The famous White Nights are over for this year, and it’s no longer light at midnight. The nights are lengthening rapidly: the sun is now shining through my apartment windows at 7:45am. Only ten days or so ago it was 4am, so this development pleases me mightily. It’s a reminder that things change very rapidly in St. Petersburg, and very soon we’ll be plunged into the sunless winter freeze.
A few nights ago I sat on a cafe terrace close to my apartment, and over the course of a couple of hours – and a couple of beers – saw the moon spin from the far left of the colonnade in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, up behind the dome, and down again to the far right of the colonnade. I don’t recall ever seeing the moon move through the sky so quickly. Like the moon, world events are shifting quickly, but that’s for another post. Still, there’s time to take pleasure in higher things, like art, and interesting people. There are adverts all over St. Petersburg for the Manifesta 10 contemporary art biennale, which is running from June to October. I was vaguely aware of it from articles in the St. Petersburg Times and then, in June, from seeing crowds spilling out of Warszawa, an arty basement bar I sometimes go to on Kazanskaya Ulitsa. I asked Sergei, the dapper barman with tattoos curling up his neck from a tweed jacket or fishermans’ jumper, what was going on; he told me that the crowd were all artists celebrating the festival’s inauguration. The exhibition is split between two locations in the Hermitage museum: the Winter Palace, and the newly-opened gallery in the General Staff Building, which is where the bulk of the exhibits are. The headline installation is a green Lada, driven by Francis Alÿs and his brother from Belgium to St. Petersburg, and then rammed into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace.
There were free guided tours available once you’d bought a ticket so, not knowing much about contemporary art, I signed up for one. It turned out that nobody else had, so it was just me and the guide – a young Muscovite artist called Natasha, who’d studied art in London and spoke English with the rounded tones of the Home Counties. The Russian-language tour was well-subscribed, in contrast. I wondered whether this was part of the fallout of current events to the west, but decided not to go down that route.
The tour was a pleasant hour and a half. Much of the content I could have got from the guidebook, of course, but there was a lot of background information as well, and a lot of little details that only an insider could tell you. Poor Natasha was, I think, rather appalled by the extent of my ignorance of art, but she hid it well.
I went back a couple of days later, to look at the exhibits again with the benefit of the handbook, as well as to watch the video installations, which there hadn’t been time to do during the tour. The handbook – which costs 1000 roubles for the Russian version, 1500 roubles for the English version… Some photos… Bruce Nauman: Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John Cage)
This exhibit, Ann Veronica Janssen’s cocktail sculpture, was supposedly influenced by Californian artist Larry Bell who worked with glass cubes during the 1960s and 70s . That was when Steve Jobs was at Stanford; I wondered if there’s a link to the design of the Apple Cube…?
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: The Handkerchief’s Opera
Thomas Hirschhorn: ABSCHLAG
Timur Novikov: various works
And there’s still the Winter Palace exhibits to see!
One of the great things about being a teacher of English as a Foreign Language is the sheer variety of people I get to meet. A couple of nights ago, I had a 1-1 lesson with a former military prosecutor who served with the Russian peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, and later in Chechnya. We’re about the same age, and were looking back at the Pristina airport confrontation, comparing perspectives. I get to talk to bankers, and bakers, energy firm executives and dock workers, PR people and students. It’s a rare privilege to be able to mix with such a diverse assortment of Russians: I’m learning a lot from them. (It goes without saying that I hope they are learning something from me!).
Over the weekend I visited one of my students at her home in Pavlovsk, a Tsarist palace town an hour away from St. Petersburg. I came away with a 3kg tub of deliciously tart blackcurrant jam that she had made the day before. I balked at taking so much, but she showed me a stack of similar tubs. She has plenty to spare, and she’ll be getting more berries soon, along with cucumbers, garlic, rose-hips, and more, all of which she’ll be preserving in one way or another. All of this comes from her father’s garden, and I doubt he’s given her everything. Very many of my students, who mostly live in Piter itself, have dachas and are spending their weekends there, or even living there full-time, during this unusually hot and humid summer.
On the train coming back in to town, I sat opposite two women. One was a fine-looking woman whose age I hesitate to guess – anything from forties to early sixties. The other was younger, maybe early twenties. Both were dressed in smocks, headscarves, and long skirts and, frankly, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any photo of Russia for the last hundred years or more. I could honestly have imagined them protesting against the Tsar as easily as I could see them digging tank traps to stop the Panzers. When a beggar came through the carriage – saying nothing, but with a hand outstretched for those who might choose to give – they were the first to reach for coins to give him. They got off in Kupchino, the southernmost suburb of St. Petersburg, which has a reputation for being a tough area. I suspect it’s a more complex place than that, and wouldn’t be surprised to hear of peasants keeping ponies in their tower-block apartments, as is said to happen in parts of Dublin… My students, when I discussed this with them, thought that the women may have been Old Believers, a sect often (though not necessarily) connected with Cossack communities.
All of this goes to show that contemporary Russia is a diverse and interesting country. I may not be earning a lot of money, but my life is being enriched in countless ways, and I’m glad that it looks now as if I’ll be renewing my contract and staying in St. Petersburg for the whole of 2015. And all of this is just St. Petersburg! I haven’t even started on the rest of this vast, amazing country…