Petersburg Underground, a suite of photographic group portraits by Liisa Roberts, has been acquired for The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in New York. The work was commissioned by the 56th Biennale di Venezia, and was made in response to the post-war bronze reliefs commemorating Leningrad workers, which can be found at the Narvskaya metro station in St. Petersburg.
“I was intrigued by Liisa Roberts’s Petersburg Underground from the moment I first saw it in Venice,” says Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator in MoMA’s Department of Photography. The work was added to The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in New York earlier this year, and it dovetails with MoMA’s pan-institutional global research initiative C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives).
In recent years, MoMA’s Central and Eastern European section of C-MAP has focused its research on Russia. In 2015, a group from MoMA made a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, meeting with various artists, scholars, curators, and museum directors from the region. “It was an opportune coincidence seeing Roberts’s work this same year, as it examines the ideals that animated the Soviet workers’ state while also reflecting on the lived reality of its citizens,” Marcoci recalls.
“Roberts reenacted a historical paradox by tapping the photographic and performative fields,” notes Marcoci. “She recruited workers whose trade and age would have qualified them to participate in the metro station building in the late 1940s and photographed them at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, where most of the artists responsible for the Narvskaya friezes once studied,” she adds.
“It was the way Roberts probed the past from a critical perspective, revisiting a Russian theme within the context of relations in the post-Soviet cultural landscape, and the way she used a public monument to mediate history and memory that generated an active mode of memory-telling that is of special significance,” concludes Marcoci her remarks.
We asked Liisa Roberts to tell us her feelings in response to this acquisition: “I am very happy that in its trajectory as a part of MoMA’s collection, Petersburg Underground and the concerns within it will be in a dialogue with the work of artists that I respect both historically and in the present.”
“On a personal note, this has been a very important work for me and I am touched that it is back in New York where my father grew up and where I lived as a child and for over a decade during my formative years as an artist.”
Liisa Roberts (b. in Paris, France, 1969) lives and works in Helsinki, Finland, and St. Petersburg, Russia. The work Petersburg Underground was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in August 2017 with the support of Margaret Sundell.
Petersburg Underground, 2015, installation view at 56th International Venice Biennale. Photo: Ugo Carmeni.
Mikhail P. Zorin, Liisa Roberts and others viewing pictures from Petersburg Underground and its process at an event organized by Roberts at the Finnish House in St. Petersburg in September 2016, at which pensioners participating in her project received their own portraits. Photos: Oleg Abrashin.
Text: Laura Boxberg