When two Russian photographers, Alla Afonina and Vera Laponkina, went to visit St Petersburg’s Arctic and Antarctic Museum, they didn’t realise they’d be stumbling upon their next three-year project, Sacred Place. It turned out that the museum was a renovated Old Believer church with scenes of polar expeditions and Arctic animals where the iconography once was. This strange discovery inspired the duo to travel across Russia documenting the sacred spaces that were now being put to completely different use. “We have visited a number of reconstructed churches while working on Sacred Place. Many are now factories, libraries, museums, planetariums, and some have turned into a garage for cars, an archive and a dwelling house,” Alla and Vera tell It’s Nice That.
When they arrive at a new location, the two photographers tend to use up several rolls of film while capturing various detailed aspects of the church. “We photograph many different views and perspectives. Sometimes we work several days in one place,” they say. The result is a series of carefully executed images, which depict the inevitable contradictions that emerge from repurposing a church. “Each photo has to show how two paradoxical contexts connect in a single whole. In order to reflect this idea, we try to choose shots where elements of the original architecture and interior are visible such as arches and frescos.” In one photograph, a flea market is in full swing while the intricately painted saints look down at the bargain-hunters. In another, an old Moscow church is being reused as a gym. “They hold weekly self-defence and judo classes and the altar has been adapted into a training complex with a hanging mechanical clock above it. It’s very unusual; a temple for the spirit has become a temple for the body.”
During the Soviet era many churches were renovated, but as times changed and Communism fell, the two women find that society is returning to religion. “Now we find that religious worship and church-going has come full circle; there is an active effort to ‘rebuild’ the original Orthodox churches,” Alla and Vera say. For the two photographers, the project is about recording the slow transformation of post-Soviet urban landscapes as Russia attempts to phase out elements of its Communist era. Although the two artists find the historical trajectory fascinating, they are concerned about this unusual phenomenon’s lack of documentation: “The new meanings these buildings have acquired over the past ten decades will be lost if they all return to Orthodox churches. The memory of an important stage in the history of Russia will disappear.” Sacred Place is an act of remembrance of a bygone era’s peculiarities that deserve to be preserved and commemorated future generations.