In 2014 Outset Netherlands supported Erik van Lieshout’s new work The Basement for Manifesta 10 in Saint Petersburg. Van Lieshout (born 1968, Deurne, Netherlands) set up a studio in the basement of the State Hermitage Museum where the Hermitage ‘guards’ live – approximately 70 cats. These unusual guards have been a part of the museum’s life and history for the past 200 years, and enjoy a high social standing at the Hermitage.
The Basement is a mixed media installation, taking the form of a tunnel that the artist has built across two rooms in the second floor of the General Staff Building: the main venue for MANIFESTA 10 and the State Hermitage Museum’s new wing for modern and contemporary art. Inside the tunnel are drawings and prints of photographs the artist took during his time spent in the basement of the Winter Palace, where the museum’s cats live. The accompanying video follows Van Lieshout’s transformation of the cat’s living areas: from cleaning out the neglected cat cages to a complete renovation of their premises, including the addition of structures installed to enhance the cats’ comfort, opportunities for play, and general living conditions. All done of course in the artist’s fast paced, jump-cut, eccentric style, featuring his own interactions with museum staff and the Hermitage’s director along the way.
Van Lieshout reflects on the social-political aspects of museum life and Russian history in seemingly contradictory ways, by means of both the ridiculous and deeper historical references. The Winter Palace’s first cats were brought in during the reign of Empress Elizabeth, who was annoyed by the number of mice and rats in the residence – a constant and important problem. Until the October Revolution of 1917, the Hermitage cats were looked after by special servants because it was considered to be the czar’s will and were even granted a monthly food allowance from the empire’s treasury. In the Soviet period, state finances changed and suddenly there were no more resources available for these Hermitage ‘guards’. The cats had to be fed and cared for by volunteers. All of the Hermitage cats perished during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, but two railway cars of new cats arrived in Leningrad after the war’s end. Today, to be a Hermitage cat is to hold a social position with all the corresponding consequences.
The cats inhabit the basement of the museum and carry out the important work of protecting the museum’s treasures from rats and mice. By placing himself directly in the centre of his works, in his personal, idiosyncratic, and expressive fashion, the artist reveals not only this hidden aspect of the Hermitage museum to audiences in St. Petersburg, but the possibility of a wider audience for art. The inclusion of this project in Manifesta 10 provides a remarkable view into Russian cultural history and the present day Hermitage, by a singular artist who is willing to take on the perspective from the other side of the museum barricades. Van Lieshout lived and worked among the cats in the basement of the museum for several months. He made many drawings during his time among the cats which he uses in his animation/film.
Erik van Lieshout’s projects are multi media installations encompassing video presented in specially built video rooms or installations, often encircled by collages of drawings and paintings. In his work the artist addresses a multitude of contemporary socio-political issues such as multiculturalism, right-wingers, the position of minorities and outsiders as well as the modern consumer society. Van Lieshout looks at these issues from a radically personal point of view, putting himself into the actual environment at hand. But unlike a documentary filmmaker he becomes an active player in the action. By typically not adapting to the general behavior of his surrounding he causes many humoristic situations but also provokes strong reactions of others. Van Lieshout manages to hold a perfect balance between revealing his own vulnerable self and at the same time cleverly disclosing the psychological core of social problems in others.
Erik van Lieshout, The Basement, 2014, Mixed media installation: HD, color, sound, 17:19 min, Wood, color copies, Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Commissioned by MANIFESTA 10 St. Petersburg with the financial support from the Mondriaan Fund, The Netherlands Film Fund, Outset Netherlands, and Wilhelmina E. Jansen Fund.