RUSSIAN PAVILION 1914
RECOLLECTIONS FROM SIX YEARS AGO
Dry leaves rustling—that’s the main memory of that summer day of 2006 when I first entered the Giardini. I had never been there before, and I was there to assemble my installation in the Russian Pavilion for the Architectural Biennale. The garden was absolutely empty and covered with dry leaves of the old plane trees. It looked abandoned, desolate, and very sleepy. The leaves were covering everything—the alleys, the paths, the lawns, the buildings, and loud rustling was heard with every step, the only sound when we walked. The national pavilions were scattered all around us, half covered in leaves, some with windows boarded up with plywood, vanishing in the greenery of the garden. It was a city of unknown times, lost in the jungle, all its buildings belonging to all-too-different architectural styles. Only the dry leaves were uniting everything, reconciling all these random buildings standing next to each other, bringing them to common grounds. While I was walking along the alley and looking around, I was struck by the thought that this lost city sometimes turns into the focus of everything cutting edge in art and architecture, and I was shaken. I tried to imagine how this might look, but the rustling leaves averted any attempts to think about it. I couldn’t see anything contemporary around me; I couldn’t imagine jolly crowds in these sleepy alleys.
Slowly rustling down the alley we finally approached the Russian Pavilion, and I saw it for the first time. It was more abandoned, forgotten, and covered with leaves than any other. The number 1914 on the façade suggested the building year, and it looked as though it had hardly been visited since then. Immediately it recalled an old boarded-up Moscow dacha cottage abandoned by its owners years ago. This echo wasn’t the result of an architectural similarity—it was the feeling, the mood, the spirit of the building, the rustling leaves. I thought of my own dacha, a small shaken house built by my grandfather near Moscow in the early 1950s, where I spent my childhood. It stood boarded up for many years until I returned there as an adult, with my own children. I recalled how I opened that house, how I entered it, the smell of the damp rooms, the old clothes stacked there for years. I recalled many childhood memories in the dacha, how my father was insulating the water supply with old coats. I also remembered a picture by a 19th-century Russian painter named Maximov. It’s called Everything’s in the Past—an old dacha and two old ladies in front of it in the garden.
We walked up the stairs and entered the pavilion. The same smell of damp desolate rooms, half-light, and emptiness. It felt as if everything inside was covered with leaves too. Cracks and traces of endless leaks were everywhere. The glazed roof light in the central hall was covered with leaves that wouldn’t let light in. We walked around the dark, empty rooms, and I was trying to think of contemporary art and architecture. At the same time it came to my mind that the pavilion was built by Shchusev, who later designed Lenin’s mausoleum, and this made things even more complicated. I tried to build a link between an abandoned dacha and the severe symbol of a new era in Red Square, but I found only an impression of eternal sleep. I imagined the mausoleum covered in dry plane-tree leaves and a glass sarcophagus in the Giardini; then I remembered my own works I had to exhibit in these rooms and got totally lost.
At the end we opened the door leading to the back terrace, but even the view over the lagoon seemed unreal from this sleepy room—it was a part of a dream or a silent movie. It couldn’t help me clarify my thoughts and feelings. The oddest were the attempts to bring everything together: my lifelong image of the Venice Biennale (which was always something vague and unreachable), my dim ideas of contemporary art and architecture, and the works I made for this pavilion.
My small dacha stands just near the road. I see the gleaming asphalt through the thin trees and the cars speeding up and down. For many years looking from my terrace there I imagined that it’s a river or bay with boats rushing fast by. And when I gazed from the dark room to the Venice lagoon now I thought of my cottage and the road.
We spent a lot of time then dragging in crates and boxes with parts of the installations. This again was something from childhood. All these boxes packed with old stuff one doesn’t need anymore but can’t throw away, things that were taken to the dacha and left there to end their days. We were dragging these boxes into the pavilion and placing them chaotically in the grand hall. The most precious crate of all was the one packed with a hundred or so TVtubes, which were an important part of an installation. We brought it in at the end and placed it in the farthest corner, then we opened it to check if its contents were safe. It was. And then we went to rest. I looked back at the pavilion from the alley. In the twilight it looked even more desolate and abandoned than before. A strong wind was blowing, promising an approaching storm. In the morning we had to start assembling the exhibition.
All night it was raining, and in the morning the storm was gone and the sun was shining again. The leaves in the Giardini were wet and didn’t rustle anymore. We entered the pavilion. Everything was soaked. The floors were wet; the great hall resembled the lagoon. We ran to the main crate. It was filled with water; underneath one could see submerged rows of boxes with monitors. We looked up: the crate was standing under the biggest hole in the ceiling. We took the boxes out of the water and started placing the monitors on the sunny terrace overlooking the lagoon.