Empress Elizabeth of Russia, being annoyed with the amount of mice and rats in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg –now the State Hermitage
Museum- brought in dozens of cats to solve the problem. They were looked after by special servants and were granted a monthly food allowance. Ever since, cats have been living in the basement of the
building (except during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, when they all perished). They were put back into the basement after this, but their living conditions deteriorated. Erik van Lieshout
decided to change this. During the Manifesta exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 2014 van Lieshout moved into the basement where the cats live and embarked upon transforming their quarters into
better ones. The result is a video installation, The Basement (2014) that documents this process: from cleaning out the neglected cat cages to a
complete renovation of their premises, including the addition of structures installed to enhance the cats’ comfort, opportunities for play, and general living conditions. At the same time, the video shows
the artist negotiating the complex socio-political dynamics of the Russian museum behemoth. The work, of course, transcends an obvious sympathy for all creatures feline. In fact, despite the abundant
playfulness and humor in it, there is a distinct political sub-text, with references that bridge the feline world, with protest groups such as Pussy Riot, the current political situation in Russia, and a critique latent beyond the fluffy, feel-good nature of the film. Using the Hermitage cat story as a springboard The Basement indirectly alludes to a complex series of questions from the socio-political aspects of museum bureaucracy, and the meaning of art, to love and madness, racism and right-wing politics, the position of minorities and outsiders, and Russian
history. Van Lieshout approaches these issues from a radically personal and humorous perspective, himself playing the leading role in whatever he does, without –refreshingly– taking himself too seriously. In this way he is able to reduce major personal and social problems into manageable and human proportions. For Thessaloniki the artist has re-configured the installation. Venturing into it means entering a world of hope, love, madness, which altogether translate into optimism countering
pessimism through the sheer force of artistic creativity, humour and imagination.