Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship 2015, Impressions from Saint Petersburg Part 3, Orla O'Sullivan

Orla O'Sullivan '16, Russian major, is diving deep into the extensive collections at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, conducting research on visual culture and responses to controversial exhibitions for her President's Summer Fellowship.

The three months since returning from Russia have been a blur of starting my thesis, and running between classes, and intermittently, reflecting upon my trip. I feel inexplicably grateful for receiving the opportunity to intern at the Hermitage, study classical and contemporary Russian art, and learn how to articulate critical analyses using idiomatic Russian. I, moreover, feel so grateful for this opportunity to continually stretch my ability to move through and be comfortable in new situations, geographically, interpersonally, and linguistically. Thank you. 

As my two prior posts express, I was, and continue to be, particularly interested to study Russian visual culture, civil society, and their influences. My project, which was founded upon three tiers of museum internship, art historical research, and language study aimed to examine these three aspects within a Russian cultural context, because the field is difficult to study and access in the U.S.

My time at the Hermitage was kaleidoscopic: On my first few days, I worked at an international conference on virtual archeology, where I met several people, including an architect studying the semantics of the web. I assisted at an international conference on Peter the Great and at the museum’s annual gala (quite the spot for oligarch and star sightings!). I also labeled Old Russian rock fragments with quills and ink; translated archeological documents from Russian into English; and worked on a presentation for a contemporary exhibition, titled “The Black Square of War,” a tribute to both Kazimir Malevich and the museum’s history of the Great Patriotic War, otherwise known as World War II. 

This work informed the second aspect of my project, which focused on Russian art history acquaintance and research, because it invited me to not only think about previously unknown artists and movements, but to also organize and structure my thoughts in a collaborative, group setting. My goal for this second aspect of my project was predicated on exploration and discovery: To this end, I visited as many museums as I could either ride a train or walk to. I visited the temporary exhibits at the Hermitage, and was particularly interested in a retrospective exhibit on Zaha Hadid, a British-Iranian (st)architect, who incorporates Russian avant-garde thought to her massive, fluid designs. Furthermore, I visited for example, the Faberge Museum (yes, such a thing exists and it is both stunning and glorious); the Museum of Nonconformist Art, which had a fantastic exhibit on dissident, self-published - samizdat - literature; ROSPhoto Museum of Photography, which had an exhibit focusing on Russian Orthodoxy in the late Soviet-era; and Tretyakov Gallery which, among many exhibits, had a tucked-away little gem called “Nikolai Kasatkin: A Dual Picture,” playing with traditions of landscape painting and photorealism. 

Visiting the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow was one of the highlights of this aspect of my project. The museum houses the country's first  related to the development of contemporary Russian art from 1950 to present. It is the leading translator and publisher of critical theory in Russia, and, to this end, it is also a crucible of contemporary art thought, particularly around importing discursive practices, i.e. those that developed in the West but not in the USSR, into a Russian vernacular. While I was there, I had the opportunity to meet a curator with a Reed professor (hello, Zhenya!) and discuss the possibility of developing a Reed internship program at the museum. 

Integral to my summer experience was that I only spoke Russian, and I reserved English only for speaking to family and friends. I began acquiring books (especially poetry and critical theory), listening to lectures, writing about my responses to these, and - most importantly - working closely with a language tutor. This was, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult aspects of my time in Russia. It’s one thing, I learned, to small-talk proficiently, but it’s quite another to not only dream, but to also describe said dream in another language. I had to lay aside my pretensions about how proficient my linguistic facility should be; my tendency to rush through my thoughts; and thus, bungle the grammar. Instead, I  had to focus on slowing down, which allowed me to not only focus on articulating my thought grammatically, but also to understand what and how it was being said. 

Slowing down my thoughts, or rather, allowing them to form fully was an unexpected learning moment, one that became foundational to the way that I navigated different cultural spaces. By slowing down, I afforded myself the opportunity to observe, and more specifically to listen and to absorb nuances expressed in conversation. It allowed me a moment to reflect and consider my own responses, and in doing so, it afforded me the intellectual space to continue submerging myself socially and begin building friendships and connections in Petersburg. For having the opportunity to learn this, I am deeply grateful. Thanks for you this summer opportunity, and for the connections it has allowed me to make and build upon. 

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, russia, art, visual culture, archive, curation