Thursday, October 22, 2009

Moscow contemporary art scene

Contemporary Russian cuisine knows two types of pancakes: thick, small and simple are known as oladji and thin, crepe-like, yeast-based are the blini. Oladji (or, tenderly, oladushki) can also be made from a yeast-based dough, but this kind of defeats the purpose: this is the simplest dish, flour and eggs, made on the spot, to be eaten immediately. If you want them to be fancy, mix the dough in milk or kefir instead of water, add some salt and soda. But, for god's sake, don't spend more than 7 minutes mixing the ingredients together. My parents don't ever make oladji: they try to stay away from flour altogether. It's an honorable goal and I support them wholeheartedly, but OMG oladji are so tasty. Particularly when they are served with raspberry jam and smetana (Russian version of sour cream) and the jam gets mixed in with thick sour cream on my plate after excessive dipping. In American Jewish cuisine, potato pancakes are served in a similar way, with apple sauce and sour cream. Small potato pancakes also look a lot like oladji. And in fact, when oladji are made from grated potatoes, they are called kartofel'nie oladji or potato pancakes. Meanwhile, both blini and oladji are breakfast, lunch and dinner food. I feasted on oladji on my second day in Moscow, when my new friend Olga made them for breakfast.

This trip to Moscow came together more or less spontaneously. Two weeks ago, when I met Olga and her husband Sasha (Aleksandr) for the first time ever at Konstantin and Polina's house, I happened to mention that I have a birthday party in Moscow to go to -- and immediately received an invitation to stay with them if I do come. They are both former journalists who have very recently been squeezed out of journalism by unstoppable political forces, so they have some free time on their hands -- and some important decisions to make. The conversations that were started at Polina and Konstantin's place were so fascinating that I could not let this opportunity pass me by. So I bought a ticket to Moscow and back. (The cheapest ticket goes for approximately 750 rubles or $25, in a platzkart car -- Wikipedia translates the term as "couchette" car, but the description fails to highlight the local specificity. Basically, Russian platzkart is a train car with beds for roughly 100 people, where compartments are not separated from each other by any doors, curtains, and states of mind).

I spent two full days with Sasha and Olga -- visiting contemporary art exhibits by day and drinking Martini (which is not a martini, but vermouth) by night. Everything was a surprise to me, their hospitality, the places they took me, the food they made, the stories they told, the books they gave me to take home. I am encouraging Sasha to write down some of his stories so that I could translate them to English (and maybe send in to New York Times) -- there's no way I can do them justice in retelling. Sasha is working on a book right now, and I'm sure it's going to be an epic geopolitical thriller, even though -- or especially because -- it's nonfiction. We talked about everything, from method acting and mainstream movie business to the notion of migration and the (failing?) idea of a melting pot (shared by the USSR and USA alike). In the post-Soviet space, most of us are migrants to some extent, and in many cases, we are children and grandchildren of migrants, so what is it that keeps us attached to a place and when and how do we finally stop moving? How screwed up it is that these questions never become idle for us.

We went to five different exhibits in two days, most of them related to the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary art, a project based on the idea of the Venice Biennale. The theme of the festival this year is "against exclusion" and it included work of Russia-based and foreign artists. Pieces in the main exhibit space called Garage (the story of how the space came to be is fascinating in its own right) that excited most conversation between us were Cheri Samba's political art, Chiharu Shiota's piano, and a work on migration by a Korean-born author Kimsooja. Unfortunately, we only got to see about two thirds of the collection: my visit to Russia is charged with technical difficulties. This time, the entire neighborhood lost power -- and all the electricity-based art went out of commission. Seriously, artists, think twice before you rely on electricity for the display of your art! Or donate to the development of the alternative sources. (Note to self: should I rewrite my blog by hand? ;)

Some of the best contemporary Russian art we've seen is assembled by a famous Moscow "gallerist" Marat Guelman -- and particularly for the project called "Russkoe Bednoe" -- "Russian Poor" or, the way they translate it, "Russian Povera." This is an attempt to get regional artists involved in the project of making contemporary art, and so the main exhibit space for it has been created in Perm (a city of mining and heavy industry in the Ural Mountains). For the Moscow Biennale, a few works are also being exhibited in a space of a former chocolate factory Krasny Oktyabr (Red October). This exhibit space is not to be confused with another new Moscow exhibit space, housed in the former wine factory, and called accordingly Vinzavod (I've also seen it spelled Winzavod -- Wine Factory). Vladimir Anzelm's piece "Skull" made of charcoal illustrates the idea of "Russian Povera" best of all. (Compare this to the famous Damien Hirst's "Skull").

Lots and lots of fun pieces there, but the one story that might have touched me the most relates to the art of Nikolay Polissky. He has assembled a team of builders from a Russian village, and makes absurdist but also very meaningful, ironic and sweet, constructions in the woods and in the fields in the villages and in the outskirts of cities -- and I guess also in galleries. Fun videos on his website. I particularly like The Taming of the Fire. At the moment, the art of Polissky and his crew struck all three of us as very positive -- and when at night we drank fake martini and ate spagetti with meat sauce Uzbek style, Sasha, Olga and I talked about what it takes to stay positive in this world. The next morning, Olga made us a batch of oladji.


  1. I'd love to pull up a chair to this table -- comfort food and great ideas. Your description of the pancakes reminds me of another favorite food: pierogi. Yum.

  2. ps with all the profound ideas in this entry, trust me to zero in on the food....

  3. You live quite the life - a constant stream of meeting new and interesting people. You have a gift.
    I don't think it is odd at all that as expatriate, or even expatriates in the making, that you think so much about the concept of home. I think that angst that you describe allows you to think and articulate more clearly the concept than those that are not forced to face those same question, and actually they are questions central to understanding anyones life - so feel lucky that you have the opportunity and strength to keep on with the questions.

  4. Pierogi!! But you know, these are two different things in Russia vs Eastern Europe (for example, Poland). In Russia, pierogi are more like pies with different stuffing (and pirozhki are their smaller siblings). In Poland, pierogi are boiled dumplings with different stuffing, and in Russia these are called pelmeni :))

    Theresa -- you're probably right, it's not "odd", it's just I too get tired of this constant mode of questioning :))

  5. it's the Polish pierogi/Russian pelmeni that I am in love with...with onions and sour cream. But I would probably like the Russian pierogi/pirozhki too. Somebody staple my stomach!