Thirty-Three Characters is a new exhibition by the Manege Central Exhibition Hall in partnership with the ARKI Creative Workshop and the HSE Art and Design School in St Petersburg. The exhibition, held with the participation of the Innovation and Youth Initiative Support Foundation of St Petersburg, will bring together a series of street installations dedicated to the Cyrillic alphabet. It will reveal the interrelation between traditional Russian culture, modern art, contemporary font design and typography, and St Petersburg’s unique city landscape.

The Cyrillic Labyrinth by Yuri Gordon, Andrey Punin. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

Thirty-Three Characters forms part of Manege Outdoor – an initiative begun by the exhibition hall with the aim of creating open-air cultural spaces and improving the urban environment.

“Manege Outdoor aims to bolster the image of St Petersburg as one of Europe’s rapidly developing cultural capitals, and as a city which is open to modern art, new sculptural forms, and artistic innovation. It is an initiative which has only gained in importance this year. The pandemic has resulted in a range of restrictions being placed on visiting museums and exhibition spaces. Supporting the arts through the use of outdoor spaces can therefore play a key role in fostering cultural life within a city,” said Anna Yalova, head of the initiative and deputy director of development at Manege.

Opening of “The Cyrillic Labyrinth” by Yuri Gordon, Andrey Punin. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

The name of Manege’s new exhibition is also a reference to a pavilion installed last year on the square by Manege’s western facade entitled Thirty-Three Sounds. Not only did the pavilion act as an exhibition space for many of today’s leading artists working with sound, but also as an open-air concert venue.

The success of last year’s initiative led its creators to continue the theme of playing with the magic number 33 in a new, entertaining way – this time, by telling the story of Cyrillic script as a fundamental element of Russian culture.

Letter “Ѣ” by Alexander Florensky. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

Thirty-Three Characters is a love letter to the Cyrillic alphabet. I love it for the vertical masts of the letters П, Ц, Ш and Щ; for the ‘zh’ sound of the six-legged buzzing beetle that is Ж; for the letter Ф – appearing to walk with its hands on its hips; for the unpronounceable Ъ and Ь; for the letter Ы and the mystery it holds to foreigners; and for that proud final trio of Э, Ю and Я!” said curator Mitya Kharshak

Letter “Ф” by Ekaterina Fillipenko. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

“Over the course of 1,200 years, our alphabet – which was created as a supplement to the Greek alphabet – has become a precise tool which is superbly tailored to the language,” said designer Yury Gordon.

Yuri Gordon at the opening of “The Cyrillic Labyrinth”. Photo by Irina Kolpachnikova.

The centrepiece of the exhibition will be an enormous labyrinth built in the shape of an “a” letter. As the visitor explores it, they not only delve into a playful, large-scale installation, but also begin to view Cyrillic letters from a completely new perspective.

The Cyrillic Labyrinth by Yuri Gordon, Andrey Punin. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

Anna Yalova adds: “This year we have a number of new partners joining the project, including the State Russian Museum, the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg, the Museum of Theatre and Music, Planetarium No. 1, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and contemporary urban spaces such as Sevkabel Port and Nikolskiye Ryady. We can therefore say with certainty that this project, initiated by Manege, is not only capable of being scaled up and implemented on a citywide level, but can easily be taken to other regions as well.” 

Installing “The Cyrillic Labyrinth” by Yuri Gordon, Andrey Punin. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

Thirty-Three Characters is made up of four parts:

  • an installation on the square by Manege’s western facade by artist and designer Yury Gordon and architect Andrey Punin. Visitors take a journey through time as they trace the development of Cyrillic script, learn about the most significant artifacts of Russian writing, and find out about the main milestones in the evolution of the Russian alphabet.

The Cyrillic Labyrinth by Yuri Gordon, Andrey Punin. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

  • АБВГД (ABVGD) – Avtorskie Bukvy V Gorode – a series of fifteen installations in the centre of St Petersburg. The title is an acronym taken from the first five letters of the Russian alphabet, and loosely translates as “Specially Designed Letters in the City”. The installations will take the form of living Cyrillic letters, including those which are no longer in use in modern Russian. Among the Russian artists and typeface designers to be involved are Yury Gordon, Pokras Lampas, Mitya Kharshak, Andrey Lyublinsky, Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, Alexander Florensky and Vitaly Pushnitsky. In addition, artist and calligrapher Viktor Pushkaryov will create a series of typographic videos especially for the project. These will be dedicated to each letter of the Russian alphabet.

Letter “X” by Mitya Kharshak. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

  • An accompanying educational programme will also be unveiled by Manege. This will include discussions and lectures by artists featured in the exhibition, as well as design experts. The first events on the programme are set to take place in September.

Letter “Ь” by Marina Koldobskaya. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

  • The team behind the exhibition is currently working on a mobile app which will combine gaming and educational aspects to reveal a completely new side to the Cyrillic script. Users will be able to take part in a quest and win prizes provided by Manege and its partners. This virtual platform will tell the story of the Cyrillic alphabet and cover the events which have had the greatest impact on the way Russian is written.

Letter “Ѫ” by Boremir Bukharev. Photo by Mikhail Viltchuk.

Idea: Andrey Punin, Mitya Kharshak, Yury Gordon

Curator: Mitya Kharshak Architect: Andrey Punin Producer: Dmitry Krylov

Head of Manege Outdoor initiative: Anna Yalova

Featured artists: Boremir Bakharev, Pyotr Bely, Andrey Voronov, Yury Gordon, Marina Koldobskaya, Pokras Lampas, Andrey Lyublinsky, Andrey Punin, Vitaly Pushnitsky, Nikita Sazonov, Ekaterina Filipenko, Alexander Florensky, Mitya Kharshak, Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, Yury Shtapakov.