Anna Jermolaewa, installation view of "Untitled (Hermitage Cats)" (2013)

Anna Jermolaewa, installation view of “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” (2013)

By now the Hermitage cats, the troupe of feline pest control agents residing at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, are well known — the museum even commissioned czarist-style portraits of its furry workers — but Anna Jermolaewa is providing some historical context for all the cuteness. The St. Petersburg-born, Vienna-based conceptual artist, currently in Brooklyn for a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP), sees the cats’ story as illustrative of a particularly dark episode in Russian history.

Anna Jermolaewa, installation view of "Untitled (Hermitage Cats)" (2013) (All images courtesy the artist)

Anna Jermolaewa, installation view of “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” (2013) (All images courtesy the artist)

A text on view in Jermolaewa’s space during a recent open studios event at ISCP and on her website recounts the only two times in its 250-year history that the Hermitage has been without its four-legged exterminators — they were first introduced at the request of the 18th-century Russian Empress Elizabeth, a noted musophobe. Most recently, in the 1960s, the museum evicted the cats, but when they were subsequently faced with a swelling rat population, they reinstated the feline guards.

The Hermitage cats met with a much grimmer fate during the Siege of Leningrad, when they, along with most other pets in the city, were eaten by citizens left starving by Germany’s 872-day blockade of the city. “Today we ate a roasted cat,” a 10-year-old boy wrote in his diary on December 3, 1941,”tasted very well.” Immediately after the blockade was lifted, thousands of cats, mostly from Siberia, were brought into St. Petersburg by train to bring the booming rat population under control.

I asked the artist how her investigation into the Hermitage cats fits in with the rest of her oeuvre, which often looks at the effects of major historical events on individuals, landscapes, and animals.

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Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, "Untitled (Hermitage Cats)" (2013)

Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” (2013)

Benjamin Sutton: What attracted you to the Hermitage Museum cats’ story?

Anna Jermolaewa: It is interesting to me how you can transport very serious issues about the dramatic history of the city I was born and grew up in through cat images, which as we all know are these very kitsch images that grab everybody’s attention.

This work displays photographs of many of them in a style akin to an “employee of the month” format. It also includes drawings and video of them, to complete the telling of their little-known tales.

BS: How responsive and accommodating to your project were the museum and the cats’ keepers?

AJ: The director of the Hermitage Museum gave me permission to film and work in the Hermitage for one week. In this time I had access to the whole building. The people were very helpful. There are three women who are officially museum guards, but in reality they take care of the cats full time.

Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, "Untitled (Hermitage Cats)" (2013)

Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” (2013)

BS: Your work often looks at the effects of major historical and political events on the lives of everyday people and public places; what attracts you to these moments, rituals, and images?

AJ: I find that many times, when historical events are addressed on a sociopolitical level, the experience of the individual is lost in an overwhelming narrative that tends to dehumanize and distort. Many of my works focus on telling the stories of those who fall through the cracks of historical representation. As a culture, we form a memory based on what people, places, events, or works are canonized and/or “relegated to the dustbin of history.” Even when society remembers these people or events from so-called counter histories their representation depicts a romantic and fabricated memory often transmitted through image and iconography. My work attempts to give overlooked narratives respect by displaying them with raw authenticity. The individuals involved may be refugees from Samarkand, housekeepers, nurses, or even the cats employed as “security guards” at the Hermitage. They are all equally affected by the destructive events Walter Benjamin described as the “catastrophe of history.” By capturing these stories without embellishment, I suggest that the world of the everyday and ignored is inherently poetic.

Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, "Untitled (Hermitage Cats)" (2013)

Sill from Anna Jermolaewa, “Untitled (Hermitage Cats)” (2013)

BS: What projects will you be working on during your residency at ISCP?

AJ: What I am working on here is my new project “Chernobyl Safari,” which I am developing for the next Kiev Biennale. In the last 28 years since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the 30 kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Soviet power plant’s reactor has become a veritable nature reserve. Lynxes, wolves, eagles, wild horses, and other rare species have come to inhabit the nearly deserted area. People left and the animals took over. According to experts, 50 of these 400 species are classified as endangered.

Anna Jermolaewa, "Safari Chernobyl" (2014) installation view

Anna Jermolaewa, “Chernobyl Safari” (2014) installation view

Before I came to New York I went on a safari in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, in this paradise for animals normally associated with death and disaster. Everybody imagines Chernobyl to be full of mutations and monsters, like in the movies. But in reality there are almost no mutations left, they are still contaminated but overall healthy. In nature only the strongest animals survive, when a mutant animal is born, which can happen anytime also without radiation, depending on the mutation it usually does not survive in nature.

Anna Jermolaewa, still from "Safari Chernobyl" (2014)

Anna Jermolaewa, still from “Chernobyl Safari” (2014)

When I first viewed my tapes, I realized that I am actually not a very great safari photographer. I don’t own the right equipment nor the right camera that one usually needs to get shots of animals in the wilderness. So many animals that I saw weren’t on film because I just barely missed them.

When people go on safari they usually come home with their trophies and photographs, so I started drawing and painting the animals that I couldn’t catch on camera. From interviews with people living there I heard of many other animals that I didn’t see during my stay. The forester, for example, told me about everything he had seen in his 10 years of working there, and an old woman who is living on her own in the zone told me she saw huge snakes and animals that were brought to Chernobyl from New Zealand for experiments.

They also told me about mutations that they heard about after the catastrophe. I started drawing these animals too to show all these myths, legends, fears, and misconceptions. The result is an installation with two-channel video, photo, drawing, and painting.

Jermolaewa’s “Chernobyl Safari” project will be featured in the second Kiev Biennale, slated to open in August 2015. In March she will have a solo show at the Zachęta contemporary art center in Warsaw.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...