walled and bristling the CCTV cameras. The great highway along the tidal barrier that was begun in the late 1980s stands unfinished, falling into ruins. Once on the island the naval installations and buildings are crumbling, paint is peeling. But with the 2003 tercentennial of St Petersburg this is beginning to change: the central market (gostiny dvor) is being renovated and new national funds are being granted to restore Kronstadt. It is easy to see how magnificent the town was in its heyday: the anchor motif appears everywhere, richly decorating fences, gates, towers and buildings. The crumbling palaces and the gorgeous cathedral still have the power to impress the visitor. And the town is still full of young naval recruits in their distinctive, timeless costume.

The project was organised by Gillian McIver of Luna Nera, assisted by St Petersburg artist/curator Oleg Yanushevsky, in conjunction with the Centre for Contemporary Art St Petersburg. The NCCA obtained the space and provided the infrastructure, including buses to bring people from the city to the vernissage.

The area available for the exhibition Slovo Khudozhnika/ Word of the Artist was located on the canal in the central area of Kronstadt named the Admiralty. Nearby is the grandiose Naval Cathedral as well as many docks, pools and basins which lead to the harbour. The artists were given two buildings: the Residence, a former official’s house, and a derelict former naval storehouse contiguous to the Residence, which was the main site for the exhibition.

EXHIBITION ‘Slovo Khudozhnika/ Word of the Artist’

Inside the Residence, the sparse wood panelled rooms housed two related text-based installations. “Sails” was an installation of texts from old books (English, Russian and German) on European history and philosophy, focused on the Enlightenment, Napoleonic and Imperial eras. Deconstructed, the pages formed hanging sails which wafted in the summer breeze through open windows in the old house. The now-empty book covers became the second installation, “A history of the world in six volumes.” The installations created or provoked alternative readings of the meta-history of the past. The books chosen date from specific eras and deal with deliberately chosen themes: empire, naval power and nation building. Today the books – the most recent date from 1949 – can be read as “propaganda” but this brings up the issue of whether today’s “truth” may be tomorrow’s “propaganda”. On the other hand, the materials that replace the pages of some of the volumes – elemental substances such as bread, salt, wood and earth – are the timeless realities from which “history” is made.

Gillian Mciver

In “Bridges of St Petersburg,” which was projected on the rough bare wall of the storehouse, she went on to deal with another almost archetypal substance: the body of water that surrounds and creates the city: the rivers Moyka, Fontanka and Neva, and the web of canals. The everpresent consciousness of water is counterpointed by the mechanistic rhythms of the thirteen great bridges on the Neva, which open and close nightly to allow access to the sea. Installed in the storehouse, the film “Bridges of St Petersburg” was an environmental montage loop that mixed classic film footage with present material, fusing past and present representation of key emblems of St Petersburg.

art works in situ

“looking at Russia through the binoculars of the people” Julian Ronnefeldt, The Storehouse

Espionage is the theme of Julian Ronnefeldt’s installation “looking at Russia through the binoculars of the people”, which is a quotation and interpretation of a text of William Burroughs.

“Looking at Russia through the binoculars of the people” was created at Kronstadt in the Storehouse. The artist took fragments… found wood and metal from the site, and from local tourist markets and junk shops, traditional matrioshki dolls, Soviet posters, an old projector, giant film projector-lenses, record players etc to create a “peep show” shelter within the Storehouse. Playing with the idea of “spying” and “secrets” in this formerly closed town (closed throughout its history until 1996) Ronnefeldt invited the visitors to reverse the process of espionage and turn the visitors, which once were the subjects spied upon, into the spies spying on their own existence and past.

“Touching the theme of espionage in a relatively young Russia was not intended to “raise the finger” and remind the Russians of their difficult past. That would be a presumptuous position for a western person and a hypocritical one too, living in the country which boasts about its total CCTV control —implemented “for our own safety.” Rather , the work is meant to awaken memories and moments in the past of a nation which has undergone radical change in a very short period of time. Such a process tends to eradicate all heritage – the negative and the positive aspects – and with this, the danger of a system overtaking the vacuum that is left and using it to its advantage, but not actually changing anything to the advantage for the people. looking at russia through the binoculars of the people looks at the old, which has turned into a cliché of itself, and can be acquired in souvenir shops on the high street.”

– Julian Ronnefeldt
hilary powell
left and centre: installation Navigating History (bottles, video, prints). Right, Submergency, photographs displayed on monitor. The Storehouse.