Saint Petersburg

Valery Koshlyakov

Marble Palace

In 1984, Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin imagined a museum that would house disappearing urban buildings, important and otherwise, as a way of salvaging the past and, thus, collective memory. Each building, reduced to a scale model, would hold equal status in the exhibit. “After all,” the duo explained, “each is suffused with the soul of its architect, builders, inhabitants, and even the passersby who happened to cast an absentminded glance its way.” Their project, notable for its inevitable juxtaposition of all forms of architecture and its muddling of high and low, prevailing ideologies, and historical distinctions, also acts as a helpful prologue to the recent sculptural work of Valery Koshlyakov, whose architectural investigations into the strata of cultural memory—and, at the same time, the transience of its “built” expression—seem almost to literalize Brodsky and Utkin’s “paper architecture.”

Koshlyakov, based mainly in Moscow, represented Russia in the São Paulo and Venice biennials, in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Viktor Misiano, curator of the Russian contributions to both events, organized the Russian pavilion in Venice under the rubric “the return of the artist” and in São Paulo according to notions of urban consciousness. His curatorial choices are best explained by the fact that Koshlyakov is among the first generation of artists since Russia’s “second avant-garde” (the “dissidents” of the ’60s through the ’80s) to make art that does not draw primarily from a well of political and social issues or ideological subjects; the artist’s return marks his ability to work in any idiom, rather than in response to a topical theme. His work, which relies on a collage of assorted styles and periods of architecture, takes on a ruined appearance—the cheap materials notwithstanding, he consciously adds a distressed, disorganized appearance to both his paintings and his sculptures—permitting an examination of the way memory abstracts and contemporizes iconic structures.

In his first solo exhibition in Saint Petersburg—comprising large cardboard sculptures, fourteen maquettelike models, and four paintings—Koshlyakov depicts classical and contemporary building forms using materials like Scotch tape, embossed cardboard, and wood so that they appear not timeless or functional but ephemeral and nonfunctional. The show’s introductory gallery is occupied by four towering, spindly cardboard columns, either leaning against the walls or lodged against the high ceiling for support. The column, long a symbol of strength and permanence, is rendered useless, unable even to bear itself up. Likewise, the adjacent waist-high cardboard flower shop (its function is intelligible only by its inscription) loses its utilitarian function in order to embody that very function as a dollhouse-size cultural placeholder, something to be preserved as a reminder of what a flower shop might look like.

Many of the larger sculptures include recesses that could, and sometimes do, house images; like temples, altars, or chapels, they appear inviting and intimate. Others, without such alcoves, are blockier and invite circumambulation rather than potential entry. A particularly solid piece, for example, entails a ramshackle Gehryesque construction that implies a definite architectural sensibility, but without any clear organization to it. On the front of the structure, Koshlyakov has pasted two cutout images, one depicting the cheaply constructed apartment blocks erected under Khrushchev to combat housing shortages and the other, a statue of Mayakovsky. The broad, daunting facade of the photographed building mimics the stout, imposing three-dimensional work, while the statue provides context: It is Moscow, or, better, because of the work’s imprecise details, a memory of Moscow.

Nicole Rudick