Pay it forward: Elena Yushina’s mission to help young Russian artists

Pay it forward: Elena Yushina’s mission to help young Russian artists

Despite a recent eviction, Elena Yushina, founder of St Petersburg's Aperto Gallery, is pressing on with her mission to give emerging artists from Russia and abroad a platform to showcase their work

22 January 2014

For a gallerist recently evicted from her space in a heavy-handed manner, Elena Yushina is amazingly upbeat. Despite being kicked out of Chetvert, a creative cluster in central St Petersburg, along with the rest of building's occupants, Yushina has found a new, temporary space and is pressing ahead with a new exhibition at Aperto Gallery next month. The exhibition, When the Sleeper Wakes, presents the work of recent graduates from London’s Royal College of Art and is typical of the innovative character of the gallery, which celebrates its one-year anniversary in February.

The name Aperto, which means “open” or “forward” was taken from the title of an exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1993. That show, which gave a platform to emerging artists, became a cult event in the Nineties. Since opening in 2013, Yushina has similarly offered a space to up-and-coming artists, predominantly from Russia. Contemporary art galleries such as Aperto stand out in a city like St Petersburg where art is almost exclusively reserved for majestic museums and consumed in conjunction with history.

When the Sleeper Wakes is Aperto’s sixth exhibition. The title takes its name from HG Wells’s novel about a future dystopian world; picking up on themes from the book, it presents both photographic and video artworks that question established historical narratives, and examine the dichotomy between reality and fiction. A previous exhibition, Don’t Even Think of Touching my Parasol by artists Sofia Gavrilova and Alexey Korsi, was similarly conceptual: a variety of different objects paired with “fake shadows” on a table, explored Plato’s theory of forms, which posits that ideas, not the material world, are the highest kind of reality.

Endeavour by Taus Makhacheva (2010)

The presentation of such complex ideas in abstract forms does not always go down well in Russia: 24-year-old Yushina is now accustomed to the phone calls from members of the public asking her if she’ll ever hold a “normal” exhibition. She remains nonplussed by such questioning, arguing that the lack of understanding surrounding contemporary art is not an exclusively Russian issue; even the art crowd, she says, can be sceptical about new trends.

One of the problems, she believes, is the hierarchical system within the Russian art world. “In museums in London or New York, even the waiters in the cafes are involved in a way. They always know what is going on and their opinions matter. In Russia, the cleaners in museums and galleries sometimes take down parts of the displays because no one ever explained to them why they’re there or why they’re important.”

“I don’t plan on making huge amounts of money from the gallery. It’s more of a social project than a business”

In December, around 30 young men wearing balaclavas forced their way into Chetvert and evicted the building's tenants after they had fallen from favour with the landlord. Under the original agreement, tenants had agreed to refurbish the space in exchange for cheap rents. Following the eviction, all Aperto's possessions are stored at Taiga Space, another creative hub in a 19th-century building in one of St Petersburg’s most up-and-coming neighbourhoods, just a stone's throw from the grand State Hermitage Museum. Taiga Space is home to bookshops, independent boutiques, a hostel and design studios. As for the future of her poroject, Yushina is not motivated by profit but by a sense of goodwill. “I don’t plan on making huge amounts of money from the gallery,” she says. “It’s more of a social project than a business.”

Brian's Bible by Beth Atkinson (2013)

Apart from exhibitions, the gallery has two other permanent projects. One is a library with an extensive selection of foreign titles on contemporary art and philosophy. The second is The Wall, an experiment to connect the public with the art world. To this end, a wall outside of the gallery has been given over to numerous well-known curators to use as they please. The first curator was David Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who presented a project by legendary Russian artists Komar and Melamid.

For now, Yushina is undeterred by not having a permanent space to work in. She is currently working as Kasper König's curatorial assistant at Manifesta 10, a roving biennial of contemporary European art, which is to be held in St Petersburg later this year, and continuing to collaborate on projects with art students from prestigious universities around the world. From Yale to the Royal College of Art, she is constantly on the look out for young talent. “Of course some people just smirk over the whole ‘contemporary art’ idea and then just leave the gallery,” she says. “But there are also the ones who ask questions and get involved and that’s what matters.”

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