…After the waning of modernist fantasies about creatio exnihilo and of the desire for the purity of new beginnings, we have come to read cities and buildings as palimpsests of space, monuments as transformable and transitory, and sculpture as subject to the vicissitudes of time…The strong marks of present space merge in the imaginary with traces of the past, erasures, losses and heterotopias. (Andreas Huyssen, 2003)
Photography By Ekaterina Vasilyeva
Words By Jonathan Tomlinson
Ekaterina Vasilyeva began working on Petergof Road, in March 2015, after returning to Saint-Petersburg after spending some time away. After a long absence, Vasilyeva describes the city that had once been so familiar, to the point of being unnoticeable, all of a sudden felt strange.
Saint-Petersburg has a strong – established urban image. Since Vasilyeva was a child, she has come to perceive it in a dialectical manor, either with a reference to its grandeur and beauty or to its dark, mysterious side, hidden by the imperial facades.
Setting out to capture the city, what she noticed this time round was something different. It was not a space defined by clear-cut binaries, but a strange assemblage of odd fragments, pertaining to seemingly incompatible symbolic orders and layered on top of each other.
Dostoevsky called Saint – Petersburg “the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe”.
And it was true: the metropole did not develop organically, as most cities do, but was built exnihilo – as an embodied manifestation of the sovereign’ s utopian, colonial vision.
One cultural theorist referred to the city as ”an aggregate of geometric planes and drawn lines, without any content or depth”, a project which did not make provision for real people inhabiting it, but which could be described as a conceptual sculpture. It is the shadow of this utopian, top-down thinking that has been haunting the city ever since.
It reached its peak in the 20th century, with the advent of the socialist state, when another conceptual grid was imposed upon the existing landscape, precluding anything which did not fit the standardised schemata from gaining visibility.
Within the series, Vasilyeva took a phenomenological approach which would observe the space as it is, in its very particularity, paying attention to its quaint juxtapositions and acknowledging the actual forms of life lurking among the ruins of the Romantic imagination.
She focuses her attention on a very particular piece of land: the territory of the road from Saint – Petersburg to Petergof, a tract established by Peter the Great in 1710 to connect the newly built capital to the monarch’s suburban residencies and the resulting huge architectural ensemble according to the Peter idea had to overshadow the road from Paris to Versailles.
This territory exemplifies the paradoxical nature of the Russian landscape.
The road, yet another manifestation of the imperial vision, was constructed in accordance with the idea of picturesque. Its grand ensembles of palaces and nobility’s residencies, stretching along an imaginary line on the map, were constructed with the primary purpose of pleasing the enlightened observer’s eyes. This vision, however, was not meant to accommodate the actuality of the rural land, a layer which remained excluded from the official discourse and hence invisible.
Over the past three hundred years, the Petergof road landscape has borne witness to many a utopian vision; each of them transformed and scarred it, leaving behind marks which have often remained unaccounted for.