Vyksa: The Perfection of Thoughtful Solutions. Part 1

Paulina Firstova
Though the decision to visit Vyksa was spontaneous, I had been aware of what was happening there for a long time, so I didn’t expect a “wow” effect from the trip. However, that’s exactly what I got!

Three hours from Nizhny Novgorod, and we enter a city with a population of 60,000. A quarter of the area is occupied by the Vyksa Metallurgical Plant (VMZ), founded back in the mid-18th century. So why are we here? What connects metallurgy and art? The answer: United Metallurgical Company (OMK).

The Vyksa plant of OMK, the flagship plant of the United Metallurgical Company, employs every fourth local resident. Additionally, the plant attracts top Russian and foreign engineers who move here with their families. It’s easy to guess that, besides pursuing its own interests, OMK bears some social responsibility towards the residents. But the nature of that responsibility is a different story altogether.
There are two possible solutions to this issue. One could take the path of least resistance and implement questionable urban initiatives, like a honey fair in Luzhkov style on the city’s main square or a folk song contest, hang a few decorative lanterns, build a barely functioning fountain, invite not the most sought-after artists for City Day once a year, tick the box for completed work, and then be happy about the low costs of these events and forget about it, as unfortunately happens even in most major regions of the country. Or, one could be a pioneer and visionary, sticking to that unique idea many have heard of but few have seen. Take risks and try, step out of the comfort zone, transform consciousness — in other words, create, not destroy. Fill everything you touch with meaning and not be afraid to express more than just a report on profits and work done. This path, of course, is longer and harder, requiring more resources, both financial and emotional, but if there’s an idea, there will be opportunities to realize it.

DISCLAIMER: The FRSTV editorial team has nothing against honey fairs and folk song contests.
In 2008, Irina Sedykh created the “OMK-Uchastie” charitable foundation, which initially engaged in various social practices aimed at improving the quality of life of the townspeople, fighting youth's harmful habits, and much more. In 2011, the urban culture festival “Art-Ovrag” appeared, which was later renamed “Vyksa Festival.” Since then, for 13 years now, once a year, the small provincial town of Vyksa turns into a magnet for artists, art historians, curators, musicians, actors, and many tourists.

In the first few years, “Art-Ovrag” in Vyksa did not always find approval among the population; one object was even burned down — the tower of wooden blocks Big Gini, created by American John Powers, disappeared. However, the project was popular among young people. Fortunately, over the years, Vyksa residents have realized that true strength lies not in destruction but in collaboration. And, if we are to have a dialogue, let it be in the language of art.
To integrate the event into the local community, the organizers actively collaborate with the residents of Vyksa, preparing the festival together with them. This involvement helps small-town residents start thinking creatively, develop initiatives, and realize them together. It makes life in a small town more interesting and comfortable, helping residents envision their future more meaningfully.

The emergence of the Vyksa Festival has spurred the transformation of both the urban space and the consciousness of its residents. The festival's ideas are born from the joint creativity of the OMK-Uchastie foundation, the United Metallurgical Company, the festival team, the city administration, and local residents. The festival is equally important for those who create it and for all the townspeople. Over the years, many areas in Vyksa have been improved, with murals and art objects appearing. Each year, the creations from the festival remain in Vyksa for many years. A large team works on the event, with the main curator changing every three years. Perhaps this is why the festival does not stagnate but instead develops, showcasing diverse perspectives on art.

The curators are quite well-known, at least within the industry. If you have any connection to the art world, you will likely recognize who was responsible for what, given their distinctive styles.
We won't delve into the history, as you can read all about it in the festival’s “Archive” section on the website, where the annual programs are detailed. By the way, the site is very conveniently and stylishly designed. Even if you find yourself in Vyksa by accident (though how is that possible?), you will immediately know where to go by simply opening the site.

One of our interests was to visit Vyksa not during the summer festival, but in late November, when winter begins, and the weather isn’t particularly inviting for tourists. Does the town stay lively year-round or does it die down when the last visitors leave? What can residents of Vyksa and its surroundings do outside the festival? Is the festival truly needed by the townspeople or is it just a glamorous front for the press? Is it only beautiful in photos or does it also have a vibrant atmosphere in real life? We had many questions in mind and no answers.

Our second interest was to come not as a delegation or tour group but privately, to see how everything works and to talk with locals. And we succeeded! During our two days in Vyksa, we spoke with many residents of different ages: in taxis, shops, cafés, churches, and on the streets. We did not introduce ourselves as journalists, nor did we mention plans to write an article. Most often, we said we had moved to Vyksa for work with our families and wanted to immerse ourselves in the environment. For example, a taxi driver and native Vyksa resident, a man in his 30s, told us that in the early years of the festival, many of his friends from Vyksa would leave the town during the event days. The influx of out-of-town guests was stressful for the locals. The festival's program and participants seemed too sophisticated and incomprehensible to the citizens. Now, he and his friends are happy to invite guests from other regions, proud of their town and its events. He said the atmosphere during the Vyksa Festival feels similar to the 2018 World Cup in Moscow: everyone is having fun, there’s a sense of unity and pride in the region.

Additionally, we were pleasantly surprised by the locals’ attitude toward the plant and its owners. Usually, residents of company towns aren’t particularly happy with a large enterprise nearby, for many reasons — from environmental pollution to corruption and more. But in Vyksa, things are different! The people speak about the plant with reverence, delve into its history, and mention the owners with smiles, as if they were talking about their own family. Overall, the initiatives of OMK-Uchastie are well received here.
We arrived in Vyksa on a Monday — the only day when all the museums and galleries are closed (how could I forget that?). The day before, while at Packhaus in Nizhny Novgorod, looking at Erik Bulatov's works, we decided to head to Vyksa. Our manager, Evgenia, immediately contacted the art residency, the VMZ History Museum, the head of culture and tourism, and other key people, asking them to meet us and give a tour. To my surprise, they responded on Sunday and had already arranged half the visit, even coming in on their day off to open the residency and graciously show us around. Living in Moscow, especially running a business, people are used to being available at all hours, but let's not forget Vyksa runs at a very different pace.

We agreed to be at the residency by two. Engrossed in conversations with the residents of the "Tikhaya" studio in Nizhny Novgorod, we were running late. We entered Vyksa, and I checked the time — it was 1:30 PM. We still needed to check into the hotel; being late was not an option. I already felt a slight, unusual sense of unease since they were opening the residency specifically for us. We rushed into the hotel, where we were given a key card featuring Misha Most’s artwork, the same artist who created the world's largest mural on the factory walls. I smiled. That’s how our acquaintance with Vyksa’s art scene began.
As I mentioned earlier, our journey started at the "Vyksa" art residency, now located in the "Volna" Cultural Center.

The "OMK-Uchastie" Charitable Foundation established the "Vyksa" art residency in 2017. This ongoing platform provides cultural professionals with the opportunity to implement their projects or conduct research in Vyksa.

The "Vyksa" art residency is one of the few open urban spaces where the professionalism of artists intersects with the warmth of the local community. This project actively contributes to the city’s development, enriching Vyksa’s cultural landscape with dynamism and diversity.

In 2022, under the initiative of the "OMK-Uchastie" foundation and with the support of the United Metallurgical Company, the "Volna" Cultural Center opened in the renovated former café of the same name.
In 1985, the "Volna" café was built in Vyksa — a unique example of late modernist architecture designed by architect Sergey Medvedev. It’s a rare manifestation of individual style in late Soviet architecture, where every building had to conform to strict standards.

The uniqueness of this project lies in its purpose — the café was built specifically for foreign workers recruited to the Vyksa Steel Works (VSW). Japanese specialists were invited to implement new pipe production technologies.
In 2010, the café ceased operations, becoming a defunct building owned by the factory. In 2019, the "OMG-Uchastie" foundation tasked the "Novoe" architectural bureau with transforming the café into the "Volna" art residency and cultural center. The building was renovated and adapted for artists' work and public events. Today, "Volna" is a multifunctional space catering to various visitors: a cultural center, administrative block, workshops, art storage, and technical areas.

Part of "Volna" is allocated to the "Vyksa" art residency, featuring living spaces for artists and spacious studios for various artistic techniques. Public areas include an exhibition hall with a view of the pond and a workshop space. The residency promises a diverse public program attractive to both local communities and visitors: exhibitions, lectures, workshops, creative activities for children, and more.
The residency can accommodate up to five artists at a time. The "Vyksa" art residency operates on a classic art residency system: an open call is announced, artists are selected, and grants and material budgets are provided, along with accommodation. A distinctive feature is that each artist must immerse themselves in the urban environment, getting to know the residents and interacting with them when creating art objects.

Artists are expected to draw on the local context, including history, archaeology, mythology, and nature. Both emerging and experienced artists from around the world can participate in the open call.

Project selection focuses on the portfolio, proposed idea, and feasibility within the residency’s timeframe. Some resident artists are quite well-known, and we happen to collaborate with one: we recently featured her works at the "Flora & Fauna" exhibition on Granatny Lane in Moscow, and her works are regularly presented on our platform.
Art residencies are a popular practice abroad and have relatively recently made their way to Russia. The Vyksa residency, in fact, is listed among the country's top art residencies. The benefits of art residencies are numerous and probably deserve a separate extensive article. Briefly, they offer a significant new artistic experience, opening up new themes and forms for exploration, providing a space for experimenting with one's style, and often serving as a major career springboard.

For instance, the Vyksa Residency collaborates with the Volga-Vyatka branch of the State Museum of Fine Arts named after A.S. Pushkin in Nizhny Novgorod. I think everyone can grasp the cause-and-effect relationship and understand how significantly this influences an artist’s portfolio.

In spring 2023, the Vyksa art residency presented a major project titled "Before and After" at the CSI "Arsenal." The exhibition featured works by 19 contemporary artists from among the 55 residents from Russia and abroad who had worked in Vyksa, Nizhny Novgorod region, since the residency's inception in 2017.

During our visit, the residency was showcasing an exhibition titled "Everyone Receives It from Each Other" by young artist Nastya Zhegal. This was an artistic contemplation on non-human dimensions: scale, behavior, and situations. Nastya encourages freeing oneself from comparing everything to human standards, prompting viewers to a simple idea that sometimes you can find what you desire without moving from where you are. Thorough searches begin by looking inside oneself to find something greater than oneself. The creation of the works, including the central piece of the exhibition, involved city residents. Their task was to bring any small item associated with Vyksa for the installation, and all these elements were then incorporated into the sculpture. I found this very charming. It was fascinating to examine the multitude of small elements on the large object. Someone brought small crystals, another person brought two flies. It might seem strange, but that’s how contemporary art is!
As mentioned earlier, the art residency offers free workshops that anyone can join. We happened to be among the participants. For a workshop organized as part of the mosaic residency "Studio RAZ," residents brought numerous shards of beer, wine, and vodka bottles collected from around the city. These shards were then slightly smoothed and offered for creating fragments of a large mural. Afterward, they were placed in a special kiln for firing, and then set onto a designated wall near "Volna," thus becoming part of something eternal, or at least very long-lasting. As you can guess, the program also carries a social message against alcohol consumption. We were provided with stencils, glue, and glass, and we began creating. There’s no time limit for staying here. They say city residents can sit for hours, chatting and sipping tea, which the attentive managers also do not forget to offer. But we had no time for chatting, as we were already expected at the next stop on our itinerary — the VMZ Museum.
The VMZ Museum is located in a federal architectural monument — the main house of the Batashov estate complex. The building is the main mansion of the Batashov entrepreneurs, constructed in the second half of the 18th century by the serf architect Mikhail Kiselnitsov. The entire estate complex looks impressive, combined with a picturesque park and the artificial Upper Pond, which is part of a unique hydraulic system. The Christ Nativity Church, built in 1773 with an elongated silhouette and a high bell tower, harmoniously blends with the estate and the city park. The "Batashov" hotel, where we were staying, fits well into the complex.
The Vyksa Metallurgical Plant Museum covers over three thousand square meters and features 30 museum exhibits. There are six active exhibition spaces that attract projects on both local and federal levels. Visitors can delve into the stages of Vyksa's development and one of the oldest metallurgical plants in Russia, enjoy unique cast iron art created by local craftsmen, and explore other interesting exhibits.
The museum will be particularly appealing to those who prefer historical interior exhibits with colorful items reflecting the era over contemporary art. Here, you can immerse yourself in the history of Vyksa and its indigenous peoples, learn about the first decentralization of industrial enterprises under Catherine II, and the family history of the Batashov brothers. The tour was fascinating and, importantly, told with genuine enthusiasm. Listening to the history of Vyksa, its people, and the plant was captivating, though the story of the Batashov family, especially brothers Andrey and Ivan, left an unpleasant feeling. I dislike when someone squanders a family business and societal benefit. As for Dmitry Shepelev, a notable gigolo of those times, I’ll refrain from commenting, but if you're interested in historical gossip, you can easily find that information publicly.
By the way, on the museum's first floor, you can dive into the multimedia history of the "Vyksa Festival" using a tablet and headphones. There are many videos from the festival and short interviews with those involved. However, we didn’t do this since we had already familiarized ourselves with it in September at Cosmoscow in "Expocenter."

What captured my attention far more were the stunning old cast iron stairs. Climbing them, I saw the "one-painting exhibition" of my favorite Eric Bulatov. His work "Between Light and Flame" was donated by the artist to the "OMK-Uchastie" foundation and created after his visit to Vyksa and the plant in 2020, during the opening of his mural, which we will discuss a bit later.
The work is done in a very atypical style for the artist, which, in part, makes it even more valuable. The painting depicts the artist himself in a protective helmet, mask, and headphones, holding a camera. The self-portrait reflects echoes of the pandemic. The bright colors of the production stand out against the background of penetrating light. In this way, the artist highlighted the high temperatures and power characteristic of metallurgical production. Fire and air? Or heaven and hell? It's up to each individual to decide.

Incidentally, another "one-painting exhibition" by Eric Bulatov previously occupied this spot, with the work titled "Black Evening. White Snow" — one of the author's most famous creations. It is now part of a large exhibition by the artist called "Horizon" at the Pachaus (we wrote more about this exhibition in our piece on Nizhny Novgorod). It's amusing that, without knowing the details, it was while looking at this very work the day before that we decided to go to Vyksa. My relationship with Eric Bulatov's works has been quite interesting for a long time. Every time I see his creations in person, I feel as if I'm falling a hundred floors down and flying away somewhere, just like the first time at the "Garage" in 2015, and every time since. There's always something insanely familiar and mystically uncontrollable about it. I realized that seeing it in the Pakgauz was a sign only after arriving in Vyksa.

As we left the museum, we were met with a black evening and white snow, but now outside. It was the first snowfall of the year, creating a magical atmosphere, and we headed to the final destination of that day's itinerary — Lesoposadka.
My friend, who had joined me on this trip, had fallen ill back in Nizhny Novgorod, so she decided not to tempt fate and stayed in the car. I went to the forest park alone. Vyksa. The forest. It was ten o'clock in the evening, not a soul around, and I was alone. Was I scared? No. I felt an incredible sense of beauty, peace, and happiness — possibly for the first time in a long while. I stood there and reveled in it, feeling as if every string of my soul was being touched. All this happened and was experienced spontaneously, as I headed to the forest park to see Timofey Radya's glowing installation "This Is Not a Dream." When the installation was created, the forest park was practically abandoned.
According to the technical assignment, the task was to "shed light on a dark place," so he hung glowing letters spelling "This is not a dream" among the pines. The installation was connected to the city's lighting system. The inscription is meant to help reflect on this "dark place," aiding in understanding the forest on a micro scale and the city of Vyksa as a point on the earth.

"Dreams, whether nightmarish or beautiful, remain illusions. And I often feel that the city is the darkest forest, deceiving people and making them wander within it for years. That's why we need an antidote, a short, shining, nihilistic spell — I want to wake up, but all this is not a dream," notes the artist himself.

The one-and-a-half-meter-tall glowing letters rise eight meters high, following the rhythm of the planted trees in the span of the structure's supports.
"Is this a dream?" — a question about everything happening and felt, endlessly turning in my head as we returned to the hotel.
The "Batashov" hotel, by the way, also deserves special attention. Its exterior matches the style of the Batashov estate complex, while the interior conveys the atmosphere of the 90s. No, the decor is quite modern, as is the service, but somehow even the men sitting in the lobby seemed to resemble PR managers of Sasha Beliy from the series "Brigada." The 90s, a mono-city, a metallurgical plant — romance! This atmosphere particularly appealed to my friend, while I was struck by how being in Vyksa feels like existing in three time periods simultaneously: the time of Catherine the Great, the 90s, and the present, enveloped in contemporary art and striving toward the future.

Read the continuation in the article "Vyksa: The Perfection of Thoughtful Solutions. Part 1"