In cities across the world, when construction workers renovate old buildings, they’ll often hang green or grey debris nets across the scaffolding where they walk. The fabric is designed to stop falling rubble or tools from accidentally hitting those below. But in Russia, these nets also serve another purpose. The fabric is often decorated and semi-opaque, so that ongoing renovation work is hidden from sight. Usually, the nets will be printed with patterns which reflect or imitate the buildings behind them: neoclassical buildings with pseudo antique columns, shop windows or historical manors. But this seeming act of beautification can have unintended consequences on urban streets.
“The city is a system of facades and it is through them that we interact with it,” says artist and photographer Olga Pegova. Her latest photo series Kunststück — German for “sleight of hand” or “hocus pocus” — looks at the phony, printed buildings appearing on netting and draped over Russia’s real structures, and questions how they affect the cities and its inhabitants. “[But these] facades no longer speak the truth. They are not what is painted on them, they never were and never will be,” she says. “They are stand-alone architectural objects in a limited timeframe.”
Pegova first became interested in the subject in 2017, while visiting Moscow’s Soviet-era exhibition space, VDNKh. The open-air complex was undergoing major restoration at the time, and its stunning pavilions were wrapped in decorated debris nets. “Phony facades, almost as elaborate as the original ones, dotted the vast, open territory of VDNKh. They triggered mixed feelings. Seemingly familiar, they looked eerie and alien. Soon I started noticing phony facades everywhere,” Pegova shares.
Landscape manipulations are nothing new in Eastern Europe, with Potemkin villages and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental art wrappings among the prime examples. But unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s one-of-a-kind installations, printed building covers are so ubiquitous in Russia that they have become all but invisible to locals. When she began scouting other covered buildings that she could shoot, the photographer asked friends to share pictures of similar structures with her. “At first, they would say they never see such buildings, but soon they too started to notice them everywhere,” Pegova remembers.
The photographer eventually visited numerous Russian cities, including Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow, and St Petersburg, where she photographed different covered facades throughout 2018 and 2019. “Fake facades dot these cities to the point of omnipresence, making it hard to guess what is hidden behind them: an architectural monument that is being restored, a ramshackle home, an empty spot, or a new building under construction. “Multiple buildings covered under a single printed net become one to the viewer,” says Pegova.
Inspired by the stark contrast of the swaddled buildings to the open spaces of areas such as VDNKh, Pegova also decided to edit some of the images in Kunststück. She digitally swept away reality from the background of her shots, just as the fake facades themselves hid the messy intricacies of construction work. The end results fit Pegova’s vision of photography as a set of codes and visual triggers, rather than the technical documentation of reality. “In Kunststück everything looks familiar yet unclear,” she says.
Pegova is currently working on a photo book for Kunststück, wrapping up the project that she hopes will help reflect on the shifting nature of the interim architecture in the modern city. Meanwhile, her increased awareness led her to find the nets’ use increasingly unsettling: “When I see false facades in the urban space, I question the reality as a whole, uncertain about what is fake and what is real among all the things that surround me,” she says.