From soap opera to art: why a Moscow museum recreates “Santa Barbara”


MOSCOW – A sleek new cultural center opened on Saturday evening with an arts event that Muscovites have been waiting for for years. But the spectators of the inauguration of the vast new GES-2 museum had not come to see paintings or sculptures. They were watching “Santa Barbara”.

Every day until March 22, 2022, a team of 80 comedians and technicians realize the vision of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson by recreating, filming and editing episodes of this American soap opera in front of a live audience at the museum. . Kjartansson said he hoped the performance would be a “living sculpture” and that the 98 videos he and his team recorded would become a “history painting” for posterity.

On opening night, an audience gathered around a set that had been built in the nave of GES-2, while two actors in tuxedos took several takes of a scene. The dramatic music signaled the arrival of a plot climax and a technician snapped a blink.

“It was all lies! an actress exclaimed moments later, before a director stopped her and asked her to repeat the line, more slowly. On another stage, a few meters away, a team edited the images in real time under the gaze of the public.

Forgotten by many in the United States, “Santa Barbara” is a cultural touchstone in Russia, where it was a television hit after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many Russians, the soap opera – dubbed into Russian and aired from 1992 – was a first glimpse into American culture and an introduction to the human face of a Cold War enemy.

For a decade, until it ceased airing in 2002, “Santa Barbara” became a national obsession: The streets were empty when it aired, people named their pets after the Figures and Californian interiors from the series inspired Russian families to renovate their homes, installing arches in place of square door frames. It has also become a part of the Russian vernacular: even now the expression “a kind of ‘Santa Barbara'” refers to a chaotic situation.

“We all watched it, the whole country,” said Nataliya Golubeva, 55, who attended the opening of GES-2 on Saturday. “The actors were like a part of our family.”

Her daughter, Maria A. Golubeva, 30, said it was “unexpected and very cool” to see the show recreated live in front of her and remember her youth. “I grew up with this story all my childhood,” she said.

Kjartansson, 45, is known for his performance works that stretch their material over a long period of time, often involving rehearsals, such as “A Lot of Sorrow,” a six-hour recorded performance at MoMA PS1, in which the group The National sang the same thing. song over and over again. At the end of 2020, Kjartansson staged “The Sky in a Room”, for which he hired performers to sing a popular Italian tune in a church in Milan while accompanying himself on the organ. It went on for hours a day, every day, for a month.

When Kjartansson was asked to create a new work to mark the opening of GES-2, he was looking for something so monumental, he said in a speech at the museum on Saturday. “I was reading Pushkin and imagining snow coming from the ceiling,” he added, but realized that if he had continued in this vein, the work would have been a “very bland kind of fetishization. Western Russia “.

After reading an article in Foreign Policy magazine Of the settlements in Ukraine and Russia named Santa Barbara, he was struck by the role soap played in post-soviet society, he said.

“Santa Barbara” seems an unlikely fit for the former Soviet space, emerging from decades of planned economy, bread lines and restrictions on freedom. Many characters in the series enjoy privileges that few in the early 90s Russia could dream of: private helicopters, lavish outfits, decadent cocktails.

For Russians listening at the time, Kjartansson said in an interview, the show’s talk about stocks and private companies must have been “some sort of mental explosion”.

Alla Y. Belyak, 63, a literary translator who watched the show in the 1990s and was at the event on Saturday, said when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians “didn’t know capitalism”. But when they lit up “Santa Barbara” she said, “Here he appeared, with a human face: beautiful, elegant, modern. Watching him helped Russians conclude that Americans “are the same people as us, with children, intrigues, infidelities,” she added.

As Russian viewers became absorbed in the vicissitudes of life in Santa Barbara, artists were enjoying a freedom of experimentation previously unattainable, said Teresa Iarocci Mavica, director of the VAC Foundation, owner of GES-2.

“Contemporary Russian art, it was born in the late 80s and early 90s,” she said. She added that she wanted GES-2 to probe and understand its evolution, so it was appropriate to start with “Santa Barbara”, which would remind many Russians of that time. Kjartansson’s work was a “mirror”, she added, which could help “understand how much our world has changed in the past 30 years.”

One thing that has radically changed since then, however, is Russia’s relationship with the West. Saturday’s GES-2 launch came as President Vladimir V. Putin raised geopolitical stakes on Ukraine and NATO and quelled political dissent in his country.

Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of GES-2, said he wanted the institution to grapple with Russia’s complicated relations with the West and the country’s conflicting identity as an integral part, but also quite distinct, from Europe. “Santa Barbara” is on the front page of an inaugural season at the museum entitled “Comment not être colonisé?” », A question and an invitation to Russian artists to engage in Western culture while creating something of their own.

Manacorda called the attitudes of Russian society towards the West “fascination, but also rejection, but also fear, but also seduction”, and added that this had been the case over the centuries, since the travels. from Peter the Great across Europe, which inspired him to build the canalized city of St. Petersburg, to the rejection of Western capitalism during the Cold War and to today’s ambiguous relationships.

“To some extent, these are the contradictions that ‘Santa Barbara’ highlights,” Manacorda said.

GES-2, where access to all events and exhibitions is free, is privately funded by the VAC Foundation and endowed by Leonid Mikhelson, billionaire art enthusiast and CEO of Novatek, the largest private gas group in Russia. Mikhelson on Wednesday offered Putin and Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of Moscow a private tour of the institution, before it opens to the public.

Mikhelson and Poutine meet regularly to discuss business. This connection between the backer of GES-2 and the Kremlin, which is just across the river from the museum, has made some visitors wonder if it would be possible for the museum to foster artistic freedom. at the same level as the time recalled by “Santa Barbara”. .

Maria V. Alyokhina, a member of the performing arts collective Pussy Riot, said in an interview on Sunday that opening a new institution at a time of intense political and social repression was like “throwing a party during a plague. », A reference to a play by Alexandre Pouchkine.

“For me, it’s not easy to browse the big art centers in Russia,” she said. The Pussy Riot had performed all over the world, she added, but she knew she wouldn’t have a chance to perform in Russia until Putin left the Kremlin.

Alyokhina, 33, spent more than a year in prison for “hooliganism” after the performance in 2012 of a “punk rock prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow; Pussy Riot said the art action was aimed at criticizing the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Putin in an election campaign. Alyokhina was jailed again this year, after an Instagram post in January called on Russians to protest the poisoning and subsequent arrest of opposition politician Alexei A. Navalny. She is now under curfew and banned from leaving Moscow.

She was frustrated, she added, that Moscow’s newest and trendiest cultural institution ignored Russia’s current political state. “It’s really cool what they do, I really like it. It’s just that we also have reality, not just ‘Santa Barbara’, ”Alyokhina said.

Kjartansson gave Alyokhina a tour of the GES-2 on Sunday. In an interview, Kjartansson acknowledged the complexities of contemporary Russia, but said there is also so much creativity to celebrate.

“A lot can be criticized in this country, but we cannot ignore the fact that Russian culture is completely awesome,” he said. This feeling had only deepened during the preparations for “Santa Barbara”, he added.

In the nave of GES-2 on Saturday, as the cast took several takes of a scene against a backdrop suggesting a wealthy man’s office, Anna Shepel, 36, watched, thinking how far back this show was. a three decades was relevant today.

“When I first heard about this I thought it was weird – like, why? ” she said. “But then I thought it might be related to our history. We don’t understand our contemporary history enough, even though we now have several decades to think about it. Foreign artists and projects like this can help us. to do it, and not just put it aside. ”


Corina C. Butler