This website uses cookies. Cookies remember your actions and preferences for a better online experience.
I agree
This website uses cookies. Cookies remember your actions and preferences for a better online experience.


Why do the art-works in the town environment have different destinies? How Irkutsk rejects or accepts private creative initiatives of its townspeople

text & photo
Street art-works are a part of a town's identity. The most interesting ones are those that were created at the initiative of townspeople, not that of the government or business. These works are always a statement of the author about the way he wants to see the town environment; they are his or her attempt at artistic transformation and often they are an array of conceptual accents. The author's statement expressed by way of town enhancement can be accepted and supported by the townspeople and can encounter counteraction. I tried to follow up the destinies of several Irkutsk art works in order to find out what helps and what hinders them from being accepted by the town.

Felicitous Stairs
Private initiatives to improve the town environment or to fill in empty spaces in Irkutsk are not uncommon, but they do not always take root. One of the successful cases is that of a stairway decorated by ceramic mosaic that leads from the railway lyceum to Glazkovsky Bridge.
Elena Nosova (at that time a student at the technical university) is the author of the stairs design. It was her diploma project. Anna, the project supervisor, explains that the final project can be fulfilled either in the outdoor or indoor environment. Usually graduates choose indoor projects. outdoor projects are hard both physically and financially, but Elena wanted to creat something for the city.

Elena Nosova, hoped to find one in the center or not far from it but the stairs there usually require restoration and it means they require investment. Among the options was "Sector 130" but the negotiation process with the owners scared them away, especially the fact that some of the stairs have more than one owner. In the end the left bank, where a relatively intact stairway was found, was lucky. But after all a little bit of restoration was needed: the upper part of the steps had crumbled badly and Elena's father concreted them.

A few years ago Irkutsk's media wrote about the author of the design — Elena Nosova, a graduate of the technical university, who had made all 3227 tiles by hand. And the work caused acclamation that is quite unusual for Irkutsk. In a comment on one of the publications someone even said: "Well done! I wonder if there is even one person who is not satisfied". Only a few passersby using the stairs were grumpy but it was only during the installation when passage there was obstructed. But the main proof that the town accepted the work is its present state. Three years later it has almost not changed: the mosaic is a bit damaged only on one of the lower steps (possibly the result of a winter fight with ice).
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 cool in my
Elena Nosova
How can we explain the good fortune of this art-work? Everything was thought over beforehand. Elena used materials that are resistant to frost and physical impact including intentional impact, plus she chose a muted floral design and tender colors for the pattern that naturally fit into the surroundings.
Another stairway in Universitetsky district (the pedestrian zone — the so-called Broadway) was decorated by the artist Sergei Pnyov in the summer of 2016. The artwork for the "Broadway" was created for Irkutsk’s 355th anniversary. The project included the painting of several walls, framing stairs. Sergei prepared sketches, got the approval of the "Universitetsky" civic self-government, and attained project approval.

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, commemorative symbols appeared on the surface, later it was fleshed out with recognizable silhouettes of Irkutsk’s buildings.

They completed most of the work over one weekend; the rest was finished in the evenings. When festive banners had appeared, color emphasis was added to the flower beds and fences and the space became an organic whole.
How does an artist usually work? It is a closed process; a picture is not seen by anyone before it is finished. And in our case it was all public and you get the response of the viewer immediately
Sergey Pnyov
The idea of decorating the stairway itself — to paint the steps — was born on the fly, during the process of the work; luckily they had plenty of paint. Passersby including children offered their help and readily began to paint. Sergei says that he received great pleasure from the work. Now he is ready to propose new projects and they are again for the real town environment.
The Battle of Statements
Not all Irkutsk’s art-works were as lucky as the stairs. Some were vandalized, some even more than once. A textbook case is that of a sculpture in the shape of a cello that was installed on Uritsky Street in 2011.
The place was chosen by Ilia Stavsky, a sculptor, quite deliberately. Street musicians often play here in a small square next to the "Dom Byta" trade center. The square itself is not interesting at all and the cello gave it an additional meaning separating the space from the shopping street. Perhaps that is what annoyed the vandals: they were breaking the very delicate parts of the sculpture that were emphasizing the elegance and delicacy of the piece (the bow, sounding board and strings). It is interesting that the sculpture was inviting people to interact, to play. The vandals understood the invitation in their own way: for them it became a way to make a statement, to show off their power in return.

After the first wrecking the sculptor restored the work but later got tired of dealing 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 into the town environment.
In 2012, a sculpture "The King's Chair" with a king peeping out from behind the chair's back was installed opposite the puppet theater "Aistyonok". It was the work of Victoria Vodyanskaya, another graduate of the technical university, doing her diploma work for the Applied and Decorative Arts department. Victoria chose the place for the composition out of a list proffered by the town administration, and after a talk with the head of the theater "Aistyonok" about sculptures next to theaters in other cities she decided to make a composition – three chairs with fairy-tale characters - a king, a fool and a princess. All the materials (wood, concrete, and ceramics) were bought by the undergraduate herself, which is why only one chair was created, that of the king.

The chair took root, it invited children to play: they were supposed to look for keys that were hidden on the legs, under the seat, on the chair's back, and in the king's hand. The staff of the theater liked the sculpture too.

The sculpture awaited its destroyer for two and a half years. One early morning a drunken man chopped the chair's legs with an axe. A worker of the theater ran out to protect it and she was just in time. The chair was removed later and given to its author for restoration. After this the theater wanted to have the well-loved sculpture back, but Victoria could not agree:
If it got broken maybe it means that something is not right with it and somebody won’t like it again and break it?

Viktoria Vodyaskina
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 local Irkutsk man, heard of the unclear future of the sculpture and decided to take part in its destiny: "People created it, doing their best — we need to save it somehow, anyway it is no problem for me". As a result the chair ended up by the town’s clinic № 1, where Sergei has a studio. The sculpture again found itself in a perilous position in the new place: the chair was placed close to the road where cars driving in could easily damage it. So a third place was found — not far from the blood donor center.

There the chair will be installed in 2017 and will be under protection so we hope it will be safe from vandals and assaults. But access will be 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 in a small space between the bank of the River Ushakovka 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. The following 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 – sit, play, have a rest, and pose 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 improvement projects before (for example, you can still see a mosaic next to a house on Lyzina Street, its creation was her initiative several years ago). She was even a head of the property management company "Prioritet". Now she continues to create new works 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 wasteland there. The local people collected money for a sandbox and benches, put a small fence around the yard, and installed outdoor fitness equipment on the river bank. 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 was repeated several times. Now one piece of the fitness equipment is undergoing repair once again.
Of course, now and then I lose heart, when a child is breaking something and his mother 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 put them back myself
Svetlana Tkachenko
The structures get broken regularly: chipboard seats (bloated after heavy rain) are pushed out, the chairs or the broom broken. But new objects are constantly added and 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 a 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 in being proactive: there is video surveillance on a square by the river and sometimes they manage to talk with teenagers from other houses and districts that start to break things and in such a way they manage to stop or avoid 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 experience in developing the surrounding area — the installation of ice sculptures, of new street lamps and repair of broken ones, the 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. The official explanation is that milk and calcium strengthen teeth. However 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 had donated money for the sculpture. As soon as the square began to be filled with other sculptures (as envisioned by some they should suggest the stages of life, by others — eternal truths), it became clear that the whole had more value than the meaning of its parts.

Irkutsk’s townspeople appraise the sculpture park in different ways. Some see a strange mixture and laugh at the crowded meanings (monkeys, symbolizing the Buddhist principle of not doing evil, a milk cow, and Big Ben), but it doesn’t prevent the passersby and clients from relaxing there. That tiny piece of land is always clean, comfortable, safe and quite tranquil despite the fact that busy streets are just a few meters away.

Nobody makes an attempt to destroy the sculptures. Perhaps because they are on private land, but perhaps because they have become their own: the social networks are full of pictures of townspeople and tourists hugging the eclectic art works. By the way these philosophical sculptures have not provoked any visible activity on the part of lovers of ideological denunciation.
There was much more fuss and discussion about a dragon sculpture that stood in a square on the corner of Gorky and Sukhe-Bator Streets until 2012. The square had been empty before the dragon appeared. Perhaps that is why the author managed to get permission for its installation. Vera Kondrateva, a professional blacksmith, made the gift to the city meaning that the dragon is a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity in the Orient. Besides, the office of the company established by Vera and her husband and the Blacksmith’s Union was nearby, and so the dragon was looked after, repainted regularly, and had flowers planted around it.

Pretty soon the sculpture had critics finding other meanings in the dragon’s appearance. Some thought of it as an ad for the Japanese restaurant across the road (by the way the restaurant disappeared right after the dragon was removed). Others considered that it was set up in honor of the mayor as he was born in the year of the dragon. Still others were strongly opposed to a non-Orthodox symbol and proposed its dismantling or the addition of a sculpture of St. George next to it.

While adults were discussing the fate of the dragon, children were playing around it with pleasure — they climbed on top of it and looked into its jaws to count its fangs, and groups of tourists were taking pictures with the mythical creature. Yet, unlike the sculptures next to the dental clinic, the dragon didn’t hold its ground.

Perhaps it was because it was located in an open space in front of everyone. Or possibly it was too close to the central square with its administrative significance. When it was proposed to the city authorities to arrange a square dedicated to Yury Nozhikov, the first governor of Irkutsk Oblast, at the place of the dragon, they decided to accept the proposal: the memory of historical figures is more appropriate in the city center than a mythical creature. The dragon was dismantled, although public opinion was not so univocal. The website suggested that the users choose a new place for the dragon all together. Most comments were for the restoration of the dragon and having it installed back in its original place and for making a new square for the monument to the governor.

But it was the dragon that had to look for a new place. Now, after its restoration, it stands at Russian Railways medical rehabilitation center on Baikal highway. There is a center of Tibetan medicine next to it. The mythical and the practical East now complement each another. While in the center of Irkutsk, geographically close to the great oriental cultures, symbols of the Orient still cause too much annoyance.
The Laws of Survival
Why do some art works manage to survive while others perish? The chances of a long life are better for initiatives that successfully fit into the environment: they don’t cause annoyance, they look natural, and sometimes they are even hard to notice like the mosaic stairway covered by autumn foliage for example. By the way, discreetness protects from vandalism: the brighter the work is, the more its parts stand out, the clearer its meaning is, the more the chances are that it won’t be accepted by the town (by vandals or by those who don’t like its connotations). In that case the author’s insistence on restoration of the damaged work can help, although sometimes it seems that control is more effective than conviction: the objects are better protected by fences and video surveillance.

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

Of course there is always the possibility that even accepted works like "The Dragon" will become less meaningful 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.

Nina Morozova
Liisi Mölder
Rinat Ishmukhametov
Fabian Weiß
Julia Sellman
Anton Klimov