Tuesday, 25 October 2011

the art of parking 1: "the 45 degrees"

In honour of returning to Moscow,  a new mini-series on the art that is parking. Technique number one; when the parking space is not wide enough for a complete car, just prop the nose on the pavement.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

can't believe it!

Can't believe it! I have been using a very cheap compact camera to take photographs for this blog (it is a rule of mine not to use anything more fancy) and have only just noticed - after having this one for over a year - that it takes panoramic pictures by stitching 3 images together. Well, I just thought it did one of those stretched image size things so have never checked it out... and then found out by accident whilst wandering home via Metro - hence not a brilliant example.

 So - now I have to decide if photos like these are within my blog-photo-rules or outside of them....  

more hanging

There seems to be a lot of building work going on, both new construction and renovation. It is almost too easy to add to my collection of people hanging off buildings.

a lovely walk (oh and where do you get the best coffee in Moscow?)

The area across the 10-lane Sadovaya (Garden) ring, away from Kurskaya and towards the centre is one of my favourite parts of Moscow. There are certainly other nice parts of the city within this 'second' ring road* - such as around Patriarchs Pond - but I guess this eastern side has always been my patch for happily idle strolling. 

There aren't any special landmarks, just the usual muddle of pre-revolutionary, soviet and post-soviet buildings, in varying stages of decay and renovation. Yesterday I walked along подоссенский/Podossenskii pereulok which runs parallel between these rings, and then further in the same(ish) direction, which - with a certain amount of getting lost, shortcuts through yards, and some serious zig-zagging - ends up (after coffee in the Coffee Bean on покровка/Pokrovka ulitsa) at Lubyanka metro. 

I rank Coffee Bean as one of the best places for coffee in Moscow, but there is lots of choice on both Pokrovka and on, or just off, the other key radial road down to Lubyanka, called мясницкая/Myasnitskaya Ulitsa. I also paused at the Art Lebedev cafe and shop (Ul. Myasnitskaya 22, bldg. 1 (Bankovsky per.5)) and thought about visiting the Red espresso bar, further up Myasnitskaya, towards Chisty Prudy, but stopped myself. 

As you may guess, I am a coffee snob - so would really like recommendations for the very best coffee in Moscow. Beanhunter only lists 2 for the whole of Moscow (the other Art Lebedev cafe and Coffee Mania, which is okay but screamingly expensive), so I think it is time to add some more....

*The innermost one is called the Boulevard ring. The Garden ring was built where the old city ramparts had been, and originally had trees down its centre (as the Boulevard ring still does). These were cut down in the 1930s, opening it up for soviet military parades and more recently post-soviet traffic jams. There is also another ring, further out, which as far as I can tell, has no name, err, just the fourth ring. And then a fifth called MKAD, which stands for Moscow Automobile Ring Road.  

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Unidentified packages (7)

One last thing from the Extreme Room, before I leave Perm behind. I can't really blame the package this time; I just did not bother to turn the lights on when I got back to my hotel and took what I assumed was a small bottle of wine out of the mini-bar for a (very) late evening drink.

Er, it was cognac. 

can bleak be nice?

I kind of like the bleak beauty of Perm. Behind the gallery, down by the river which runs wide and slow are a few couples walking and some men fishing. On the other side - in the medium distance - rows of small dachas watch us back across the dark water. And to the left, factory chimneys blast out smoke into the autumn air. Perm, once a closed town, and still a (dying) industrial one, may have powerful people trying to re-invent it but I am just reminded of that famous Russian saying - ' we wanted the best but it turned out as always.'

The sign reads 'happiness is not far off.'  

a cultural revolution?

The collection and display of contemporary Russian artists and the associated public art commissions - most notably the wooden arched п of artist Nikolay Polissky which has been artfully placed on a roundabout - seem to be what are causing the most complaint in Perm, both because of the cost and because of a general lack of enthusiasm for modern art. Interestingly my interpreter calls all the current activities not a 'city of culture' but a 'cultural revolution'.

For a sense of the debate read Yelena Fedotova, Moscow-based art critic, in her piece 'In praise of little red men: cultural revolution in Perm'.

To enter one of Perm's Public Art competitions go here.

poor art?

PERMM is currently showing some Russian Povera work -  the deliberate use of 'poor' materials, associated with the idea of authenticity and deep rather than surface beauty. The full show has been to Milan: what has returned are mainly the 'skeletons' of Olga and Alexander Florensky, based on the raw wood and metal of argricultural and other working equipment. Not my favourite kind of work, but well curated and effective in the space - the interior is much more a proper gallery than the exterior implies.

For a sense of the debate read Yelena Fedotova, Moscow-based art critic, in her piece 'In praise of little red men: cultural revolution in Perm'.

To enter one of Perm's Public Art competitions go here.

the place of art

The Perm contemporary art gallery (now re-badged PERMM) is currently housed in an old ferry terminal, down by the river Yama. It had been abandoned, and still looks both small and frayed at the edges; not quite of the calibre of its references (Bilbao, MOMA, Tate Modern, CaixaForum, etc., etc.) But at the same time, the ambition is impressive. I met a young curator who is involved in the task of building a permanent russian contemporary art collection. Perm may not want it, but still nothing of that scale is happening in either St. Petersburg or Moscow as far as I know. And her enthusaiasm was a lovely thing to see.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


The older wooden houses in the centre are amazing. Easy to see these as picturesque ruins and to photograph their beautiful, lop-sided, hand-crafted details without thinking much about the occupants.

I was also shown rows and rows of wooden barracks on the outskirts of the city, still surviving from the 1920s, built in that optimistic moment in the belief that a the new type of worker would be formed who would not need a private kitchen or much domestic space. Again, still occupied and almost completely collapsed. 

getting on with life

Then there is the city itself. Quite wealthy through trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, the centre of Perm is laid out on a grid, with what were mainly two-storey wooden and brick built mansions, now fallen into decay. Around this are masses of poorly built and now also crumbling Soviet housing blocks. Still, it feels a lively city (for some reason I kept being reminded of Birmingham) with - in this last autumn moments - many people out and about.

What I saw actually happening was some renovation going on to some of the older brick buildings, and a small amount of miscellaneous additions of street furniture and public art. Hardly enough to scratch the surface of general shabbiness and dereliction, but just enough to make people cross. 

festivals and more festivals

Following cities like Barcelona, Bilbao and Dublin, Perm (in the Urals) is trying to sell itself as a City of Culture.  This has even involved going to Brussels back in May to propose that that the European City of Culture title should be formally extended this far East.  However,  local opinion is clearly a little dubious about the motives of those in power. What everyone knows is that a Muscovite gallery owner, Marat Guelman has been invited in by the regional senator Sergei Gordeyev - or maybe by a regional governor, Oleg Chirkunov - and this can easily be read as a sign that the Moscow elite are taking over.

And, as usual, there are complicated gaps between appearances and actualities. I have been invited here to talk at one of the masses of festivals Perm now organises, in this case bringing together a craftt/household items fair with an architectural and interior design competition and festival (like a miniaturised Ideal Home Exhibition). Quite how these may improve the cultural or economic generation of the region is a little unclear. But there is plenty of energy and many good and creative conversations.

But in terms of other - more solid and long-term - projects, much is started and not completed, There has also been an international design competition for the Perm contemporary art gallery - marketed as PermMuseumXXI - a winner chosen, but then nothing; although now some plans for a much simpler glass extension. There are also proposals floating around for the Opera House (which nobody I talked to knew anything about) and last year some proposals for new wooden houses. So nobody really believes anything will happen.

Perm - city of culture

Got the day (or rather night) wrong for my flight to Perm, and so had to do one of those running to the airport things, and then get onto a plane leaving at 1.30 and arriving at 5.30 in the morning (2 hour flight, 2 hour time difference) and then go straight into the conference, and my session and then all those associated 'performing animal' meetings and greetings and meals. Finally to this room - called the Extreme - trying and failing to be a downtown boutique hotel. I quite like it in a funny kind of a way, although the lovely translator delegated to keeping me happy said she found it scary.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

idyllic, with kebabs

Can't decide if this scene is also Parisian. There were a set of working boats, for trawling out leaves and rubbish from the water, and - I guess - mending things from. These three guys were standing next to a low and fiercely smoking charcoal grill, layered with fat meat kebabs. And they also had a standard domestic bathroom sink rigged up next to it, on the pontoon. Have lived here long enough to find that completely normal (or maybe odd).  


This idyllic scene is literally 3 minutes walk from where I live; an unexpectedly Parisian-looking section of the Yauza river, a shallow tributary to the Moskva. There is a beautiful pink and white neo-classical set of buildings for the lock machinery and (presumably) the lock-keeper, given that the middle island has a small but exquisitely kept garden and house.  And I hardly ever go there, because both sides of the river are major traffic routes. Most times of the day it is completely impossible to cross. And I mean impossible; the flow of very fast traffic never stops. At weekends it is fractionally quieter, so yesterday I took my life in my hands, and ran.

And on the other side of the road there is this short stretch of path by the water which is separated from the cars by a small park. Lovely.

doing up the dvor

The courtyards/dvors/двопа of Russian housing blocks come into their own at this time of year; as people sit out with a book, or their dogs, or their children, or their friends, and/or their cans of lager and snacks, and/or just staring into space - and bask in the last moments of autumn warmth.

There is something uniquely Russian about these spaces; both because of the block layouts (which seem weirdly random), and the endless ubiquity of green-painted low metal fencing, yellow-green striped kerb-stones, primary coloured play equipment, tarmac paths and tightly packed trees. And their slightly hidden quality - offering brilliant (but difficult to negotiate) green and pleasant short-cuts across the city.

Came across a fascinating investigation of this micro-rayon living by partizan publik, which explored two such dvors, one in Tblisi, Georgia and one on the outskirts of Moscow. On the surface these are almost identical - given that blocks like this were built right across the Soviet Union. But the group provide what they call "an inventory of user strategies' to show differences as well as similarities in how people occupy these spaces, and their various responses to a post-soviet world where such public spaces are really beginning to show neglect.

Friday, 7 October 2011

everyday scenes 2

And since I am reminding myself of the realities of life for many here, there has to be mention of the everyday glory that is the Moscow traffic jam.  

soup time

There is some kind of soup kitchen near the station (provided I presume by a charity) which is, as you can see, well-attended. There have been various - mainly desultory - references to problems with poverty, both as part of the national elections and from the new mayor of Moscow as he settles in. In fact, the Moscow News recently reported a city Poverty Plan. To quote the report (by Nathan Toohey), Vladimir Petrosyan, head of Moscow's Social Welfare Department, said: 
that a “social contract” had been agreed with 26 Moscow families, while a further 84 families were prepared to take part in the program. The contract lasts six-month with the authorities obliged to provide work, place any children in day care and even “send grandmothers to a sanatorium, for example.”
So that should sort it. (Although I should add that things only seem a little better in Moscow, Idaho. I kept getting articles on poverty from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News when I was doing that Googling thing.)

everyday scenes 1

I don't write much about poverty, homelessness and drunkenness on this blog. Living near a major railway station (linking to the south east of the country and Ukraine, so an entry point for many economic migrants) the size of the problem is just far too obvious; particularly at this time of year when it is still warm enough to sleep out. So, I end up doing the same as everyone else, just ignoring these people.

Had one very drunken and dissolute character knocking about in our apartment corridor for several hours last night; down to his underpants and banging on all the doors, roaring about something. Just lucky (and relieved) that he still had his pants on.

hanging about (more)

...and the other, other obsession - people hanging off buildings from basically just two pieces of string...

leaves falling

Regular visitors to this blog will know that one of the things I am obsessed with (along with the weather and food) is the creativity in 'making do' when it comes to street cleaning equipment. But I just going to pretend this photo is showing how quickly the autumnal leaves are falling (oh, damn, but that means I am talking about the weather again...). 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

more on the weather front

Okay, I know I talk about the weather a lot but - given that the UK is unseasonally sunny at the moment - just wanted to note that the skies here continue to be grey and overcast, and that everything is rainy, damp and slightly chilly, in fact exactly English autumn weather. Damn.

my all time hero

In my continuing saga of missing fantastic artists who are visiting Moscow, I failed to notice that William Kentridge was giving a performance at Garage yesterday. But never mind, because the exhibition - Five Themes - which is a traveling show from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art*, presents a truly breath-taking and brilliant selection of his work to date; covering sketches, animations, made objects, films, 3D projections and multi-screen installations, all showing his obsessive versatility, fantastical imagination and - often clownish - humour.  He should be as famous as, I don't know, artists like Gerhard Richter and Jake/Dinos Chapman  (or maybe he is and I was just foolish to only discover him accidentally a few years ago).

And somehow his work seems particularly relevant right here, right now. Both because it sits outside much western contemporary art, being not conceptual, intellectual and self-referential but graphic, metaphorical and narrative-based (that is, much more like contemporary Russian art) and because it has a way of incorporating politics that is very engaged and explicit without being didactic - something other (rather more inward and personal) artists here could learn from.

So - a must see if you happen to be in Moscow before 4th December 2011.

* To be properly accurate, from the San Francisco Museum, together with the Norton Museum of Art.  Show curated by Mark Rosenthal.

not mentioning the election

Whilst the Putin/Mededev roadshow wends its merry - and predictable - way, I have been thinking some more about how powerful the idea of escape is here; not just escape away (abroad, or into wealth) but also inward, away from the 'centre', away from rules and regulations; and away from (controlled and controlling) public/politcal debate. In continuity with the old Soviet tradition of kitchen talks, of politics discussed around household tables - and of samizdat of course -  some of the creative people I have talked to here seem to find the greatest freedom in private actions. I  met an architect who runs a radical studio (at least I think that is what he does). He laughed at me when I asked if I could see his group's work on the web - we prefer to keep things underground, he said.

Had to resist stealing this RT YouTube clip of Putin singing from my friend Miriam's blog, so will just give the link to her post instead. And to get some of the - slightly weird - resonance with the Cameron/Clegg duo in the UK, also see this clip of Mededev dancing. Easy to see which one is Clegg.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

tales of the unexpected 5

Quite unnecessary and a bit unnerving. So don't know what he is doing at the entrance to the Dendi cafe which is otherwise another of those nice places to go for weekend breakfast, with  reasonable prices and a typical russian traditional/shabby chic interior.

And, yes, it is Sid James on his apron.

unspoken connections

I don't know whether it is because I am of a certain age, or whether it happens to all foreigners, but there have been several moments of kind exchange with strangers (also mainly older people). In the Metro, there have been those who, hearing me speak English to a Russian friend, come over and greet me - in whatever language they prefer.  Today, in the supermarket, the cashier on reaching the end of my stumbling Russian and therefore realising I was a foreigner, reached under the till counter and gave me a discount card for a massive designer retail outlet; adding quite formally and in beautiful English 'a present for you.'

I find these encounters very touching - because if I understand correctly - it connects to something I also feel; that we were Cold War children, separated and isolated by politics.... and now (somehow unexpectedly) we can just be in the same city together, in an ordinary way. And I still find that a little amazing.

In a similar fashion, one of my colleagues has just come back from his family home deep in the Russian countryside - no running water or electricity, and he has been there all summer making repairs to his mother's house so it will be warm enough this winter - with a huge handful of home-made socks and slippers. On hearing that he was working with an English woman, his mother's friends also insisted on giving me presents.