This renowned quote is said to have come from the mouth of Peter the Great, as he surveyed the newly built city of Saint Petersburg. For anyone who has walked its streets, or simply seen pictures, the city appears to have a distinctly European flavour colouring its landscape. Whether this comes from the Italian architecture (Francesco Rastrelli designed the stunningly opulent Catherine and Winter Palaces), or the network of canals which afforded Saint Petersburg the romantic pseudonym ‘The Venice of the North’, it is hard to pinpoint. The leitmotif of a window similarly appears in the final, enigmatic scene of Sokurov’s film ‘Russian Ark’. The continuous movement of the film, set entirely within the Hermitage walls and captured in a single shot, visually narrates a dialogue between embodied versions of ‘Russia’ and ‘Europe.’ The character’s wanderings throughout the Hermitage intertwine episodes of Russia’s historical past with works of art by European masters; a journey across timeframes which interrogates the sinuous relationship between Europe and Russia. Their course culminates in the arrival at an opening onto a nebulous view of the river Neva, with the narrator’s final words obscurely echoing across the water, ‘We are destined to sail forever, and to live forever.’ These words trace a line from Russia and Europe’s turbulent past relationship, and then continues it into an ephemeral, yet eternal future together. Like an image distorted by a frosted pane of glass, this vision of Russia’s relationship with Europe seems to elude any concrete definition, remaining ambiguously obscure.
A window, like a photo, can only offer a squared snapshot of a world, which is often saturated in contradictions, just like Saint Petersburg itself. As a city apparently teetering between Europe and Russia, its windows offer tiny glimpses into its interior. What to make of these impressions is then left up to a person’s own imagination and interpretation. There are two separate sides to a window, and if Russia and Europe, two cultural giants, are really separated by something as seemingly innocuous as a sheet of glass, then it is not always clear who is being watched by who.
Text by Joanne Riggall
All images ©Joanne Riggall