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From Soap Opera to Art: Why a Moscow Museum Is Re-Enacting ‘Santa Barbara’

MOSCOW — A sleek new culture hub opened its doors on Saturday evening with an art event Muscovites had been awaiting for years. But the spectators at the inauguration of the vast new GES-2 museum had not come to see paintings or sculptures. They were watching “Santa Barbara.”

Every day through March 22, 2022, a team of 80 actors and technicians is carrying out the vision of the Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson by re-creating, filming and editing episodes of that American soap opera in front of a live audience at the museum. Kjartansson said he hoped the performance would be a “living sculpture” and that the 98 videos he and his team were recording would become a “history painting” for posterity.

On opening night, an audience crowded around a set that had been built in GES-2’s nave, as two tuxedo-clad actors did several takes of a scene. Dramatic music indicated the arrival of a plot climax and a technician snapped a clapboard.

“It was all lies!” an actress exclaimed a few moments later, before a director stopped her and instructed her to say the line again, slower. On another stage, just feet away, a team edited the footage in real time as the public looked on.

Forgotten by many in the United States, “Santa Barbara” is a cultural touchstone in Russia, where it was a TV hit after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many Russians, the soap opera — dubbed into Russian and broadcast from 1992 — was a first taste of American culture, and an introduction to the human face of a Cold War-era enemy.

For a decade, until it stopped airing in 2002, “Santa Barbara” became a national obsession: The streets were empty when it aired, people named their pets after the characters and the show’s Californian interiors inspired Russian families to remodel their homes, installing arches in place of square door frames. It also became part of the Russian vernacular: Even now, the phrase “some kind of ‘Santa Barbara’” refers to a chaotic situation.

“We all watched it, the whole country,” said Nataliya Golubeva, 55, who attended the GES-2 opening on Saturday. “The actors were like a part of our family.”

Her daughter, Maria A. Golubeva, 30, said it was “unexpected and very cool” to see the show re-created live in front of her, and to be reminded of her youth. “I grew up with this story my whole childhood,” she said.

Kjartansson, 45, is known for performance works that stretch out their material over a long time, often involving repetition, like “A Lot of Sorrow,” a six-hour recorded performance at MoMA PS1, in which the band the National sang the same song again and again. In late 2020, Kjartansson staged “The Sky in a Room,” for which he hired performers to sing a popular Italian tune in a Milan church while accompanying themselves on the organ. That went on for hours a day, every day, for a month.

When Kjartansson was asked to create a new work to mark the opening of GES-2, he was searching for something similarly monumental, he said in a speech at the museum on Saturday. “I was reading Pushkin and imagining snow coming from the ceiling,” he added, but realized that if he continued in that vein, the work would have been a “very bland kind of Western fetishization of Russia.”

After reading an article in the newsmagazine Foreign Policy about settlements in Ukraine and Russia named Santa Barbara, he was struck by the role the soap played in post-Soviet society, he said.

“Santa Barbara” seems an unlikely fit for the former Soviet space, emerging from decades of planned economy, bread lines and restrictions on freedom. Many of the show’s characters enjoy privileges few in early-1990s Russia could dream of: private helicopters, sumptuous outfits, decadent cocktail parties.

For Russians tuning in at the time, Kjartansson said in an interview, the show’s talk of shares and privately held companies must have been “a kind of mind explosion.”

Alla Y. Belyak, 63, a literary translator who watched the show in the 1990s and was at the event on Saturday, said that when the Soviet Union broke down, Russians “did not know capitalism.” But when they switched on “Santa Barbara,” she said, “Here it appeared, with a human face: handsome, elegant, modern.” Watching it helped Russians conclude that Americans “are the same people as we are, with kids, intrigue, infidelity,” she added.

While Russian television viewers were absorbed in the vicissitudes of life in Santa Barbara, artists were taking advantage of a previously unavailable freedom to experiment, said Teresa Iarocci Mavica, director of the V-A-C Foundation, which owns GES-2.

“Contemporary Russian art, it was born in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” she said. She added that she wanted GES-2 to probe and understand its evolution, so it was fitting to begin with “Santa Barbara,” which would remind many in Russia of that era. Kjartansson’s work was a “mirror,” she added, which could help to “understand how much this world of ours has changed over the course of 30 years.”

One thing that has altered dramatically since then, however, is Russia’s relationship with the West. Saturday’s GES-2 launch took place as President Vladimir V. Putin was raising the geopolitical stakes over Ukraine and NATO and cracking down on political dissent at home.

Francesco Manacorda, GES-2’s artistic director, said he wants the institution to grapple with Russia’s complicated relationship with the West, and with the country’s own conflicted identity as an integral, but also rather distinct, part of Europe. “Santa Barbara” headlines an inaugural season at the museum titled “How Not to Be Colonized?,” a question and an invocation to Russian artists to engage with Western culture while creating something of their own.

Manacorda characterized Russian society’s attitudes toward the West as “fascination, but also rejection, but also fear, but also seduction,” and added that this had been the case over centuries, from Peter the Great’s travels across Europe, which inspired him to build the canalled city of St. Petersburg, to the rejection of Western capitalism during the Cold War and the ambiguous relationship today.

“To a certain extent, these are the contradictions that ‘Santa Barbara’ highlights,” Manacorda said.

GES-2, where access to all events and exhibitions is free, is privately funded by the V-A-C Foundation and endowed by Leonid Mikhelson, the billionaire art enthusiast and chief executive of Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas group. Mikhelson gave Putin and Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of Moscow a private tour of the institution on Wednesday, before it opened to the public.

Mikhelson and Putin meet regularly to discuss business. That connection between GES-2’s funder and the Kremlin, which is just across the river from the museum, made some visitors question how possible it would be for the museum to foster artistic freedom at the same level as the era that “Santa Barbara” recalls.

Maria V. Alyokhina, a member of the performing arts collective Pussy Riot, said in an interview on Sunday that inaugurating a new institution at a time of intense political and social repression was like “hosting a feast during a plague,” a reference to a play by Alexander Pushkin.

“For me it’s not easy walking through any big art centers in Russia,” she said. Pussy Riot had performed all over the world, she added, but she knew that she would have no chance to perform in Russia until Putin was out of the Kremlin.

Alyokhina, 33, spent more than a year in prison on a charge of “hooliganism” after the 2012 performance of a “punk rock prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour; Pussy Riot said the art action was intended to criticize the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Putin in an election campaign. Alyokhina was imprisoned again this year, after a January Instagram post called on Russians to protest the poisoning and subsequent arrest of the opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny. She is now under a curfew and forbidden from leaving Moscow.

She was frustrated, she added, that Moscow’s newest, hippest cultural institution was ignoring Russia’s current political state. “It’s really cool what they are doing, I really like it. It’s just, we have reality also, not only ‘Santa Barbara,’” Alyokhina said.

Kjartansson gave Alyokhina a tour of GES-2 on Sunday. In an interview, Kjartansson acknowledged the complexities of contemporary Russia — but said there was also so much creativity to celebrate.

“Many things can be criticized in this country, but we cannot look away from the fact that the Russian culture is completely awesome,” he said. That feeling had only deepened during the preparations for “Santa Barbara,” he added.

In GES-2 nave on Saturday, as actors did several takes of a scene against a backdrop suggesting a wealthy man’s office, Anna Shepel, 36, looked on, thinking about how this show from three decades ago was relevant today.

“When I first heard about this, I thought it was weird — like, why?” she said. “But then I thought it could be connected to our story. We don’t understand our contemporary history enough, though we’ve had several decades now to think about it. Foreign artists and projects like this can help us do that, and not only cast it aside.”

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